Making a little thought go a long, long way

It's official: Steve Reich is a 20th-century master. As the composer hits 60, he talks to Phil Johnson about small orchestras, microphones and Wittgenstein
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The Independent Culture
A bad joke about interviewing Steve Reich would have him saying the same things over and over again, the same things over and over again. Of course, the joke might be slightly better if applied to Philip Glass, Reich's fellow American minimalist, with whom he has evidently had a somewhat stormy relationship (though they are now, it is said, relatively reconciled). In conversation, as in music, Reich does not repeat himself. Instead he discourses, at length, in an elaborately coded prose that slowly builds in clause after clause, the logical links of the argument testifying to his training in philosophy, the discipline in which he graduated from Cornell University in 1957.

Reich's music is nothing if not logical, growing, like his sentences, from one work to another over a 30-year period in which the original slender means of composition and instrumentation have developed exponentially, as with the tessellated patterns of the pieces themselves, into the uvre of a true 20th-century master. It's a title Reich can no longer be denied; indeed it's official, for today he becomes, in a week-long tribute to his 60th birthday, Radio 3's Composer of the Week. To crown the glory of this unlikely tribute, Friday night's Hear and Now also features a special Radio 3 Invitation Concert performance of his magnificent Drumming (1971), while tonight, at the Royal Festival Hall, Reich and his musicians, together with the Theatre of Voices, will perform three new works: the premiere of Proverb, first heard as a fragment at the 1995 Proms (a performance rejected by Reich himself as "trash"); Nagoya Marimbas; and a new arrangement of "Genesis XXI" from The Cave, the remarkable biblical video-epic which Reich brought to London in 1994.

Reich's temporary take-over of Reith's BBC marks a significant moment in musical culture, for here's one composer who would happily dispense with the traditional orchestra as we know it. "I do write for the orchestra," he says - "my orchestra" (which began as a gang of three). "But if we look at the development of the orchestra, we can see that it began in a very small way. Gradually it picked up the trombones, the lower brass and additional strings until we arrived at the kind of Wagnerian unit which is the full orchestra of today. But really it's the full orchestra of 1875 or 1890, and that's fine for that music, but what the history of the orchestra teaches us is that, in each age, the orchestra changed to accommodate the kind of music that the age demanded. That means that I like to write for the London Sinfonietta or the Ensemble Modern; there are more and more of these groups happening because they really are the new orchestra, with people who have gone to the conservatory and know their literature but also know about jazz and non-Western music. And that's my kind of musician."

If he were king for a day, Reich would, he says, "have a great deal less orchestras but a great deal more larger groups. Instead of an orchestra, you could have a group of say 120 or 130 musicians, with three different musical directors. One could be a kind of Hogwood early music group, then you'd have a full symphonic orchestra of the Abbado type, and then a kind of Michael Tilson Thomas 20th-century ensemble; those who wished to mix could mix, the groups could tour widely and there would basically be a huge group of specialists doing what they do best."

Reich is slightly defensive about his own full-blown orchestral work, The Desert Music, of 1984 ("I know some British critics have reservations about it - I think it's one of the best things I've done"). But what he has done consistently as a composer is to deal unapologetically with the beautiful, and with the aesthetic - in the old sense of the word - in a way that very few of his contemporaries have been comfortable with. His music, and especially his early or mid-period music, where the means deployed are on a smaller scale, is often ravishingly beautiful - sensuous shimmers of sound acting on the ears of the listener in the same way that the surface of a colour-field painting addresses the retina of the viewer. Quietly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the textures of a piece like Music for 18 Musicians of 1976, or Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organs from 1973, insinuate themselves into one's senses, realising the goal of meditative, Eastern-based spirituality that composers like LaMonte Young, John Cage and, in Europe, Stockhausen, often attempted but with much less success. Moreover, Reich achieves his results without any blurry-eyed, fuzzy-guru glimmers of head-shop mysticism but rather with the same unbending sense of logic and determinism that characterises his conversation.

At the root of much of Reich's work has been the voice. "The early tape pieces, like It's Gonna Rain and Come Out, which were the first things to be recorded and the first things people knew of my work, were also pieces that began a style that Piano Phase and Drumming grew out of. It was basically imitating what I had learnt from tape, but with live musicians. The first use of the voice with instruments was in Drumming, where wordless singing or vocalise imitates the sound of the instruments and reinforces the sub-patterns; and this was extended in Music for 18 Musicians in 1976. At a certain point I just thought: why don't you let them sing words, just like the rest of the world?"

While the early tape-pieces had used words but not musical instruments, the early instrumental pieces used voices but not words. It was only in 1981, in Tehillim, that Reich first set music to a Hebrew text. "It was really one step forward and six steps back," he says, "but all for the good. What I discovered with Tehillim was that what I thought I heard as Hebrew was really little additions of groups of sound, measures of twos and threes." The Desert Music, a setting of poems by William Carlos Williams, followed, changing the rhythmic modules further. "Suddenly the metre became powerfully flexible," he says, "and it affected not only the voice but also the rhythmic structure of the music based on how I heard the words."

Such works required quite special voices: "One thing that became quite clear to me was that the kind of singer I wanted was someone who had the conservatory training but also had sung jazz and non-Western music and rock, and who was not an opera singer with that big bel canto kind of voice that I felt intuitively was inappropriate for our times." As a memo to the late Lord Reith might say: opera, for this Composer of the Week, is a no-no.

"Before opera, the voice was evolved to be heard in a hall or a very small classical auditorium, with musicians, and while you didn't have to belt it out, you did have to have a very strong support system simply to be heard. Later on, with Wagner and the huge addition of brass and of strings, the voice had to compensate to balance the enormous acoustic forces at hand. But I'm a musician who uses microphones! Microphones had an enormous impact on popular music, whereby you could hear someone like Ella Fitzgerald, singing in a small, natural, conversational voice over a big band of saxophones, trumpets and drums. And that's what I was brought up on; it's natural to me, so now, when I hear someone singing in a contemporary thing, I think, `Why don't you pick up a microphone?' "

Thus Reich gravitated to singers of early music, and began working with the founder of the Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hillier, who directs his new Theatre of Voices in tonight's RFH concert. Hillier also suggested the idea for Proverb, a piece mixing three sopranos and two tenors with two vibraphones and two electric organs. The text, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, has the Reichian virtue of being very, very short: "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!"

"I was reading a collection of his essays called Culture and Value," says Reich, "and this one sentence just kind of jumped out at me." Proverb forms, he says, the "main dish" of tonight's menu. "People think they might have heard it in London," he says of the Albert Hall excerpt, "but it was junk! It was shredded!" And then he says it again.

n `Composer of the Week': 12 noon, Mon-Fri, Radio 3. Steve Reich and Musicians: 7.30pm tonight, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (booking: 0171-960 4242). A new CD of `City Life' and `Proverb' is released on Nonesuch next month. A video of the making of 'City Life' is also now available from Warners Home Video