The Next Phase: Steve Reich talks to Richard Kessler About Redefinition and Renewal
Steve Reich: So, how did life in music begin for you?
Richard Kessler: I think for the most part it started in junior high when I started singing in the chorus—just a regular junior high school in Rockaway Beach, Queens, with a 350-member chorus. Nobody could read music; it was all by rote. I spent two years in that chorus and it was the most amazing thing—the connection to music, the tradition. We had a traditional “repeater”, a piece that every year’s chorus would sing—it was “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” a spiritual arranged beautifully by Gregg Smith. At the spring concert every year, chorus alumni would come back and just erupt with screaming after they heard it.
When I went to high school there wasn’t much of a chorus. It was a little choir with about 20 people in it. So I decided to learn an instrument. I picked up the trombone in the middle of the 10th grade and one thing led to another. I played in the all-city high school orchestra when I was in the 12th grade and then made my way to Juilliard. That was how music started for me in a serious way.
Steve Reich: After Julliard you became a part of the Saturday Brass Quintet. Can you explain how you got there?
Richard Kessler: You know, brass players don’t play much in the orchestra.
Steve Reich: Some do, some don’t. [laughs]
Richard Kessler: [laughs] To begin with, so much of the classical repertoire is missing trombones—and in some of the greatest works with trombones, you don’t play for the first three movements! In Brahms’s first symphony you do nothing but sit there for three movements and then in the fourth you basically have to come in on a soft, exposed high A that keeps all the principal trombone players sweating. So I just decided to start playing some chamber music. It’s a course usually at the conservatory: brass chamber music. I started in my first quintet at Julliard with Jerry Schwarz coaching us. Most people know him today as a conductor, but back then he was just starting out as a conductor and had been principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic and also with the American Brass Quintet.
Outside of school, a few of my friends from different schools got together and we started this group. I was about, I don’t know, 18 or 19 years old. We just started playing gigs for fun; we played on the streets. You might remember in the ’70s in New York you could play on the streets. We used to play on the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street; we used to play on 5th Avenue in the 50s…
Steve Reich: Nice locations.
Richard Kessler: Great locations. It was an incredible thing because we made money, we learned repertoire—we played all the Bach transcriptions, all the Joplin stuff—and you could play for hours and big crowds would come along. Cute girls would come around and watch us play!
Steve Reich: There you go.
Richard Kessler: I’d go home with maybe 30 or 40 bucks in my pocket…
Steve Reich: …which in those days was something…
Richard Kessler: Yeah, and it was all from just playing music on the streets. They stopped that at one point. Mayor Koch ended it. To this day you really don’t see it…
Steve Reich: You see stuff in the subways but that’s about it.
Richard Kessler: And that’s an official MTA program, but on the street, forget it, it’s long gone and it’s a shame really. So we started playing for fun. There were five of us from different schools and we needed a name. We were just joking around and somebody said, “Let’s make up a name that has no meaning.” Brass players always come up with these names, you know, the Tower Brass, Epic Brass, Monumental Brass, Empire Brass….There’s something oddly monolithic about these names. So we decided that we’d have a name that made no sense at all. We were just joking around…the Saturday Brass Quintet. We ended up getting artistic management, ended up getting gigs, started touring nationally. We won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1990, and you know only two brass quintets have ever won that award. We commissioned a lot of people, all sorts of folks, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Davis, Elliot Goldenthal, Richard Danielpour, Ned Rorem, Joe Schwantner, and many others.
An interesting piece to that is how difficult it was to convince composers to write for brass. A lot just didn’t want to write for brass quintet, something I couldn’t understand then, because you’re thinking, “Well, we’re a great brass quintet. Why won’t they want to write for us?” I understand it now. How many performances will you get? How much will the commission be? We had talked for a long time about approaching you.
Steve Reich: I’ve hardly written for brass.
Richard Kessler: We never called you, but we got your name from soprano Cheryl Bensman. One of our trumpet players was good friends with Cheryl.
Steve Reich: This must have been back in the early ’80s.
Richard Kessler: Cheryl said, “You should call him, he’s really great.” We didn’t, but we all loved your music so much! I guess we couldn’t get up the nerve. We used to listen to Music for 18 Musicians while we traveled around the country touring in a van.
I had your number in my phonebook from about 1984, way before I came to the AMC. When I joined the AMC I discovered that nobody there actually had your home number, but I had had it for years in my filofax! [laughs].