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Five Ways of Looking at Steve Reich, Who Is a Genius (and a Jerk)

Headlining Knoxville’s Big Ears avant-garde music festival, the composer passes a baton to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

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Steve Reich, 2005. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo Jeffrey Herman)
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1. “You’re floating 10 feet off the Earth. Try to put your feet on the ground and ask the next question.” It’s Wednesday, March 26, and Steve Reich is haranguing me for my sucky interviewing skills. We’re talking over the phone because it’s two days before the Big Ears Festival, in Knoxville, Tenn., which Reich is headlining. That he’s less than pleased with my interviewing ability is in fact only making me more nervous, because Reich is a legitimate genius who has changed the shape of his chosen field. The New York Times called him “our greatest living composer,” and The New Yorker has said he’s “the most original musical thinker of our time.” So, if he says I’m blowing this, he’s probably right.

Reich is impatient, a quality that surely comes from having a mind that works 10 times faster than everyone else’s, most definitely including mine. At one point in our conversation I try to suggest that “WTC 9/11,” his disturbing 15-minute meditation on Sept. 11 that came out in 2011, reminds me of the Internet. The piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, uses one of Reich’s several trademark techniques, that of vocal sampling. Unlike other Sept. 11-related pieces, “WTC” does not offer redemption. Reich bumps the pre-recorded voices—friends, air-traffic controllers, first responders, cantors—shoulder-to-shoulder and cuts off the words mid-sentence, only to complete them later. It’s a tension-filling technique and can call to mind the way conversations take place over the Internet. Reich sees where I’m going with this and pointedly cuts me off. “I don’t follow chats, I don’t find it very interesting to do that. What I was doing on ‘WTC’ had nothing to do with the Internet whatsoever, OK?”

Reich isn’t just headlining Big Ears, he’s embedded. Festivals are the new cornfields, sprouting up in multitudes from sea to shining sea and offering three to four days of popular music. They’re also like cornfields in that they all look the same. In this environment Big Ears is a unique treasure, mixing avant-garde metal with classical composition with smart indie rock. Reich’s music will be played on all three days of the festival, which he is both opening and closing. More than 40 musicians are coming to Knoxville for the sole purpose of playing his music. So, I ask a very dumb question: Does Reich considering headlining a festival like this an apex of his career?

Reich, 77, laughs with a hint of derision. “That this is somehow the pinnacle of my career, it’s not really the case.” He reminds me of a few other highlights: selling out Carnegie Hall three nights in a row. Receiving an honorary degree from Juilliard. The Polar Prize, an award that is given to one contemporary musician and one classical musician a year, which he won with Sonny Rollins. The Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 2009, an experience he sums up as “very nice.” He doesn’t mention the two Grammys he has won.

“This will be nice too,” he says, referring to Big Ears, “and I’m looking forward to it.” He’s also looking forward to ending this interview. He asks how much time is left, and after one more uneventful question, quickly hangs up on me.

***

2. It’s Friday the 28th, and Reich is in a much better mood. Before the festival, he’s talking to a group of students at the University of Tennessee, mostly from the Music Theory Department. They’ve been studying “WTC 9/11,” and the piece is played before he answers questions. His work with pre-recorded voices all involves some degree of terrifying nonfiction, ranging from police brutality to the murder of Daniel Pearl. With these pieces it’s helpful to think of him not just as a composer but a writer in the journalistic tradition of Joan Didion and Susan Orlean, someone who is able to construct a piece around what has both been said and not said by subjects. The piece is played before his Q&A and fills the classroom. Starting with a sharp violin and a loud warning beep simultaneously, the piece transitions from the first inclinations that something was going wrong—a flight controller from NORAD saying “They came from Boston– Goin’ to L.A./ They’re goin’ the wrong/ They’re goin’ the wrong way” (it only rhymes on paper)—to a cantor trying to make sense of the madness with Psalm 121:8, “Hashem yishmor tzaytcha uvoecha mei atah ve-ad olam,” only to be met with a confused, “I don’t really know what that means.”

Reich wears a black baseball cap, a black button-down shirt, a black jacket, and charcoal pants. The young composers ask him questions. Many are of a technical nature—did he alter the pre-recorded voices to better fit the music? Sometimes, and only by half-note or so. Composers aren’t generally thought of as entertainers but Reich clearly knows how to work a room—his sarcasm plays much better to a crowd than it does on the phone. Someone asks how “WTC” relates to “On the Transmigration of Souls,” by John Adams, a much calmer work on Sept. 11 that features a children’s choir. Reich shrugs his shoulder and asks for the next question. He flips the tables on the UT students, asking for a show of hands on who’s a composer. He calls on a few, asking them to describe what they’re working on. When they all falter under the spotlight, hemming and hawing, Reich quickly drops the exercise. He signs autographs afterwards.

A few hours later, Big Ear is opening at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Every speaker at the opening, including Knoxville’s mayor, mentions and thanks Reich for being there. He says a few words, giving special attention to Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead who has turned to composing lately and is appearing at the festival to play one of Reich’s pieces. Reich’s latest piece, “Radio Rewrite,” was based on Radiohead’s music and is also being played at the festival.

With two members of the So Percussion ensemble, he performs a version of his “Clapping Music.” A rare DIY piece of composition, it needs only two people to be performed. One performer claps a basic rhythm, the other claps the same pattern, but after every eight or 12 bars delays by one eighth-note. You’re never quite sure who is making what noise until the end, when they catch up with each other and end in unison. It makes the human body seem remarkably efficient. The piece lasts under five minutes and at the museum it is met with enthusiastic applause.

***

3. The next day, Reich’s “Drumming” is being performed at the Tennessee Theater. Big Ears has placed some of its biggest draws—Julia Holter, Bill Orcutt—against this performance, and despite his playing the next day as well, the gorgeous old theater is packed. Reich started working on “Drumming,” released in 1971, shortly after a trip to Ghana, and the piece marks a decided expansion in his sound. The piece starts with two people playing the bongos with double-ended wooden sticks. They start simply, beat, beat, beat, and then one rhythm starts to play two beats and go off pattern. A third drummer enters, the complex sounds leave, and the whole thing starts again. A fourth member joins them, and the sounds start to whirl together, the intensity rises and falls. The rhythmic cycle repeats itself, changes, and changes back. The first act takes 20 minutes.

Listening to “Drumming,” where you can let the sounds wash over and surprise you, is an entirely different experience than watching it, which is like standing on the sideline of a marathon. There are eight small bongos in the middle of the stage, three glockenspiels on the left, three marimbas on the right, and two microphones set up for voices in the back. So Percussion is performing the piece with 12 people who are wearing a variety of outfits, from Duck Dynasty-style bandanas to business-casual jacket-and-T-shirt combos. The musicians have more entrances and exits than a Shakespeare play, and they perform with stony faces and deadly concentration. Their bodies are completely still, save for their forearms moving at a rapid pace. As fast as they go, they’re also gradually building and falling: Instruments in “Drumming” delicately introduce themselves and slowly phase into the forefront. K. Robert Schwarz, who wrote one of the books on Reich, Minimalists, has argued that “Drumming” is a “transitional” work for Reich, one that combines the blurring repetitions of his early work like “It’s Gonna Rain” and points toward work with distinguishable features like WTC.

Words like “hypnotic” and “trance-like” often get thrown around in describing minimalist music, but they call to mind catatonic states nowhere close to the vitality of life displayed in “Drumming.” As Part I transitions to Part II, musicians move to the marimbas, gently playing the same repetitive rhythm heard on the bongos, and seeing them slowly become the dominant sound is viscerally exciting. Reich has popularized this technique, called phasing. Any Torah scholar will tell you that repetition in language, such as God telling Abraham “Lech Lecha” in B’reshit, is in the text to emphasize importance of what’s being said. Reich doesn’t actually say anything in “Drumming,” beyond the occasional Morse code-sound vocal chant, but every motion, even when a musicians stops, adds on to the other sounds coming from the stage.

In Part IV, the piece’s final section, all the instruments, which have each been given their own moment in the sun, play at the same time. Each musician is operating at full capacity on their own pattern, contributing to the whole without any acknowledgement of it. And then it ends, suddenly. Reich comes out and flings his arms around a musician, like a coach congratulating the winning pitcher in the final game of the World Series.

***

4. On the last day of the Festival, Sunday, Reich has a public conversation with Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment is putting on Big Ears. Capps wants to focus on Reich’s early years, from his childhood to the late 1960s, when his groundbreaking tape recordings “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” were released. Like many artists of his stature, Reich has fielded questions about his early years many times before and has developed a series of stock answers in response. But like the repetitions in his music, many of these answers maintain their power after you’ve heard them the first time. Reich’s 1988 piece “Different Trains” deals with a powerful counterpoint—the idealistic spirit of American travel in the 1950s against the trains that carried Jews to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The piece ties into Reich’s childhood, which featured cross-country trips to see his divorced parents. “I realized I would have been going up the chimneys in Poland and you would have too,” he told me in our interview. He repeats the line talking to Capps, with a little hand swoosh upward to represent the chimneys.

A few in the crowd try to get Reich to answer Big Questions, which he has no interest in doing. Thoughts on current sampling culture? None. Can he speak on “Different Trains”? Without a specific question on the piece, no. Does he like Southern music? Beyond a technical appreciation, no. How does he feel about being in textbooks? He wishes he got paid for it.

Having learned my lesson, I narrow my focus and ask him to comment on the younger composers at Big Ears, specifically Greenwood. He excitedly talks about how Greenwood, with guitar picks, has created “the first new pizzicato since Bartok!” He sees new, hot composers like Greenwood and Bryce Dessner, who plays in the indie-rock band The National, as part of a growing trend among musicians who move through notated and non-notated music with equal ability.

Reich offhandedly announces that his ensemble, out of commission since 2006, will be reuniting in some capacity later this year. His musical memory is staggering. He talks about how John Coltrane “restored harmony amidst free jazz” and describes in great detail the setting of his first time hearing Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse! debut Africa/Brass. How does Coltrane manage to stay on an E chord for 16 minutes straight? “If you’ve got melodic changes, rhythmic complexity, and temporal variety, then you can stay put on it!”

***

5. The entire weekend has been engineered to lead up to Sunday night’s tribute, and the engineering has worked. There’s an excitement in the air as the masses gather in anticipation of three hours of Reich’s music at the Tennessee Theater. There are several reminders that this is taking place within a rock festival—the men’s bathroom at the historic theater, a renovated 1920s movie palace, reeks of weed. The guy sitting next to me offers to sell me drugs.

The night opens up with Reich reprising “Clapping Music” and is followed up by Greenwood performing “Electric Counterpoint,” a piece released with “Different Trains” that Greenwood has performed several times in the past few years. The piece can be performed solo or with the recorded accompaniment of a bass guitar and 12 guitars. The piece lasts about 15 minutes, and Greenwood, alone on stage with a MacBook Pro, works through it like a mellow wrestler, playing back and forth with the pre-recorded guitars.

When Greenwood first performed “Counterpoint” in 2011, it caught Reich’s attention and led to the creation of Reich’s latest piece, 2012’s “Radio Rewrite,” where Reich reworks two Radiohead songs into a classical composition. Reich’s feelings on the connection between notated and non-notated music vary with the winds. He’s said that “the window between the street and the concert hall” should be open, while repeatedly commenting that notated and non-notated music should be treated differently. At any rate, “Radio Rewrite” is not one of his best works. Its lacks some of the effortless transitions of Reich’s better pieces and corners itself into a lull. Playing the piece after Greenwood is surely a bit of message programming, Big Ears passing the torch from one genius composer to the next. The hand-off isn’t flawless, but the sentiment is sweet.

Besides, everyone is really here for “Music for 18 Musicians.” Like “Drumming,” “Music” is about an hour long and will fine-tune the listener’s pattern recognition skills. But while “Drumming” finds its energy in its main sections and is calm in its transitions, “Music” does the inverse: Its tensions, slight as they are, pop up during the transitions between one of its 20 sections. It is Reich’s first attempt at writing for a larger number of musicians and is often played with more than 18 musicians, given the doubling up of instruments required in its most basic form. A cycle of 11 chords is played at the beginning and the end. The length of these pulses is determined by the musicians and how long they can breathe. As Reich described in his original liner notes, “[t]hey take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing.” Reviewing it in 1978, Robert Christagu determined that it was “[v]ery mathematical, yet also very, well, organic.”

It’s as physical a piece as “Drumming,” but not in the same easily visible ways. Watching “Music” gives one no sense of any physical struggle—“comfortably sustain” the key words here. It’s a constant balancing act, with patterns rising and falling over each other. It feels like watching a Fibonacci sequence come to life but also like a duck paddling across a lake, legs furiously moving underneath the surface. Not much happens, everything happens. And then it ends.

***

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Five Ways of Looking at Steve Reich, Who Is a Genius (and a Jerk)

Headlining Knoxville’s Big Ears avant-garde music festival, the composer passes a baton to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood