Steve Reich is a composer held in equally high esteem in the contemporary rock world as he is within classical and avant-garde music circles. His work has influenced artists such as the Orb (who famously sampled Reich's 1971 composition Electric Counterpoint in their hit "Little Fluffy Clouds"), Owen Pallett and These New Puritans. He is responsible for the "last great musical scandal of the 20th Century," according to the New Yorker's Alex Ross, after he sent people fleeing from a Carnegie Hall performance of his work Four Organs in 1973. He met Tim Burrows at the Barbican in May ahead of Reverberations - an event within a series this year commemorating the composer's 75th year - to talk about his provocative latest work, WTC 9/11, downtown New York during the 1960s, and the joy of leaving his native city.
Tim Burrows On Saturday it was the New York premiere of WTC 9/111 at Carnegie Hall, and the next day, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in Pakistan. Could you sum up how those 24 hours felt?
Steve Reich I was wrapped up in rehearsals for Carnegie and very nervous beforehand. There were four new pieces, three of which had never been played in New York before. I guess I was probably most concerned with WTC 9/11 because it was the newest work and it is not necessarily a typical piece of mine: no marimbas, no vibes, no drum kits, no constant pulse. The concert went exceedingly well but, because of the nature of WTC 9/11, it is not a piece where people get up on their seats and whistle afterwards. I couldn't tell whether they had been moved, but talking to people the next day I began to see they were. When I heard the news about bin Laden, well, there were jokes. Somebody emailed me and asked, "What did Carnegie Hall know, and when did they know it?" Writing in the New Yorker the next day, Alex Ross wondered if I would change a note: he thought not. I felt like writing to him saying, "Absolutely so. Not a note."
TB Because it is a piece of music in its own right - it is not about updating the facts.
SR As a composer, yes it is about that event, no question. The subject matter will remain, it is a historical event that is going to last as long as people are still able to have knowledge of history. When you hear most vocal music, whether it is Bob Dylan or the Messiah you don't really hear every word. In fact with a lot of early Dylan you don't hear any words. But there was something there in the music that draws you to it. And that's the ingredient that has to be there, in any music about anything that is going to survive. What will matter most in the end is whether it is a good piece of music or not. We can see this quite clearly going back to the past: how many people who go to the opera regularly today really know a whole lot about Nordic mythology? There is a very small number. Wagner was a proto-Nazi, no getting around that. But Wagner wrote great music, he was a musical genius and the fact that he was who he was is a very ugly human reality. But his music was his music, and it continues to have its own merits.
TB Do you feel like you need to do justice to the people that you sample in works such as this and Different Trains, for example?
SR The real motivation is not to do justice to these people - that would be presumptuous and silly - but to pay a kind of homage to them and to be as true to what they say as possible. I think the main thing is that it helps enormously if the subject means something to the composer. When you are beginning a work, if you are not excited or moved by it then that is a very bad sign for the musical quality of the work that is about to be composed. If you're not, it will end up a hack job, made to order.
TB What made you approach this event specifically?
SR The day it happened, my son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were living in my apartment in New York City, four blocks from Ground Zero, while my wife and I were staying in Vermont. We got a telephone call at 8.30 in the morning from my son saying that he thought the World Trade Centre had been bombed. I told him, "Don't hang up," which he didn't for six hours. Miraculously the phone never gave out. I told him to close the windows and put these masks we had for painting on to keep any dust out of their lungs. My son was screaming, "It's black, it's pitch black." They couldn't see why it was going black as the television had shut off where they were - but we could. So it was a very personal event in real time.
9/11 started as a telephone call from [Kronos Quartet's] David Harrington asking would I write a third piece and using pre-recorded voices. I have the highest regard for them. But in 2009/10, I had no idea what it would be. I knew that I wanted to elongate the last syllable of every phrase. That tone would be prolonged on the computer. So that people would build up chords that overlap, and connect one person to the next, not just by what they were thinking or saying, but harmonically connect them. I'd say it took two, three months being in a state of complete ignorance until suddenly a lightbulb went off and I thought, "Wait a minute, I have unfinished business." And that was 9/11.
TB I know you have moved away from New York in the last few years. Can you recall what your early days as a Downtown composer were like?
SR In the 1960s I lived on Duane Street, which is where Martin Scorsese now lives. I was paying $65 a month, which I dare say he isn't. The street was devoted to the wholesale of butter and eggs, distributing to all of NYC. Right across the street was the wholesale vegetable market - what is now called Tribeca was originally Washington Market. Between 1am and 5am, thousands of trucks would pull up and they would load up lettuces, green beans, peas and what have you, to be deposited around the whole city. It was moved about the time the World Trade Centre was constructed. 1970s Tribeca was how Herman Melville described Lower Manhattan: an area full of old curiosity shops and used hardware stores. Going home was like leaving the city. Tribeca is now probably one of the most expensive areas in NYC, so I saw it transform itself miraculously. I remember the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer gave me a lift home once. When she dropped me off she said in a surprised tone, "You live round here?" And she was a Downtown artist. Very few of us lived in Tribeca at the time. I replied, "Yeah, I'm the night watchman," which was kind of true. The building belonged to a small engineering company, and their attitude was that if I were there it would keep away any burglars. I had a loft on top of this four or five storey building so I could rehearse and make as much noise as I wanted. Later I moved to Broadway and Warren Street, which is where we were on 9/11. Now I live 50 miles upstate.
TB Do you find it much easier to work there?
SR Yes, it is much easier to work outside of the city. Even when we were living there we spent every summer away.
TB Most people associate the sound of your work with the movements of the city. It is something you will always carry with you?
SR Absolutely. You can hear it in the way I speak - I am a New Yorker. My cadences are quick, very urban. That's who I am. But maybe because that is the way I am I don't have to have it rubbed in my face. I don't have to be in the streets of New York. I walked around with ear-plugs in my pocket for thirty years. That's not a great way to live your life!