Steve Reich

Interview by
Jonathan Hepfer

American composer and minimal music pioneer Steve Reich unpicks how the moral and ethical repercussions of World War II and the writings of William Carlos William informed his composition The Desert Music (1983).

Somewhere in the deeper recesses of my teenage memories, I can somehow conjure the image with photographic precision: flipping through discs at a local bookstore, I came across a sepia-toned album cover consisting of several layers of rocks with mountains on the horizon and a burnt sky looming above. The album: Steve Reich’s The Desert Music, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I took the album home and let the awe set in.
As nearly everybody who has ever listened to the work of Steve Reich knows, his music is epiphanic. There is the world before encountering a piece like The Desert Music, and there is the world after. The piece, which sets poetry from William Carlos Williams’s collection The Desert Music (1949-1954) to music, deals with the moral and ethical repercussions and implications of mankind’s development of nuclear weaponry. The desert in question is left beautifully ambiguous: whether it is the test site of Los Alamos, Moses wandering Sinai for twenty years, Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah, the eerie silence of a post-apocalyptic landscape, or simply a desert of one’s imagination is unclear. There is a spiritual sensibility in this music that for me draws clear comparisons to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or the exquisite enigmas of Antonioni’s films. And like Bach and Antonioni, Reich’s work feels to me simultaneously completely unforeseen yet inevitable.
A few years following this personal discovery, I found a collection of interviews from 1976 by Walter Zimmermann entitled Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians. Zimmermann, then a young, unknown, curious and defiant German composer, sought to find out how radical non-commercial musicians in the United States managed to subsist under the hard economic conditions of that era. Fascinated by the “beauty and vigor of this existence,” Zimmermann likened the musicians he interviewed to the miraculous plants that heroically assert their presence on the desert landscape, despite not having access to water.
Zimmermann visited Reich as he was compiling these interviews (ironically, on a day of downpour), and Reich declined to be interviewed, instead contributing the title page and a handwritten program note to the piece that Reich was in the process of finishing called Music for 21 Musicians and Singers—a work that would later became known as Music for 18 Musicians.
In late 2018, as artistic director of Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, I myself presented a concert of Reich’s groundbreaking tape piece Come Out (1966) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) paired with the music of the 12th-century composers Léonin and Pérotin. I sat down with Reich a few weeks later to discuss his 1983 masterpiece The Desert Music, which in many ways picks up where Music for 18 Musicians leaves off.

JONATHAN HEPFER  The use of the voice is something you’ve played with your entire career. In Come Out, you begin with a prerecorded fragment of clearly spoken text, and over the course of the piece, you transform that fragment into abstract phonemes so that the meaning of the spoken word somehow poetically evaporates into something greater than itself. In the 1970s, in works like Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians, you avoided text altogether, using the voice only as an onomatopoeic imitator of other instruments in the ensemble. I wonder if the dissolution of text in Come Out was responsible for fifteen years of your avoidance of verbal language in your work?

STEVE REICH  My take on Come Out is basically a kind of intensification of what’s being said. You’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, and your thoughts spread out further and further. But I think however you want to poetically view where it goes, good music necessitates the impossibility of description. (Laughs)

JH  In 1981, you used Hebrew Psalms as the basis for Tehillim, which was the first time you ever set an outside text in your work. It wasn’t until 1983 that you set a text in English. What drew you to William Carlos Williams?

SR  When I was sixteen years old, I went into a bookstore (of which there were several at the time in New York City) called Marlboro Books. It was on 6th avenue and 46th or something like that. I walked in, and I saw this book by a guy whose name read about the same forward and backwards: William Carlos Williams. (Laughs) I picked it up just for that reason. No other reason. And I started reading Paterson. And as I was reading it, I was going back and forth between understanding and not understanding it, but I just bought the book. And I thought, “Hmm, this is interesting.”
And then when I went to Cornell, I was reading more and more of his work, and Williams was paid to come to Ithaca after he had had a stroke to read Journey to Love and Ashpodel, which is one of his most beautiful and last works. I went to see his reading, as somebody who had had a stroke, and his wife was also there in the first row, and she was also pretty old. And it was just intensely moving.
Also, Williams went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where his roommate was Ezra Pound. And they remained lifelong friends. There are letters between them later, when Pound was at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C., and Williams writes to him, “Ez, you’re crazy! Stop it! I know you. Don’t do this.”
So the guy struck me. These friends of his were internationally on the scene, and he chose to stay in New Jersey, because he knew that that was who he really was. To do what he did took a certain heroic modesty, I would say. And so he was someone that I had great respect for. I loved the poetry, and I loved his stance as an artist. He was someone who was older than me, and who I learned something from. His work is just indescribably beautiful.

JH  Much of your work is tied together by the theme of the apocalyptic, or at least the catastrophic. For example, It’s Gonna Rain (1965) comes in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the text refers to the biblical flood. The Desert Music deals with the consequences of the atomic bombs being dropped to end the Second World War. And then Three Tales (2002) takes on the topics of the Hindenburg, The Bikini Atoll, and Dolly the Sheep. Has the idea of the end of civilization been something you’ve meditated upon throughout your life?

SR  I was born in ’36. And I grew up in the ’40’s. And what was going on in the ’40’s? I’d walk past a newsstand and it would say “Reich bombed.” The next newsstand would say “Reich burns,” “Reich collapses.” (laughs) And so my friends would tease me because of my name. I grew up with World War II.
So, to answer your question, if you grow up with that going on (with the realities of the Second World War), and you get older and realize that as a Jew, you’re tied to these six million people who are experiencing these atrocities, and you go to see the Movietone news and you see some kind of a plowing truck pushing mounds of almost skeletal dead bodies, then you tend to see exactly what was going on. And you don’t forget that. So, that’s just part of growing up. And you start to reflect, “Gee, I’m on Western Avenue and 85th Street, and I’m not over there.” But I am Jewish, so there is a strong sense of connection. I mean, there was much, much more than that, but that’s the part that serves us with a headline of my early lifetime.
And then how does the war end? The war ends with this incredible weapon, which is beyond anybody’s comprehensibility, which nobody in the general public knew anything about. And then shortly after the war, there were the Bikini tests. And I was aware of that. Where there’s a bomb that makes that look like a pea sugar! That’s a game changer.
That’s still true. We have even greater knowledge, and it seems, even less moral general agreement on the planet. And so the possibility of these things being used again seems…You know, you don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it, but you also don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist.

JH  Marino Formenti recently told me that truth was like the sun: if you stare at it for too long, you’ll go blind.

SR  No composer has to do anything, as far as I’m concerned, except to write the best music that they are capable of. They should put all their energy and their learning and understanding into doing that. But many composers do find things in their lives that they do want to bring into their music. And that’s why I was dying to set Williams.

Steve Reich (American, B. 1936) is a composer and one of the pioneers of minimal music.
Jonathan Hepfer (American, B. 1983) is a percussionist, conductor, and concert curator specializing in avant-garde and experimental music.

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