Bang on a Can All-Stars and Friends perform 2x5 on April 30, as 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. In the third part of our recent interview, the composer discusses the piece that blurs line between rock and chamber music.
Carnegie Hall: Tell us about 2x5—a piece you have identified as "chamber music for rock musicians."
Steve Reich: For a long time there's been a lot of talk about "classical music," versus "popular music." I think from a more informed musical standpoint, it's better to say "notated music" and "non-notated music."
I'm a composer—I write things on paper—well, I write them on the computer and they get on paper now, but I used to write them with pencil on paper in the old days! That means you need musicians who are trained in the skill of reading music. A lot of really great rock musicians are generally not very good readers, though this is beginning to change.
The most famous example is probably Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who wrote the music for the film There Will Be Blood. When you hear the music, you might think, "Somebody's listening to a lot of Messiaen." There's a really "chch" kind of sound, and you wonder, "What is that?" And it's a brilliant idea that only someone in his position could come up with—to take a guitar pick and make it like pizzicato, strummed across the violas and the fiddles. Greenwood gets the first new pizzicato since Bartók!
So almost every day Jonny Greenwood is a rock musician with Radiohead, but he was originally a violist at Oxford. He still does that and is a composer, too. Everybody accepts that without thinking twice, as well they should, and the question is, "How good is the music?" Period.
On the recording of 2x5 by Bang on a Can, the two guitar players are excellent examples of this. Mark Stewart, the regular guitarist with Bang on a Can, was originally a cellist trained at Eastman who played guitar for fun. When he came to New York, he realized that as a guitar player who could read music, he could make a real living. He became associated with Bang on a Can as one of the leading members of the group. At the same time he became music director for Paul Simon, which he is to this day. So on Monday, he's a real card-carrying rock 'n' roll musician; and on Tuesday, he's a classical musician playing at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. And the same holds true for Bryce Dessner, the other guitarist. He went through the Yale School of Music, reads anything you put in front of him, and he and his brother run The National, a very up-and-coming young American rock group. So, again, one day of the week he's classical, one day of the week he's pop.
The dividing line is that these people read music. 2x5 is a written composition—like everything else that I've done—and it is for small forces, which happen to be very clearly rock instruments. But it's not rock 'n' roll. Take a listen, judge for yourself. There have been pieces done for rock ensemble and orchestra—perhaps they shouldn't have been—but this is nothing like that. This is a chamber piece—a small piece for a limited number of instruments—and it's completely notated and written out.
Related: April 30 The Music of Steve Reich