Steve Reich: the composer with his finger on the heartbeat

Reich showed the world the hypnotic pleasures of repetition as his music took in religion, politics and New York city life and aged 80, hes still moving forward

For 30 years I walked around Manhattan with earplugs in my ears. Steve Reich, whose music seems to personify the pulsing energy of the metropolis, doesnt enjoy being there that much. Whenever I went out I had to kind of gird myself, you know, he says. I basically dont like New York.

If the city had feelings, it would find that especially hard to take right now. It is in the midst of feting Reich, who has just turned 80. Hes composer in residence at Carnegie Hall, which is hurling a birthday concert for him on 1 November. His work is being performed at the Guggenheim, the Juilliard School and NYU. Hes even in the process of moving back to his roots from the leafy upstate suburbium of Pound Ridge, where we gratify, to the Lower East Side. I mean, I owe a great deal to New York, he says, and all my best friends are there and I am a New Yorker. But theres a part of me that doesnt like noise, doesnt like a million people, doesnt like concrete.

Fans may have misread City Life, a 1995 run that riffs on slamming taxi doorways, horns and sirens, then. That was written in resentment, before we left. It was like, I cant stand these auto alarms, so Im going to put them in the piece and do what I want to with them. I know how to take care of you. Im just going to devour you in my music and build something that I actually want to hear.

In Pound Ridge birdsong is the only noise likely to disturb him. The Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house that Reich shares with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, sits on a beautiful wooded slope, and warm October sunlight fills the room in which we talk. It might be a wonderful place to compose, but its too isolated. Snow trapped him here one evening when he was supposed to be at a performance of his work in Manhattan. And Korots gallery is on the Lower East Side. So, despite his mistrusts, hes returning to the city in which he made his name half a century ago.

In 1965 Steve Reich arrived back in New York after a spell at Mills College, California, where hed been studying composition. He had begun to experimentation with tape loops-the-loops, playing back snippets of human speech at different rates, letting them phase in and out of sync. Syllables sputter and stretch, zooming from one ear to the other, slowly reforming before deforming again. Its Gonna Rain samples a Pentecostal preacher in Union Square, San Francisco, declaiming the story of the Flood. Come Out, constructed once he was home again, uses the voice of one of the Harlem Six, black men beaten up by police, explaining how hed had to split the skin on a bruise and let the blood come out in order to prove hed been injured. Made to raise money to pay for the Sixs legal squad, the piece was included in a Columbia records compilation of new music a couple of years later. It was singled out in reviews and Reich received himself and his phasing technique in the spotlight.

Not everyone was happy, though. Infantile! Reich wails, simulating outrage. Infantile. A critic used that word.

Why? When Reich was a student, serialism, a genre that purposely avoided harmony, tune and rhythm, was the only game in township. Luciano Berio, one of his teachers at Mills College, was a resulting exponent, but its discoverer was the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. It is difficult, highly intellectual music that builds sense as a stage in the development of the art, but has limited appeal. There have been periods in music called Mannerist, Reich explains. So at the end of Renaissance polyphony, it gets so convoluted, its brilliant but its always going to be off in a corner because its so recherche and so refined. And this always portends some move towards a drastic simplification, a back to basics. Like: hey lets merely have a voice singing! Therell be a tale, therell be people acting it out Opera!

And so it was in the middle of the 20 th century. The skill particularly with Boulez and Stockhausen and the innovation is enormously admirable, tremendously well done, and has its place in music history , no question about it. But, it attracted a minuscule audience. And if it werent for the fact that Stockhausen appeared on the covering of Sgt Pepper, it wouldve been ever smaller.

I felt in my intestine: I became a composer because I love Bach, because I love Stravinsky, because I love bebop, because I love John Coltrane. Now, I only cant I dont want to expend my life doing this.

Reich did go back to basics and uproar ensued. A 1973 performance of Four Organs, a hypnotically beautiful work in which harmonic chords are played again and again, changing and overlapping, for 15 minutes, became famous for all the wrong reasons. According to Michael Tilson Thomas , now director of the San Francisco Symphony, there were at least three attempts to stop the performance by shouting it down. One girl strolled down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage whimper, Stop, stop, I confess.

With the exception of a few European composers still, as Reich sets it, working in the graveyard, serialism has now mostly disappeared. I think we won hands down, he says, referring to the generation of musicians who violated away with him: Terry Riley, Arvo Prt, Philip Glass. But it is a restoration not a revolution. Swallow it: restoration. Of what? Harmony, rhythm and melody.

Its because of this that the pop, EDM and contemporary classical worlds are as close as they now are, he argues. More and more of the young highly skilled conservatory alumnus like to hang out with DJs. He mentions Nico Muhly and the Nationals Bryce Dessner, two of the composers who will feature in his Three Generations program at Carnegie Hall in April 2017.

Reichs son, Ezra, is also a pop aficionado, and has helped him appreciate artists like Prince and Giorgio Moroder. At the time, he says: I didnt pay any attention to Donna Summer or any of that, I knew disco existed but I didnt listen to it at all. He laughs and says that his favourite Summer track wasnt the famous one( I Feel Love ). It was and here he explodes into song She works hard for her money ba da da da da da DA! … I really liked that a lot.

Pulse, which will be performed for the first time at the Carnegie Hall concert( its European premiere is at the Barbican in London on 5 November) was partly inspired Daft Punks collaboration with Moroder. Anchoring the winds, strings and piano is an electric guitar, which pumps out a repetition bassline in homage to the 70 s synth genius.

Also on the bill at both concerts are his partnerships with Korot, Three Tales. These video pieces, with accompanying ratings by Reich, were designed to mark the turn of the millennium. They dramatise symbolic moments in the history of the 20 th century: the explosion of the Hindenburg, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini atoll and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. As such and like Come Out theyre rare examples of political participation by Reich.

I am not an activist, never have been, he explains, playing down the resonance between Come Out and the Black Lives Matter movement. I mean I have notions and if offered the opportunity, I will help out. But, he says in the long run, subject matter doesnt mean crap. Let me give you an example. One of the greatest artists of the last millennium is Pablo Picasso. And one of Picassos greatest masterpieces is Guernica Its extremely topical, its exceedingly passionate, its extremely political. As a work of art, its a towering masterpiece. As an effective political instrument, its an absolute waste of time. Pablo, get out of here, youre an moronic.

His point is that, after Guernica, bombing civilians became more common , not less. So people ask me, should composers write political music? I say theres one obligation composers have. And that is to write the very best music they possibly can. If politics helps musicians get fired up to make good work then its done its undertaking, he reckons.

Religion too. Reich rediscovered Judaism in his 30 s the baseball cap hes never seen without is actually his version of a yarmulke and it has inspired some of his best-known runs, including Tehillim and the Daniel Variations. On the wall behind him is a bookshelf stacked with weighty Jewish tomes. Theyre basically all centred around Torah, he explains, the first five books of Moses in the Christian bible and in the Hebrew scriptures as well. Theyre read every year in a cycle. You start at the beginning of Genesis, and were now approaching the end of that cycle as we speak.

Theres a very famous commentary during periods between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which we are presently in its called Teshuvah, by Maimonides. Teshuvah means returning, returning in a very broad sense of the word, returning to who you are, to who you really are.

Some of Reichs contemporaries, including Glass, Riley and La Monte Young, were directly inspired by Buddhism, with its own narratives of rebirth. Is Jewish spirituality the key to his instrumental pieces, as abstract as they sometimes seem? Here i am, after all, repeat, cycling, returning, on every page. The provide answers to your question is: who knows. God knows, I dont. I wouldnt say, Oh no, what are you talking about? Youre talking about something real.

The cyclical is merely interesting when its not a cycle but when its a spiraling, he continues. If it goes around and around in a circle, youre genuinely a rat in a trap, and merely playing a loop-the-loop is a bore. But if you return above that phase, or in a different posture, you have returned as a different person, you have returned as a different composer, and you have returned to a different musical accomplishment.

I think it was Charles Olson, a poet you may have heard of, who said: People dont change. They merely stand more revealed. And that seems about right for this reluctant New Yorker, eventually constructing his way home again.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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