Steve Reich: Pulse of life

As soon as I arrive at Steve Reich's house in upstate New York, he demands to know how I'm going to leave. I haven't booked a car, I explain, because I don't know exactly when we're going to finish. "Okay, okay," he says, all snappy talk and little patience, "have you got a number? Here's the phone." I have flown over the Atlantic Ocean, taken two trains from Manhattan, and crossed the Connecticut-New York state boundary twice to get here. But all Steve Reich cares about is being sure he can get rid of me. Later, he apologises; and he does have his reasons. He and his wife, the artist Beryl Korot, have just moved into this angular, airy, modernist house, and things are a little hectic. "Sorry about that brush at the beginning," he says, "I'm just beginning to get my sea legs."

Right now, everyone wants a piece of Reich. The man many consider the father of minimalist music and the greatest living composer turns 70 in October. He's flattered by all the celebrations, but there's a lot of travelling involved and new commissions to finish. "The maelstrom begins at the end of September," he says, running through an itinerary which includes London, New York, France, Hungary and Portugal. Here, the Barbican is devoting a week to his music, including a dance collaboration with Akram Khan, and performances by groups as diverse as the LSO, the Kronos Quartet, the Britten Sinfonia, Coldcut and DJ Spooky. Reich himself is giving this year's Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture. In New York, the celebrations will last the whole month.

But it wasn't always like this: because Steve Reich may be an acclaimed cultural figure now, but at the beginning he was a revolutionary. And until the revolution he led - working with or influencing others such as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, John Adams, Brian Eno and The Orb - began to be accepted, he was a musical pariah.

When Reich formed his first ensemble in New York 40 years ago, the classical world was dominated by the followers of Arnold Schoenberg. Atonal serialism, a continuance of the arid, dissonant 12-tone scheme Schoenberg had devised, was the only kind of composition taken seriously by the conservatories. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and the serialist-influenced John Cage: these were their gods.

"It was de rigueur to write music like that," recalls Reich, "because if you didn't you were considered a fool. There was just that one way: no pulse, no tapping of the foot, no whistling of the tune, no harmony to grab on to." Anyone using rhythm, harmony or melody - in short, anyone who produced a piece that actually sounded like music - was derided. "They'd snigger behind your back. There was no place for the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring or the Bartok of the string quartets. Or even John Coltrane."

The compositions of these three still strike most as modern. Not modern enough, however, for the desiccated theorists of serialism. Reich embraced Stravinsky, Bartok and Coltrane, but turned his back on the serialists completely, and placed rhythm at the very heart of his work (which is why, if it has to be categorised, he prefers to call his work "pulse" music).

He happily reclaimed the harmonies that the Western world had found sufficient for centuries; indeed, he looked back further to medieval music, as well as to Hebrew chant, and Balinese and African percussion traditions. He employed, if not fully-fledged 32 bar tunes, at least melodic fragments. He used technology to develop new styles, using tapes of voices or instruments to "phase" in and out with each other; and later used samples of the spoken word as "speech melody" alongside instruments echoing the pitch and phrasing of the human voice. He would take a pattern and make new versions, slightly augmenting them. His ensembles were small, and often percussion driven.

These were developments over time; they didn't all happen at once. But the pulse, harmony and melody were there from the start. And this was so controversial that, during the first 10 years of his ensemble, most of the performances of Reich's music were in art galleries and museums, not concert halls.

In these early years, Reich couldn't make a living from music. So he and Philip Glass started a removal firm together. When not driving their van, the two hung out with artists in lower Manhattan. Their circle included Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. "They'd say: 'there's a big show at the Whitney, it's something to do with us, why don't you guys come up and give a concert?'" So Reich performed in art spaces in New York, Nova Scotia, Berkeley and London. It was just as well the art circuit welcomed him. At that time, says Reich: "The music world didn't want to have anything to do with me. They thought I was a lunatic".

One occasion when Reich did make it into a classical music venue, at Carnegie Hall in 1973, he almost provoked a riot. Michael Tilson Thomas, then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked Reich to participate in a special series of concerts. Reich agreed to his Four Organs being performed, but with what turned out to be well-advised reluctance. Even he considers the piece to be "the longest V-I cadence in the history of Western music"; in other words, its resolution, which is achieved after very gradual changes to a chord played on "four screaming rock-and-roll organs", takes a long time to reach. Nearly 16 minutes, in fact.

"A few minutes into the piece a restlessness began to sweep through the crowd," recalls Tilson Thomas. "Rustlings of programmes, overly loud coughs, compulsive seat shifting, mixed with groans and hostile exclamations crescendoing into a true cacophony." An "avalanche of boos" marked the performance's end. Reich was "ashen", says Tilson Thomas. He, on the other hand, was "exhilarated", and compared it to the disturbance at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913. "Tomorrow," he said to Reich, "everyone will have heard about your work and will be hugely intrigued to hear it for themselves." He concludes: "The scenario did play out much as I thought it would".

Yes, it did, eventually. Reich's Music For 18 Musicians won him a wider audience in 1976, and in 1982 Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic performed the orchestral version of Tehillim, his setting of parts of the Hebrew psalms. By then he had entrees at the leading concert auditoriums of the world, and in 1994 Reich was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Yehudi Menuhin chose one of Reich's works for part of his 80th birthday concert in New York. The Orb sampled his Electric Counterpoint on their ambient hit, "Little Fluffy Clouds". He no longer needed to camp out on the floor of Michael Nyman's flat when he stayed in London. No one booed anymore.

But there had been many hard years on the way. What had made the young Reich divert from the path that he could easily have taken? He had the tools and the background to have gone along with the prevailing musical style in the 1960s, having concluded his education at the Juilliard School of Music in New York with an MA at Mills College, California, where he studied under the leading serialist, Luciano Berio. "It was lonely," he admits of his early forays into dissent. "I was almost ashamed to show my compositions to the people in important positions, because they were going to laugh at me. People treated my music as infantile."

He had become convinced that classical music, particularly in America, had taken a disastrous wrong turn in the 20th century. Even though he disagreed with it, he understood why Europe had embraced serialism. "The German romantic tradition was the great tradition in central European music. Schoenberg and Berg had been extending its lessons to their logical conclusions, but the war had stopped that. If you saw that, you would feel it was your duty and your heritage to pick that up and move it on.

"But!" he exclaims. "If you grew up in Kansas City, with 'If you're going to dance with me' on the jukebox, and tail fins and burgers are your reality, and you suddenly say 'Dark angst. It's Vienna in 1916' - then I say you're a liar." Serialism, he claims, had no place in America. "Cut that out. That's not you. Imitating your European betters is a bad old American habit. Charles Ives knew that, and you still haven't figured it out?"

In the past, thinks Reich, classical musicians always stayed in touch with popular or folk music. "Schoenberg and his followers," he has said, "created an artificial wall. In my generation we tore the wall down." The American music that affected Reich the most was jazz. "Until I was 14, the only music I had heard was Beethoven's Fifth, Schubert's Unfinished, the Meistersinger overture; Broadway tunes, Crosby and Sinatra. I had never heard a note of music before 1750, and I'd never heard a note [of classical music] after Wagner. And I'd never heard any real jazz."

Then in a short space of time, a friend played him records of The Rite of Spring, Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke. "It's like someone said [he puts on a deep voice]: 'You're about to be 14 years old, and there's one room you haven't seen in this house, son.'" He drops the voice. "I walked into that room," he explains, "I closed the door, and that's where I lived the rest of my life. Because those are the musics that made me the composer that I am, and those are the only types of music that I ever listen to. I don't listen to anything between Haydn and Wagner. Not even a little bit." What if it's on the radio? "I can change the station."

The teenage Reich took the train into Manhattan from the suburbs to sit in the kids' section of Birdland, the great jazz club named after Charlie "Bird" Parker. The drummer Kenny Clarke was a particular favourite. "He had this great sense of time on the ride cymbal," he says, "this buoyant magic, as though he was floating on air and he was keeping you floating with him. I don't think I could have written a note that I've written without the desire to get that buoyancy that Kenny Clarke had." It was the origin of "the pulse". John Coltrane was another major influence. "To hear someone succeed in making half an hour of music while staying in the same key... I realised that you can be harmonically static but make interesting music if you substitute rhythmic and timbral ingenuity."

Though he has never been overtly political, Israel and Judaism have recurred in Reich's work since Tehillim. Reich's new commission for his birthday concert at the Barbican, Daniel Variations, takes its texts from the words of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish American journalist murdered in Pakistan, and the Old Testament Book of Daniel, from which he has chosen the part where Nebuchadnezzar has a terrifying dream. "The images in my head frightened me," says Reich, "because where I lived in New York was just four blocks away from the World Trade Centre." He says it's his darkest work yet.

But he's smiling and good-humoured as I leave, and not, I like to think, just because I'm leaving. Although his early battles are remembered with an acidity time has clearly not yet neutralised, Reich has succeeded in his revolution. The tide has turned against the serialists. He even has a generous word for Pierre Boulez. "I don't know about him as a composer, but he's the greatest living musician," he says. "You want to hear The Rite of Spring, baby, you get Boulez's recording with the Cleveland Orchestra."

That's praise indeed from an energetic nearly-70-year-old who gives a good impression of not suffering fools gladly.

* Phases - The Music of Steve Reich runs at the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891/ www.barbican.org.uk), from Tuesday to 8 October. For details of other Steve Reich 70th birthday celebrations see www.stevereich.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions