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Steve Reich on Music: Part 1—Ensembles and Minimalism

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 that.

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 Minimalism?

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.

Related: April 30 The Music of Steve Reich 

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