[Ed. note: This conversation between Steve Reich and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on July 1, 1998. It was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]
1. Starting Out
RICHARD KESSLER: How do you feel the music business has changed over the last thirty years?
STEVE REICH: Well, thirty years ago I had just returned to New York City from San Francisco. Basically, John Cage was the most important thing in town; Morton Feldman was active; The younger people were James Tenney and Phil Corner and Malcolm Goldstein, and Charles Wuorinen. At that time, the American composers were either under the “downtown” influence of John Cage or the “uptown” influence of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and company. But the sad fact is that musically, everybody was under the influence of music that was not “pulsitile,” [not with a regular beat]. You can’t tap your foot to either Boulez or John Cage, nor could you know where you were tonally. The idea of cadence, any sense of tonal center, melody in any sense of the word — including even some Schoenberg — was pretty hard to put your ear on. So I felt sort of out of it and very much alone.
I had contact with Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young was active, but we weren’t very close at that time. So, there was precious little outside of the individual musicians that I worked with at that time. Arthur Murphy, the pianist and composer out of Juilliard, and Jon Gibson, the reed player (now playing with Philip Glass) who had played with me and Terry Riley back in San Francisco in the early sixties, [were active]. That was really my musical universe. I was working on getting the finished form of “Piano Phase”. I’d done the (tape) piece, “Its Gonna Rain,” out in San Francisco and then had come back [to New York].
I was really just getting my own music together for the first time, and it was very exciting. It was a given that I wasn’t going to get a call from anyone at Carnegie Hall or any other institution asking me to come and perform, so fortunately I began to know some painters and sculptors who later became known as “minimal” artists; people like Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson, who I didn’t know that well, but who was part of that. Paula Cooper was running The Park Place Gallery, and some artists there invited me to give a concert, first in ’66 with the tape pieces and then again in ’67. I remember the Park Place Gallery concerts were a big success and people like Robert Rauschenberg came. A lot of people that were bound up in the Judson scene were there — painters, sculptors, filmmakers, choreographers. But I can’t think of any composers who were, except Phil Corner and James Tenney who were playing.
At that point I was acquiring an audience, basically of artists. In the long run that’s a good way to begin. I would say this to other composers: if you’re 25, and some dancer is 25, and some filmmaker is 25, or some video artist or painter or sculptor is 25, in some ways you’re going to be “swimming in the same soup” by being contemporary. And I think it’s a good, healthy thing — especially as you’re getting started. By all means, go to galleries; go to dance concerts and so on, as a social activity and as an artistic activity, because there’s no formula for what is going to give you understanding of the culture around you. Those artists are where you’re going to get the clearest messages that to with something inside of you, because you’re all alive at the same time, you’ve gone through the same experiences, you’re a part of the same generation in the same country.
To make a long story short, painters and sculptors helped me get gigs. Sol LeWitt bought a score of four organs and some other scores. I used that money to buy the Glockenspiels for “Drumming.” Bruce Nauman helped me get a concert at the Whitney. Richard Sierra helped with that concert and one at the Guggenheim. Michael Snow, the filmmaker, was part of that whole group. This was an exciting and very stimulating situation.
I think painters and sculptors react to music, more naively, in a sense, because their politics are a lot different from our politics. It’s very hard for one composer to listen to another composer without somehow bringing his own mind-set to the music he’s listening to. It’s not that it’s impossible. And that’s only natural, whereas someone in another art field is going to listen to it very naively, in a sense (you hope), and that’s a worthwhile, unbiased opinion. Ultimately, it’s a naive opinion that rules the roost. Stravinsky used to say that if the audience’s reaction was positive, he knew that that’s okay. We’re not so stupid after all!
Now, the most significant difference [in the past thirty years], and I see this in music schools here or in Europe, is that when I went to school there was one way of writing music that was discussed; today, you can write like Mahler and you can say “I’m like David Del Tredici” or John Corigliano or even John Adams for that matter, or you can write like me and Glass and other people, and you can write even rock and roll or techno. All of these things, and others, and the gradations between them are “grist for the mill,” and fairly so. Whether that’s better or worse, who’s to say? But it’s vastly different.
I also think that in the late fifties and early sixties the ambition of becoming a composer clearly lacked any economic expectations. When I decided to become a composer, I expected to have a hard time financially, and even when I got my MA, I felt that I didn’t want to teach, but that I had to have that insurance policy. If I didn’t survive [as a composer], I would fall back on teaching. In those days an MA was significant . Now you have to get a Doctorate! Fortunately, I was able to do part time jobs.
RK: You drove a cab?
SR: Well, yes I drove a cab in San Francisco, and in New York I worked as a part-time social worker. Phil Glass and I had a moving company for a short period of time. I did all kinds of odd jobs: I taught briefly at the New School and the School of Visual Arts but by 1972 I started making a living as a performer in my own ensemble. I would never have thought that it was how I was going to survive financially. It was a complete wonder.
If I had to give any advice to composers, I would say be involved in the performance of your own music, whether you’re a conductor conducting, or whether you are a musician playing. Or, if you’re not talented enough to do either, program a drum machine, or run the amplification board (which I do and which I’ve written myself out of). Just being involved with the performance of your own music will guarantee, insofar as you can guarantee it, that you’re getting the kind of performances that you don’t have to constantly apologize for when you give your friends the tape. And the more you’re involved in it, the better the performances are, the more reflective they are of what you had in mind, and the more likely they are to convey your musical ideas to other people.
RK: You started talking about the art world, and what I’ve always noticed is that going to a concert of yours over the years, or, let’s say, to Phil Glass’s 30th Anniversary Concert a couple of weeks ago at Avery Fischer-you see a very different audience than you would for, say, the Vienna Philharmonic, or even the San Francisco Symphony playing new music. A very, very different audience. And that audience to me looks like it’s more connected with the art world: younger people who undoubtedly go to the Guggenheim and who go to the Whitney.
SR: Is the audience so typical to “pigeon-hole”? There are professors and there are students.
RK: But one thing’s for sure: as a group, they’re younger.
SR: Yes. with no doubt, and I’m delighted to see this.
RK: What do you think about this?
SR: I think it’s great but everyone has to write music that, in a sense, is who they are. If they try to do it otherwise, then in the long or the short run they will fail. I could mention names, but I won’t. But there are composers who adopt the “style-of-the-month” (and we know who they are and we could even run down the months and the different styles!) and everyone says “Oh, now he/she is doing this. Tuesday, minimalism…” The bottom line is that it doesn’t work! It doesn’t work because whatever it is that people have inside of themselves that’s really joined to some emotional and intellectual perspective on music — that’s what people want. They want the real you and they know when you’re not giving it. How? I don’t know how it works, but it works.
3. Orchestras and Acoustics
RK: But why would a younger crowd go to hear your music and not necessarily go to hear the London Symphony performing…
SR: My music!
RK: That’s very true.
SR: Well, I think, for my money, The London Symphony Orchestra is the best orchestra around for the music I write. But I’ve stopped writing for the orchestra in 1987 when I was writing the “Four Sections,” which I think is a reasonably successful piece for orchestra. At that time, I realized a number of things. Number one: the orchestra is not my orchestra in a purely acoustical, musical sense. The basic idea of the orchestra is that you will get more volume by doubling, and we’ll make balances between the brass, which are naturally loud, the woodwinds, which are reasonably loud, and the strings, which aren’t, by simply doubling the same parts. So when the little girl says to Mom, “Why are all these people playing the same line?” the answer is “to make it louder.”
Well, there is a price to pay for that, and it is the rhythmic agility: everyone is slightly sharp or slightly flat, because they’re human beings, and the note is literally fatter. If you put it on an oscilloscope you’d see, well, it’s wider. And you feel that. The sound of a string section is drastically different from the sound of a solo violin. I began to realize that what I’d been doing over the years was simply to use the microphone to make balances, not to make the music louder, but so that I could have a singer who’s singing in an early music style or a pop style, which is basically small voice, no vibrato, to be heard over percussion and keyboards). Well, when you amplify, it’s very simple.
But in that simple little fact, what you’re doing is turning over the history of the orchestra: The orchestra begins roughly around the time of Haydn. There are thirty-five or forty musicians, then the clarinets come in, and then Beethoven puts in the trombones, so you’ve got to have more strings to balance that off. Then comes Wagner and huge brass, expanded winds to balance that and then it stops. And basically the Wagner orchestra, the eighteen firsts and sixteen seconds and so on, is still with us. It made perfectly good sense for Haydn to have what he had. It made perfectly good sense for Beethoven to have what he had. And it made perfectly good sense for Wagner to have what he had. But once the microphone was invented, there was a complete other possibility: you could either use an acoustical organization created for an acoustical reality, and if you want it louder, you have more people doing it, [or you can amplify].
The invention of the microphone introduced new possibilities. Besides, I’m sixty-one years old; I grew up listening to more recorded music than I did live music (and I dare say I was the first of a generation where almost all the composers after me would have that precise experience). I realized I was used to the sound of music coming out of a loudspeaker. Now, everyone is quick to tell you that there’s a lot wrong with that, but there are a lot of things that are very interesting, as well: the little details of execution; the slide on the string; the sound of the resin on the bow. The little intimate details of the performance come to us because the microphone is very close to the player. So you create the possibility for a great deal of detail, if you keep the texture clear enough, where that stuff is giving you little bits of energy, if you like. You hear every bow stroke; you hear the articulation in the clarinet reed, etc., and you don’t think about that but it gets to you. So when you use amplification, it just becomes a reality of the performance.
And if you take the same piece, like “Tehillim” which was done by my group with solo strings amplified and then Mehta did it with twelve firsts (violins), it still feels like “what’s this big, heavy thing that we’re trying to pull along with this small ensemble inside of it.” And that’s partly my own fault too, for going for the glory of the New York Philharmonic and realizing that it was subverting the music. It took most of the eighties for me to become clear with that because back then my own ensemble had gotten larger after “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” and I was thinking: “Well, this is ridiculous. I can’t travel around the world with an orchestra or anything like that. If I want to write for the orchestra, write for the orchestra.” I was thinking: “Oh, three oboes interlocking and three clarinets interlocking and three strings” — but each of the three strings was eight people. So “The Desert Music” was to me the most successful piece I did that way. The string orchestra is divided in three and the percussion goes in the center, right in front of the composer, or right in front of the conductor (that’s a slip!). Right in front of the conductor, in a piece where the ictus, the beat, is going all the time. If the strings around the percussion can hear it, then it’s fine. If you put the percussion sixty feet away from the conductor in the back of the hall, and the strings are sitting right next to the conductor, he’s beating what the percussionist is playing but the 60-foot delay in the sound causes the whole orchestra to not be together. It’s impossible. So I rearranged the orchestra this way. The result: well, if you have an enormous amount of rehearsal, you can get a reasonably good result, but it guarantees that no one is ever going to play the piece because they’ve got to completely re-seat the orchestra; they’ve got all the electronic paraphernalia; they’d take one look and say “Well, what else have you got?” So I began to realize that my musical acoustical difficulties were also intimately tied with the sociology and practical realities of stagecraft. Also, if you introduce electronics, they might do it once, on commission, and then you can kiss it good-bye. Then I began to realize that my orchestra is my ensemble and there are all these wonderful European ensembles like it, such as the Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Schoenberg Ensemble, Klang Forum Wien, Ictus Ensemble, Avanti Ensemble, and they’re growing like mushrooms all over Europe.
RK: What are your thoughts about the orchestral repertoire issue? The orchestra industry is certainly of — or will be of-importance to our readers. The orchestra industry is facing many challenges: for all intents and purposes, the repertoire stopped expanding in the fifties. There are a small number of works that have entered the core repertoire in the past 30 years. There are many people in the industry wondering what to do about aging audiences, a repertoire that isn’t growing, and composers like you, who aren’t interested in writing for it the medium. What do you make of all this? You talked a little about the social and cultural context earlier…
SR: I feel that the orchestra is no more important and is just another variation on promusica antiqua. It’s very important that early music, like Perotin, be heard. For me it’s just as important that Perotin be heard as it is that Mozart be heard. As a matter of fact, I personally would much rather hear Perotin than Mozart. But whether you like it or not, these guys are both very, very important composers in their age. They were the top of their historical period. Why should we hear more Brahms than Josquin? Because there’s an organization that plays it that’s absorbing so much money. But if you were to just weigh it on the musical scales, you’d say “Well, it depends on your stylistic preference, but this is great music and that’s great music.” My feeling is, and I know there are others who’ve voiced similar ideas, that it would be interesting if there were fewer orchestras, and other musicians would simply go and form whatever kind of groups they want to form. Those orchestras would be larger and encompass all the history of western music. For example: you’d have a group of about 120 musicians that would include a baroque and early music group directed by music director A, who is not an orchestral romantic specialist. Then you would have the large romantic orchestra, with a few gambists from the early music group who might want to sit in the cello section — that would have one of the name conductors in the classical and romantic field. Then you’d have a new music ensemble with a separate music director, another one of the conductors who we could name, with somewhere between fifteen and forty people, again including some crossover from the early music group and from the other orchestra; This sort of large center, sort of like a medical center, would be able to tour. These three major groups would have a couple of venues: a large two-thousand-seater, and a one-thousand-seater, and would employ 120 or more musicians. They would pool their advertising muscle and their appeal to a much wider musical taste.
We’re now seeing pop record departments selling medieval music — how about that! Who would’ve thought that Gregorian chant was going to be a hot numero in any form! Well, live and learn. I think that’s great. No matter how you look at it, I think it would be a very interesting way to go. If you had a regular opportunity to do Gabrieli and also do some Wagner, what’s wrong? And you could go out in different groups. Everything that players in orchestras complain about, the routine and repetitions, wouldn’t be completely solved, but the people who want to change that would have the possibility in the extended repertoire, the extended number of chamber-sized ensembles that were under one aegis.
One of the most wonderful orchestral events I’ve ever been to was one Michael Tilson Thomas did in June of 1996, where he had a festival including The Grateful Dead (sans Jerry Garcia). On the greatest day, I did “Clapping Music” with one of the percussionists out there and Meredith Monk sang; they did Lou Harrison‘s organ concerto; they did an improvisation on Henry Cowell‘s “Tone Cluster” with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of The Grateful Dead, and half the audience was “deadheads” who were dead quiet and listening to everything, really getting off on it. The orchestra itself never came out and appeared as an orchestra, but all these ensembles were right there. This is what every orchestra has within itself, but somehow it can never find the scheduling and the marketing expertise to present itself that way. Anyway, it’s certainly possible and perhaps it will happen.
Personally, I don’t go to orchestral concerts. I don’t listen to that repertoire — I say it over and over again. Back in 1955, when I studied music history at Cornell University with William Austin, he taught it like this: He started with Gregorian chant, we went up to the death of Bach and Handel in 1750, and jumped to Debussy, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Charlie Parker, Bartók, the works. And then we went back in the Spring semester and we did Haydn to Wagner. He used to say that he saw a continuity in the back-to-Bach of Stravinsky and the whole neoclassicism of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and an awareness of earlier music in the fifties. Beginning with the Swingle Singers, there was a neo-baroque revival — a sensitivity to the authentic instrumentation that began then. There was something in the Zeitgeist that people were saying “We’re really tuned in to hearing early music.” Alfred Deller was the first counter-tenor to appear at that time. I loved Ella Fitzgerald and I loved Joan Baez and I loved Alfred Deller and I loved Glenn Gould. So what else is new? That was one mentality, and the other mentality was the growth of German classicism and romanticism. And I think there’s a certain truth to that. The sonata allegro form appears really in the classical period: sonatas are not the same sonatas in the baroque period, so the kind of discursive, developmental thinking that goes on from 1750 anywhere on up to Schoenberg is really a body of thinking quite different from what preceded it, and in a sense, from what followed it.
RK: I thought it was interesting reading other interviews you gave, where you were talking about the French impressionists, Debussy, also talking about Stravinsky, also taking about Charlie Parker.
SR: Right. That’s a communality right there.
RK: And the Parker connection, Parker studied Stravinsky and the French impressionists.
SR: Well, you can hear it. When I was a kid, I realized later, you could go into an elevator and you’d hear something that was sort of a rip-off of Ravel, you know? And you’d hear it in the movies. [Sometimes I hear] really great music like Parker and Miles Davis and realize, well, that dominant 11th with the tonic on top of it that I used in ‘Four Organs,’ is in Thelonious Monk and it’s in Debussy, too. It was a way of loosening up tonality without leading to complete chromaticism. It seems to me there’s a fork in the road: this way Wagner, that way Debussy. And I think that most Americans, consciously or unconsciously, have traveled one of these “roads (for example, Aaron Copland). It’s like saying “I want to stretch tonality but I’m not getting rid of it.” Of course, there are the Americans who did follow the German direction (Charles Ives is probably an exception, because you could probably argue that he was closer to the German tradition than not. But he is an odd case).
RK: Yeah, he sounds very German, particularly in, say, his Second Symphony.
SR: But, nevertheless, what we love about Ives, the quoting of the hymn tunes, the polytonality which is really not at all those techniques.
RK: And he struggled with it.
SR: Yeah, I think he did but I think that most of the other people didn’t, like Gershwin and Copland. If you take a look at “minimal” music — referring to Ravel in particular, you’ll see a lot of repeated material in the middle register with a different bass. It’s just modally re-harmonized. Well, you know, welcome to the club, man, just an offshoot of French impressionism!
RK: Do you still feel indifferent towards Mahler?
SR: Yeah, well, I don’t feel indifferent to him — I really have a hard time, I really want to turn the radio station off and leave the room or not go to the concert. It’s not just Mahler, I’m not interested in Brahms, either. There are pieces of Beethoven’s I really love.
RK: It’s a language that doesn’t speak to you?
SR: Basically, what happens, if you look in simple terms — Haydn has a regularity of beat, and a very clear triadic texture, with a few seasonings here and there, but as the music, particularly after Beethoven, gets more and more chromatic, it also gets less and less rhythmic. The two go together until the rhythm becomes gesture, and therefore the conductor becomes of paramount importance, (which is why in the nineteenth century the conductor became such a colossus). It’s hard to think of a Haydn conductor. With Haydn as your war horse, you don’t go very far! When the gesture of the music rather that its ictus became the dominant thing, you see this floating tonality which reaches its apotheosis somewhere between the end of Wagner and the beginning of Schoenberg.
RK: It’s interesting that Bernstein was a great conductor of Haydn.
SR: Well, I like Haydn. I like Haydn more than Mozart, but what can I say?
4. Music as Language
RK: Would you describe music as a language that requires study or experience in order to decode, in order to enjoy? One person sits down and listens to a slow movement of Bach and finds it to be extraordinarily beautiful and another person sits down and listens to it and hears nothing! Is it a language issue? Is it just a matter of what strikes you?
SR: Well, you’re asking a question that I don’t think anyone has answered satisfactorily since the dawn of…
RK: So then it’s a good question?
SR: It’s a good question. But you know that I’m not going to have an answer. When I was first giving concerts in Germany in the early to middle seventies, people attacked music as mechanical and said it didn’t have a language, in a sense of a discursive language. I remember a letter I wrote to this guy in Stuttgart about it. I said that I don’t think that (Beethoven’s 5th motive) “da da da daaa” is fate knocking at the door, I think that it’s an incredible four-note motive, that what’s remarkable is that it continues through the scherzo and into the last movement. It’s the motive; it’s not really a melody, it’s a beginning of motivic organization, as opposed to introducing an imaginary text into music, and saying “Well, what does it mean?” The opening motive in the Fifth Symphony is four notes followed by four more. That’s what it means. It doesn’t have a verbal translation. Some people would say that it had a philosophical idea which he then translated into music. I think that’s absurd.
There’s language of music in terms of “Do you have perfect pitch? Can you write down what you hear?” Those are very real skills. You have different degrees of it. I’m very moderately skilled in that direction. I don’t have perfect pitch, and I can write down slowly if it’s easy. That’s why I’ve worked all my life as a composer with real sound. I work with the instrument, and once I knew that Stravinsky composed at the piano I said “Okay, whatever my limits, I don’t have to be completely ashamed!” And therefore orchestration and composition are one and the same thing for me because I’ll just try it on this, try it on that. But certainly someone who has perfect pitch like Arthur Murphy — he literally could go to hear Bill Evans and immediately write what he heard down on the napkin. He had an enormous talent, and some people have this.
Vincent Persichetti, whom I studied with, was one of those musicians who you just felt could do anything. He’d look at your piece and immediately improvise in its style. One would like to think that the greatest composers will always have this. And I think in a sense that’s true. I imagine that Bach must’ve been this way and Beethoven must’ve been this way. But I don’t think Eric Satie was that way, and he made a real contribution. I know I’m not that way and I hope I make some small contribution. At the highest level that’s absolutely true that in terms of people perceiving music, well, musicians do hear more than non-musicians. There’s no question about it. And we know exactly what they hear and some people hear more and some people hear less.
RK: Does it lead to feeling?
SR: Well, we go back to Bach again. I have one book of Bach’s letters, “The Bach Reader,” which is probably one of the most boring books ever compiled on Earth. I love it! “This trumpet player is insufferable. I need more firewood. Can we get a new choir? I need more firewood. We need some more money. That trumpet player…” I enjoy this! This feels autobiographical; I can relate to this! And he said “What’s most important? “Das Effekt,” the effect. Now, if Bach can say that, then we can do no better. I think the effect of music on the human being is the most important thing about music, and the thing that is the most difficult to discuss. I think that at a certain point, while they’re mapping the genome, scientists may very well be able to play a piece of music and find out exactly what’s happening in various people’s hearts or minds. Also, there are people who are more sensitive to music and there are people who are less sensitive to music — sometimes it goes with their musicality and sometimes, in a funny way, it doesn’t. So, you’re either musically talented or you’re not. Arthur [Murphy] was very talented in certain ways and then he had certain personal problems which made it impossible for him to function as a musician. Other people, like me, have very minimal talents really, but somehow have an incredible ability to just burn-in, concentration-wise, and do the best with what little they have. It also depends on what you’re doing: I’m not that great a player, so there was no future for me as a performer in music, and some composers I admire are like that. And there are others who are really great musicians — again, people who have been a member of the “style of the month club” — who conduct orchestras and I think have perfect pitch and certainly can write things down rapidly. But they seem like a waste of time.
RK: Another take on the question: can you teach someone to like something?
SR: I don’t think so, no. I think you can teach people in general to understand music better. Copland’s book was a very good book in terms of how to listen to music, how to follow a sonata allegro form. That accomplishes something, but it doesn’t make someone who didn’t like the slow movement in the Bach that you mentioned like it.
5. Music and Technology
RK: How do you feel the new technologies are going to alter the way music is created, performed and accessed?
SR: It’s part of a continuum. First there was the perfection of the organ. And then a vast literature for organ music, then the invention of the piano created a whole new kind of keyboard literature. Electronics have had an enormous effect on popular music, it’s very clear to see. And by now almost every composer I know who’s my age or younger works with a computer in various ways. The possibility of playing back through midi, the possibility of orchestrating with that — I used to play everything on every instrument I was able to or have musicians down and try things out on instruments. Now, I find, with the proper samples of orchestral instruments, that I can actually do solid orchestration by trying it out on midi. My big problem that I could never solve is: does the oboe go over the clarinet or does the clarinet go over the oboe? The answer is “What’s the context?” I used to have a musician, who was a Broadway doubler, play English horn, oboe, all the clarinets, and flutes and we’d just record it multi-track. But now I’ve found that I can in fact go a long way working with some samples that came out of McGill University that are solo instruments well recorded. This is how I did the opening of “City Life”: there’s sort of a poor man’s “Symphony of Winds” in the beginning there. I figured, “If this works out in rehearsal, I’m with this program.” And it did.
RK: It’s very beautiful. It really is.
SR: So, I think the computer makes a difference, but it didn’t make anyone who wasn’t a good composer a good one. People say “Oh, now they’ve got this, they can do so and so.” Yeah, you can now have people churning out a lot of garbage faster and in a prettier looking score. You can definitely produce it quicker, but copy and paste ain’t gonna make you a good composer.
RK: What about the idea of music going directly into the Internet? A composer working in a room with midi or who knows what else, and literally, the performance venue is the Internet itself?
SR: I’m not even on the net because I feel that if I have one more means of communication, I will cease to be a composer and just be corresponding all day. I don’t know, but I think that will absolutely come to pass and would make a profound difference in what we now call the record industry.
6. New Works
RK: What are you currently working on?
SR: I’m working on the next collaboration with Beryl Korot, the video artist, after “The Cave.” And after “The Cave” I did “City Life” and I did “Nagoya Marimbas” and “Proverb.” And now I’m working on a piece called “Three Tales.” Specifically the first act and I’m rather late because of all the time spent with my sixtieth birthday and the 10 CD set and so on and so forth. The “Three Tales” are “Hindenburg,” “Bikini,” and “Dolly,” as in cloned sheep. So it’s a look at technology in the twentieth century from the first third of the century, to the middle of the century to the end.
RK: By “Bikini,” you mean the islands?
SR: I mean Bikini atoll, and the testing of the A-bomb, and maybe the bathing suit, too because it’s named after the island. That’s all anybody knows now. “Oh, you mean underwear.” “No, not entirely.”
RK: It took me a second to get it.
SR: I know. That’s why it’s good. It’s like “Oooh, I see.” Anyway, right now I’m working on “Hindenburg” and it’s quite different than “The Cave.” Musically, it’s different because in “The Cave” and in “Different Trains” I would record interviews with people about the holocaust and about my train trips as a child in the thirties and forties here in the States. And in “The Cave” I asked people about the biblical characters, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael. As these people answered, so I wrote. Their speech melody became, literally, the melody that I wrote. Of course, I chose what I wanted to, but I would never change their speech melody. I felt that, because of the subject matter in “The Cave” being religious subject matter and in the “Different Trains” the piece being an homage to people dead and alive, it just had to be that way. I could pick what I wanted, but I had to leave it the way it was. And I did, and I think it served those pieces very well. In “Hindenburg” and in “Three Tales” in general the basic idea is “Okay, I want to be in three flats. I want to be at quarter note equals 144. And if you’re not there, I’m going to change you”. So, for instance, there’s a very famous radio announcer — when the Hindenburg crashed there was one guy with a microphone: “It flashed and it’s crashing! It’s crashing. Oh, terrible!”
RK: “Oh, the humanity,” was a cry of that radio announcer.
SR: Exactly. He wasn’t speaking in three flats. But I needed him that way! So I made a few little adjustments…The piece opens with a typed out headline in the New York Times: “Hindenberg Burns In Lakehurst Crash, 21 Known Dead Twelve Missing, 64 Escaped.” And then a quote from the German ambassador: ” It could not have been a technical matter.” Which is what the German ambassador said to the New York Times, when asked what had gone wrong.
So, the music is more characteristic of what I do. It sets up a tempo and you get a head of steam going, rhythmically, instead of the constant changes of key, constant changes of tempo in both “Different Trains” and “The Cave.” That’s what I’m working on now. “Hindenburg” is going to be premiered at Spoleto in South Carolina in May 1998, Munich in September 1998, and then it will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 1998. The whole three act piece is slated for world premiere in 2001.
RK: This is kind of a weird question but, I figured I’d throw it at you anyway. You’re a giant in new music, there’s no doubt about it. How does it feel? Thirty years ago, you were out there driving a cab and doing social work . Thirty years later…
SR: Well, I feel I’ve been enormously fortunate. I think of Belá Bartók dying penniless in Mt. Sinai hospital. I was fortunate enough to join Boosey & Hawkes when Sylvia Goldstein was still there as their lawyer. And she told me “You know, we sent Bartók a hundred dollars in those days as extra money in the royalties.” And about a month later, they got a check for a hundred dollars back and a letter saying “You’ve made an error.” You hear that and it sends shivers up your spine. We think “Oh, Bart—k, he’s the staple of repertoire,” but he wasn’t in 1945 when he died. I’ve been very fortunate. John Cage was eating mushrooms until he was in his fifties, certainly. I just feel that God has been very good to me, and the musical public and the musical industry have been very, very good to me. I feel enormously fortunate. That’s really all I can say that makes any sense.
RK: I think it’s been music’s fortune.
SR: Thank you.