Steve Reich at 80

As the minimalist composer Steve Reich approaches 80, he discusses how he changed the face of music — and where he goes from here

There is a piece by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt drawn directly onto a wall of Steve Reich’s kitchen, in dense tangles of pencil that form a series of vertical bands. “It took him several days, when he knew he was dying,” says the legendary composer, passing his hand over the surface of his late friend’s remarkable artwork. It’s not difficult to make the link with Reich’s music, and its emphasis on repeating structures and shifting phases to create works of almost unfathomable beauty.

Next month, Reich turns 80. There are over 400 performances in 20 countries, something he brushes away as merely making ‘good copy’ — “I don’t know how many are celebratory or just happen to be playing a piece of mine, but, you know, why not?”

Photograph: Christopher Lane

Fiercely intelligent, though cheerful and relaxed, and sporting his familiar cap, Reich comes across, in his own words, as a typical “fast-talking, high-metabolism New Yorker.” He settles onto a sofa in the wonderfully angular and airy modernist house he lives in with his wife, pioneering video artist Beryl Korot — they moved upstate a decade ago because he couldn’t stand city noise any more.

London’s Barbican has scheduled a weekend in his honour, part of a season that also celebrates Philip Glass, also 80 this year, and John Adams, who turns 70. There is the European premiere of Reich’s latest work, Pulse, and a London Symphony Orchestra performance of You Are (Variations), Daniel Variations and The Desert Music. Reich admits to “mixed emotions” these days when travelling to see performances by people aged “between 25 and 40, playing my music better than I’d ever heard it, including my own ensemble,” he smiles.Part of me wants to embrace them, part of me wants to strangle them.”

“When musicians play my work, part of me wants to embrace them, part of me wants to strangle them…”

At the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor debuts a piece set to Reich’s new score Runner, which suggested its own title to him when he realized its rapid opening meant he would have to pace the piece carefully. Elsewhere, there is a site-specific performance of Different Trains at Liverpool’s Edge Hill station. It’s all a long way from when his earliest tape pieces were played on radio, and “the switchboard lit up, people saying, ‘Your transmitter’s broken, your record’s stuck in a groove, fix it!’”

It was mainly visual artists, such as LeWitt, who ‘got’ Reich’s music at first, and most early concerts in New York were in galleries. “When I was coming up, in the late 60s, the Boulez-Stockhausen-Cage aesthetic had a stranglehold on the academic world,” he explains. “Most composers were teachers, they weren’t terribly fond of what I was doing.”

“The premiere of Drumming was at the Museum of Modern Art,” he continues. “Later, we gave concerts at the Guggenheim. The early audience was artists, filmmakers, dancers, choreographers and people living downtown.” Mainstream crowds weren’t always as enthusiastic. He details one performance in front of a particularly conservative audience (“lots of blue-haired ladies”) at Carnegie Hall in 1973. “At the end, there was this avalanche of ‘Boo!’ and ‘Bravo!’” he laughs. “You know, really a riot! And I was white as a sheet, because I want people to love what I’m doing.”

Today, of course, Reich is generally agreed to be one of the great composers of our time, and it’s no exaggeration to say masterpieces such as Music for 18 Musicians altered the face of music. “I was part of something that really changed an aesthetic,” he reflects, referring to himself and composers such as Glass, Adams, Terry Riley and other figureheads of what became known as ‘minimal music’, a term Reich remains wary of. “I often say what my generation did was not a revolution, it was a restoration. Restoration of harmony, restoration of counterpoint, those basic elements of music.” Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage are all “very important figures”, he emphasises, “but not many people want to hear it, and that is the bottom line.”

A dance set to Reich’s music at the Barbican in 2006

A few years ago, Glass and Reich performed together for the first time in many years. Friends and collaborators in their early years, the two composers had a falling out and did not speak for decades. “You know, artists are as egotistical and jealous for their own work as any other human being,” he says, carefully. “There’s a saying in the Talmud, it says, ‘Two of a trade never agree.’ On the other hand, what are you going to do? If you’re going to take it to your grave… who benefits from that? We probably won’t do it again in a big hurry, but I’m glad we did it.”

If there’s one piece that distils Reich’s approach, it might be 1988’s astonishing Different Trains, a work inspired by train journeys across America that he took between divorced parents on both coasts. “If anybody had come to me and said, ‘Hey, Steve, would you write a piece on the Holocaust?’ I’d say, ‘Are you crazy? Forget it! Go get some other fool to do that one.’”

“I began thinking, what years did I take those train trips?” he continues. “37, 38, 39… oh, I know what’s going on, Hitler’s getting any Jewish kid, taking them to the south of Munich, then eventually off to Poland, and up the chimney. And if I had been born in Düsseldorf, Brussels or Paris, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The groundbreaking work is structured around recordings of Holocaust survivors sourced from an archive at Yale, “probably done on funky 1970s Radio Shack-type cassette recorders,” which Reich spent days listening to for phrases he could incorporate — the first use of digital sampling in a classical context. “There were computers, I could have changed the pitch, but I decided no. As they speak, so I write. I am the faithful scribe.”

“If anybody had come to me and said, ‘Hey, Steve, would you write a piece on the Holocaust?’ I’d say, ‘Are you crazy? Forget it! Go get some other fool to do that one.’”

Reich adds that he was brought up a Reform Jew. “I knew nothing, I walked away from it,” he says. “Then, like many people during the 60s, I got involved in yoga, breathing exercises, transcendental meditation… I went through all that.” In 1970, Reich travelled to Ghana, learning to play pieces where “there’s no notation, it gets passed from father to son, mother to daughter, this living tradition. When I got home, the question on my mind was, ‘That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t I have anything like that?’ I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m a member of one of the oldest surviving groups on the planet. And I don’t know anything about it!”

Study with rabbis ensued, and Reich became intensely interested in the 3000-year musical and oral traditions of the Jewish people, as manifested in Tehillim (1981) — “A very pivotal piece, where I first said, ‘Hey, I want to bring this into my music’.” Meanwhile, faith became more central to his own life. “As I got older, it grew in intensity. It’s about building it into your life. What you believe, you believe, but what matters is what you do, and that will change you, whoever you are.”

As much as Reich’s music has been informed by his personal journey, it has also responded to real-world events, such as the haunting WTC 9/11, made ten years after the attacks of September 2001. Even one of his earliest recorded pieces, Come Out, made 50 years ago, is constructed from a looped tape recording of a young black man describing his savage beating by police. To listen today, amid continued reports of police brutality and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, it sounds shockingly contemporary.

“I’m glad Come Out is still relevant, but I think that’s rooted in whatever musical quality it may have,” he says. “If the music isn’t any good, then whatever the ideas, they’re just going to fall by the wayside.” He’s sceptical that artists can have any real effect on world events. “Guernica by Picasso is one of the great artistic triumphs of the 20th century, but as a political gesture it’s a complete failure. We’re living in an era where people cut the throat of a priest, knock down buildings with 3,000 people in.”

ISIS, Trump, the refugee crisis… there’s no shortage of material to take inspiration from right now, should he choose. “Look, I’m a human being, I’m aware of all of those things,” he says. “But right now, I’m having a horrible time trying to write a short piano piece! I’m a lousy pianist. Nevertheless, I want to get that done, because I want to go on to the next one, which is, I think, finally my solution to deal with the orchestra.”

After that, the great German painter Gerhard Richter (“he’s even older than me”) has asked him to write something in response to his latest project. “In any event, that’s what’s on my mind. But it’s a difficult time… Rough seas, for sure. I hope the boat doesn’t capsize. I think I’m optimistic. As long as we keep our eyes open, I think we’ll get through it.”

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Belgian choreographer, performs Reich’s Violin Phase, tracing images in sand with her feet, in New York in 2001

At 79, Reich’s energy and enthusiasm for ideas and collaboration is striking. He’s technologically plugged in, chatting about the downsides of digital streaming for today’s musicians — “Though I’m guilty as charged. I have Spotify on my Mac.” He talks about the inevitable need to relinquish control over his music at some point — “Michael Tilson Thomas was doing some piece, leaned over and asked some question, and I said, ‘Pretend I’m dead.’ Because eventually, that’s the way it is. At a certain point, I just have to realize that I’m no longer in charge.”

As well as the classical world, several generations of avant-garde rock musicians and pioneering electronic producers have been influenced by Reich. He recounts meeting Brian Eno after a concert in London in 1974. “A guy comes up, long hair, lipstick… I think, ‘Poetic justice — I’m the kid sitting on the barstool listening to Miles Davis, now Brian Eno’s listening to me!” And in Berlin, 1976, David Bowie. “Later, in print he listed his desert island albums, and Music for 18 Musicians is there. He and I had a sort of distant but mutual respect.”

“David Bowie and I had a sort of distant but mutual respect”

In London, 1992, he was interviewed by a magazine who asked his thoughts about electronic music group The Orb, and discovered their now-famous sampling of Electric Counterpoint on hit track ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. “Now, I don’t sue,” he explains, “because I realize these people don’t just like what I do and are being influenced, like Eno and Bowie, they’re taking it…coming in full blast!”

Reich embraces it all — classical audiences, rock gods, rave pioneers. After all, he was once a 14-year-old kid at Birdland, having his mind blown by the jazz greats. What goes around, comes around. “John Coltrane? Now, that was a real composition lesson!” he smiles. “I don’t think we would have had ‘minimal music’ without his contribution.”

“Music has to exert a magnetic attraction on the listener, or it fails,” he concludes. “I think for those who want to go further, great, but if music doesn’t have that attraction, then nothing’s ever going to happen. How do I judge that? Well, if I love it, I hope you will too.”

Originally published in The Times