Thumbnail Music Redux: Part Two - Steve Reich
This interview, originally published on Urbansounds.com in October, 1999, is part of a series of reprints I'm publishing here on my blog, intended as a look back at the rise and fall of minimalism over the past decade.
Say the word minimalism, and one name will always come up: Steve Reich. His tape-loop works of the 1960s prefigured both hip-hop's sample manipulation and techno's relentless repetitions. Where other early minimalists like Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young explored microtonal reduction, it was Reich's experiments with phasing and repetition that paved the way for much contemporary electronic music, both on and off the dancefloor. Whereas Reich in the past decade has moved further and further away from his origins --writing pieces of increasing rhythmic, melodic, and orchestral complexity -- his early works remain dear to the hearts of contemporary producers. The Orb sampled "Electric Counterpoint" in "Little Fluffy Clouds," and U.N.K.L.E. incorporated a sizeable chunk of the seminal tape-loop work Come Out on a remix of Tortoise's "Djed." (It's worth noting that much of Tortoise's percussive, repetitive syntax comes straight from the Reich songbook.)
Earlier this year, the Nonesuch label released Reich Remixed, which featured Coldcut, DJ Spooky, Andrea Parker, Nobukazu Takemura, and Howie B., among others, reworking the master. Ironically, while many of the pieces stay true to their sources, they don't come anywhere near a contemporary approximation of minimalism -- especially when compared to the work of artists like Thomas Brinkmann, Carsten Nicolai, and Mika Vainio. The following interview took place via telephone in May 1999, with Reich presenting his views on the contemporary state of minimalism. Instead of white cubes, he spoke of a Pandora's box.
How did the remix project come about?
I was with my ensemble in Japan in 1996, where we were giving concerts of "Music for 18 Musicians" and "Drumming." While I was there, Hiro Nakashima -- he's a young guy working for Nonesuch there -- said to me, "You know, there are a lot of young DJs in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. that are interested in your music. You should do a remix album." I really knew next to nothing about this. When I say next to nothing, I mean that about eight years ago, in the early '90s, I was in London giving a concert and I was interviewed by some Keyboard-type pop magazine, and they said to me at that time, "What do you think of the Orb?" and I said, "What's the Orb?" And they said, "Well you ought to know!" And they gave me the CD, and I took it home and I heard, you know, "Electric Counterpoint," and I said, Aha! -- this is a new generation.
But then I didn't run out and buy any other CDs. But I heard from time to time, "Oh, U.N.K.L.E. has sampled you," or "Tortoise sounds like you," so I got the feeling something was going on out there. And we didn't sue anybody, so we had a good basis for a working relationship! So when Hiro suggested the remix album, I said look, if you can come up with something, I'll give it a listen.
What's your impression, when it's all over? Do you think the project stayed true to the source material?
Well, as you probably know by listening, there are pieces that are very recognizably Reich remixed, like Howie B.'s, which I think is maybe my all-time favorite, because he plays in 10/8 -- that's hard to do. But whereas Andrea Parker, you know, you hardly know it's mine. But it's brilliant -- it's a really interesting take on it. DJ Spooky, you hardly know it's "City Life." Coldcut you damn sure do know it's "18 Musicians." There's a variety of approaches in the fundamental sense of, how much of me is in them? And it varies from the very obvious to is it there at all?
It's interesting because you listen to the Andrea Parker track, and it's very recognizably Andrea Parker.
Right, it's not at all recognizably Steve Reich. I didn't know her work, so I was very struck -- it wasn't what I expected from a DJ; this large, lumbering, strange thing seemed very out of character, but interesting.
When I'd heard that you were being remixed I was expecting something more along the lines of this new minimalism that I'm interested in, which is characterized by very repetitive beats, a very stripped-down quality. It was only recently, in fact, that I'd heard your earliest stuff -- "Come Out," "It's Gonna Rain" -- and I was amazed. In some ways it's almost a blueprint for minimal techno, the way that it breaks down. Do you think there is such a thing as minimalism today?
I think those are the kinds of words that you can use and people who write music criticism and history books can use, but I don't think that way. What I did back in the 1960s was what I wanted to hear, influenced by a lot of things, like John Coltrane, like medieval music, African drumming, Balinese gamelan, Junior Walker, and this was the result. There was no name for it, I was just doing what I was doing. I think it was Michael Nyman, who was a music critic and historian when I met him (although he was trained as a composer), who came up with the word minimal, probably in the early '70s, six or seven years after the initial pieces came out. There were lots of other words floating around at that time, and finally minimal won. But I mean, if you went to Paris and dug up Claude Debussy, and you said, "Excusez-moi, monsieur, qu'est-ce que vous pensez de l'impressionisme?" he'd probably say "Merde" and go back to sleep. That's not how the people who are doing it work.
Stravinsky said a composer's like an animal, sniffing around for roots. And that's really much closer to reality -- you're trying to find something that means something to you, that excites you, that gets your juices flowing. And that's the name of the game. What it's called later by other people is useful. It's easier to say "minimal" than it is to say "Steve Reich/Philip Glass/Terry Riley/John Adams/blah blah blah." But that's about it. And if you're interested in this kind of music, then what you're interested in is how these composers are different from one another. Therefore, for me, minimalism never existed -- people existed.
What are you working on now?
I just finished two shorter pieces that were done as a break in the middle of a video opera. Beryl Korot and I are working on a new piece called "Three Tales," and it's about technology in the 20th century, wouldn't you know. The tree tales are "Hindenburg," "Bikini," as in the atoll, and "Dolly," as in the sheep. So it's early, mid, and late 20th century. We finished "Hindenburg" about a year ago, and since that time I decided I'd take a short break -- which turned out longer than I'd planned -- writing a piece for the Kronos Quartet, called Triple Quartet. For that I wrote a piece for three string quartets, and what Kronos does is to record two of them and play the other one live.
What's your relationship to technology, if this piece is about technology in the 20th century?
Well, it's definitely not a short answer. In terms of my own work over the years, the first pieces that brought me to public attention were obviously "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," which were tape pieces. But after they were over, in 1967 with Piano Phase, and working on up through Four Sections in 1987, the only electronics I used were microphones, and occasionally a synthesizer, which I hate. Because I don't want something that sounds like a musical instrument, I want musical instruments. But in 1988, I became aware of the sampling keyboard. And the idea of being able to bring in your voice -- or a train whistle, or the sounds of pile drivers, or whatever -- on the third beat of the 15th measure, just by playing it or programming it, was irresistible. So what interested me about sampling was not sampling music, but sampling anything but music. But then bringing that sound into the music by having it either played live with the sampler or having it prerecorded or what have you.
My project is looking at technology out there in the world, not just what I do with music, and that's a much more complex topic. When the Hindenburg went down they didn't say, "Hey, we should stop flying," they said, "We should fly airplanes," and they did. In the 1930s, the idea was you'll have a Ford, I'll have a Ford, you'll have a washing machine, I'll have a washing machine, and every day and in every way the world is going to be a better, cleaner, more humanitarian place. No eyebrows up, no elbows in the ribs -- this was a serious, unambiguous conviction about technology. And I think it held very firmly until Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bikini, after which everybody thought, yeah, you'll have a Ford, I'll have a Ford, but we can vaporize a city in a millisecond. And that wasn't part of the plan. So at that point, I think that what happens is a kind of worldwide scratching of the head. At that point the whole environmental/ecological consciousness begins to evolve. And it's been going, as you know, quite actively ever since. So by the time you get to "Dolly" -- I remember in Time magazine the headline was "Dr. Frankenstein." So now when there's a radically new technology, right away we say, what are the side effects, what's the downside, and so forth. And indeed, we find some. And we're beginning to realize that there's no free lunch.
So how are you translating those concerns into form? What strikes me about "Different Trains" is the way the voices actually become the material out of which the melody lines are born.
That's true of "Different Trains" and even more so of "The Cave"; this piece is already sort of going upside down. Technically speaking, the way I work in "Different Trains" and "The Cave" was "as you speak, so I write." I didn't change any pitches, I didn't change any rhythms, I just took the speech and literally tried to find the pitches that were there and made the music grow out of it. More of an homage, in the case of "Different Trains," to the living and the dead, and in the case of "The Cave," to people that I have a great deal of respect for. Here, I'm dealing with radio announcers and whatnot, and I can do what I please. So when I got Herb Morrison's voice -- you know, the famous announcer who announced the crashing of the Hindenburg -- I thought, I'm going to write in the tempo I want it to be in. I'm not going to change tempo every five or six bars. So Herb, if you're not in my key and you're not in my tempo, man -- get with it!
And what's more, I kept slowing down his voice to one-twelfth its original speed. So this is a piece whereby the music is being written, and the samples are made to fit the music, and they're not just speech -- speech is a relatively small part of it. It was that way in "Hindenburg," it will be that way in "Bikini," but speech will get more intense in "Dolly," because we're dealing with the present, and in a way the sheep story is not that riveting in and of itself. It's just a springboard -- it's like putting yourself on a floppy disk.
Coming Next: Carsten Nicolai.