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An Interview With Steve Reich, Who Rewrote Radiohead

The legendary composer Steve Reich has taken on Radiohead for his latest project, and this Saturday night it will have its NYC debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (though it previewed earlier this year at Guggenheim). The piece is called 'Radio Rewrite' and will be performed by the 20-member-band Alarm Will Sound. There are a few tickets left, and having seen the Guggenheim preview, we highly recommend you pick some up. Yesterday, Alex Tween (a musician in the band The Forms) spoke with Reich about the piece, about David Byrne's recent comments and criticisms of NYC, and just about everything else...

I recognize the 914 area code, I actually grew up in Westchester. We’re way up in the northern tip in Pound Ridge.

How do you like it up there? Well it’s a great relief, I spent my whole life in New York, and I walked around for 30 years with earplugs in my ears, and one day I came home and looked at my wife and said ‘Enough’ and she said ‘Okay’. So now there’s more birds in the trees, and less garbage, trucks, and cement, and I’m a much happier person.

A couple of years ago I saw a performance of “Music for 18 Musicians” at Carnegie Hall and you were one of the musicians. I think people have this image of a classical composer as being elevated above the musicians that perform their music. I’m not sure if they’re aware of Beethoven or Bach or Brahms or Bartok or Copland or a lot of other people, I think if they’re ignorant about all those people, they don’t know anything about anything.

Just watching the concert, to me it came across as a humble gesture, and I’m just curious what motivates you to participate in the performances. I played with my ensemble for 40 years, from 1966 to 2006. By 2006, I really felt I could no longer take some of the responsibility for the ensemble, I had people helping me and whatnot, but I had one musician who I’d played with for 30 years, he called me up shortly before a tour where he played a crucial role and said ‘my dad’s dying’ and part of me thought, ‘Oh, Jim I want to give you a hug’ and part of me thought ‘if I hear this one more time I’m gonna go through the roof, I can’t do this.’

So I decided there are musicians all over the world who want to play my music and are playing my music and the best thing for me to do is to go out and coach them, at times sit in with them, speak to the students. It’s one airfare, one hotel room instead of 18 or 19 of them and the whole thing’s more practical, and if I were 75 years old and the only people playing my music was Steve Reich and musicians, I’d really be in bad shape. The good news is that hundreds of musicians all over the world are playing my music and I have absolutely nothing to do with it 99% of the time. But every once in a while I do.

I just came back from incredible performances in the Festival Hall in the South Bank in London where 2,700 people heard Colin Currie and myself play “Drumming” and then “Music for 18 Musicians” and we even played “Come Out In A Dark Room” and we played “Pendulum Music”, and it was a very wild program. And then I went to Budapest and at the end did “Clapping Music”, cause it’s easy to do that as a sort of cameo and they did “Double Sextet” and “Mallet Quartet” and “Music for 18 Musicians” and that was a huge success, so I do go out, I do travel, sometimes I perform, sometimes I don’t perform at all, but the basic idea that you’re pointing to is that way back when when I was a young man, I realized that if I set the kind of music I was writing in a political musical situation, was like Boulez, Stockhausen, or Cage, I would be looked at as a lunatic and as a fool as an infantile nothing. So if I wanted to have my music played directly, I had to play it with my friends so we could play it as it should be played, and people would hear what I really had in mind. And this was the wisest decision I ever made in my life.

And my ensemble grew from 3 to 5, then Philip Glass joined the group and James Tenney joined the group and then after that in 1971 I wrote “Drumming” and Russ Hartenberg, Bob Becker, James Preiss and a lot of people who became people who played with me for more than 30 or 35 years joined the group and we’re going to probably be called out of retirement because our last concert was in New York at the reopening of Alice Tully Hall in 2006. And we have not played a concert since, but we may be called out of retirement soon. As a rule, I am basically not really involved in performance on a regular basis. I’m involved on an irregular basis, but the basic point you’re pointing out is my music would never have become as known as it’s become if we didn’t consistently put out records of Steve Reich and Musicians performing all these pieces really well so people could really appreciate them.

I was curious about your writing process and you mentioned playing with other musicians like Philip Glass and... I played with Philip Glass in his ensemble for two pieces, he played in my ensemble for one piece. It lasted about two years and that was it. Members of my ensemble are Russ Hartenberg, Bob Becker, Garry Kvistad, a whole lot of people you’ve never heard. Phil Glass and I have played together almost not at all.

I play in a band, and the composition process often involves bouncing ideas off of other bandmates. That didn’t happen with me at all for one piece. Let me explain to you something. Forget about popular, forget about classical. Think of this: notated music and non-notated music. When you’re playing in a band, you’re playing generally speaking 99 times out of 100 about non notated music. You go to the bass player and say ‘Hey man, why don’t you play this,’ and you play him the line. ‘No, wrong.’ And you play it a few times and he learns it. Same thing with every other part: you try it out in rehearsal and someone says ‘well why don’t you try this.’ That is a wonderful way of working, it is the most ancient and normal way of making music.

About 1000 years ago, musical notation was invented in the West, it existed in a few other cultures as well. And once that happened there was another parallel tradition that existed where people wrote down pieces which were then reproduced. Now when they’re reproduced, every time they’re reproduced they’re reproduced differently; you know, one performance of Beethoven’s Fifth is really different than another performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. Notes are all the same, rhythms are all the same, but how it feels is quite different and that goes for any piece of music that’s written down, including my own. I am a composer. I write music on pieces of paper and give it to musicians to play. There’s no improvisation whatsoever except in the early pieces the number of repeats was flexible. Let’s say 4 to 10 times, so the length of "Drumming" can be an hour and 20 minutes, it can be 55 minutes, it CAN’T be 35 minutes, it CAN’T be an hour and a half, but there is that leeway in the early pieces. But in the later pieces that leeway was eliminated starting way back in "Tehillim." The piece is written out just the way Handel’s written out or Bach’s written out or anybody’s written out, you start at the beginning, you go to the end, that’s it. But every time you play it, it’s different.

That’s interesting because you’ve expressed a lot of interest in jazz and said you’ve been influenced by it, and I’ve always found that surprising, actually, because of exactly what you’re saying, how everything is very deliberate and organized. Yeah, sure, all jazz is improvisation. What I’m saying is what jazz is for me is yes, improvisation is a big part of it, I understand that and I’m just not a very good improviser and I’m not interested in improvisation at all, but I understand that it’s a very, very important part of music. What interests me in jazz is the feel of jazz, the tones of jazz, the gestures of jazz, the way John Coltrane sounds as opposed to some classical saxophone is like two different universes. I’ve had a tremendous influence where, when I was a kid I took piano lessons, but it wasn’t until the age of 14—when I was a kid before the age of 14 I never heard a note of music before 1750, I never heard a note of music after Wagner, and I never heard any real jazz, I heard you know, pop music and all kinds of Broadway shows and that kind of stuff. But at the age of 14 for the first time I heard the The Rite of Spring, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the drummer Kenny Clarke and I decided I want to be Kenny Clarke and I started studying percussion at the age of 14. I studied with Roland Kohloff, who was the local great drummer and later became the timpanist with the New York Philharmonic, and I remained a drummer ever since. And so hence all the percussion in my group. And I went down to hear Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and all those groups started when I was 14 years old, on through high school, on through college when I got to Juilliard and continued doing it, and I started listening particularly to John Coltrane.

I got out to the West Coast and I was studying with Luciano Berio during the day, and every time he was in town I would go to hear John Coltrane at night. Now what was it I learned, improvisation? No, forget about it. What I learned was this: John Coltrane could play for half an hour on one harmony. Think of the album, or if you don’t think of it, go out and buy it or steal it whatever, called “Africa Brass”. Do you know it? "Africa Brass" is 17 minutes and it’s all on the low E of the double bass. So if you go to a jazz musician and say ‘hey man, what are the harmonic changes of “Africa Brass” - “This is E” “well what changes?”.”E for 17 minutes!” “Well that sounds strange, how are you going to play one harmony for 17 minutes?” Well I’ll tell you how: you have incredible melodic invention from Coltrane himself, who’s either playing gorgeous melodies or screaming noise through his horn, you have incredible timbral variety because he was working with another great jazz musician Eric Dolphy, who arranged all the brass in the “Africa Brass” and part of it was french horn, which sounded like elephants coming through the jungle. He also was working with Elvin Jones, who as you may know, is a drummer who sounds like he’s two or three or four drummers all at once. If you have rhythmic complexity, timbral variety and melodic invention, then you can stay put on a single harmony for half an hour, and it’s fascinating, it’s fantastic, it gives it more intensity because you’re focused on these other things. And in a funny way my piece “Drumming” doesn’t sound like “Africa Brass”. I didn’t even think about “Africa Brass”, but really it syncs the exact same way. There’s one slight change of key in the glock section, but basically it’s in six sharps for an hour. It doesn’t change. Because of the rhythmic complexity in the drums, the complete change of timbre into marimbas, and the rhythmic complexity and the melodic invention of the women’s voices and then the complete change of timbre into glockenspiel and the melodies in the flutes and piccolo and whistling, and then the complete change of timbre to all those instruments playing together you can listen to one key for an hour and enjoy it. So my interest in jazz is in gestures, the way Kenny Clarke could make an entire band sort of float in a magical way I never heard in any classical music, and the gesture of tones, the style of playing, THAT’S what I loved about jazz.

That makes perfect sense. Thank you for that explanation. So I have a question related to the piece of yours that is being performed the first time in the New York on Saturday, Radio Rewrite. So dating back to albums like Sgt. Pepper, or more recently OK Computer, and you may even consider jazz as part of this, popular artists have attempted to make music that rose to a level of high art, which, until that point, had exclusively been the domain of classical music. And you’re this figure that’s kind of stood in the middle of the two worlds because, even though you were clearly a classical composer, you had people like David Bowie going to your concerts, and Brian Eno and the Orb sampling your music, and even now your albums are reviewed by indie music websites like Pitchfork, and so the piece “Radio Rewrite” is the perfect representation of you kind of crossing over these two worlds. I know you’ve probably talked about this a lot, but can you describe a bit how you came to write the piece? Well first of all, let me salute you, you know as much about my activities in the DJ world as anybody I’ve ever met, so it’s a pleasure that somebody that I have to speak about that to, you’ve got it all down. Well, to tell you the truth, it all began when I was 14 like I was telling you. I was 14, I used to go down to Birdland. Birdland was where you went if you really wanted to hear real jazz. This was 1950s New York City. And I used to go in and they’d say ‘What do you want, shorty?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, I want to hear Miles.’ ‘Go sit in the kiddie section and don’t drink.’ And that’s what I did, because I just loved that music. Now if you’re the kind of kid who wants to go do that, then it might not be strange if as an adult, let’s say 20 years later, my group’s playing in Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and at the end of the concert a guy comes up with long hair and lipstick, says “How you doing, I’m Brian Eno.’ Or two years later you’re in Berlin, you finish playing “Music for 18 Musicians” and there’s David Bowie comes up to you and says ‘Hey I thought that was really great” and then writes “Weeping Wall” which sounds like “Music for 18 Musicians.” And you probably know that “Clapping Music” was mixed by James Murphy and is the megahit of David Bowie’s new special edition album, the Hello Steve Reich Mix. So I mean, you know, hey, good, I’m delighted. You know, people think this is some kind of new, ‘Oh boy, isn’t this exciting’. But—forgive me if you’ve heard this, and if you have, just say you have, you’re obviously very well informed—what I tell everybody is this: look, man, this is the normal state of affairs. In the Renaissance, every composer from Dufay to Palestrina - that’s almost 200 years—had to write a “Missa L'homme armé”. What’s “L'homme armé” it was a French folk song. [sings it]. Beautiful song. And every composer of note, Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, you name it, really felt obliged to use this tune as the basis of their mass for the Catholic church. The mass for the Catholic church, in those days, was like writing a symphony for Beethoven, it was the big deal for them, it was their major statement. Okay, continue: you get to Haydn. Haydn had 104 symphonies. The London Symphony, great masterpiece, second or third movement I think it is: [singing] it’s an Austrian drinking song. Beethoven, first movement of the sixth symphony: [singing] folk song. Bela Bartok: not just folk song settings, think of the string quartets. You can’t separate where Bela Bartok ends and the folk songs begin. It’s in his blood, it’s in his music.

The Rite of Spring too. Igor Stravinsky, the greatest composer of the 20th century, he lies through his teeth. “Petrushka”, “The Rite of Spring,” “Firebird,” as Richard Taruskin pointed out, much to Stravinsky’s credit, makes him a greater man, just for political reasons he covered it up—full of Russian folk music. Of course it is, he grew up there. Charles Ives was an organist, played organ as a kid and as an adult, so you know a lot of his greatest pieces, Three Places in New England, you hear these church hymn tunes appearing in his music because they’re part of his music. Kurt Weill, he studied with Busoni, writes an opera, you figure he’s gonna have the diva du jour and have a great big orchestra? ‘Oh no no no, I want a saxophone, I want jazz drums, I want this woman, she can’t really sing but I think she’ll work out."

So what do we get: Threepenny Opera, great masterpiece. And it’s absolutely cabaret music from the 20s. George Gershwin. Is he one of our greatest composers or one of our greatest songwriters? Well thank you very much, he’s both, and on and on and on and on to my generation. Now when I was a student and went to music school let’s say between 1957 and 1963, everybody had to write like Stockhausen or Boulez or John Cage, or you were laughed at. No rhythm, no harmony, no melody, and if you were a fool enough to use any of those things, people laughed at you, either in front of your face or behind your back. And you think I’m exaggerating, think of the Titan of the Age, Igor Stravinsky, himself, and he felt obliged to use the twelve-tone techniques. Now being a genius, he used it is own way and he created “Canticum Sacrum,” “Agon,” and other masterpieces because he could bend and move it to his will to do that.

So when I went to school, I was up against the wall: ‘Do this or die’. That’s the way it was. And that also meant that the window between the concert hall and the street had been slammed shut by Schoenberg and his compatriots. Now Arnold Schoenberg’s a great composer, but he had some serious misunderstandings. He thought harmony could be taken out of music, and pulsing rhythm can be taken out of music and music could go on just fine. And he said “oh, in 50 years the postman will whistle my tune”. Well it’s 100 years and no postman on earth will ever whistle Arnold Schoenberg’s anything. He’s still a great composer, but he’s a great composer who lives in a dark corner, and it’s fine to go to that dark corner and listen to his music. Every once in a while, people will continue to do that because he really is a great composer. But he’s not what he thought he was, he’s not some kind of new Tchaikovsky. He’s more a mannerist in a dying romanticism. German romanticism was dying and he was the beginning of its death. It’s still rattling around in its grave over in parts of Europe, but it’s dead and gone. And that’s perfectly normal, movements come and go, and mannerists go way back to Gesualdo who’s a wonderful composer, but he’s not listened to too often because he’s at the end of overly complex counterpoint where it gets too difficult and people really say “Hey man, let’s just have a melody and some chords” and voila, there’s opera, there’s Monteverdi.

There have been typical changes in the history in any music that it’s too complicated, it slowly dies, and something simpler replaces it, that simple thing becomes more complex, and so it goes. So that’s just the way life is. David Lang, he once said to me “I envy when you were born.” Now what on earth could he have meant by that. Well what he meant was this: I was born in 1936, and I came of age in the 60s and as I said at that point German romanticism was in its death rattle in the form of Boulez and Stockhausen, who are great composers and have accomplished a great deal, but no one will ever listen to their music with any great frequency. It will be played, it will be preserved, as long as there are people to play with music, but it won’t be played very much. And that’s okay, that’s perfectly okay. Boulez is the greatest living musician on earth, he can hear things nobody else can hear, but it remains, as I said, dark corner music. Okay, so what was I trying to point out here, I’ve lost the thread of what I was trying to get across to you...

You mentioned David Lang. Yes, right David Lang. Well I am born in ‘36. I come of age at this time when this music is different and it falls to my generation, not just me but to Glass and to Riley and to Adams and to so on and so forth. You get the feeling that ‘I didn’t become a composer to hear this stuff’. I guess I am a composer because of all that Stravinsky, because I loved jazz, because I like bebop, I loved Bach, I loved music that had a harmony, that had a regular beat. And so in my generation we did not provide a revolution, we provided a restoration of normalcy. We brought back harmony and rhythm and melody in a brand new way. We brought back the basics, which had been trashed. And if you trash the basics, you trash music.

Yes, I think it’s telling that you and the composers who are in a similar vein as you are pretty much carrying the torch for classical music these days. When you do new pieces, it still has an impact on the culture; you’re not writing in a dark corner at all. Yes, what I’m trying to say is we are not breaking from the classical tradition, we are skipping over an abnormal generation and rejoining up with Debussy and Ravel and Stravinsky and Bartok and so on, who were themselves carrying on from the Baroque period.

And also having a dialogue with the likes of Radiohead, with Radio Rewrite. Okay, so let’s go back to Radiohead. Do you have the album?

I saw the performance of some excerpts from “Radio Rewrite” recently at the Guggenheim Guggenheim! Good because you saw the first movements very well played because on the West Coast it was played eh. Anyway, what happened was this: I was invited to go to Krakow in Poland, I think it was 2011, for it was called the Sacrum Profanum Festival, which is built around the idea of new music, new rock and roll. And they invited me and Alarm Will Sound and London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern and Jonny Greenwood. Jonny Greenwood was a superstar. And Jonny Greenwood had prepared all the backing tracks, at least the live parts of Electric Counterpoint. Electric Counterpoint is written for about 11 guitars, all of which are prerecorded and one of which is live. I’ve heard it a few times, I heard it back in the 80s. And I knew it took a lot of work to make the backing tracks, you gotta go in the studio and sync it all up and it’s a lot to do, so I was very impressed that he had taken the time and energy to do that, and I also knew that Jonny Greenwood had studied viola at Oxford, that he was a composer, that he did the music for There Will Be Blood, which I had seen. The music sounded more like Messiaen, you would never think that Jonny Greenwood was a rock star from the music used in that movie, so I was very interested to meet the guy and when we met we hit it off immediately. We started talking, we just couldn’t stop talking.

So I went home and I was all revved up and I thought, you know, I know these guys by name and I know them by reputation, but I’d never heard a note of their music, so I said “I’ve got to go online and get myself an education.” So I went to this site and two tunes just jumped out at me. One of them was “Everything In Its Right Place,” which of course everyone knows and the other one was a more recent one from In Rainbows called “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. And I thought, these tunes have my name written on it, I love the harmonic movement, I love some of the melodic stuff, and I would just like to steal some of it and make a full piece out of it, and I think I mentioned to Jonny Greenwood about it and he said “sure go ahead” and after my lawyer signed away half of all my royalties forever, they said “fine, go ahead”. So I guess that’s how the piece—and basically how it works is this: the piece is in five movements, the movements go fast, slow, fast, slow, fast. And the fast movements are all drawn from “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which is sort of an uptempo tune, where basically I’m looking at their harmonies. Occasionally you will hear [sings “Just as the drinks arrive”], you’ll hear that near the end of the piece. But basically you have to have a sharp ear out for the harmonies. In the second and fourth movements I’m referring to “Everything In Its Right Place” and it’s just like the original: slower, more mysterious. And there’s one melodic phrase that is to me the crowning glory of the whole deal which is: [sings “Everything”]. Now when Thom Yorke did that I’m sure he wasn’t thinking—you know, he’s a great musician and he probably just had a piano or a guitar, whatever, and this just popped out because that’s just the way things are. But in fact, he said such a mouthful, it just knocked me off my feet. [sings “Everything”] That 1-5-1, tonic, dominant, tonic is the basis of western music. It is indeed [sings] “everything” and that he set those words to those notes, perhaps completely unconsciously, just bowled me over and I said “I gotta use this” and you do, you hear the ghost and sometimes the very literal representation of that phrase in the second and fourth movements.

So in a nutshell that’s sort of what it’s about. Now of course it’s not scored for rock instruments with the exception of one electric bass, which is my all-time favorite rock instrument because it has such a short, dead sound that gives it complete rhythmic clarity even if it's playing fast, or even if two of them are playing like they did in my earlier piece "2x5," which is a rock piece. But "Radio Rewrite" is not at all a rock piece. It's a score for flute, clarinet, string quartet, two vibes, two pianos, and one electric bass. So it's basically a piece of chamber music which most people would have no hint whatsoever had anything to do with rock and roll, except for the electric bass and that's pretty subtle, it's only in the first, third, and fifth movements, and for people with sharp ears, they will catch from time to time, a little tiny bit of the original Radiohead tune. And that is the long and short of it.

I know you have to go so one more question. I'm interviewing you for Gothamist, which is a website about New York, and you've obviously been associated with New York for a long time... Born here. I was born in New York, I'm a lifer. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy, as you can tell from talking to me.

So recently the musician David Byrne of the Talking Heads wrote about how in recent years the increase in income inequality in the city has made it a place that's more unfriendly to artists. So from your perspective, do you think New York is changing in a way that’s making it harder to be a creative person or is this something that New York artists have always had to deal with? Well I'm not a sociologist, I'm just a composer, so I'll leave this philosophizing and the sociologicizing and the politicizing to David Byrne, that seems to be something he likes to write about. I'll say just this. I lived in New York all my life, I went to graduate school out near San Francisco and studied with Luciano Berio, I was out there either working or going to get my Master's degree from 1961 to '65 and I came back to New York City in 1965 and I got a loft on Duane Street in what was then called the Washington Market for $65 a month. And I could make as much noise as I wanted to, I was above an engineering company, they thought of me as the night watchman and it was the perfect arrangement. I was usually late on my rent and they didn't care, they were quite nice about it. Now that same street Duane Street about four blocks up from where I am lives Martin Scorsese and you know what, I'll bet you as much money as you like that Martin Scorsese is not paying $65 a month in rent.

So do things change? Things are changing as we speak. It is the nature of life to change, and if any politician promises you change, you can just say "well why don't you just promise me the sky will be blue?" Because odds are, the sky is going to be blue, but you know what? It'll be a different blue today than it was yesterday. So to say that things are gonna change is to say that life is gonna go on. And of course it did change and things got more expensive. As I understand it, and I'm far away from New York right now, I'm 50 miles away, although I'm there regularly and I'll be there all this week getting ready for the concert, I notice that all the young people, I imagine yourself, included, live in Brooklyn. Some of the rich ones live in Williamsburg, or the ones who got in early live in Williamsburg, and the others are moving out slowly to the water because it is being pushed further and further away economically. And other people are in Long Island City, and other people are in Hoboken, and they're all commuters.

Now that's very different because in my day, when I came in, anybody could live — everybody was living in SoHo. As a matter of fact I remember Yvonne Rainer the dancer giving me a ride home, she had a car, I don't know how, from SoHo down to — well TriBeCa didn't exist, it was called the Washington Market, it was a wholesale vegetable market down there, and there was no World Trader Center, that was before it was built. And she said, "does anybody live down here?" I said "yeah, a few of us do." So yes, things have changed drastically. What was then Washington Market, deserted, is now TriBeCa, the most expensive real estate in the world. And it's filled with high-rises, Whole Foods, the whole nine yards. So it's drastically, drastically different in a period of what, 25 to 30 years. And Manhattan has basically become Millionaires Island, so David Byrne can live there but most people can't.

So yes, of course it's quite different now. But if you are in music, if you are a musician, then it is really necessary for you to live in proximity to other musicians because music, as opposed to let's say painting and sculpture, is a communal art. You have to play with other people. If you're a composer you have to have your music played by other live musicians and if you don't you are starving on the vine, you have to be somewhere where there are a lot of players. Now there are other places, London is one of them, L.A. is another, and there are other, lesser places where's there's a decent crowd. One of the reasons I left San Francisco is that there were no freelance players. You know the San Francisco rock thing was going on at the time, but I had no interest in that and there was no freelance music scene going on. So New York is just teeming with all kinds of wonderful musicians who are up for all kinds of stuff, and that is a very fertile place to be. So it's worth it to suffer through living in Long Island City or Canarsie or Hoboken just so you can be part of that. And that’s what people are doing, and more power to them.

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