In Conversation with Steve Reich
An interview with the author on the publication of his Writings on Music 1965-2000
Molly Sheridan: Because we’re doing this issue on dance, I would like to speak a little bit about your feelings on dance. I was interested to read in one of the excerpts we’ve used here on NewMusicBox about how you had really never anticipated seeing your work with dancers. Have you felt any inspiration since then to write work specifically for dance?
Steve Reich: Well, I’m actually going to do it, but have I put any thought into it? No, absolutely not. No, I mean I just happen to be who I am. [laughs] My music has a very strong rhythmic profile, as everybody knows, and dancers picked up on that very early on so I’m frequently choreographed. I’m delighted about that because I’ve always enjoyed watching dance. I haven’t seen by any means all the pieces that have been done to my music but I certainly have seen those by de Keersmaeker, Kylian, and others. So it isn’t something that I’ve ever done specifically. A sextet was written with Laura Dean in mind but it was also an instrumental piece and, to be honest, I would have written what I wrote anyway but she was part of the commission. I’m going to write, I guess in September, a piece for de Keersmaeker, just a short five-minute piece that will be part of a long piece, with lots of little chunks by different composers whose names I don’t really have at the tip of my tongue, and that will be done specifically for dance. She’s going to send me a tape of something that she’s pre-choreographed so I’m supposed to look at that. But again I’ll look at it and it may give me some ideas and then again I may just go ahead and do what I would do anyway.
Molly Sheridan: You mention in your book that dancers understand your music. Do they understand it in a way that other people don’t?
Steve Reich: Well, no I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the music is very rhythmic… I mean Stravinsky was very frequently choreographed. Well, why? Well, it’s very obvious why. It’s because his music was very rhythmic and it lent itself to dance. You know, Arvo Pärt is a wonderful composer but he doesn’t lend himself to dance because he isn’t very rhythmic. It’s really no more complicated than that.
Molly Sheridan: So this book covers 30 years of your thinking about music and commenting on it. For other composers who read this book today, what do you hope that they are able to take away from it?
Steve Reich: Well, I’m assuming that anybody who reads the book is reading it because they’re interested in my music which I say right in front, very first thing. If you’re interested in a composer’s music then you might be interested in how they think about the music and about other music. I mean, I read Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music. I was a great Stravinsky lover and the book just sort of clarified things and gave me some sort of feeling for who he was or at least who he was at that time and, you know, it wasn’t an essential ingredient but it certainly was a clarifying and intensifying ingredient in just understanding who Stravinsky was as a human being and as a composer. So if someone is interested in what I’m doing they can follow these writings which vary as much as the music varies. I suppose if someone heard Piano Phase and then they heard Desert Music they might not think it was the same composer and I wouldn’t blame them. I think that’s reflected in the writings. “Music as a Gradual Process” is a very terse, just a very good essay that fits hand in glove with those early pieces, but of course it has very little to say about a lot of the later work. So yes, I think that any composer who looks at it may also get some of the very specific musical ideas—for instance the approach to non-western music in terms of the structure rather than its sound, what is phasing, what is rhythmic substitution. And later on the use of the voice both as a vocalise and in the conventional singing of words, the reappraisment of medieval techniques in light of today’s music, specifically things like augmentation. In a technical sense, in a shop talk sense, for some composers this isn’t what they should do but so that they can say, “Um-hmm, well, you know this is something to chew on and I’ll either spit it out or I’ll digest it,” and it will come out as something different.
Molly Sheridan: I’m curious too because this book covers a period of developing thought for you, is there anything in it that you don’t believe anymore or that you’ve revised in your own mind?
Steve Reich: Well, not really. I mean it’s a funny question. I don’t believe in manifestos. I think people who get into manifestos are always blockheads, and yes that includes some very famous manifestos. I mean basically I think what they do is they set themselves up as tin pot gods and then they proceed to march in lockstep with their thoughts the rest of their lives. And that’s a very poor way of proceeding in music and a very poor way of proceeding in life. The early essays no longer describe what I’m doing nor do I feel the way I felt when I wrote them. Do I believe them? Well I believe in them. I think that the early writings are a very good reflection of me in my late 20s and early 30s and of the music that I wrote at that time. Yes, I believe in everything in the book in the sense that I thought “Yes, this is worth publishing,” but I don’t hold the same positions throughout my life and the book shows that. And that’s part of what the book is about.
Molly Sheridan: I was also curious, when we did our issue on minimalism, we received a lot of great feedback but we also heard from those who, I think one comment was from someone who felt minimalism isn’t even music. I think that was the most extreme. So I just have to ask, do think this book has the power to convert?
Steve Reich: Not at all. [Laughs] I think everybody believes what they believe. As I said, people are going to read this book because they’re interested in my music. Those people who feel the way you’ve just described, you know, that think this isn’t even music, then obviously they’re just going to pass it by or thumb through it and make some snide remark and that will be the end of it. I’m just offering it out there to those who are interested and those who reject me prima facia, well, you know, let’s hope time passes and others replace them.
Molly Sheridan: Final question then. We were talking about how this book might influence other composers and I know you started to mention some of the texts that have influenced you. I just want you to talk a little bit more about that…
Steve Reich: Well, again as I say, there are two levels to the book. One level, in terms of other composers, is a technical level. As Writings goes, it’s a relatively good chunk of that. There are a lot of score excerpts, there’s some analysis of African music, there’s some analysis of Hebrew chant. One of the articles that strikes me as very chock full of information and interesting thinking is “Music and Language” which also gets back into quoting a lot of Bartók and Janáèek and African musicologists talking about African languages. Also, the relationship between electronics and live music, all of these thoughts that I think, I don’t expect anyone, as a matter of fact I think I’d be disappointed if someone picked up and started to do something that I’ve done, but I do think it’s worthy of consideration. It’s unpredictable what the thoughts of one composer will produce in the mind of another, and that’s what’s genuinely interesting. You teach a student to, let’s say, write a canon, we all learn that in school. Now what results from that? We’ve got canons back in 13th century, we’ve got canons in Bach, we’ve got canons in Bartók, and we’ve got the Webern symphony, and we’ve got my work. The same idea generates vastly different kinds of music and I think that’s really interesting. I hope that my book can make some small contribution in that direction.
Molly Sheridan: Are there any books by composers that you keep on your shelves?
Steve Reich: Well the Stravinsky Poetics are still there, and the writings of Bela Bartók are still there, and I would say that they are at the top of my list. I have read Ives‘s Essays Before a Sonata, which are more sort of ruminations and ejaculations [laughs] but I mean I’m a great admirer of Charles Ives so I’ve read that too. And I’ve read some of Schoenberg‘s work and I almost ripped the book up.
Molly Sheridan: But it got you thinking…
Steve Reich: Well, it got me aware of who he was, or who he appears to be in the articles which is rather…Well, I find him extremely unattractive in a human sense and again I admire some of his early pieces but once the theory got set and Opus 23, I’m definitly not in the fan club anymore. But yes, I don’t know if Webern has any writings but I read the big book that, the Moldenhauder book about him years ago. And of course I read Morty Feldman‘s essays, and they are delightful. And I also read The Boulez-Cage Correspondence; that’s a very interesting book. So those all are sitting on my shelf.