The Reich Stuff; A Prom and Barbican Season Mark the 70th Birthday of Composer Steve Reich, and a Premiere of His New Work about a Reporter Murdered in Pakistan Confirms He Is Still at the Cutting Edge STEVE Reich Is Preoccupied These Days with Contemporary

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Reich Stuff; A Prom and Barbican Season Mark the 70th Birthday of Composer Steve Reich, and a Premiere of His New Work about a Reporter Murdered in Pakistan Confirms He Is Still at the Cutting Edge STEVE Reich Is Preoccupied These Days with Contemporary


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

torments. For the past year he has been writing a set of variations in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who, in October 2002, was kidnapped and butchered in Pakistan while researching links between its intelligence services and al Qaeda. Pearl was an enthusiastic violinist and his parents have created a foundation in his memory to promote interfaith tolerance and new music. Elton John, Ravi Shankar and Barbra Streisand are among its patrons. Steve Reich was enlisted to add his particular gloss of wisdom and consolation.

"I thought automatically of the Book of Daniel," he says, "of exile and cruelty, and mercy and compassion. And then I saw the terrible video put out by his captors, where his opening words are: 'My name is Daniel Pearl.' Such a magical name."

The Daniel Variations, interleaving the words of the two Daniels, ancient and recent, will be premiered at the Barbican during Steve Reich's 70th birthday festival in October, an act of homage to a man who changed music for ever four decades ago and continues to fret about its place and role in our troubled world.

He is talking to me from his new place in upstate New York, having sold his downtown apartment with its nagging view of the 9/11 craters. "We're living in a dangerous world," sighs Reich. 'What can music do about that? Music just goes ahead. It's an affirmative human action - the positive side of being alive."

Reich's affirmation began 40 years ago this summer when, finding his music derided by conventional musicians, he formed his own ensemble and pitched straight at the public ear. "I knew what I was doing," says Reich.

"All I needed was a few people who could hear what I had in my mind."

At the time, composers who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serial atonalities in the manner of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Reich, who had studied with Berio in California, dismissed these complexities as intrinsically eurocentric - a solution to problems he did not recognise or share. He found the lush romanticism of Mahler and Strauss equally alien to the busy, make-it rhythms of American city life.

Music, to Reich, began with the beat.

His impulse to write it began at 14 when a friend played him records of Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Stravinsky's-Rite of Spring. Soon after, he heard bebop - Charlie Parker on sax and Kenny Clarke on drums.

"Basically, I went into that room and never left it," says Reich.

By the mid-Sixties, he was at the cutting edge of a counterculture - literally cutting up tapes he had made of speech phrases and stitching them into hypnotically rhythmic loops that played in and out of phase with one another. The patterning captivated the psychedelic types who hung around downtown art galleries. He tried it out in live performance on two concert pianos, in Piano Phrase. At 30, Steve Reich had invented a form of minimalism that would alter the course of music history "Serialism is dead!" he now exults, ahead of a 70th birthday late-night Prom and an in-gathering of accolades. John Adams and Michael Nyman have named Reich as their leading influence. Arvo Part is a soulmate. Even Berio got to like his music before he died. More than any living composer, Steve Reich transformed the image of contemporary classical music from painfully abstruse to potentially cool.

Remixes of his early works can be heard at many dance clubs (there's a new set out next month from Warner).

"There was a historical break in what I did," he reflects, without braggardry.

"What happened was a similar kind of house cleaning to what Johann Sebastian Bach did 300 years ago, going back to basics. I didn't envisage this when I was starting out. I just had my nose to the grindstone and plugged away."

Playing mostly in galleries and small rooms, he earned his keep early on driving a house-moving van in lower Manhattan with a young admirer called Philip Glass. …

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