"My Job Is to Write the Next Piece": Composer Steve Reich on Making Music

"My Job Is to Write the Next Piece": Composer Steve Reich on Making Music
Steve Reich
(Photo by Wonge Bergmann)

Composer Steve Reich performed at LACMA Tuesday night in a concert celebrating the museum’s retrospective of artwork by James Turrell. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was joined by the Lyris Quartet, pianists Vicki Rey and Joanne Pearce Martin, and a percussion ensemble led by CalArts’s David Johnson.

Reich chafes at the label “minimalist,” but has been placed alongside Philip Glass (with whom he used to move furniture to make ends meet) as one of the century’s greatest composers.


The evening’s program included Reich’s 1988 Grammy winner “Different Trains,” as well as “WTC 9/11,” “Sextet,” “Piano Counterpoint,” and “Clapping Music.”

In a recent interview with ARTINFO, Reich spoke about some of these selections, where he looks for inspiration, and how the digital revolution changed the way he makes music.

Can you talk about the genesis of “Different Trains”?

I have a singer-songwriter mother who was living in Los Angeles, and my father, an attorney, living in New York City. And when they were divorced, the court said you’re going to have divided custody, six months in New York, six months in L.A. As a child, that stays in your mind when you’re looking out the window, cowboy country. So I started working on that, interviewing my nanny, who’s still alive at 77, Virginia. Interviewing Lawrence Davis who was a black pullman porter. I started thinking to myself, what years did I do this? ’37,’ 38, ’39. What was going on in the world? Mr. Hitler was trying to take over the world and taking every Jew he could find, and throwing them first to Munich and finally to Poland and up the chimney. And if I had been born in Belgium or in Stuttgart even, I wouldn’t be having this conversation. So the light went on, “Different Trains.”

And the voices you used, archival voices.

What I did was to go to Yale University where they had a Holocaust survivor archive of recordings that they had made. Spent a couple of days up there listening to some incredible stories. And some people had a more musical voice in telling their story. I was very interested in the sampler. The sampler is a digital recorder with keyboard attached. It’s not a synthesizer, it records real sound in the world and you press middle C and out comes your dog barking or Beethoven’s Fifth or your own voice or whatever. I took the recordings and followed their speech melody. It became a strange piece because people don’t speak in a fixed tempo or key, so every section of “Different Trains” is in a different key or a different tempo.

Another piece you’re performing is “WTC 9/11.” Right after the premiere they caught and killed Osama bin Laden. Had that happened before the piece was completed, do you think it would have changed the composition?

Not at all because that’s all publicity. Anyone who thinks the killing of Osama bin Laden is anything more than a really nice publicity move hasn’t been paying attention to anything. And Boston should wake them up if they’d been so ill informed to think that that was going to change anything. It’s nice, I’m glad they did it. It’s justifiable. What Osama bin Laden’s been leading is something that’s rife throughout the Islamic world. That is not in his or anybody else’s individual hands.

You’ve said you reject the label of minimalist composer.

Basically these are terms taken from painting and sculpture. “Baroque” is taken from architecture. “Expressionist” is taken from Kirchner and Nolde and applied to Schoenberg and Berg and Werner. And “minimalist” is taken from Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella and people like that, and applied to me and Glass and Riley and eventually Arvo Part and a lot of other people. I think these terms are understandable. It’s not my business. My job is to write the next piece. I think if I were to play “Different Trains,” a lot of people who heard “It’s Gonna Rain,” they would think it wasn’t the same composer, or “Piano Phase,” they may not think it was the same person who wrote the piece.

Andrew Clements at the Guardian said you altered the direction of music history.

There’s a certain truth to that. When I went to school, late ’50s, early ’60s, there was one way to write music. That was the way of Stockhausen, following in the steps of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and John Cage, which meant basically no melody, no harmony, no rhythm in the sense of tapping your foot. I became a composer because I love Stravinsky, and I’m talking about standard issue Stravinsky and not his last works at the end of his life — “Petrouchka,” “The Rite Of Spring,” “Firebird,” “Symphony in Three Movements,” “Symphony In C,” Histoire du Soldat,” “Symphony of Winds,” Johann Sebastian Bach, and bebop. I loved Miles Davis.

How has the digital revolution over the past 20 years affected what you do?

I never would have been able to do “Different Trains” working with tape. Tape was important for the very first pieces that brought me attention. “It’s Gonna Rain” was recorded on Columbia Records in 1967, and that was really something that was made possible by making tape loops, repeating patterns, before there was sampling, before there were computers. So that was a technology that had an effect on what I do.

Does it always take something outside you to inspire a piece, or are you ever just playing around when you stumble onto something?

I’m writing instrumental music, which is music for musicians, drumming. Pieces I’m most known for, the inspiration comes from the instrumentation and it comes from the harmonies. Starting with “Music for 18 Musicians,” 1976, I would go to the piano and work out the harmonic sequence that was going to be armature, the structure of the entire piece, very much as you would for a jazz song or a series of variations. That has basically been the thrust of most of my pieces. When I work with a text or prerecorded material, then the text or the prerecorded material will dictate what I do or force me in a new direction, which is very nice.