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Jewish World Review
August 16, 2006
/22 Menachem-Av, 5766
A subtext for deepening confusions
By Norman Lebrecht
Steve Reich at 70
Steve Reich is preoccupied with contemporary torments. For the past year he has been
writing a set of variations in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal
reporter who, in October 2002, was kidnapped and butchered in Pakistan while
researching links between its intelligence services and al-Qaeda. Pearl was an
enthusiastic violinist and his parents have created a foundation in his memory to
promote inter-faith tolerance, and new music. Elton John, Ravi Shankar and Barbra
Streisand are among its patrons. Steve Reich was enlisted to add his particular
gloss of wisdom and consolation.
'I thought automatically of the Book of Daniel,' he says, 'of exile and cruelty, and
mercy and compassion. And then I saw the terrible video put out by his captors,
where his opening words are "my name is Daniel Pearl". Such a magical name.'
The Daniel Variations, interleaving the words of the two Daniels ancient and recent,
will be premiered at London's Barbican Centre during Steve Reich's 70th birthday
festival in October, itself a homage to a man who changed music forever four decades
ago and continues to fret about its place and role in our troubled world.
He is talking to me from his new place in upstate New York, having sold his downtown
apartment with its nagging view of the 9/11 craters. 'We're living in a dangerous
world,' sighs Steve Reich. 'What can music do about that? Music just goes ahead.
It's an affirmative human action, the positive side of being alive.'
Reich's affirmation began 40 years ago this summer when, finding his music derided
for its apparent simplicity by conventional musicians, he formed his own ensemble
and pitched straight at the public ear. 'I knew what I was doing,' says Reich. 'All
I needed was a few people who could hear what I had in my mind.'
At the time, composers who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serial atonalities in
the manner of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Reich, who had
studied with Berio in California, dismissed these complexities as intrinsically
Eurocentric a solution to problems he did not recognise or share. He found the
lush romanticism of Mahler and Strauss equally alien to the busy, make-it rhythms of
American city life. Music, to Reich, began with the beat. His impulse to write it
began at 14 when a friend played him records of Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto
and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Soon after, he heard bebop Charlie Parker on sax
and Kenny Clarke on drums. 'Basically, I went into that room and never left it,'
By the mid-sixties, he was at the cutting edge of a counter-culture literally
cutting up tapes he had made of speech phrases and stitching them into hypnotically
rhythmic loops that played in and out of phase with one another. The patterning
captivated the psychedelic types that hung around downtown art galleries. He tried
it out in live performance on two concert pianos, in Piano Phrase. At 30, Steve
Reich had invented a form of minimalism that would alter the course of music history
'Serialism is dead!' he now exults, ahead of the 70th birthday accolades. John Adams
and Michael Nyman have named Reich as their leading influence. Arvo Part is a
soulmate. Ever Berio got to like his music before he died. More than any living
composer, Steve Reich transformed the image of contemporary classical music from
painfully abstruse to potentially cool. Vinyl remixes of his early works can be
heard at many dance clubs (there's a new set out next month from Warner).
'There was a historical break in what I did,' he reflects, without braggardry. 'What
happened was a similar kind of house cleaning to what Johann Sebastian Bach did 300
years ago, going back to basics. I didn't envisage this when I was starting out. I
just had my nose to the grindstone and plugged away.'
Playing mostly in galleries, he earned his keep early on driving a house-moving van
in lower Manhattan with a young admirer called Philip Glass. After a few joint
concerts, the pair fell out and have not spoken since. While Glass turned to opera,
Reich worked on instrumental colours and rhythms, taking a research trip to Ghana
and studying Balinese gamelan in Seattle. In the mid-70s, his Music for 18
Instruments sold 100,000 records and played on late-night rock stations between
Dylan and the Stones.
It was around this time that Reich met his second wife, Beryl Korot, and experienced
a spiritual awakening. 'I began to think I'm not African, nor Balinese. I'm a Jew.'
He studied Torah with Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald at Lincoln Square synagogue and became
a fully practising Orthodox Jew, eating vegetarian kosher food, avoiding Friday
night performances, unplugging the phone at sundown on Friday. 'The effect was
extremely positive in a personal sense,' he says. It was not without external risk,
though, for while music has accommodated all manner of mystics, it had never before
embraced a composer who placed his demanding faith ahead of career opportunities.
Reich went to Jerusalem to record Yemenite cantillations for singing the Torah and
returned with the luminous Tehillim (Psalms) for chorus and ensemble, richly melodic and
unmistakably individual. 'People said I was writing Jewish music,' he complains. 'I
said I was writing Reich.'
He returned to Israel with Beryl Korot to create The Cave, a work for live musicians
with six-screen video projection that explores the common ancestry and beliefs that
are shared by Jews and Moslems. 'I'm not a person who deludes himself into thinking
that artists can change the world,' says Reich with a touch of world-weariness. 'I
don't think The Cave will solve the Mideast any more than Picasso stopped the Blitz
with Guernica.' But he cannot shut his eyes to the ideas and outrages of our time. A
further video trilogy reflects on Hiroshima, the Hindenburg airship disaster and the
ethical implications of cloning Dolly the Sheep.
Some critics have acclaimed these collaborations as a template for the operatic
future, ignoring the inimitability of Reich's method in combining recorded
materials, philosophical teachings, original sound and political engagement. His is
a self-made revolution achieved largely with his own hands, his own band at one
point actually barring other musicians from playing his works. Magnetic though it
is, Reich's music lacks the peacock strut of star interpreters or the gymnastic
virtuosity that wins cheap ovations. Quiet, intense, unfailingly well-made, it comes
without added colourings and chemicals, the organic alternative to industrial art.
At its most self-involved, Reich's music can play on and on until you are no longer
aware of hearing music at all and are listening instead to the drumming inside your
head. At his most communicative, on the other hand, Reich compels attention on
several levels at once. No-one else could have twinned the misery of a shuttled
boyhood in a broken American home to the backdrop of European Holocaust, as Reich
does in Different Trains, creating not just a masterpiece for string quartet (with
amplified tape), but a way for Haydn's invention to find a relevance to modern
Nothing in Reich is mono-linear. He thinks in historical parallels, is intrigued by
paradoxes, appalled by present atrocities. 'Who would have guessed we'd face a
medieval religious conflict in the 21st century?' he demands. And which other
composer, I wonder, is working on a musical subtext for our deepening confusions?
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JWR contributor Norman Lebrecht is Assistant Editor of London's Evening Standard and presenter of lebrecht.live on BBC Radio 3. He has written ten books about music, which have been translated into 13 languages. They include the international best-sellers The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops. His website is NormanLebrecht.com Comment by clicking here.
© 2006, Norman Lebrecht