|An Interview with Steve Reich
STEVE REICH: When I was 14, life really changed musically. And the seeds for whoever I’ve become were sown in that year. Before that, I had grown up with what I often refer to as the “middle class favorites”: Beethoven’s Fifth [Symphony], Schubert’s Unfinished [Symphony], … Broadway shows. I’d never heard any music composed after 1750 and I’d never heard any music composed after 1900. I’d never heard any jazz. At the age of 14, through a number of friends, I heard recordings of the “Rite of Spring,” the Fifth Brandenburg [Concerto], Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and the drummer Kenny Clark. And it was very much as if you’d lived in a house and someone said, “Well, you’re 14 now and there’s a room in the house you haven’t seen.” They opened the door, I walked in the room, and I never really left.
As a result of those listenings, I began listening to a lot of Bach and then began exploring what we call Early Music--or music before 1750. And I began listening to a great deal of Stravinsky and then finding out that there was Bela Bartók and finally Arnold Schönberg, and all the other people of the 20th century. My best friend was a better pianist than I was, so I became a drummer. I studied with the local neighborhood drummer who played solos in the movie house at night with glow-in-the-dark sticks--who was Roland Koloff, who is now the timpanist for the New York Philharmonic.
So, through high school, there was this diet of contemporary music, early music, and playing jazz with my friends. When I went to college it pretty much continued, but I felt, “Bartók was 6, Mozart was 4, and I’m 17. I’m over the hill!” But fortunately, I was a philosophy major at Cornell. I spent most of my time reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which is actually very readable and very interesting. And I studied music there, particularly with William Austin who is no longer with us anymore, who was a really fine musicologist and fine pianist. He sort of reinforced these totally spontaneous reactions that I’d had by teaching his History of Music course as follows: He began with Gregorian chant and he went up to J.S. Bach, and then he went to … Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bartók, etc.
That was the first half of the course. The second half of the course began with Haydn and then to Wagner. I liked the first half of the course. But what was useful, as Austin pointed out, was that there was this kind of thinking which began with one line of music, which went to two and four lines of music, and the idea of interweaving independent lines, which then--in Bach--become parts of these incredible chords. And then a whole different idea comes along with Haydn. Let’s have the chords down here, and the melody separated from that, and we’ll have melody in accompaniment. In other words, what we call “technically contrapuntal” music versus “homophonic” music.
In the 20th century--not with everybody, but--there is a general tendency back to contrapuntal thinking. Stravinsky, big time, back to Bach, and an awareness of that period. When I went to college I also became aware of Glenn Gould who was saying, “You don’t have to play on the harpsichord.” I was one of those people who had already become a hard-edged purist. [I thought], “One shouldn’t play Bach on the piano.” [Then] someone said, “Here, take a listen to this!” And I remember that Gould was a complete revelation.
Those are the kind of things--vocal style. When I was a kid, the two singers that impressed me most were Ella Fitzgerald and Alfred Deller. Alfred Deller was the beginning. He was the first counter tenor who recorded widely, had his own concert, and did a lot of earlier music. And I found a kinship in which--if you think about it--both were producing sound with a relatively small vocal apparatus, relatively no vibrato, and--in the case of Ella Fitzgerald--were working exclusively with microphones.
I would say that later on, very important influences came by discovering African music on recording and having no idea how it was put together, but kind of wanting to find out. As a graduate student with Luciano Berio, we went down to the Ojai Festival--the festival that Stravinsky started north of Los Angeles. I guess that was 1962, maybe ’63. The people who were holding forth included Gunther Schuller, who was just finishing up his book on the history of early jazz. And when Schuller was speaking to us--he was a graduate student--he said he’d discovered a book that contained the first accurate scores of West African music and transcription. And I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Schuller. What’s the book?” He said, “’Studies in African Music’ by A.M. Jones.”
And I went back up to Northern California, where I was living at the time, and got the two-volume set: one volume of just scores, another volume of analysis of those scores, and some interesting sociology as well. And it’s still on my bookshelf, I mean, I returned the book to the library and bought a copy, which was very expensive. And--at about the same time that was going on--I was listening to John Coltrane when he was playing “My Favorite Things” and on what became “modal jazz,” but what you could describe, very simply, as “playing a lot of notes to very few harmonies.” An [album] like “Africa/Brass,” [with two sessions], which really impressed me, was basically a half-an-hour in F. Jazz musicians say, “Hey man, what’s the changes?” “F.” “No! F for half-an-hour!”
That was very instructive. And, at the same time, I was studying with Luciano Berio and writing 12-tone music. The way I wrote 12-tone music was like, “Don’t transpose the row. Don’t retrograde the row. Don’t invert the row. Just repeat the row over and over, and you can try to sneak in some harmony.” And Berio said, “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music?” And I said, “That’s what I’m trying to do.” So I would say, “If you put all that into a jug and shake it, out I come.”
GABRIELLE ZUCKERMAN: Maybe you look back now and say, “I was finding my place,” but I think you’ve described this as a difficult time when you were studying with Berio and trying to work on this. And on the other hand, you were going out and listening to jazz. Explain that period.
It was a very, very difficult period because, basically, the people that I was going to graduate school with were either very interested in European Serial Music or in John Cage--or in both. And, honestly, I was involved in neither. I could respect the purity of spirit in John Cage’s work, and I could certainly appreciate the mastery in Berio and Stockhausen, but my heart wasn’t in the game. I became a composer because I loved Bach, because I loved Stravinsky, because I loved jazz. And this was answering none of those. There was no fixed pulse, there was nothing you could tap your foot to, there was nothing you could whistle to, there was no key to hang on to; it was the very antithesis of that. So people who didn’t write that way at that time were simply a joke; you just weren’t taken seriously.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, it was a totally different situation than the one that music students are in today. [It was] all of these ingredients that I mentioned to you and others besides that. In popular music, you had Junior Walker coming out of Motown who was playing a tune called “Shotgun,” which had a repeating bass line throughout the whole tune and no B section [sings bass line] for the whole tune. And you never heard that before. It was always a release: the B section and back to the A section. In Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” there was a kind of spontaneous gravitation towards constancy of harmony. [Also] minimizing harmonic movement coming from Africa, coming from Bali, which we didn’t mention, and of course a very big influence on me was preparing “In C” with Terry Riley. Which put all of these things--snapped it all--together. I owe Terry a big, “Thank
you” for that, which I’ve tried to express over the years.
Explain how that informed you.
I guess “It’s Gonna Rain.” I had these recordings, which had been made for some film, which was for a guy who’d never made a film and was thinking he might make a film. He’d discovered this incredible preacher in Union Square in San Francisco and said, “You have to come down!” And I happened to have purchased--with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, who was my friend at the time--a portable tape recorder and a shotgun microphone. So I went down to Union Square sometime around 1964, in the later part of the year I think, and recorded this guy who was absolutely incredible and who was very forcefully talking about the flood and Noah.
You’ve got to remember that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in 1963, and it was still very much on everybody’s mind. It was clear that life hung by a thread and with one misstep--one miscalculated innuendo--we’d all be nuclear dust. And I was going through a divorce at the time. So put that all together in a jug and shake and, well, you get a piece about the end of the world. But what’s important about the piece is that this repeating pattern is played against its self, and gradually slips out of sync with its self, and goes out of phase.
This is a process that I discovered by accident. I had two cheap tape recorders, which were some of the first mono machines that came to America after the war. I had a pair of stereo headphones with two separate plugs and I plugged one in the back of one machine and one into the back of the other, and made these two loops as identical as I could. I pushed the two start buttons and, by sheer chance, they started in unison. The odds are not too good for that to happen, but they did.
I had the stereo phones on and it felt like the sound was in the middle of my head. It seemed like it went from the left side of my head and down my arm and across the floor and then it began to reverberate. And finally, I got to this relationship that--in my mind--was what I wanted to do, which was [sings] “It’s gonna, it’s gonna, it’s gonna, rain, rain.” It was the 180°, or the mid-point on top of each other. But what I realized was that it took several minutes to get to that position. This journey, this trip is far more interesting than that particular destination. There are all these irrational destinations in between.
So I then worked on the piece meaning, “How long is this process going to take? Is it going to be too long and boring, or is it going to be too short and imperceptible?” And then the second half of the piece--that’s quite the reverse--instead of coming back together again goes further. You knocked on the door and the door was sealed. It’s really the end of the world in slow motion. I felt it was so depressing and so due to my own psychological, personal problems at the time that when I gave a concert at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1964, I didn’t play it. I only played the first half. I came back to New York in September of ‘65 and played the whole thing and I thought to myself, “Yeah it’s depressing, but it’s great!” So I put it together and that was it.
And then, on the strength of that piece, I was asked to do a piece as part of a benefit for the retrial of the six black kids who’d been arrested for murder in 1966, who were referred to as the Harlem Six. Now, there was a murder committed, but one of them did it--not all six. This kid, Daniel Hamm--whose voice I was using--did not do it and was acquitted. I was given a stack of about 10 reels of tape with mothers and voices, and I said to the guy--Truman Nelson was his name--who was a civil rights person and scholar of John Brown, I said, “Look, I’ll do this and I’ll do it for nothing, but you’ve got to let me make a piece out of anything I find.” He said, “What do you mean by a ‘piece’?” So I played him “It’s Gonna Rain,” and he was just strange enough to say “Hey! That’s great! Good! You want to do that? Go ahead!”
So “Come Out” was made, and it was essentially a refinement of the piece and was played as “pass the hat” music, successfully I might add; the kids did have a retrial. And then I began to feel, “If this is just tape, it’s a gimmick. I don’t want to sit in my studio the rest of my life and make tape loops.” Human beings can’t do that, and I found that really interesting. So finally I said, “I’m a second tape recorder.” This took several months to finally figure out, and I made a recording of this pattern that eventually became “Piano Phase,” and put it on the tape recorder going around and around and around. I sat down at the piano, closed my eyes, and started in unison with the tape. I tried to go as slowly as I could ahead of it, and I found--to my amazement--that, “Hey, I can do it, and doing it feels good!”
It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. You’re very clear about what you have to do, but you’re not ready to do it; you’re just totally immersed in the sound. So that was the springboard--I’m talking about 1967 … and after “Drumming,” I said “That’s enough of that phasing process,” and I never really did it again. [Though I have done] many things like it. Basically, the idea of close union canons crop up to this day.
How were they received?
“It’s Gonna Rain” was--I think--well received by the few people who heard it, mostly at my studio. It was played at a concert at Park Place in 1966, which wasn’t reviewed. 1967 was a very big year. John McClure--who was Stravinsky’s A and R man, then ran Columbia Masterworks; now I think he works with John Adams. He had hired David Behrman, who was an associate of John Cage and son of writer S.N. Behrman. David was at some concert where “Come Out” was played and said, “We ought to get this recorded on Columbia!” I said, “Absolutely,” but I didn’t believe it.
And then, in December of 1967, Columbia Records released over 20 recordings of contemporary music. Can you imagine this? Twenty simultaneous releases of people like myself, Gordon Mumma, John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Stockhausen--I mean, forget it! Out of the whole release, when Time magazine wrote it up--and it was Alan Rich who was then working for “Time”--he singled out “Come Out.” So that was the good side of it.
The other side of it was that I remember being invited up to NYC or WBAI--before they became so political they were very musical--and being asked to play “Come Out,” and the switchboard lit up like a tree. “Your transformer’s broken and the needle’s stuck in the groove! Will you PLEASE fix it?” So, you know, there were those who did and those who didn’t.
Do you think about the audience when you're composing a piece?
Never. No. But it is enormously important to me that the audience likes the music. But the only way I’ve figured out how to do that is, if I love it, hopefully you’ll love it too. Those composers--and there are some who should remain nameless--who join the style of the month club and have their “this piece” and “that piece” and so on, they sort of reach out to find what it is that will do the trick. I would submit that those people never do get it right. It’s not for lack of skill; it’s for lack of commitment. And the audience is very smart, and they hear it right away.
I think real success as a composer is measured in two ways. Number one, that the musical community of players wants to play your music--they hear something that makes them want to play it--and that the general audience wants to hear it. If you’ve got both of those things, you’re succeeding.
When you're talking about the Maverick tradition, you're talking about a lot of work that doesn't get played too often.
Well, I didn’t know I was in a “Maverick tradition” until Michael Tilson Thomas informed me that I was. I love Michael and I love what he’s doing. I have for many years, as you probably know. I think what he’s doing is totally unique and totally him and totally honest, which is a winning combination to say the least.
What I’m saying is that we love Charles Ives not because he was a crusty old gentleman or anything like that, but because some of his music is just heartbreakingly beautiful. I’m thinking of “Three Places in New England,” and pieces like that. There are pieces of Ives I can do without. So what? If a man lived and did “Three Places in New England” and died, you say, “Thank you very much. That’s remarkable!”
So whether you’re in the experimental end of things--if that’s how it’s discussed--or the maverick end of things, or considered as old-fashioned as Bach was considered in his day, ultimately, that’s not going to matter. What’s really going to matter is, “Did you do an incredibly good job?” and “Is it really very emotionally moving music in one way, shape, or another?” I think history seems to bear out that that’s what people care about.
You said you didn't think you were a maverick until Michael--
Well, I didn’t use that word. When I started, there was virtually very little musical audience for me in terms of people in music schools. Carnegie Hall was not inviting me to break down the doors or any other place. We were playing in art galleries and museums. And the reason we were doing that was because I had friends like … and they’d say, “We’re doing a museum show.” So I did a lot of museum concerts. Played the Whitney, played the Guggenheim, “Drumming” was premiered at the Museum of Modern Art--in the same theater that hadn’t been used for music since Cage’s percussion concert. It was such a shallow stage, but I said, “I’m going to play this theater and we’re going to fit.” And we did.
So yeah, sociologically speaking, I was quite clear where I fit in the musical spectrum. What I’m saying is, ultimately, that doesn’t really matter. That’s a very pertinent and interesting biographical truth. But good music comes from good music, whether or not it’s written by someone who’s doing something that’s considered very conventional. There are some pieces of Michael Torke’s that I think are great, and I don’t think Michael Torke’s a maverick in the sense that, say, Michael Gordon’s a maverick. If you have your ears and your heart open, that is what’s going to clue you into what is really going on. Yes, I think that I was a maverick before Michael Tilson Thomas called me one, but I guess that’s a West Coast word.
You said your pieces were performed in museums and galleries. Why do you think that is?
Remember, I’m talking about the years 1969 up through the early ‘70s. Up to and before “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” it was my most extreme contribution to the musical literature. A lot of people who might enjoy “Tehillim,” “The Desert Music,” or even “Music for Eighteen Musicians” might say, “I don’t care for ‘Four Organs,’” or “I don’t care about this ‘Piano Phase’ piece. It makes me irritated,” or I don’t know what. So if the menu only includes “Piano Phase,” “Violin Phase,” “Music for Pieces of Wood,” “Four Organs,” and so on, that’s very hardcore. And I was much more extreme in my outlook at that time because I was trying to clarify something for myself and getting everything out of the way that didn’t fit into that model, which was, basically, there’d be no change of pitch, there’d be no change of tambour, and everything would be accomplished rhythmically. Well, I did. And then after a while I said, “Well okay, now what? How ‘bout some harmony? How ‘bout some orchestration?”
Starting with the end of “Drumming,” the fourth movement where everybody plays the drums, the marimbas, the glockenspiels, [combining all instruments and voices] together, it’s been in a sense one step forward and two steps back. But back into an area where, really, no one had ever been. So yes, the audience in those days, the art audience, was an audience that had been listening to Cage, Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and that whole neck of the woods. They were more disposed to something that had never been heard before and was really new.
I think in New York at that time--in the ‘60s--there was this very sharp dichotomy both uptown and downtown. The people uptown were still writing serial music, and this was seen as either incredibly stupid and primitive or a threat. I think a little bit of both. So it was not just rejected, but rejected by people who were dedicated to that kind of music. That’s kind of no longer; that’s in its time. But it was very real at the time. And the audience that was open to this and wanted to be open to this was the audience that went to see paintings and sculpture and to museums and galleries, which tends to be a different sociological chunk of the population than people who just go to [Alice] Tully Hall. This was before there was a great deal of music being presented downtown.
Starting with “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” we actually presented at Town Hall, which was--at the time--a beautiful room. Unfortunately, the neighborhood started to go downhill. That was the beginning. Then we started going to European radio stations. In Europe, the venues quickly switched from art to music because the radio over there was open to the furthest extremes that American music could produce, and they enjoyed that. And then gradually over here, that began to open up a little bit too, but it went slower.
You were working with your ensemble by that point?
Basically, I worked exclusively with my ensemble from about 1966 through just around “Tehillim.” Actually, before that--it was the late ‘70s. When I was a music student, I remember other composers would give you a piece on a tape and then they’d say, “Well, there wasn’t enough rehearsal, and the violins couldn’t make it this day, and the conductor really didn’t care for the--” And I thought, “If you’ve got to give a tape to somebody with this apology, don’t give it to them,” because people only believe what they hear anyway.
And again, Coltrane was the model. When I went to graduate school at Mills, there were people who were on these incredibly complex pieces. But no one sat down at the piano and played the piece. I’m not really sure if they heard it in their heads or not. Coltrane would just get up and the music would come out. So it’s not just a musical contrast; it’s almost an ethical/moral contrast.
And I felt, whatever my limitations, I’m going to be in my own pieces and I’ll make the pieces spit what I can do. And that was pretty much the guiding principle from that point--1963--up through just past “Tehillim,” and I was in every piece. And starting an ensemble meant I was working with people--well, I went to school with Art at Juilliard, and I went to school with John and played with him in San Francisco. Nobody had any money; they played because they were interested in what I was doing. Once we started having gigs, people had to be paid. But the bedrock was, “We’re committed and we want to see what you come up with.”
When I did “Drumming” in 1970, there was a huge change because the piece required more musicians. I first came in contact with James Price--who’s up at the Manhattan School of Music, and then Russ Hartenberger--who I met through Richard Teitelbaum because Russ was at Wesleyan studying the South Indian mridangam. But Russell had been an incredible percussionist for four years before I ever got there. And through Russ, we got a hold of Bob Becker, who was already a legend back in the ‘70s, one of the greatest mallet players alive today. And then suddenly all these percussionists began coming into the group.
In 1974, I was out on the West Coast with Bob Brown’s American Society of Eastern Arts teaching and playing my own music. And I wanted to put together a performance of “Six Pianos.” One of the pianists--or one of the people who played the piece--was Paul Dresher. Another was Nurit Tilles, who was studying Sudanese Gamelan, and she was a very fine pianist.
So little by little the ensemble began to grow. And then, in 1976 with “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” it grew to that which finally became its maximum size of really hardcore people. We’d just recorded “Three Tales” and Russ Hartenberger was there, Bob Becker was there, Jim Price was there, Nurit Tilles was there ... So, up to the ‘80s, the ensemble was the way I could do it to say, “Look. This is really the way the music goes. If you don’t like it, it’s my fault. There’s nothing wrong with this. So we miss some notes, who cares? This is the way it goes.” And the recordings are spot on. Take it or leave it.
From then on, the pieces were commissioned. And from then on, I began thinking about--actually, you can hear it in “Octet.” There’s no percussion, it’s relatively standard: two pianos, four woodwinds or two woodwinds, double on flute and clarinet, and a string quartet which eventually became a double string quartet. It’s a much more conventional scoring. So I became more with a dual view, like, “We’ll do it, but how is it for other people to do it?”
If you go on the Web now, I have a site there and there’s a listing of concerts--70, 80, 90 concerts this year--and we play about five or six of them. So now it’s completely the other way, but our ensemble is still there and we play a way people play when they’ve been playing together for 30 years. You can’t buy that; it doesn’t grow on trees.
You have composed for orchestra.
Yeah, but I decided in 1987 that I would not write for orchestra again. As of this date, nothing has come along to make me rethink that decision.
Talk about why.
Why? Starting in 1987 … did the “Four Sections” which Michael did, very beautifully. I nevertheless felt this is not a worthwhile direction for me to follow. I write very rhythmically complex, intricate music. That’s its life’s blood most of the time. And if you have more than one person on a part it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate that with clarity.
The orchestra, as I understand it, if you go back to Haydn and Mozart’s time, you’ve got 30 to 40 musicians. Beethoven comes along with trombones, clarinets find their way into the orchestra, and you need a larger string section to balance the additional woodwinds and brass. Get to Wagner and you get this huge increase in the brass section, you need … the kind of strings we have nowadays. It makes perfectly good sense acoustically.
But now, for over 100 years, we’ve had the microphone. And the microphone makes possible, in the case of Ella Fitzgerald or any music in the popular area for years and years now, a small vocal style or any other instrument assuming a very major presence even against a large background. Miles Davis’ sound was built on a muted trumpet and a microphone. That was whom Miles turned into.
I grew up liking that kind of music, being drawn to it. And I liked the clarity that came with it. The music I was writing was very difficult for people to play if there were 18 of them, and they were bowing in different directions. If you look at the orchestral layout of “The Desert Music,” you’ll see that the strings are divided into three string orchestras. It can be done--the recording is proof of it--but Michael had 36 hours of rehearsal. That’s a totally non-orchestral situation to do.
So when “The Desert Music” is done nowadays, instead of having a full string orchestra divided into three parts, we have solo strings, three string quartets, and a solo bass. This allows each quartet to play together; there’s no difficulty. As you add numbers of players, you have a richness and thickening of the sound. Just listen to any Brahms or Mahler or what have you. And it’s quite gorgeous in that context.
But it really is not acoustically good orchestration for the likes of my music. Good orchestration calls for one to a part and amplification to balance strings with percussion, or voice with both. So this took a while to clarify it self, but I realized that I had an ensemble, which was sometimes as large as a small chamber orchestra. And I realized that in Europe there are … about 20 such ensembles all over Europe now.
That is the primary performing group that I’ve ended up writing for. But I also feel that, as I’ve explained it to you, there are sociological issues involved; by all means, there are human issues involved. One very simple one is if you’ve got 100 people on stage, you don’t get the kind of riveting attention you get from having 20 people on stage. It’s just human nature and the math in the situation.
The entire ability to cover ground in rehearsal, the kind of focus you get onstage, the kind of musicians who want to play this kind of music, what their background is: All of this has pointed me increasingly in this direction. I think it makes sense for what I’m doing.
Why do you think that writing for the orchestra is still a very attractive proposition for composers?
I think that everybody has to work that out for him or herself. As you know, John Adams and I are old friends. Clearly this is something he was born to do and he’s very, very successful at it. There aren’t many people--probably there are no other people--who are as successful at it. And I think that if that’s who you are, then that’s who you are. As we were saying before, if you want to say that everybody’s a maverick, then there are very, very different kinds of mavericks! There’s a place for everyone, so long as they’ve got the ticket of admission. And the ticket of admission is good music.
Do you think there is an “American” music?
Yes, I absolutely do. As a matter of fact, if you read my book “Writings on Music,” one of the best essays is called “Language and Music.” It goes into some detail about the relationship between speaking and stresses in the voice and the national character of the music. Bartók wrote about this extensively, he’s quoted in there, and Janácek wrote about it as well.
A very simple and easy example: Rock and roll really comes out of America and Britain and it’s not bad in Germany. But do you really want to hear Italian rock and roll? On the other hand, belcanto. It says it all. In the organic movement of making this speech happen is a character. Anyone born in Italy is influenced by the fact that they have to speak that language. And we are influenced by the fact that we speak the English language. And that works its way into the angularity of American music, the rhythmic stresses, and irregularities of that stress. And I think the German musical tradition is …
In Hungarian, it’s customary for a lot of the words to have the stress on the first syllable. You never have that in German, or I think very rarely. So if you listen to a lot of Bartók you hear, “DA-dum, BA-dum.” And it comes out of--and I think he says so--he says that when he was collecting folk tunes, as the language changed, the music changed. And you can sort of graph your way around. He was working in what used to be Yugoslavia, where you’ve got all kinds of sub-dialects. He’d see one tune change as it went into another language, to adapt to the different stresses and rhythmic profile of that language.
If you go to Africa, some of the languages are tonal languages. If you don’t sing it right, then it isn’t right. I remember seeing a documentary on Africa, many, many years ago when I was really into African music and into tape music, and there was a picture of an African school teacher teaching English to her students, and she had a big long stick in her hand and she went, [taps] “My – shoes – are – new.” And the kids would say, “My – shoes – are – new.” But the “di – da – da – dum” was absolutely perfect.
Now in English it didn’t matter, but in African languages if you didn’t say it right, you said it wrong. [David Evan] Jones has a whole thing in his book where he shows the graph of the tones in the speech of the words of a song, and then the melodic curve of that song, and there’s an enormous cohesion between them. He did the real nitty-gritty work to prove that.
I just think in different parts of the world, there is no formula, but if you dig in and really try to see, you will find that language groups produce cohesive music that reflects those languages. In America also, we are a poly-racial society built on ideas, which were fundamentally new in history, and therefore jazz has had a tremendous impact on people of my generation. Older rock has had a huge impulse, and should, on people who were brought up with that.
We have, and I guess myself and others in my generation, have been helpful in restoring the normalcy of having a dialogue between classical music and popular music, which was the norm. In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, “…” a popular tune, which you had to set if you were … you had to make a mass out of that! Now what is that? You go to church and hear this great tune and everybody recognized it.
In the Baroque period you have all these dances. The suites. Bach wasn’t necessarily writing dance music, but he was modeling it on particular dance forms that had been danced in an earlier era. The Sixth Symphony by Beethoven was probably a folk song. Bartók and Janácek, and particularly the Eastern European composers, their music was inconceivable without the folk music that they were brought up in. It was Bartók’s ticket to get out of the German Romantic tradition of which he was basically an heir. Stravinsky lies through his teeth, but you know, [sings tune] was probably a folk song and Richard Taruskin seems to have found out exactly which one.
Kurt Weill--is he a songwriter or is he a composer? I don’t know, but he’s great in both. George Gershwin, one of Michael Tilson Thomas’ favorite composers and one of my favorite composers, was he Tin Pan Alley? Yes. Was he a composer? Yes. This is typically American. Even though Weill was a German he thrived over here. When I went to music school in the late 1950s and ‘60s, there was this wall between classical music and popular music. I was a mole.
How do you bridge that? How is that dialogue for you, with popular culture and classical music?
I think the way it really works is this: You listen to what you want to listen to, you play what you want to play, you write your own music and it all comes out in the wash. You don’t try to do as some American composers try to do: Make a third stream music where you have weird licks played on the saxophone. I don’t think that’s the way to accomplish much of anything. I think all these things happen at a much deeper, somewhat unconscious level based on the fact that you just sop up these things for a long time.
I just love the way Kenny Clark played. I feel that somehow in the early pieces, and a piece like “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” in the pulse there and I’m trying to create this kind of buoyancy. It doesn’t sound like Kenny Clark at all! But there’s a certain feeling for time, which was something I learned from listening to a lot of jazz. That’s in a totally different way, mixed in with all these other things we’ve been talking about, it’s in there. And it wouldn’t have happened without Kenny Clark. He’s not there, but I know that if I hadn’t had that experience, hadn’t done that listening when I was younger, there wouldn’t have been that desire to go and find this place.
So I think that basically, it happens because you listen to this music, it happens because you’re drawn to different kinds of popular music. I think it’s also the mark of certain emotional imbalance when people don’t see how difficult it is to write a good popular song. I mean the Beatles, when Lennon and McCartney did the greats, that’s genius work!
Because she was a popular singer at the time, my mother used to say to me, “When you’re going to music school dear, why don’t you write some popular songs to tide you over.” I said, “Mom! There’s people who’d give their right arm to do what George Gershwin did--what a lot of people have done.” So I think that’s something that’s done intuitively, unconsciously, and not, “Oh, I’m going to incorporate electric guitar.”
Talk specifically about non-western music. You were in Ghana and Bali.
I wasn’t in Bali--I was in California. I got sick in Africa and decided, “I’m staying home!”
That seemed like it was a large influence.
There was early on. Basically, I haven’t really been involved in African or Balinese music--or even Hebrew cantillations--since I stopped studying them, which is pretty much the late ‘70s. But a lot has just become part of, like you were saying, “If you immerse yourself in something and you play it for a while, it’s just part of you.” I think at that time that, and I’m talking the late ‘60s early ‘70s, a number of people became aware that non-western music was a way of getting to something that we wanted to get to in our own music.
I think there were two ways of getting there, and this has been parting of the ways for some people. I think imitating the sound of non-western music may not be the most interesting way to pursue it, like sitar in a rock band or singing electronic drones. I always wondered about that. What interested me--or what seemed to really open up possibilities--was figuring out how the music was put together, how it was structured. It sounds very cold and clinical, but think about it.
Well, I’ll tell you. See those bells behind you, sticking up in the air? Those gong-gongs? I brought those back from Ghana when I came back, along with some others and I thought, “I’ll put them in a piece of mine.” And I got them back, and I don’t have perfect pitch, so I went to the piano and said, “Oh, it’s not in tune.” And I thought, “Well, I’ll go to the hardware store.”
I held the gong-gong and it’s as if it said, “How do you do? I’m a gong-gong. I come from Ghana. You know what I do.” So instead of putting the gong-gong in my piece, I just started teaching the patterns to the people in my ensemble … There were four-part things that worked out very well and we’d go to parties, sit on the floor of a loft, and play patterns from “ha-cha-cha” songs, which is what they were actually called. And people said, “Oh! That’s really far out, really great! What is that?”
In the process of doing that, I began thinking, “This satisfies my desire to play with these things. And it’s much more straightforward and real than figuring out, at least for me, than trying to get a metal file out or having it detuned and playing with electronic instruments so you can sort of make it all work out. What’s more interesting is, let’s see, these things are playing patterns of different lengths, they’re repeating, and they’re superimposed so that their downbeats do not coincide. Hey, there’s a thought.”
This is a radically different approach and that’s what’s interesting. That’s what pushes you. I think that structural ideas are generally ideas that come to musicians somewhat later in their lives. They start by playing an instrument. After awhile, they begin to realize that certain things are happening technically, formally. That information, it seems to me, travels more easily through customs as it were. Because, in a sense, it’s completely neutral information.
Patterns of different length--patterns of what? I don’t know, I don’t care--superimposed so their downbeats don’t coincide. Very interesting. Don’t tell me what it sounds like. Canons? Okay, you have some musical material followed by itself at some rhythmic interval. Well, what is that? I’ll tell you what that is. … That’s Johann Sebastian Bach, that’s Bartók … that’s 85 percent of everything I’ve ever written.
So the answer to “What does it sound like?” is: “What century are we in?” This structure is so evergreen that it survives and mutates into completely unforeseen possibilities. That’s why I think rhythmic structures--which is what I was getting out of studying Balinese music, which is this guy playing once every 64 beats on this gong--what an experience that is, every eighth note is laid out, the music is going by very, very fast, music is going by moderately, music is going by incredibly slowly at the same time. Wherever your attention goes is the experience of the music that you have. But they’re all sort of sitting there on a plate for you. Do you want to go fast, medium or slow?
That’s something you can find in western music, but it’s really laid out very clearly in … that idea is communicated. So that’s what I found was useful for me in studying non-western music. But again, as I say, it’s really become something that I don’t think about much anymore. It’s just there.
In 1974, after I’d written “Six Pianos” and “Music for Mallet Instruments,”I began working on an extension of “Music for Mallet Instruments.” It basically turned into a two-year proposition from 1974 to 1976. It was at the period in my life and in the lives of people who I was working with in my ensemble where everybody was either finishing up graduate school or still not under stress professionally.
Russ Hartenberger and Bob Becker now travel the world with Nexus, have for 20 years, and they’re probably the most acclaimed percussion group on earth. It’s very hard to get them to play concerts; you also have to give them a year’s notice. But in those days if I could pay $15.00 each to get them down from Wesleyan, okay! Solid.
So “Music for Eighteen Musicians” happened. We were living across the street, believe it or not, in a loft building on Warrant Street. We had the top floor. I rented four spinets, which I kept set up in a large room in there. And I guess about every two, three weeks we rehearsed for a period of two years.
I wrote the piece in sketches in my notebook. I was working with multi-track tape, playing things against each other and then putting down what I needed to put down. And then I transferred it out in parts without the main score. On the parts would be: “Look at Russ here,” or “Bob nods.” Essential information!
The piece was written so that a conductor would not be necessary. Now to do that you must substitute, if you have eighteen people playing, something else has got to take the place of that. The conductorial responsibilities were delegated to the vibraphone player who, every time he played, it was a cue to, “Get ready, here we [gong] go,” and everybody changes.
That was an idea I took directly from Balinese and African music, where the drummers--as you know--will make the [call]. Everybody knows, when these guys start going fast, you go with them. In African music there are what they call “changing patterns.” Very simple patterns that sort of stick out because they’re so simple. That means, “Get ready, and off we go!” Everybody changes on a dime to something else.
Then there were soft-edge changes, based on the human breath, which is a big part of “Music for Eighteen Musicians.” Pulses that are played by the bass clarinets. To people who don’t know what they are, they think they’re sort of electronic frogs or something. It’s bass clarinets played very rasping with a microphone shoved way down into the bell almost. And it’s a very characteristic sound in the piece.
I probably got that from listening to Eric Dolphy, the jazz musician who played with John Coltrane. So that piece grew because people were available. Not playing the roll in the sense of improvising and making up the notes, but being available to rehearse enough to put this large thing together--and to rely on people always being there--so that all this basically oral material was jotted down in shorthand.
Everybody had the basic notes they needed, but we had like Roman numerals for each section of the piece. But the actual bar lines within each thing, there was no way of synchronizing. So we’d say, “You know that part where__?” And we’d take it from there.
Bottom line, the piece was played in 1976 and was clearly, without any question, the greatest success I’d ever had. Another thing that played a big role in that, which was completely gratuitous also, the piece was recorded while I was under contract at Deutche Gramophone. And I actually have an LP sleeve of the original thing with the yellow “DG” on it.
But “Drumming” hadn’t sold that many copies. It was a big, three LP set back in those days. And the producer, Rudolph Werner said, “Wait.” So there was a long talk about starting up another label at Polygram, which was the parent company, and they didn’t do it. To make a long story short, almost a year after the record was recorded--1976 to 1977--I got a letter from … saying, “ACM wants to release this record.” I wrote him back and said, “I’m not a jazz musician, just put it on DG.” He writes back and says, “Don’t be a fool! Go down and talk to Bob Hurwitz.”
Bob Hurwitz, as you probably know was the head of Nonesuch, and was--at that time--running ACM in America. So the word on Bob Hurwitz was that he didn’t like minimal music. So I walked in and he said, “No I don’t like minimal music, but I like this piece. And what’s more, we want to put it on public radio and it’s going to be heard on progressive rock stations.” There were radio stations in those days that would play David Bowie and Brian Eno and me and Phil Glass and so on.
And, in fact, they did that and it sold 100,000 records in a couple of years. By now, it’s over 200,000. So that was in a class by itself and it was partly because it reached an audience that, if it’d been out in numerical order with DG, the whole thing would have been different. It really would. Life is just that, little things like that happen and it makes a huge difference. So it got to an audience of people and crossed a much wider spectrum.
But it really is a great piece, anyway, and the story continues. At that point, in the late ‘70s, my music began to start to be played by other people. And everybody said, “We want to do ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians.’” And I said, “Well, there’s a little problem. There’s no score.” “Well, you’ve got parts.” “Yeah, but you don’t know what the parts are like.”
The fact of the matter is, that from 1976 to 1998, there were, I think, two or three performances of “Music for Eighteen Musicians” by other groups who spent six months deciphering our parts and listening to the recording. One incredible set of performances was done in Budapest that may be released on the “Music for Eighteen Musicians Live,” maybe next fall when I’m going back to Budapest. It’s an astounding performance. Hungarians really know how to play this stuff. And it was done in England by a group of very devoted people up North.
In the intervening time, early pieces were published by Universal, but around the middle ‘80s I became associated with … That quickly turned into the right thing to do. When Linda Golding was there, she said, several years back, “We really have to make a score for ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians.’” I said, “Great!”
There was a graduate student at Cornell by the name of Mark Mellitz who wanted to do a thesis on the piece. He called up and said, “I need the score.” Well, you know there’s a problem. So finally I said, “Look. You want to do a thesis on this piece, we that know you’re a copyist and we know that you work in score. You make a score out of this, we’ll pay you, and you’ll get your thesis.” And he did.
We went back and forth with it. There are things in “Music for Eighteen Musicians” that give you pause as to how to notate them; to maintain the freedom of the breath and so on that I’ve talked about. I must say that working with him, it’s a great score and parts. As a matter of fact, he wrote the whole piece out--400 pages worth--as an exact transcription of the first recording. When it was all done, Mark and I got on the phone and said, “That’s not the piece!”
I called up Linda Golding and I said, “Linda, are you sitting down?” I said, “I was talking to Mark.” And she’d gotten wind of it and she said, “Look, I understand. Make the modular version you’re talking about.” So from the basis of a completely transcribed score, we then went in and said, “Now let’s put the life back to the piece and make it comprehensible so people can do it.”
Through a number of devices--which I won’t go into--including floating bar lines, which was a thing around in the ‘60s which you would never think of being used in my music, but which worked beautifully. We had this excellent set of materials. The ideal situation is where you have a conductor who can coach the rehearsals and then self-destruct and leave or start playing some instrument.
As a result, the Ensemble Moderne was the test case in Germany and Brad Lubman was the conductor who coached them. I was playing with them and … myself, Russ, and Bob joined them. And, “Look ma, no ensemble!” It was very thrilling that the piece was finally--ah! And now it’s been done at Oberlin and Rochester [and other places]. It’s been done widely now and I really feel, “Hooray, this piece has got a life of it’s own!”
Nice feeling after all those years. You use a lot of spoken word in your pieces. Where does that come from?
When I went to music school, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I got introduced to electronic music. In those days, there was this big distinction: There was electronic music and there was [Musique] Concrete. And music from concrete was real sound, manipulated on tape. Electronic music was coming out of sound wave generators; it was something that started inside an electronic device. I was drawn to Musique Concrete, but I felt there was a fatal flaw to it: The problem with Musique Concrete to my ear was: you get a car crash, you record it on tape, but you never let anyone hear that it’s a car crash! You play it backwards, you move it down two octaves, or you re-modulate it so you get this weird sound.
Well, fine and dandy. But a car crash is a chilling, emotionally loaded event, as are human words. For me, the proof of this theory came out in Stockhausen and Berio. Stockhausen had the electronic studies and he had … a great piece. Why? … Because of the boy’s voice. Berio, when I started studying with him, was very helpful in this respect. He was working with Cathy Berberian, who was his wife at the time, and he had this piece which was just Cathy reading “Finnegans Wake” and then manipulated on tape. He had other pieces that used the human voice …
And it seemed to me that that was definitely the direction to go. And when I started doing some music for some films for Robert Nelson in San Francisco, the first thing I did was to take an old record of Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. It was called “The Greatest Moments in Sports” on Columbia. And I just started dropping the needle here and there.
When it came time to do the tape loops, playing around with the preacher’s voice was so--first of all the actual loop has the pigeon’s wings taken off so you have a drummer in there--so obviously ... You’ve got the melodic interest but it’s also charged with the meaning of the sense of the phrase. “It’s gonna rain” is a quintessential American phrase about nothing in particular. It’s about Noah and the flood and it’s about the end of the world. And it’s free for nothing; it just comes along for the ride. It’s just, “It’s gonna rain.”
So it seemed clear to me that it was no contest. Again, I used the phrase tape music in those days. I wasn’t interested in sound wave generators and eventually I’m not even interested in synthesizers. I’ve used synthesizers as a matter of convenience, but if you look at what I’ve done--after “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out”--I didn’t do anything with electronics except use microphones on the instruments from “Piano Phase” in 1967 to “Different Trains” in 1988.
The difference was, when I heard the sampler was around and you could get somebody’s voice or a door slam or whatever and bring it in on the “and” of the third of the 15th measure, I said, “That’s for me!” It was sampling that really was the fire behind “Different Trains,” which is another very important piece.
Can you talk a little about that piece?
Well, in a sense, “Different Trains” was written in 1988, right after I made the decision to stop writing for orchestra. And “Different Trains” played a role in that. It was as if I felt--I believe that every one of us has our assignment, and you can take that however you want to take that. John Adams: His assignment was, clearly, to write for the orchestra. And he’s fulfilling it admirably. I began to realize my assignment is not about that. Suddenly, when the idea for “Different Trains” became clear I thought, “This is me! If I don’t do this, no one’s going to do this.”
“Different Trains” was also going back to these tape pieces. But here, instead of it being almost like music, here every time a man speaks the cello is going to double him. Every time a woman speaks the viola’s going to double her and that melodic phrase will be the basis, that speech melody will be the basis for the music itself. It will set the tempo, it will set the notes, and it will be my responsibility to figure out harmonies. And the tempos can interrelate to make the piece. So I put myself in a straightjacket, but it worked.
And I think it worked because the idea did just fit and the subject matter was really about myself. The part that has to do with the Holocaust is really, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If I had been born in … or in Budapest, then we wouldn’t be sitting here talking. But I was, fortunately, born in New York and was going to Los Angeles, and so here we are.
When I started the piece I didn’t know what it would be about. I just knew it would be voices doubled by instruments. First, I thought it would be the voice of Bela Bartók. And then there were the problems getting the rights and I thought, “Do I want Bela Bartók sitting on my shoulder while I’m trying to write for string quartets? Wait a minute. It’s difficult enough as it is. I know what! I’ll use the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein!” Well, after about a month of writing letters to all over London and New York, I thought, “I don’t think Wittgenstein ever recorded anything. He was a recluse living on the beach of Norway and then he was at Cambridge as a recluse.”
And then Berio said to me, “Isn’t there something more at home?” And I don’t know why on earth these train things popped into my head, but they did. And then I started thinking, “When did I take these trips?” I knew what was going on. And then it was like the assignment was already written and I just did the interviews and, what can I say? It was an inspired piece. It was very clear what the technique was going to be and then it got very clear as to what the little bits would be. By the by, it opened at the … Opera.
In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I was asked by the Holland Festival and the Frankfurt Opera to write an opera for them, two different requests and both times I said, “Thank you very much. It’s very flattering; it’s delightful, but no. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to spend three or four years doing something when I don’t even know what to do because it’s bound to be a serious mistake.” Obviously, some contemporaries of mine were very busy writing a lot of operas at the time so I thought, “What’s the matter with me?” But that’s the way it was. So better face it.
I did “Different Trains” and suddenly the light bulb went off and I thought, “If you could see these people talking and musicians are onstage doubling what they say, I’ve got an opera.” And then I spoke to … because she has done these incredible, multiple-channel pieces. … After a number of discussions, we finally hit on the subject matter. “The Cave” was a result of that and we took a long break and then went back to it with “Three Tales,” which is now on one screen, it can go on DVD, it can be broadcast, and have a much more independent life.
But the roots of it really lie in “Different Trains” and, in a sense, the roots of it really lie in “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” It’s a feeling for documentary material as raw material for music. And it’s a very old idea. The glockenspiel is, basically, western composers wanting to have bells at the ready. The other ones are so big, tubular bells, summoning up storm effects and then eventually sirens in Varèse and radio in Cage, cash registers in Pink Floyd and on and on. I think music theater and related things are like the composers argument, I hope, just getting into something and wanting to bring it into their music. That’s the root--it seems to me—and a piece like “City Life.”
Is this the direction you want to continue in?
I want to continue in a number of directions that are very nicely summed up by the “City Life” record because it opens up with a piece called “Proverb,” which is an absolutely musical piece. It’s also summed up by the sequence of events of writing “Hindenburg” and then writing “Triple Quartet.” I’ve found it’s like when you’re in a racing car and you have to take a pit stop, otherwise your car will fall apart. By the time I got done with “Different Trains,” “The Cave,” “City Life,” if I saw one more sample, you know, “Excuse me, I’m going to get sick.”
I really felt what I needed was just some voices, some simple text, pure musical concerns. Just the notes, let me just deal with this. What I seem to be working with now, and that’s what I’m going to be doing, is just a number of purely instrumental pieces. I’m doing a multiple cello piece and I’m going to do a piece for … that will probably be scored with the “Sextet” scoring. And then I’m supposed to do a piece for the L.A. Master Chorale and a large ensemble together with Lincoln Center and the Ensemble Moderne in Germany, as the co-commissioners. And a text yet to be done.
But again, instruments and voices. After that, probably another piece for the London Symphonetta and an Indian dancer, if this works out. And then maybe barrel on to something else. But it’s a rhythm of working in the electronic stuff, it’s very exciting and offers certain possibilities, but there’s also a pain in the neck factor there too. The medicine, the salve, the ointment is just writing instrumental music. After that you feel, “Gee, I kind of like the electronic music. I need both of them to live.”
Couple more questions. If you were on a desert island, what would be the three CD recordings you'd want to have?
No one’s been on a desert island yet with a CD player. Big problem is your battery would run down. I know what you’re saying. I could have answered that easier in the past. I think now I’d have a hard time whittling it down to three. I don’t know, and it would change.
Out of the long list of candidates, we’d have something like: recording of “The Rite of Spring,” “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” the opening of the “Johannes-Passion” and maybe something from the Benjamin Britten piece. Maybe “Dahomey Dance,” or part of “Africa/Brass” by Coltrane. The Fifth Brandenburg, just so I get the harpsichord solo for sure. Too bad they didn’t have original cast recording on that one, huh? … The last movement of the Fourth Quartet by Bela Bartók, from which “Triple Quartet” takes its life. There are probably lots and lots; I could go on like this for a long time.
One other question: Do you have any favorite young composers?
Living in New York, I’ve become very friendly with the Bang on a Can people. And I think Michael Gordon has got a couple of extraordinary pieces: One of them is “Yo Shakespeare.” And another one is a piece that’s just come out, it’s actually written by the three of them which I think is a ticket for disaster, but it came out very, very good. It’s called “Lost Objects.” …
David Lang, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing”--really fine piece. … I know some of who did what on “Lost Objects” but I don’t know exactly what she did there. As I mentioned before, I think Michael Torke’s got a piece called “Four Proverbs”--it’s just a beautiful, melodic piece. It’s one of those pieces that you don’t argue with. If you don’t like it, go to an ear doctor.
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