Bob’s interview with Jonny Smith regarding Steve Reich and Musicians

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L to R: Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger, Steve Reich, Glen Velez (1981)

In October 2020 percussionist Jonny Smith asked me a series of questions regarding my experience with the music of Steve Reich, and my relationship with his ensemble. Jonny interviewed other members of Reich’s ensemble as well, and wrote a paper: “Relationship and Community in the Creative Process: The Steve Reich and Musicians Ensemble”, which is now published on the Drumming@50 website. I answered the questions in November 2020.

Interview Questions for Bob:

JS. When Russell first recommended that you become involved in the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble, what made you want to be a part of it?

BB. Mainly curiosity. After he began working with Reich, Russ explained phasing to me, and we practiced Piano Phase on two marimbas a bit. The musical structures that Reich was using (and Riley and Glass for that matter) connected very directly with those I was learning about through studying Indian, African and Indonesian music at Wesleyan University during the early 1970s.

JS. Was there any type of “audition” process (either formal or informal) that you went through when you first met Reich and started playing with the group?

BB. Sure, although it was not a solo audition like for an orchestra position. I went along with Russ to a rehearsal in Reich’s NYC loft and just played the patterns that Steve showed me on bongos and marimba. They were easy to repeat, so I played along with the group right away. I wasn’t asked to phase against anyone at first. I think Reich appreciated that I could pick up patterns quickly, and that I had good facility with sticks and mallets. Evidently those things and Russ’s recommendation were enough.

JS. How would you describe the group dynamic during your time with the ensemble? (I’m thinking of this as being somewhere on a spectrum between being totally collaborative with no hierarchy and being rigidly hierarchical in the way that a traditional orchestra would be with conductor, concert master, section leaders, etc.) Did it change over time?

BB. I was part of Reich’s ensembles continuously for nearly 40 years. Over that time the group membership changed and the ensemble size increased to accommodate the developing repertoire. Steve himself, of course, remained the undisputed leader of the ensemble in every way. A certain heirarchy developed in the group in the sense that Reich often had specific players in mind for particular parts in his pieces. For example, many of the original parts for Music for 18 Musicians were labeled with individual names reflecting Steve’s preferences, and we sometimes had to hand off mallets and switch instruments during performances in order to accommodate this. Later pieces were scored more traditionally, but Steve usually decided who played which part, at least among the percussionists, although sometimes Russ made the choices.

JS. What do you think were the most significant factors that allowed for the group to have such longevity and cohesiveness?

BB. One major factor was the social/political atmosphere in the United States during the 1970s. From the time I joined the group through the composition, touring and recording of Music for 18 Musicians, the ensemble functioned quasi-cooperatively. Steve was already good at fund-raising and grant applications, but the expenses involved with a large touring ensemble were huge, and musicians’ fees were minimal (so to speak). All of us made a commitment, whether consciously or intuitively, to be part of a group that supported a significant new kind of music that, at first, enjoyed limited popularity. Steve’s demand for a rigorous rehearsal schedule was challenging in many ways, but also intensely invigorating. The lack of financial reward was accepted or ignored in favor of working together to explore something truly unique. Later, as Steve and his music became increasingly popular and acclaimed, the ensemble was handled far more professionally regarding fees, travel, and accommodations.

JS. How would you characterize the relationship that you developed with Reich during your time with the ensemble? Were there specific encounters/events that you think of as significant in the development of your relationship with Reich?

BB. I believe Steve and I had, and continue to have, a deep mutual respect. There were many “encounters” throughout the time I was actively performing and touring with his ensemble, most of which were challenging or inspiring, and sometimes both at the same time. I consider specific events and experiences like that to be personal and confidential.

JS. How were disagreements/conflicts within the group (either musical or interpersonal) resolved? (Be as specific as you’re comfortable being. I’m less interested in what the specific conflicts may have been and more interested in the means by which they were resolved.)

BB. Purely musical issues such as tempo, dynamics, pacing, etc. were discussed often among the players, although Reich was always the ultimate arbiter. At first, he was rather rigid about how he wanted these elements to be realized, but later he came to be more accepting of individual players’ styles and expression, leading to a kind of musical “interpretation” developing within the ensemble. Even in relation to a movement considered “minimalist” or “process”, we approached the music with a chamber sensibility. Eventually Steve accepted this approach, and today he actively embraces the varied interpretations younger groups bring to his pieces.

Disagreements and conflicts arose from time to time, both regarding musical questions as well as technical, logistical and financial problems. At least in my experience disputes always were decided and resolved by Steve Reich himself.

Follow-up questions for Bob:

JS. In your response about what factors you think contributed to the longevity and cohesion of the ensemble, you said that “One major factor was the social/political atmosphere in the United States during the 1970s.” I think I can take a pretty good guess at what specific things you’re referring to, but for the sake of a research paper I don’t want to assume anything. Could you elaborate on what you mean and how you think it affected the ensemble?

BB. I entered the Eastman School of Music as a freshman in 1965 and graduated in 1969. The changes in attitudes and politics that occurred in the U.S. during that short period were dramatic, especially among members of my generation, and carried through the following decade. An example I often give to demonstrate the rapidity of change at the time is the Eastman dormitories. When I arrived in Rochester men and women were housed in separate buildings, and men were allowed to sign in to visit girls’ rooms only on certain evenings, and for no more than a few hours at a time. Doors had to remain open, and the hallways were monitored. Women were not allowed in the men’s dorm at any time. During my freshman year a student became pregnant, and was expelled from the school immediately because of it. By the time I was a senior four years later the dormitories had become fully coeducational, and there were no longer any restrictions whatsoever. At the same time, the military draft was reinstituted, and activism against the Viet Nam war became intense; distrust of, and resistance to most forms of authority came to define the entire era; the materialism that pervaded the post-depression/post-WW2 generation began to be viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility by younger people; and alternative forms of religious and spiritual expression were being explored with enthusiasm. This is the atmosphere I’m referring to, and it had a profound impact on the arts, of course including music. Ensembles like Reich’s, and Nexus too, were products of this time. Although both groups ultimately became financially viable to some extent, both began and evolved without reliance on regular salaries for the members, and without any clear expectation of success in the public marketplace. I can’t speak for others in Reich’s ensemble, but at the beginning of my own professional career I made definite decisions for myself about the importance ­– or not – of things like material possessions, a home and family, and connections to organized institutions such as universities and symphony orchestras. My emphasis was on exploration and experimentation.

JS. In my interview with Russell Hartenberger, he mentioned that you and he and Jim Preiss became the three players in the ensemble that were closest with Reich: “Steve grew to trust especially the three of us the most because he knew we were devoted to the music in a certain way and he could trust us with parts. … When he was assigning parts, he would give what he considered to be the most important parts to Bob, Jim, and me.” Russell further explained that new players in the ensemble, particularly percussionists, would sometimes bring their questions to the three of you rather than going straight to Reich, similar in some ways to section leaders in an orchestra. Could you offer a comment on the extent and significance of your leadership role within the ensemble and why/how this role came to you? (Do you agree with Russell’s assessment?)

BB. Russ’s comments are certainly true in relation to him, and to some extent Jim. Compared to them I was a junior member of the group. I don’t recall being asked for advice by new players joining the ensemble myself. Reich usually did give important and/or more difficult parts to the three of us – particularly keyboard parts, although sometimes he just gave the percussion “book” to Russ, who would choose the part he preferred and assign the others to the rest of us. I always felt comfortable with this arrangement since I’m poor at making decisions. Between Russ and me the feeling was that Jim Preiss would play anything he was given with the greatest authority and style.

 

 

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