Interview: Steve Reich

The man described as America’s greatest living composer reveals how Judaism sparked some of his best work.


In a 2006 South Bank Show documenting Steve Reich's career, presenter Melvyn Bragg described him as being "one of the major players in contemporary music since the 1960s. His particular style has marked him out as a composer of rare invention and originality". Acclaimed as America's "greatest living composer" by the New York Times, Reich has received two Grammys (for Music for 18 Musicians in 1999 and Different Trains in 1990) and in 2009 the piece Double Sextet earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Music students study his work and over the years he has been the subject of a string of television and radio programmes.

Earlier this year the Barbican was host to the European premiere of WTC 9/11, a meditation on the attack on the World Trade Centre. As part of his 75th birthday celebrations Reich will be back in London, performing in a late night Prom with Ensemble Modern, featuring three of his seminal works of the '70s and '80s: Clapping Music, Electric Counterpoint and, for the first time at the Proms, Music for 18 Musicians.

Reich is often referred to as a "minimalist" composer but this is not a term that he necessarily agrees with. Speaking on the phone from his home in New York, he explains that: "Labels are not my job. There may be some rough similarities in basic thinking. I studied with [minimalist] sculptor Sol LeWitt for example, and in my early pieces there is a great deal of repetition and regularity, which you'd find in a Sol LeWitt sculpture. There is a certain je ne sais quoi feeling that because people inhabit the same world, they can be grouped together. Music is an art in time. Metaphors have some value and also apply generally to certain periods. You can use that minimalist phrase up to my work, Drumming, but once you get to Different Trains there's no analogy whatsoever."

The composer's work is defined by phasing, a technique of two or more identical melodic patterns gradually moving out of sync then, after a number of repetitions, coming back together. His music is incredibly technically precise and rhythmically complex, however he says it is "less difficult to perform that it might look on the page".

Reich was born in New York in 1936. His father was a lawyer and his mother a singer and lyricist. His parents divorced when he was one year old and his mother returned to Los Angeles. "My mother was mostly trying to pursue her career so I had very little contact with her," he says.

Until he was five Reich spent six months with his mother and six with his father, travelling by train across the country with Virginia, his nanny, before deciding to go and live permanently with his father in New York. He had little interest in music until he hit his teens. He has said that he never heard a note of music written before 1750 and never heard any music after Wagner, but then at 14 all this changed. A friend introduced him to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto, Stravinsky, the drummer Kenny Clarke and bebop.

The music moved him to form a band. "My friend was a better piano player than I was so I said I'm going to be the drummer. I immediately started studying Roland Kohloff (who became principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic)," he says.

According to Reich: "It was common in '50s America to hear the Hit Parade or Broadway shows, possibly a bit of Gershwin and maybe a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan but Stravinsky or Bach? - that was a bit more risqué. In a middle class, not particularly overly artistic family, that was my experience, so I discovered these things for myself. They immediately magnetised me."

His father did not approve of Reich's career choice. "The divorce was not amicable at all. He saw I was going to be like my mother and he was disappointed. We didn't have much communication until I had a full page in the New York Times – that's not an ideal way to invigorate a parental relationship but it was about the same time that I became re-involved with Judaism and I decided that it was my responsibility."

Reich's Jewish reawakening occurred in the 1970s. Having spent 10 years of being involved with eastern religions, "as many people did in the 1960s", he felt that something was missing but did not know what it was. After a period of studying Kabbalah, he and his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, eventually went to Lincoln Square Synagogue and signed up to its adult education programme.

Although raised as a Reform Jew, Reich is disparaging about Reform Judaism. "As a child I learnt nothing. I was given a transliteration to read from for my barmitzvah. I may as well have been a parrot and this made me highly resentful and somewhat antisemitic, which I think it would make any normal, well-disposed young man."

Reich believes that the only recognisable body of Jewish music is to be found in the synagogue and "only in the synagogue". His enthusiasm for "rejoining" his own religion resulted in Tehillim (1981), a setting of Hebrew psalms. He went through the entire book of Psalms, in Hebrew and in English, looking for texts that he felt could be said to anybody, both Jew and non-Jew. He has referred to it as perhaps one of his most conventional pieces and also one of his best.

Tehillim was the first piece to have voices singing and "have a full-blown melody. I think it's a great piece. It also opened the door to a lot of new techniques", he says. It was to be the first of many works that explore his religious heritage.

Different Trains (1988), which was performed in Jerusalem as part of the city's Season of Culture this month, also broke new ground by being both autobiographical and because the music is adapted to the rhythm of speech.

The piece recalls the childhood train journeys that he took across America and compares them with the train journeys Jewish children in Europe were making at the same time, using pre-recordings of trains, Virginia's voice, the voice of a Pullman porter and those of Holocaust survivors. The musicologist and critic, Richard Taruskin, has described it as "the only adequate musical response to the Holocaust".

In 1993 Reich and Korot collaborated on The Cave, a video opera set at the site of the cave of Machpelah in Hebron where Abraham is reputedly buried and where subsequently a church and then a mosque were built. It explores the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam through the words of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans who are asked the same five questions.

In 2006 he produced the Daniel Variations a tribute piece to the murdered Jewish journalist, Daniel Pearl, which was partly commissioned by the Daniel Pearl Foundation. Politics never seems far from Reich's work, although he says "forget about politics and think about religion. It regulates how you live your life, therefore it has what we could call political connotations and how we respond".

Reich's website lists numerous concerts of his music being performed around the world. "Perhaps that's the best possible birthday present that any composer could get. Musicians want to play my music and audiences want to hear it. That's the best it can be."

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