Answers to questions about “minimalist music” and Steve Reich

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Nancy Uscher is currently Provost of the California Institute of the Arts. The following correspondence involved questions from her daughter, Alessandra Barrett, now a student at CalArts, regarding the term “minimalist music” and my association with the composer Steve Reich.

December 1, 2008

Dear Bob:

I think I mentioned that Alessandra (my daughter) had decided to come to CalArts. She wrote out a list of questions and would be grateful for even very brief answers. Her focus will be the phasing music Steve has written and she is also talking to Shem Guibbory (who played in the violin phases) about that, but was interested in your experience working with Steve Reich, in general. You’ll notice that Alessandra talks about minimalistic music in her questions and I’d be curious if you even use that word anymore or do you think it is a dated concept?

Dear Nancy,

Steve Reich has never been a fan of the word “minimal” in relation to his music, but there’s no question that his early music is allied with the early movements in dance and visual arts that are categorized with that term. If you compare a work like “The Cave” with a work like “Symphony #5 in C minor”, you have to conclude that Beethoven composed minimalist music, unlike the composer Steve Reich, who worked with very large architecture using elaborate, contrapuntal forms, and highly chromatic melodic and harmonic structure. Several weeks ago we performed some of Steve’s music for the opening of a massive exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings at the MassMOCA. Steve was a close friend of LeWitt, especially in the early 70s in New York City, and there are obvious connections to be seen in their respective work from that period.

I’ll try to answer Alessandra’s questions below.

1. How was it working with Steve Reich?

That’s an enormous question (How was it working with Cage or Takemitsu or Boulez?). I began performing with Steve’s ensemble early in 1973. He was very demanding about how the music should be played; very involved in all aspects of its creation and realization (for example, hiring musicians in order to examine and hear alternative orchestrations; learning about microphones and amplification systems; choosing and purchasing required percussion instruments and specific sticks and mallets; selecting musicians who could perform in the way and at the level he wanted; and, for many years, actively performing in the ensemble himself); and very good at promoting and marketing himself and his product. Of course, none of this was easy at the time, and there was (and still is) tremendous resistance from the classical and academic musical establishments to accepting Steve’s work as being a bona fide part of the continuum of western European musical tradition. In the early 70s, Steve, like several other highly motivated composers and choreographers in New York City (Phil Glass, Laura Dean), followed a business paradigm used by visual artists. They formed charitable foundations in order to obtain and use donations from high profile and extremely wealthy patrons. Recently, Steve has been awarded many very lucrative prizes and commissions, but in the early days, these were not nearly as forthcoming, and he regularly used his own money to pay for musicians’ fees, instrument rentals and many other expenses. In addition, Steve adamantly refused to become involved in the academic teaching establishment (except when he was a student), and so the financial security of that way of life has not been part of his world.

2. How did you feel about being at the forefront of the minimalist music scene?

I think all of us in Steve’s ensemble in the 70s and early 80s considered the endeavor to be somewhat cooperative in a political and financial sense. None of us made money doing it then, and the commitment to rehearsing was often extreme. It didn’t have much to do with appreciating a “minimalist music scene” – we were performing unique music that was powerful and exciting to play. As one of the percussionists in the ensemble, I know we all felt some pride, and maybe a little vindication, playing in pieces that required us and our instruments to play continuously throughout entire concert programs, in the same way that string players do in chamber or orchestra settings. I continually had to remind people of this when we were asked questions about how it was possible for us to physically sustain continuous playing for 90 minutes, or to maintain concentration for the length of a 50 minute piece.

3. Do you believe that “phasing” is a very innovative technique? Why?

To my knowledge, it was an innovative idea to ask human musicians to do it with control. Any musician who has played in any kind of large ensemble has experienced the process of phasing – one or more lines or patterns becoming gradually out of synch with another. In fact, that may be a more natural state of affairs than the precision of playing together. Of course, in standard music, phasing is something everyone tries to avoid, but it still happens – especially in a poor ensemble. It is a natural process in nature and also in the world of machines. Steve has written that his first reaction to hearing two identical tape loops go gradually out of phase when played on two separate recorders was that this was something specific to machinery, and human beings would never be able to replicate it. However, when he tried to do it himself against a tape recorder, he found he could in fact accomplish it, although not as well as the machines. With practice, we found it was possible to control the process and begin to approach the precision of the machines. Of course, the result of the phasing process, at least the way Steve used it, was a very old musical structure – a canon at a specific rhythmic interval.

4. Many people believe minimalist music is quite controversial. Why do you think this is? How would you respond to those people?

I don’t know why people believe anything. To me, the term “minimalist music” is now too broad an umbrella to answer the questions meaningfully.

5. Do you think that performing Steve Reich’s “phasing” pieces takes more concentration than say a piece of classical repertoire, or just a different degree of concentration?

I think it’s the same degree and kind of concentration needed for a pianist to play a fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, or something like that. Phasing, in the Reich way, is demanding to do well, and can be scary on a concert for anyone not experienced with the technique, but that’s equally true for someone playing an exposed solo part in a major orchestral piece.

6. Why do you like performing minimalist music?

I don’t like performing all “minimalist music”. I enjoy playing good music with clear structure and strong formal architecture, and I enjoy performing together with great players committed to doing their best in an interesting musical context. Steve Reich’s music, from the beginning of my involvement with it, has been mentally challenging, physically invigorating, and great-sounding when played well. After 35 years, I still hear new things when I play it. You can’t ask for more from any kind of music.

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