10 (little) things you might not know about Steve Reich
Minimalist, Steve Reich? His works, perhaps… but not the man! A composer and philosopher who witnessed the major changes of the 20th century, he questions his identity and his time. Here are 10 (little) facts that you might not know about the composer of "Different Trains" & "Electric Counterpoint".
Born on October 3rd, 1936 in New York, Steve Reich is one of the pioneers of minimal music.... But minimalist doesn't necessarily mean simplistic! The composer’s works are in fact complex both in form and substance, since he uses a variety of sound material (voice, sounds of the city, electrical or traditional instruments) addressing not only personal but also political issues.
Here are ten little things you (probably) didn't think you'd find in Steve Reich’s works!
Steve Reich studied philosophy at Cornell University and was particularly interested in Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of language. In particular, he loves Philosophical Investigations, a book in which language is presented as a means of representing the world, therefore influenced by our context of use, our culture and our intention. There is no objective or universal meaning: only “language games” make sense. It is a conclusion that perfectly describes Reich’s first works, It’s gonna rain! (1965) and Come out (1966), in which he uses simple, repetitive patterns of recorded words.
The melodies of Radiohead
Pop-rock music in a classical composition? Steve Reich deconstructed prejudices and borrowed various melodies from the authors of Creep and Karma Police… He discovered Radiohead in 2011, during a Polish festival dedicated to the band. Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and admirer of Reich, performed Electric Counterpoint on guitar. Reich was literally amazed by his performance, which encouraged him to listen to the English band's music. Two melodies, Everything is in the right place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place, became deeply engraved in his mind, so much so in fact that he decided to borrow them… which led to his own composition Radio Rewrite.
A matter of chance
“I discovered the phasing technique by accident": in fact, this process was born only because the first tape recorders used by Reich were of poor quality and, therefore, irregular. When the composer tried to use them simultaneously, the two devices first played in unison, but they gradually distanced themselves and showed slight differences in the speed. Reich was almost hypnotised by this sound instability… thus phasing was born.
Balinese gamelan and Ghanaian drums
"In Western classical music, the melodic line is led by stringed instruments". However, Steve Reich sought to place percussive instruments at the centre of his compositions. He embarked upon a trip to study music in Ghana with a master drummer and then focused, shortly after his return to the U.S., on Balinese gamelan: a traditional ensemble made up predominantly of percussive instruments made of bronze.
Pérotin's polyphonic music and Mikrokosmos by Bartók opened Reich to the potential of the canonical form: not only does it adapt to all sound types (instruments, voice, recordings) but, furthermore, pleasing sensation of familiarity that it causes, it seduced a large number of listeners… Reich felt captured and became committed to using canons in all his works.
The weight of history
Born of a Jewish family, Reich realised that, as a Jew, the regular train journeys he made to Los Angeles to visit his mother may have been Holocaust trains, had he been in Europe and not the United States at that time. From this gloomy comparison he created Different trains, in which we can hear the voice of his housekeeper and of three Holocaust survivors.
The morning of September 11th, 2001, Steve Reich and his wife were in Vermont, but their son, their daughter-in-law and their grandson were staying in an apartment not far from the Twin Towers. Profoundly marked by the terrorist attacks and a native New-Yorker, Steve Reich composed ten years later WTC 9/11, in order to face in some way those traumatic events.
“We can hear all kinds of noise everywhere, and it is our job to transform this noise”. When we listen to It’s gonna rain, we seem to hear the light beating of a drum, behind the recorded voice of Brother Walter… it is actually nothing but a pigeon flapping its wings, taking flight close to Reich's microphone.
"I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them": this is the voice of Daniel Hamm, used in Come Out. The young African-American boy, accused during the Harlem Six trial, explains how he had to puncture a bruise on his own body to convince police to be taken to hospital. This sentence chosen by Reich thus places his work within the heart of the civil rights movement.
With Pulse, his last work, Steve Reich puts the piano and guitar at the service of rhythm and pulse…a work with an unavoidable and contagious effect on one's body...hold on!