Steve Reich: phase action

By , Feb 24 2010
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Last week saw Steve Reich address the Red Bull Music Academy, talking to participants extensively about his life and work.

Reich – pronounced Reish – is the world’s greatest living composer, a musical innovator who changed the course of 20th century music, in some ways even defined it. First emerging in the 1960s with his incendiary, groundbreaking tape-loop pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, Reich, together with La Monte Young and Terry Riley, was instrumental in bringing ideas of repetition and stasis – minimalism – to the world stage.

Though he later disowned the term “minimalism”, it’s the radical, undulating simplicity of Reich’s work which has proved most influential to the pop and electronic spheres, paving the way for kosmische synthesizer music, techno, house, ambient and much else besides. By the time Brian Eno brought Reich’s early ideas to the rock mainstream via his Discreet Music LP, Reich had already moved on, abandoning the phasing techniques of his own invention and focussing instead on pieces for classical instrumentation inspired, in part, by the action of machines. His most famous work is the shimmering, pulsating Music For 18 Musicians, which was first released by ECM, 1978 (you can listen a lengthy excerpt of the latest recording here). Listening to it now it’s abundantly clear why, without Reich, we’d never have had Philip Glass, Eno, Manuel Goettsching, Throbbing Gristle, Aphex Twin, Carl Craig.

At the age of 74, Reich remains a spry and cheerful figure, fiercely intelligent and energised but also disarmingly casual, a true New Yorker. With his customary baseball cap firmly on head, he spoke passionately and piquantly to the RBMA participants about his early works, the influence of Ghanaian music and John Coltrane on his own compositional approach, and the changing role of electronics in contemporary culture. Below is an excerpt from the lecture transcript; three short video clips from the lecture are embedded throughout the article, and if you want to watch the whole thing you can do so here.





In his book The Rest of Noise, Alex Ross quotes Debussy saying that the job of the producer is to point the way to an imaginary country, that place which is off the map. Perhaps you can tell us how far off the map you were when you began making music?

“I never thought of it that way [laughs]. As a kid I took piano lessons, and then, when I was fourteen years old, for the first time I heard The Rite of Spring, the 5th Brandenburg concerto and bebop – Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and the drummer Kenny Clark. I had a friend who was a better piano player than me, he was playing some jazz, and he said, ‘We’re forming a band, we need a drummer,’ and I said, ‘I’m it.’ So I began studying drums at fourteen with Roland Kohloff, who became the timpanist with the New York Philharmonic but also played a local movie house with glow-in-the-dark sticks at midnight…this was back in 1950.

“I didn’t start with tape – tape didn’t exist. When I was in high school, someone said, ‘hey, there’s a tape recorder’ and I said ‘what’s that?’ and he said ‘well, you can actually record something into it…’ When the American army went into Germany after the war, they discovered that the Germans had built tape recorders. The first recorder that I saw was called a Wollensak, and that’s actually what I used when I did It’s Gonna Rain.

When you first came across the tape recorder, what was your impression?

“Well, it was cheap: you could buy it. Wallensaks and – I think – Revere were the first home machines. Radio stations obviously had them [tape recorders]; in those days Ampex was the big brand, they’ve long since disappeared. To begin with I just used to record some playing or record my voice or whatever, but I started getting used to it when I moved to San Francisco in 1961-62.

“I was studying with Luciano Berio, the Italian composer, and what he was working on at that time was a piece called Omaggio a Joyce (as in James Joyce). What was that? His wife, Cathy Berberian, who was a really good singer, was reading bits of Joyce and he was cutting up the tape into little pieces, phonemes, which was what the book was really about anyway – this was far out, non-narrative writing – so basically you were just hearing the sound of [words], and not focussing on their meaning. I thought it was interesting.

“Then he played us two pieces of Stockhausen, one piece was called Electronic Studies, and the other was called Gesang der Junglicke, and my ear just went [makes whooshing sound] to Gesang der Junglicke. Why? Because there was the voice of a young kid [cut up], and I began to realise: I’m not interested in electronics, and I was never interested – and am still not interested – in synthesis. Couldn’t care less. It’s a marriage of convenience, but I don’t like it. I am interested, really, in analogue sound. So when the sampler was invented I said, OK, that’s for me [laughs].


“I’m not interested in electronics. I am interested, really, in analogue sound. So when the sampler was invented I said, OK, that’s for me.”


“Another thing that was in the air in the late 50s and early 60s was tape loops. With reel-to-reel tape you could put it in a splicing block and literally splice the beginning to the end of a 3″ or 6″ or 7” piece of tape. And these small tape recorders that I’m talking about, the head assembly was small enough that you could fit the loop over it, press the go button and it would compress up against the head and play back. You’d be recording at seven and a half inches per second, and you got very unusual results that nobody, at that point, had ever heard.

“At that time I also became aware of African music, West African music, both by listening to recordings and by discovering a book called Studies in African Music, which was the first book of accurate scores of music from Ghana. If you’re familiar with musical notation, you’ll see basically divisions into sub-divisions of 12, patterns of three beats, patterns of four beats, patterns of six beats, patterns of 12 beats. But what’s strange [with West African music], is you think, where’s the down-beat? Where’s one? Well, the rattle has it here, this drummer has it there, that drummer has it there – and that’s from Mars, you know? When you listen to rock, you know, generally you’re in 4/4 and everyone knows where one is. Here’s a music where there is no one downbeat – there are multiple downbeats depending on the player, and they just feel it that way. So when I was working with multiple tape loops and hearing this, I was saying, ‘Hey – what have I got here? Mechanised Africans.'[laughs]”



Where did the inspiration for It’s Gonna Rain come from?

“In 1964, near the end of the year, a friend whose name I forget now who was going to make films but never did, said to me, ‘I’ve heard the most amazing black Pentecostal preacher down in Union Square in San Francisco and you’ve got to record him!’ I had a portable tape recorder and a cheap shotgun mic, so I went down on a Sunday, and sure enough there was this guy who calls himself Brother Walter, and he was speaking about the flood, the flood of Noah in the Bible, which is about the end of the world.

“Now, this is 1964. In 1963 was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kruschev, who was the head of Russia, had sent over nuclear missiles on a boat for installation in Cuba. And John F Kennedy said, ‘If you do that, we’re going to bomb Moscow with hydrogen bombs’. So everyone was kind of…concerned. And these ships kept on going, and there was a blockade around Cuba, and many of us, me included, felt that the clock was ticking – we could just turn into so much radioactive smoke.

“Fortunately, Kruschev backed down. So don’t think of JFK as a peace-loving wimp. And it passed. But it made a mark on every human being who was alive then. So a year later when I’m in Union Square and this preacher is really laying it down about the end of the world, it’s not abstract – it’s not abstract at all.”


“Many of us, me included, felt that the clock was ticking – we could just turn into so much radioactive smoke.”


“Can anyone tell me what the thwacka-thwacka sound in the recording is? Sounds like a drummer, but it’s not…it’s pigeon feet. I was recording it, and it happened. So when [Brother Walter] said ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, the pigeon took off – pigeon drummer, didn’t have to pay him extra. That’s just there.

“The piece starts in mono and you just hear the source material. You say, ah, this is like some really strong black preacher laying it down about Noah. And then you hear this – [mimics the sound]. What’s happening there is that I’ve got a loop, a stereo loop, and on one track is ‘It’s gonna rain’ and on the other track is ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, but they’re offset so that ‘it’s gonna’ is on top of ‘rain’ and ‘rain’ is on top of ‘it’s gonna’. What if I get a little bit faster with my hand than the tempo of the loop itself? Then I’m going to start phasing ahead, and that’s what you heard – and there’s two cycles of that.

“I had this weird pre-amp that had all these controls that looked like ‘Who needs them?’ but it turns out there was this Mono A and Mono B, so you could have all of the A coming out of both tracks or all of the B coming out of both tracks. So I was just going back and forth between Mono A and Mono B trying to start it off in rhythm and then gradually phase ahead of the tape myself, going from mono to mono to mono to mono, and then finally after two cycles of that you’re back in the mono loop coming out of both channels.

“Then all of a sudden you hear a change in quality – it goes into stereo, and you feel that, it’s like something weird’s happened. Then what’s happened is that slowly the left hand side begins to go faster. Why? Well, I tried to cut the loops as perfectly as I could, but what does that mean? There’s going to be some fractional difference between them. Maybe there’s a bit of dirt on one of the Wallensaks, maybe it’s motors – these aren’t the kind of motors we have today, these are motors that have a certain amount of drift to them. One channel begins to slip ahead of the other.

“Now the second movement gets very spooky and very far out and – I thought – very paranoid. Maybe given what was going on in the world it wasn’t. I won’t go into it now, but if you’re interested, it’s quite a trip – it’s where he’s in the Ark and he locks the door and the people knock but the skin came off their hands, the door was sealed by the hand of god, and it is the end of the world. It’s the portrayal, in sound, of the end of the world. And yes, I was in a bad state of mind at the time…[laughs]”


“It’s the portrayal, in sound, of the end of the world. And yes, I was in a bad state of mind at the time…”


What was your reaction to this piece when you completed it?

“When I did first part, it was no question that it was incredibly invigorating, wow, the energy, this guy is fantastic, and this is really the way to deal with it – the treatment of the voice and the voice itself are hand in glove. And I think that’s a general principle that can be applied to pretty much anything you’re doing. If your musical material – whether it’s notes, or sampled material – if what you’re doing with it [and the music itself] really reinforce each other, then you’re probably on the right track. Now this is a very intuitive thing, there’s no rules, but there is a gut feeling about it. And different material wants different technical treatment.”


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How did other people react?

“Well, back then nobody was giving interviews in London and I was driving cabs in San Francisco. I was just out of graduate school, and I decided I wasn’t going to teach, so I was a cab driver. One day I was going 25mph and [thinking I] can’t have any problems because [I’ve] got your foot on the brake, and I’m inching forward, and I inch right into the back of somebody. So then I ended up working in the post office.

“Anyway, a few people came over to my house and said, ‘Man that’s far out!’, and then it was played was at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and people said, ‘Wow’, but there were only maybe 75 people there. The piece didn’t really have an audience…it came out on a Columbia Masterworks record in 1969, a year and a half after Come Out, a piece which was actually done after this, and that really got a lot of attention. So this piece was kind of in the shadow of that.”


“I had a good time driving the cab, I wasn’t invested in it, you know what I mean? I could think about music, I could bug the cab, I could take time off to play a show…”


What was the benefit of you having a day job?

“Night job. Necessity’s the mother of invention…I had an MA in music and I could have, would have, applied to university X,Y,Z teaching theory in Nebraska [laughs] – or some major city perhaps – but I just felt I’d had it up to there with the academic world…I had a teacher early on who I admired a lot in New York and he eventually did the arrangements for Thelonius Monk, and when he got asked to join the Juilliard faculty in New York I saw his shoulders sag [laughs]…Anything can become academic – even becoming a DJ. I’m sure there are universities in the UK now where you can get your undergraduate degree in DJing [laughs]…so anything can be turned into academic trash, no question about it…

“If you looked at the tax returns of every composer in America, somewhere between 90 and 95% would be at universities. And I’m not looking down on those – it’s merely the job that’s most open to you. But people say you teach during the day and you’re free at so-and-so, but there’s a certain energy that goes into teaching people, it seems to me…and if you don’t give them that energy, then you’re immoral. And if you do give them that energy, then you’re wiped out. Because there’s only so much energy anyone has. So I’d rather drive a cab –  I had a good time driving the cab, I wasn’t invested in it, you know what I mean? I could think about music, I could bug the cab, I could take time off to play a show – it really fit me. And I was making more money than most assistant professors too! [laughs]”

Did that period of your life where you were driving a cab and interacting directly with street culture influence your work?

“Well, you could say I did city life because I drove a cab in San Francisco, but I don’t know how true that would be….I’m a native New Yorker, as you can probably tell, and I think all music comes from a time and a place. The Beatles comes from 60s England. Kurt Weill comes from the Weimar Republic in Germany. Bach comes from Eastern Germany in whatever period, I come from New York and the West Coast in the 1960s and 70s. And the composers that we know and love, I think, give honest expression to [where they come from]. Not by trying to be ‘Hey I’m an American! Peace!’ – forget that. You just are who you are. And if you just do what you really are, then that music will bear evidence to the honesty of your situation, no matter what it is. And right now obviously what you guys [Red Bull Music Academy participants] are doing is evidence of what’s going on in the world now, and how well you do it will determine how long and how much interest there is in it. Because musical quality doesn’t change.

You were obsessed with John Coltrane, you went to see him 50 times or more?

“I didn’t count but it was a lot [laughs].”


“There’s a tension and an intensity because it doesn’t change.”


Where did you see him, and what was your connection to the music?

“I saw Coltrane when I was at Juilliard in New York at the 5spot a lot, saw him in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop, once saw him at the Jazz Workshop with Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was responsible for the bass clarinets on Music For 18 Musicians – a real steal. Why was I so interested, and why were so many other people – Terry Riley, La Monte Young – interested in Coltrane? Well, I would highly recommend an album called Africa/Brass, not necessarily the most famous he did. Africa/Brass is about half an hour long, and it’s got a very big band, and Eric Dolphy did the arrangements. There’s french horns doing glissandos that sound like elephants coming through the jungle…but what’s interesting about the record is that the whole thirty minutes is on E. You know how jazz musicians would ask, ‘Hey man, what’s the changes?’ The answer would come back, ‘E.’ ‘No man, what’s the changes?’ ‘E. E for half an hour.’ ‘E for half an hour?!’.

“Well it’s built on the low of E of the double bass, played by Jimmy Garrison, and you would say you know, that’s stupid, that’s too boring…but it’s not. It’s definitely not boring. So what’s going on to compensate for the lack of harmonic movement? Now, of course, you live in a time where a lot of this is water under the bridge, but I’m talking 1963, ’64, ’65.  What’s going on is that there’s incredible melodic invention: sometimes he’s playing gorgeous melody, sometimes he’s screaming noise through the horn. As I said before, there’s those elephant glissandos, French horns scored by Eric Dolphy – who’s an amazing musician, one of the great alto saxophone players, and a very schooled musician as well –  and two drumers, Elvin Jones being one of the most inventive drummers who ever lived, playing with, I think, Rashid Ali. So you’ve got an incredible amount of rhythmic complexity, timbral variety and melodic invention – and they more than compensate for the harmonic constancy. As a matter of fact there’s a tension and an intensity because it doesn’t change.


“If you look in a music store now, what do you see? You see electronics. And that’s the folk instrument of our time, as far as I’m concerned.”



“At the same period in time there was a Motown tune from Junior Walker, a saxophone player back in Detroit, called ‘Shotgun’. The bassline went like this – [hums repetitive bass melody] – and it just didn’t change. So there was something in the air, in America in the 60s, about harmonic stasis. We were hearing Ravi Shankar coming from India, we hearing Balinese and Indonesian music, we were hearing African drumming, we were hearing John Coltrane, we were hearing stuff coming in from Junior Walker and other Motown people. Bob Dylan – on ‘Maggie’s Farm ‘ and many of his songs from that time there’s a lot of the ‘one-chord’.

“So we were hearing all this stuff coming in from various sources outside of the west, from jazz, from pop, and without that I would have never what I did, Riley would have never written ‘In C’, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Things comes from certain time and a certain place. If this hardware [referring to modern production equipment] wasn’t around, you’d be doing something else. We interact with what’s around us and that, in a sense, is folk music. What you guys do, or what I understand you do, is basically folk music that has become codified and is already being studied and multiplied – but it spontaneously arose in the culture and then many people are now developing it. I’ve always seen pop music as the folk music of our time. Bob Dylan’s plugging-in was, in a sense, the end of that old Woody Guthrie-type folk music, and the beginning of firmly establishing rock music as the folk music of our culture, and now the further developments thereof. And now if you look in a music store now, what do you see? You see electronics. And that’s the folk instrument of our time, as far as I’m concerned.”

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How did you feel about making the transition from machine to human with your phasing techniques [on Piano Phase]?

“At first I thought it could never be done. I didn’t want to leave it [phasing] behind, but I couldn’t do it live. Then I finally said, well let’s try it – I can do it against tape, and then a friend and I could do it together…so I felt liberated, I felt exhilarated, I felt like the door had opened, and that led to Drumming – the last piece to use the phase technique, I haven’t used it since then. Why? Because it’s a weird technique. If you go to any conventional music school in the world, they will not teach you how to phase (unless you’ve got some teacher who’s particularly into my music). The percussionists will do it.

“There are other ways of getting that effect – like ‘Row Row Your Boat’ – a canon. That’s basically what’s going on in ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ – it’s one sound, against itself, rhythmically displaced. That’s a canon, or round. Forget all the rest. It could be ‘Summer-is-a-coming-in’ from the 13th century, it could be Bach, it could be Bartok…it’s one thing against itself, rhythmically displaced. So phasing is based on that principle, but the way it is here [in Piano Phase] is that people come in together and irrationally slide ahead. So in a sense [phasing] is kind of a footnote to the history of imitative counterpoint, or round, or canon, or whatever you want to call it.


“The idea came from a machine.”


“Now this is not something you would find in Bali or anywhere else, this is really quite unique to our civilization. Why? Because the idea came from a machine. We live in a time when it’s possible to get ideas for live music from machines, and to get ideas for computer music from live music, that are perfectly valid and will work if you get it right. And that to me is an answer to the people who look at anybody who does electronic music as a bunch of robots. That whole syndrome is locked on the idea that you’ve got your mind and eyes and ears closed to anything that has to do with live music, and I think that would be an unfortunate situation to be in. But it’s the same way for people who are into live music.

“I think nowadays we live in a culture where everyone is open to this, what I’m saying is probably well understood by all of you. But for me it was a really big deal, because it wasn’t something that was generally understood, it was a just a few people who were beginning to say, hey, these are permeable divisions.”

You’re known for teaching your Ensemble to play your pieces by ear, rather than by sight. What’s the benefit of learning music without seeing it?

“This is a big deal question. When music began, and none of us are around, we know that there was no notation. The greatest living musicologist, in my book, is Richard Taruskin, who just finished writing the six volume Oxford History of Western Music. He’s not only brilliant but he’s also a pretty hip guy. He says he’s basically writing at a time when notation began so that he can refer to things that he can see, and he realises that we’re now entering a period where that very notation is in question. Notation starts somewhere around the 10th or 11th cenutry and the notation was quite different then to how it is now; you realise that writing wasn’t the main deal, it was about saving the music for posterity. Really, to begin with, the parts would be sung, and learned that way. Then the idea of notation began to appear in certain cultures.

“There’s no notation that I’m aware of in West Africa, I don’t think there is in East Africa, I think in Indonesia there might be isolated forms of notation – certainly not ours – and I think in Japan they have some notation for gagaku, the imperial household music – very beautiful music, sounds electronic – but it’s a marginal thing, notation. If you take a balloon view of history it doesn’t figure that largely. So when people try to talk to me about pop music and classical music I say, wait, why don’t you just talk about notated music and non-notated music. Of which non-notated music is enormous and notated music globally, historically speaking, is very small – which is not to belittle it, I’ve spent most of my life doing it…but sometimes I wonder [laughs].”


“What I’ve learned that can travel is the structure of a piece of music, how it’s put together. It’s about the structural idea which exists independently of any sound whatsoever.”


You visited Ghana in the early 70s. How did you deal with being so inspired by the music you heard there, and how did you go about making it yours?

“A lot of people of my generation drowned in India or other locations. Because the music of India,the music of Indonesia, of Africa – we’re talking about continents, and thousands of years of music. They’re like an ocean. And a lot of people go wading in as an individual with a whole lot of mistaken ideas, and don’t really get out of it.

“I brought back a set of iron double-bells [from Ghana], and a beautiful rattle which I still have, and I brought them back and thought, I’ll use them with my music. So I got them to New York, and I take them to the piano and I realise OK, these things are out of tune. So what am I going to do, get a metal file? That seems like…not the right thing to do. It became clear to me – I am not an African, I am not going to make African music. But I’ve learned something. And what have I learned that can travel? What I’ve learned that can travel is the structure of a piece of music, how it’s put together. It’s about the structural idea which exists independently of any sound whatsoever. An empty vessel – that’s what can travel. Notes? If somebody gave me a gamelan I’d say thanks very much and give it to a museum or wherever…I’d feel burdened by it; it’s the weight of a culture that’s not mine. I want to go 48th street in Manhattan. And anything that’s in that store, that’s mine.


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What did you have to do to ensure that you got the recording of Music For 18 Musicians you wanted?

“Takes. Splice the tape. Reverb. The usual tricks [laughs]. The rasping bass clarinets, you have to mic them the wrong way. The way you’d mic a b flat clarinet, classically speaking, is to go in the barrel. Bass clarinet probably the same thing. Not to get this effect. To get this rasping effect you need to go deep into the barrel, which is wrong. If you go deep into the barrel of a b flat clarinet it’s ‘Ouch’, but if you go ino the barrel bass clarinet, then you get this rasp, by turning up both the high frequencies and the low frequencies.

“Everything else is pretty normal. Judith Sherman is my producer, Grammy-winning, wonderful ears. This recording for Nonesuch was all Pro-Tools. The first recording [of Music For 18 Musicians] on ECM was obviously all analogue, it was done in a pop studio in Paris, on I think 16-track. But The Beatles did Sgt Peppers on 12 tracks so stick that your nose, man…[laughs].

How do you square the conceptual and practical aspects of composition?

“When I write music, I’m alone in a room. And my theory is this: if I love it, I hope you will too. I don’t think there’s any other way….If you’re writing a jingle, which is a perfectly valid thing to do, then you’ve got to satisfy your customer, because if they don’t like it they’ll send it back. And I can respect that. That’s craftmanship, the same thing if you’re writing for films et cetera et cetera. I’m not. I’m in composition, whatever that is…What I will say is that I think people are really very intuitively smart about music, you can’t fool them, and if you try do something that you think is what they want to hear, they smell a rat.”


Original interview by Emma Warren
Special thanks to Red Bull Music Academy
redbullmusicacademy.com

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