Steve Reich Interview (7/98)
Richard Kessler, Executive Director of the American Music Center, talks with Steve Reich.
1. Starting Out
RK: How do you feel the music business has changed over the last thirty years?
SR: 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 piano 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.
List of Works
List of Recordings
(photo: John Halpern)
List of Works
List of Recordings
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