10 (little) things you might not know about Steve Reich
Minimalist, Steve Reich? Maybe his works… but not him! And for good reason: the composer is a philosopher who witnessed the major changes of the 20th century, and he is constantly wondering about his identity and his time.
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's ten little things you (probably) didn't think you'd find in Steve Reich’s works!Accurate references
Steve Reich studied philosophy at Cornell University and was particularly interested in Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of language. In particular, he loves his 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 deconstructs prejudices and borrows some melodies by the authors of Creep and Karma Police… He discovers Radiohead in 2011, during a Polish festival dedicated to the band. Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and admirer of Reich, performs Electric Counterpoint on guitar. Reich is literally amazed by his performance, which encourages him to listen to the English band music. Two melodies, Everything is in the right place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place, are deeply engraved in his mind, so much that he decides to borrow them… which leads to his 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 tries to use them simultaneously, the two devices first play in unison, but they gradually distance themselves and show slight differences in the speed. Reich is 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 would like to place percussive instruments at the centre of his compositions. He embarks on a trip to study music in Ghana with a master drummer and then focuses, 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 raise awareness in Reich on the potential of the canonical form: not only does it adapt to all sound types (instruments, voice, recordings) but, furthermore, thanks to the "already-heard" pleasant feeling that it causes, it seduces the largest number of listeners… Reich feels captured and is committed to using canons in all his works.
The weight of history
Born in a Jewish family, Reich realises that as a Jew, the train journeys he made to Los Angeles so many times to visit her mother might have been Holocaust trains, if he had been in Europe instead of the United States at that time. From this gloomy comparison he creates 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 are in Vermont, but their son, their daughter-in-law and their grandson are staying in an apartment not far from the Twin Towers. Profoundly marked by the terrorist attacks and being born in New York City, ten years later, Steve Reich composes WTC 9/11, in order to someway face 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 in the civil rights movement.
With Pulse, his last work, Steve Reich puts the piano and guitar at the service of rhythm and beat… If you were planning on going listen to him on November 12th, 2016 at The Philharmonie de Paris, brace yourselves!