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Five Ways of Looking at Steve Reich, Who Is a Genius (and a Jerk)

Headlining Knoxville’s Big Ears avant-garde music festival, the composer passes a baton to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

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Steve Reich, 2005. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo Jeffrey Herman)
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Words like “hypnotic” and “trance-like” often get thrown around in describing minimalist music, but they call to mind catatonic states nowhere close to the vitality of life displayed in “Drumming.” As Part I transitions to Part II, musicians move to the marimbas, gently playing the same repetitive rhythm heard on the bongos, and seeing them slowly become the dominant sound is viscerally exciting. Reich has popularized this technique, called phasing. Any Torah scholar will tell you that repetition in language, such as God telling Abraham “Lech Lecha” in B’reshit, is in the text to emphasize importance of what’s being said. Reich doesn’t actually say anything in “Drumming,” beyond the occasional Morse code-sound vocal chant, but every motion, even when a musicians stops, adds on to the other sounds coming from the stage.

In Part IV, the piece’s final section, all the instruments, which have each been given their own moment in the sun, play at the same time. Each musician is operating at full capacity on their own pattern, contributing to the whole without any acknowledgement of it. And then it ends, suddenly. Reich comes out and flings his arms around a musician, like a coach congratulating the winning pitcher in the final game of the World Series.

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4. On the last day of the Festival, Sunday, Reich has a public conversation with Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment is putting on Big Ears. Capps wants to focus on Reich’s early years, from his childhood to the late 1960s, when his groundbreaking tape recordings “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” were released. Like many artists of his stature, Reich has fielded questions about his early years many times before and has developed a series of stock answers in response. But like the repetitions in his music, many of these answers maintain their power after you’ve heard them the first time. Reich’s 1988 piece “Different Trains” deals with a powerful counterpoint—the idealistic spirit of American travel in the 1950s against the trains that carried Jews to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The piece ties into Reich’s childhood, which featured cross-country trips to see his divorced parents. “I realized I would have been going up the chimneys in Poland and you would have too,” he told me in our interview. He repeats the line talking to Capps, with a little hand swoosh upward to represent the chimneys.

A few in the crowd try to get Reich to answer Big Questions, which he has no interest in doing. Thoughts on current sampling culture? None. Can he speak on “Different Trains”? Without a specific question on the piece, no. Does he like Southern music? Beyond a technical appreciation, no. How does he feel about being in textbooks? He wishes he got paid for it.

Having learned my lesson, I narrow my focus and ask him to comment on the younger composers at Big Ears, specifically Greenwood. He excitedly talks about how Greenwood, with guitar picks, has created “the first new pizzicato since Bartok!” He sees new, hot composers like Greenwood and Bryce Dessner, who plays in the indie-rock band The National, as part of a growing trend among musicians who move through notated and non-notated music with equal ability.

Reich offhandedly announces that his ensemble, out of commission since 2006, will be reuniting in some capacity later this year. His musical memory is staggering. He talks about how John Coltrane “restored harmony amidst free jazz” and describes in great detail the setting of his first time hearing Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse! debut Africa/Brass. How does Coltrane manage to stay on an E chord for 16 minutes straight? “If you’ve got melodic changes, rhythmic complexity, and temporal variety, then you can stay put on it!”

***

5. The entire weekend has been engineered to lead up to Sunday night’s tribute, and the engineering has worked. There’s an excitement in the air as the masses gather in anticipation of three hours of Reich’s music at the Tennessee Theater. There are several reminders that this is taking place within a rock festival—the men’s bathroom at the historic theater, a renovated 1920s movie palace, reeks of weed. The guy sitting next to me offers to sell me drugs.

The night opens up with Reich reprising “Clapping Music” and is followed up by Greenwood performing “Electric Counterpoint,” a piece released with “Different Trains” that Greenwood has performed several times in the past few years. The piece can be performed solo or with the recorded accompaniment of a bass guitar and 12 guitars. The piece lasts about 15 minutes, and Greenwood, alone on stage with a MacBook Pro, works through it like a mellow wrestler, playing back and forth with the pre-recorded guitars.

When Greenwood first performed “Counterpoint” in 2011, it caught Reich’s attention and led to the creation of Reich’s latest piece, 2012’s “Radio Rewrite,” where Reich reworks two Radiohead songs into a classical composition. Reich’s feelings on the connection between notated and non-notated music vary with the winds. He’s said that “the window between the street and the concert hall” should be open, while repeatedly commenting that notated and non-notated music should be treated differently. At any rate, “Radio Rewrite” is not one of his best works. Its lacks some of the effortless transitions of Reich’s better pieces and corners itself into a lull. Playing the piece after Greenwood is surely a bit of message programming, Big Ears passing the torch from one genius composer to the next. The hand-off isn’t flawless, but the sentiment is sweet.

Besides, everyone is really here for “Music for 18 Musicians.” Like “Drumming,” “Music” is about an hour long and will fine-tune the listener’s pattern recognition skills. But while “Drumming” finds its energy in its main sections and is calm in its transitions, “Music” does the inverse: Its tensions, slight as they are, pop up during the transitions between one of its 20 sections. It is Reich’s first attempt at writing for a larger number of musicians and is often played with more than 18 musicians, given the doubling up of instruments required in its most basic form. A cycle of 11 chords is played at the beginning and the end. The length of these pulses is determined by the musicians and how long they can breathe. As Reich described in his original liner notes, “[t]hey take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing.” Reviewing it in 1978, Robert Christagu determined that it was “[v]ery mathematical, yet also very, well, organic.”

It’s as physical a piece as “Drumming,” but not in the same easily visible ways. Watching “Music” gives one no sense of any physical struggle—“comfortably sustain” the key words here. It’s a constant balancing act, with patterns rising and falling over each other. It feels like watching a Fibonacci sequence come to life but also like a duck paddling across a lake, legs furiously moving underneath the surface. Not much happens, everything happens. And then it ends.

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Five Ways of Looking at Steve Reich, Who Is a Genius (and a Jerk)

Headlining Knoxville’s Big Ears avant-garde music festival, the composer passes a baton to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

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