8 years ago

Volume 11 Issue 4 - December 2005

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ecently in town in

ecently in town in conversation with Pamela Marg/es In late October, American composer Steve Reich came to the University of Toronto as the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition. Instead of the customary lecture, he played from the new recording of his most recent piece, You Are (Variations), then answered questions. It is difficult to believe that Reich is turning seventy next year, his enthusiasm and vitality are so palpable. The audience, younger members especially, were impressed by his genial candour. Any advice he gave was indirect, such as, 'If you don't enjoy yourself as a composer, you are in trouble.' He remains one of the most recorded and most performed composers around -with two Grammy awards, and numerous other honours. His compositions, both new and old, are constantly being performed around the world. His music offers many levels of access, with its catchy rhythms and mesmerizing textures. But it is able to surprise, fascinate, provoke and disturb. would listen , and still does. ' I became a composer because I loved Bach, Stravinsky, be-bop and John Coltrane. When I started music school in the late fifties there was one way to write music no pulse, no tapping your feet, no melody, no harmony. These \ ·:-1. American composer Steve Reich were specifically forbidden . New music concerts were like bitter pills. Of course most audiences stayed away in droves, so you had a bunch of composers listening to other composers. I felt very out of it.' 'I was part of a generational change, reacting to how complicated music had become. Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, John Adams, and in a different way, Arva Part in Europe, we all said, "Enough of this - it is ugly, it's not human. " We wanted to get back to basics ... . in a new way . ' 'There are composers today who go back and sound like Mahler. I think that's a mistake. You can't just go back. Mahler did it better than they do. ' If neo-romantic music is not of interest to Reich, even less interesting is romantic music. 'It isn't what you do, it's how you do it. I don't want to hear romantic music of any sort. Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius are great composers, but I don't want to hear a note of their music. I just don't like that style. ' 'IT COULD BE MY MUSIC, IT COULD BE JOHANN SEBASTIAN ANCE IS THE MUSIC.' THE HIGHLIGHT of Reich's visit to Toronto was a concert of his works presented by Soundstreams in the MacMillan Theatre. The concert sold out, and there were long lineups for tickets as I went in. Even more untypical for a concert of new music in this city were the standing ovations and cheers from the audience after each work. I spoke to Reich the next morning. ' I thought it was a wonderful concert - one of the best I' ve been at of my music. There have only been five or six performances of You Are so far, although many more are planned. I think it's one of the best pieces I've ever done.' You Are (Variations) is an exuberant work, rich in texture and high in spirits. The Toronto performance was the first involving Nexus, the renowned Toronto percussion group. Three of its members, Russell Hartenberger, Bob Becker and Gary Kvisted are longstanding members of Reich's own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians. The concert also featured one of Reich's most innovative works, Drumming, written in 1971 BACH'S - for large percussion ensemble and voices . 'There have been hundreds of performances of Drumming, but having Nexus made this performance absolutely superb - especially in the bongo section when it's just those guys playing, and having a good time. That's the real deal. When you're that good and that confident, you can also be funny, and take liberties, especially with accents.' In Music for Pieces of Wood, from 1973, Reich joined the four Nexus members on stage. 'Playing with them is just great. Sometimes when I'm asked to be guest performer, especially with the earlier pieces, I feel like I am carrying this load of people who sort of know what they are doing. But with Nexus it's like being carried along.' During the performance of Drumming, the performers walked around, exchanged positions, signalled each other, and played musical chairs with two facing rows of chairs, making it feel, at times, like a sacred ceremony . 'Drumming is just percussion, but there is a lot of switching around. That is not something I was concerned with in writing the piece but it is a natural byproduct. It does certainly make it interesting to watch.' 'It could be my music, it could be Johann Sebastian Bach's - the live performance is the music. I love recordings. I was brought up on recordings. I'm involved in all the details of my recordings. But if the music can't come off in performance, there's something wrong with the music, and it' s just been doctored on the recording.' I WAS TAKEN ABACK when Reich said, 'If someone heard You Are (Variations), and then the next day they heard Pieces of Wood, they would never assume it was the same composer.' I had just heard those two works on the same program. His passionate, endlessly creative voice was unmistakable. His materials and techniques have changed; but right from the beginning, what grabbed audiences, and sidelined critics, was how new his music sounded. He spoke to everyone who THE LIVE PERFORM- 'Ultimately I care for Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio. If you' re going to write that kind of music they do a very good job, and that's ultimately what survives in music.' In his talk, Reich had said, 'My music's lifeblood is rhythmic vitality and clarity' . But in our interview he acknowledged another equally fundamental dimension. 'The main voice of my music is melody. There - I've said it. Stravinsky said it too. You heard Music for Pieces of Wood last night. If those claves weren' t pitched that way, then all those little rhythmic interactions wouldn't mean anything. It would be very boring. But because they form a hocketed melodic pattern they become really interesting, and that grabs your ear.' Reich emphatically rejects all labels - but especially minimalism. 'I never liked the term minimalism. It's a term Michael Nymen took from painting and sculpture, back in the early seventies. He was disgusted with the serial music of the time. Maybe it's slightly descriptive ofmy music up to Drumming. But certainly by Music for 18 Musicians (1976) no-one would ever use that word for my music. It's poison. Whenever a composer uses that word I say "Stop! Don't apply some label and put yourself in a box.'" 'The artificial wall between pop and classical has come down. Instruments from the pop world have become standard, and that's a good thing. But now when young people go to music school, they can do anything they want. I don't know whether they're better off or worse. You need resistance, something to push against. Where's the real you?' Many of Reich's innovations are rooted in renaissance and baroque music. 'There are certain universal truths in composing. If you are writing a line against another line then studies in species counterpoint are going to help you. Good voice leading is just absolutely basic to anything. The Beatles knew about that.' 'Very often I mark the beginning of a score mf. But I explain that mf doesn't just mean mezzo forte - it also means matter of fact. In my music, dynamics stay the same. When more people play, it's louder, and when less people play , it's quieter. But this comes from baroque 18 WWW, THEWHOLENOTE.COM D ECEMBER 1 2005 - F EBR UAR Y 7 2006

music. 'If someone recommends a musician to me by saying they play a lot of new music, I think to myself "Do they mean Stockhausen and Boulez?" But if they tell me this guy plays a lot of Bach, I think "Oh, good, I'm sure he'll work out just fine".' 'There was a lot of discussion with the .. ,\' ........ t I Roger D. Moore presenting the Distinguished Visitor Award to Steve Reich recently at the University of Toronto. string players in You Are while I was here. I mark my scores poco vibrato. That means to warm it up, but don't be in a tizzy about nailing the pitch. On the other hand, you're not playing Mahler or Sibelius. What I want is a warm full-bodied string sound with no wobble in the pitch. And although I do have accents, I have very few crescendi and decrescendi. Basically either you suddenly get louder and suddenly get softer, or more people play and then less people play - most of it is terraced dynamics. Which is all baroque.' 'To me the greatest composer who ever lived is Johann Sebastian Bach - there's no-one close. His spiritual yearnings were titanic - the depth of that man surpasses anyone whoever lived and wrote music, as far as I'm concerned. Every Sunday he had a deadline. But in his writings you don't hear anything from him except ' I need a tenor, I need more firewood, I need a new trumpet player. .. I need more firewood'. I love that. I can totally relate to it.' REICH IS NOW WORKING on Daniel Variations, about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan three years ago. 'Danny Pearl's father, Judea Pearl, put together a foundation which supports mutual religious understanding. The guy's a saint. I don't know if I could be so generous. Danny Pearl was a fiddle player - he played bluegrass and jazz. So when his father asked me to write a piece for them, I said, "absolutely" . ' Reich has a gift for choosing texts which are remarkably succinct, sound great when set in his distinctively personal style, and resonate with meaning. Some are directly linked to his deep Jewish faith, some have political ramifications, and some stir up social issues. Daniel Variations uses four short texts. The first and third are from the Book of Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar dreams about his own destruction. 'I live four blocks from the World Trade Center in New York, so that's me - and I think it's a lot ofus right now. We are living in a very dark, dangerous period.' The second text is My name is Daniel Pearl. 'Before they beheaded Pearl, they made him say, "My name is Daniel Pearl. I'm a Jewish American from Encino, California." He was beheaded as a Jew and as an American. ' 'Pearl once told a friend he didn' t know what happens after you die, "but I sure hope Gabriel likes my music." After he was murdered, the friend found in Pearl's apartment a vinyl recording of jazz violinist Stuff Smith playing I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music. In Jewish mysticism angels are messengers, and Gabriel's job is to carry dreams. So the last movement says I sure hope Gabriel likes my music.' At the talk, a student had asked Reich what his ideal listener would get from his music. 'Tears of joy,' he had said, smiling. 'I just feel that I've been enormously fortunate, ' he told me, before he headed home to New York. Making Investing in Quality Affordable. STEINWAY & SONS For almost 150 years Steinway has set the world standard for piano quality. They are as dedicated as ever to bringing that standard to life through a careful combination of steady innovation and skilled craftsmen working with the finest materials available. With over 100 patented features and processes, Steinway pianos are handcrafted in limited quantities to last for generations. 1h tSS t~. Ontario's Only Authorized Steinway Gallery and Restoration Centre. Main Store: 210 Bloor St. W. Toronto Tel: 416.961.3111 North: 1455 16th Ave. Richmond Hill Tel: 905.881.3400 DECEMBER 1 2005 - FEBRUA RY 7 2006 WWW. THEWHOLENOTE,COM 19

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