Master of the Minimal; Steve Reich, Described by the Village Voice as America's Greatest Living Composer, Has a UK Premiere in Birmingham on Thursday. He Spoke to Terry Grimley from His Home in New York - I Stay Home and Write Music, Because That's My Job in Life

The Birmingham Post (England), March 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

Master of the Minimal; Steve Reich, Described by the Village Voice as America's Greatest Living Composer, Has a UK Premiere in Birmingham on Thursday. He Spoke to Terry Grimley from His Home in New York - I Stay Home and Write Music, Because That's My Job in Life


Byline: Terry Grimley

Many years ago Steve Reich used to drive a taxi. He was living in San Francisco at the time and found that teaching music was sapping the energy he needed to compose, so he opted for something that would pay the bills while leaving his musical mind untaxed.

Around this time he befriended another young composer, a trumpeter by training, who was very interested in the music of Reich's teacher Luciano Berio and was writing avant-garde pieces in the style of Stockhausen. They shared a commission to write music for a theatre event.

"He was very good," Reich recalls. "He could sit at a desk and write this music and, unlike a lot of them who faked it, he could really hear it in his head."

The trumpeter-composer was called Phil Lesh. Shortly afterwards Lesh met up with an old school friend, Jerry Garcia, and was persuaded to learn the bass guitar to join a band Garcia was forming called The Warlocks. They became The Grateful Dead and the rest is rock'n'roll history.

I love stories like this and quickly told Reich one of my favourites: that possibly the unlikeliest pupil of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was the songwriter Burt Bacharach. He promptly capped it by pointing out that Stephen Sondheim studied with modernist American composer Milton Babbit.

Apart from providing innocent entertainment for musical anoraks, such anecdotes about the indivisibility of music seem to chime with Steve Reich's own career and music.

He is one of the leading creators of Minimalism, the American movement which, in the 1960s, drew a line under the European post- Schoenberg tradition and started again, drawing on the contemplative religious traditions of the Far East, a strong hypnotic pulse and a simplified harmonic language which sat naturally alongside the more exploratory pop music of the time.

Now approaching 70, Reich has been described as America's greatest living composer, and works like Drumming (1971) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) have taken their place as benchmarks in late 20th century music.

On Thursday Symphony Hall hosts the UK premiere of his latest piece, Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings, as part of an all-Reich concert with the London Sinfonietta.

It was commissioned by the European Concert Hall Organisation, and following its first performance in Colgone is touring member venues around Europe, with performances in London and New York to follow in the autumn.

It is a dance piece featuring the Akram Khan Dance Company, but to describe it as collaboration between composer and choreographer may be a slight exaggeration, as Reich explains.

"Basically the piece was commissioned for the London Sinfonietta about a year ago," he says. "Shortly after that Akram Khan visited me in New York City when he was over here."

Khan wondered if the sound of dancers stamping their feet could be incorporated into the score, but Reich declined because he wanted it to be playable in concerts and not to be dependent on the presence of dancers.

"We had another brief meeting at Heathrow Airport and then I had no further contact until I saw the finished piece. That's generally the case with choreographers - even Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who has choreographed more of my pieces than anyone, including Music for 18 Musicians, she just did those pieces and I never saw Fase until 16 years after."

It isn't that he's not interested in dance, he insists. "No, I'm very interested in dance, but I'm not going to go to Hong Kong to see a new piece. If it's in New York City I'll go. If you look on my website there are something like 150-200 forthcoming performances of my music listed, and if I went to them all I wouldn't have time for anything else. So I stay home and write music, because that's my job in life."

That said, he did go to the world premiere of Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings in

Cologne. …

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Master of the Minimal; Steve Reich, Described by the Village Voice as America's Greatest Living Composer, Has a UK Premiere in Birmingham on Thursday. He Spoke to Terry Grimley from His Home in New York - I Stay Home and Write Music, Because That's My Job in Life
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