On April 30 Carnegie Hall celebrates the 75th birthday of Steve Reich with a concert that
features three New York premieres of his recent works, including WTC
9/11, a Carnegie Hall co-commission.
We recently spoke with Reich and throughout the next six weeks, we will
publish the interview in installments on the Blog. Here, the composer reveals how
his ensemble came to be, and how he feels about the 'M-word'—Minimalism.
Carnegie Hall: The Music
of Steve Reich on April 30 features four ensembles—Bang on a Can,
eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet, and So Percussion—playing your work. Before
you wrote for other ensembles you wrote exclusively for your own. Tell us about
Steve Reich: The ensemble began when the people
around—Boulez and Stockhausen, Berio who I studied with, Cage in America—looked
at this music a little bit askance. So if you're looking to send your score off
somewhere to get it performed you were usually going to get it back unopened.
That attitude is not going to work, so I took a cue—many others took a cue—from
the jazz ensembles. I wasn't interested in rock n' roll til much much later. I
was brought up with bebop. When I was a drummer I tried to be like Kenny Clark.
So the model there was, out of necessity, if I want to get these pieces played,
I've got to play them with my friends. And that's how my ensemble began, and one
good musician leads to another and it turned out that some of these people—Russ
Hardenberger and Bob Becker—are giants of percussion in their generation. It was
absolutely the best possible thing I could have done. I learned an enormous
amount out of it. I made lifelong friendships and I survived, economically. It
was a way of not having to live in academia and teach. Play your own music with
your own ensemble; it was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful solution.
I started writing for other ensembles in 1979, with Music for Large
Ensemble and Octet, which became Eight Lines, and from then on, I
wrote only for other ensembles. We may have done the first performances; we did
the first performance of Tehillim, but I knew there was no way we were
going to start touring with Tehillim; we did it once and that was it.
We did the first performance of Large Ensemble and we recorded it, too,
but it never became a repertory piece.
Since 1981, all the counterpoint pieces were written for soloists who
approached me—people who were living in an entirely different musical world—but
my ensemble continued to be active. Sextet was written in 1985–1986
very much with my ensemble in mind.
The last concert that my ensemble played was in 2006 for the re-opening of
Alice Tully Hall, when we played Music for 18. Then, we moved up here,
I turned 70 and I just felt that I couldn't, physically and mentally, be a
bandleader. It requires a certain amount of physical energy and investment of
time and I could do all of that for about 40 years and then just found I really
couldn't do that anymore.
Carnegie Hall: How do you feel about the term
Steve Reich: Well, it's a term taken from sculpture and
painting and applied to music. Debussy, Ravel, Satie, other people,
Impressionists based on some kind of kinship with Monet and other
Impressionists. Schoenberg, Webern, Berg—particularly Schoenberg—had some kind
of relationship with Kirchner and all the [Expressionists] and it's there, I
would say in some ways it's there.
But if you dug up Debussy and said, "Excuse me, are you an Impressionist?,"
he'd say, "Merde," and go back to sleep, because, who cares? It's just not the
issue. I've got a piece to write or whatever. So I think it's a useful term for
journalists. I think it's a useful term for music historians, but for musicians,
I think it's terrible. Whenever I hear a composer use it, I say, "Wash your
mouth out—don't put yourself in a box. Your job is to write the next piece and
to surprise yourself and me and everybody else who's around you and figure out
the next step," and it is a foreordained conclusion that it never is.
30 The Music of Steve Reich