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Steve Reich on Double Sextet

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.

His Pulitzer Prize–winning Double Sextet will be performed that night. In the second installment of our recent interview, the composer explains how Double Sextet was created.


Carnegie Hall: Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize for Double Sextet. Can you explain how that piece came about?

Steve Reich: Double Sextet happened when my publisher Boosey & Hawkes's then-president Jenny Bilfield called me up and said, "You've got to write a piece for eighth blackbird." I said, "Gee, I've heard of them—what's their instrumentation?" She replied, "Well, one flute, one clarinet, one violin, one cello, piano, percussion." I said, "Jenny, I can't write for that." Pierrot plus percussion, we call that. She said, "They're really good, why don't you think about it."

So then I began thinking about all these counterpoint pieces where the musician plays against recordings of themselves, and I thought, "The best thing is if they'd play against a recording of themselves, then I'd have two flutes, two clarinets, etc." eighth blackbird said they'd love to. And boom, we were on!

What was unusual is that I had done a lot of this kind of writing—Electric Counterpoint is 11 guitars, multiple clarinets, multiple cellos, and cello counterpoint—but here was a mixed ensemble. Even Different Trains is multiple quartets, so, they're all strings. This was a situation where you had a kind of mini chamber orchestra. You've got two woodwinds, flute and clarinet; two strings, violin and cello; keyboard—piano; and percussion—vibes, in this case. So it creates a timbral variety. Judy Sherman, the producer of the recording, and I began to talk about "the front line" and "the back line." The back line was the rhythm section—the piano and the vibes—and the front line was the winds and the strings. For me, instrumentation is inspiration, because I invent my ensembles. I'm not writing for a string quartet, I'm writing for three string quartets. I'm not writing for Pierrot plus percussion, I'm writing for this double sextet. So getting the instruments right is really what gets me going.


Related: April 30 The Music of Steve Reich