Friday, November 04, 2016

Steve Reich at 80: a Cambridge chat

Delighted today to bring you a Q&A with Steve Reich, an interview conducted by Justin Lee, the director of the Cambridge Music Festival and generously offered to JDCMB, for which many thanks. Next week the legendary (though very real) American composer is on the UK leg of his 80th birthday tour, which takes him to just three events - the Barbican, the Royal Opera House and, on 8 November, the Cambridge Music Festival. Justin asked him about his influences, Clapping Music, Bob Dylan and the American election...

Justin Lee: My 14-year-old daughter came home on Friday and explained what she had been doing at school that day – a version of ‘Clapping Music’ – and she was so excited to hear that you’re coming to Cambridge next week. Did you know that you’re on the music curriculum in British schools, and that 'Electric Counterpoint' is on the GCSE music syllabus – our public exams at 16?

Steve Reich: First of all, I’m delighted to hear what you’re telling me because if younger people don’t like my music, my goose is cooked. They’re the next generation; they’re the future. So tell your daughter I’m delighted and I hope she’ll enjoy ‘Clapping Music’ live and that she’ll forgive me because I am 80 years old and don’t have the energy and verve that I did 30 years ago. And I’m delighted to hear that 'Electric Counterpoint' – which is certainly one of the best pieces I’ve written – is incorporated onto the syllabus for study in the UK. That’s wonderful.

JL: Can you tell me a bit about your musical background and influences? How do you account for your appeal to people who love Bach AND people who love Bowie?

SR: I started with piano, then, at the age of fourteen, I heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time, which of course changed my life and made me a writer and composer. Just a few weeks later, I heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, then I started listening to jazz, and began studying percussion and going to Birdland, to hear Miles Davis and Bud Powell. Later on, I got interested in Ghanaian drumming, then Balinese music, then John Coltrane while I was studying with Luciano Berio. I was also very attracted to Perotin and the whole Notre Dame School of the twelfth century.

If you put all that together, it’s a very wide spread of things. So there are people who are attracted to the early music, people who are attracted to jazz and pop music, people who are attracted to all of the twentieth century, and some of all these people will naturally be attracted to what I do.

Steve Reich. Photo: Wonge Bergmann
JL: When you’re composing are you thinking about whom you’re writing for, about your audience? For example, did you write ‘Electric Counterpoint’ with a festival audience like Glastonbury in mind and ‘Music for 18 musicians’ thinking of a huge concert hall?

SR: I am completely and 100% a writer – I am completely 100% selfish and I don’t think of anyone in the world but myself. I write what I believe I really must write at the time I am doing it, and it has been my good fortune, and it has been a blessing that other people have – not everyone of course – shown some appreciation of my work.

JL: What advice would you give to young composers and musicians today?
SR: The advice I have for composers is simply this: get involved yourself. If you are a performer, play your instruments with your friends, play your own music with them when you start out, when you’re young. Start out while you’re young. If you are a conductor, then conduct them, if you programme a drum machine, then programme a drum. So, get involved, do it with your friends, and if you do a recording of a piece of music you wrote, be proud of it, no apologies, and people will get to know what you really have in mind.

JL: You’re a musician, and Bob Dylan’s a musician. Do you think it’s right that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?
SR: He’s a very good songwriter. I admired early Bob Dylan, particularly ‘Bringing it all back home’, but with 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', I couldn’t even understand the words! The interesting thing about Bob Dylan is that the magnetic attraction of his music, for me in the early days, was based entirely on the songs themselves – on the music and his tone of voice.

JL: In 1970, you wrote an essay entitled ‘The future of music’, and practically everything you predicted has come to pass. What’s the future of music today?
SR: I’m no longer young and sometimes foolish, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. But, I can tell you this, in the English-speaking world, there’s a huge group of wonderful young composers, so many good ones – like Nico Muhly and Bryce Dressner here, and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead, who performed Electric Counterpoint at Glastonbury in 2014) in your country.

JL: November 8, the night you perform at the Cambridge Music Festival, is a big night for Americans. What has been your reaction to the presidential campaign?
SR: I’m a human being, so of course I get involved, just like everybody else, but I really don’t think composers’ views on politics are worth any more than yours or mine or the postman’s, but it certainly isn’t the greatest choice of candidates that we’ve ever had, that’s for sure.

BUY TICKETS TO STEVE REICH FROM or Cambridge Live: 01223 357851 (Mon-Sat, 10.00am – 6.00pm)
The Cambridge Music Festival runs from 8-24 November 2016 at venues across the city.

Steve Reich at 80 events

Tuesday 8 November      Cambridge Corn Exchange   7.30 pm
Programme: ‘The Mallet Quartet’, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. The concert opens with ‘Clapping’ performed by Steve Reich and Colin Currie.

5-6 November 2016   The Barbican
The Barbican celebrates Steve Reich and his music with a weekend of concerts on 5-6 November.