Steve Reich’s compositions dropped on unsuspecting audiences like bomb shells. A Berlin concert prompted an audience member to pound the stage with her umbrella saying, “We surrender.”
The Pulitzer Prize winner, whose minimalistic style confounded expectations, will be celebrated Thursday, April 14 at Massey Hall with a Soundstreams concert celebrating his 80th birthday.
Two members of his Steve Reich Ensemble, Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker, will be on hand along with a crowd of musicians influenced by his work, which will also be honoured in ceremonies this year at Lincoln Center in New York and the Barbican in London, England.
The concert will include Reich’s most famous works, “Clapping Music” — which is two musicians clapping for three minutes — “Tehillium” and “Music for 18 Musicians,” “the most popular piece I ever created,” says Reich, for which he won a Grammy.
Reich is also participating in a talk at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library with artist and musician Michael Snow, and he will mentor young composers as well during his visit to Toronto.
But don’t expect a speech at the concert. “I won’t say a word,” Reich says.
We’ve interviewed six people who know his music well to describe his impact on them and the music world.
The pianist will play at the concert. “Playing Reich has taught me an entirely new understanding of what it means to be present while performing. You have to split yourself up into a multiplicity: a listener, a physical mover and someone to moderate between the two. The first time I played “Six Pianos” was with the NEXUS, Reich’s posse. I was struggling so much that I was sure I would be fired. The day before the concert, my brain suddenly rewired itself, and it was instantly easy and gloriously fun.
“In the early days of tours to Europe, we ‘paid our dues’ by driving cars and trucks, loading and unloading percussion and audio equipment, setting up instruments and taking them down at the end of the concerts. At a concert in Brussels, Belgium, in 1972, the concert organizer invited us to get something to eat after our performance. He took us to a Spanish restaurant. A small group appeared on a small stage and began performing flamenco music. The two female dancers began clapping palmas, the traditional intricate rhythmic handclapping patterns of flamenco. Steve leaned over to me and said, ‘This is fantastic! Music that doesn’t involve carrying around any instruments. You just use your hands!’ A few months later, I arrived for a rehearsal in Steve’s loft and he had written “Clapping Music,” a piece inspired by the flamenco dancers.”
“I’m a musician; each of my films involves a particular sound/image situation (eg. Wavelength has a 40-minute electronic glissando). When I met Steve, I was also investigating free improvisation in my own playing and listening. There is no improvisation in Steve’s music. Steve’s music is radically new but is also conservative in the sense that it requires, for its maximum expressiveness, extremely accurate and disciplined readings from the ‘classical’ musicians who play it.”
He is director of programming for Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. “I love that many DJs and indie musicians cite him as an influence. Often the contemporary music world is put into a box and people think it doesn’t have a broad audience. But when you take the time and listen to a composer like Steve, you begin to understand both where music has come from and where it is going.”
He is the artistic director of Soundstreams. “When Steve started out, he was going in the opposite direction from the establishment, who were mostly writing serial music. No one would take seriously the music he was creating so, following in a long tradition, he formed his own ensemble, the Steve Reich Ensemble, so his music might get heard. I’ve always admired that he was strong enough in his convictions to go it alone with a few friends. Of course, it paid off handsomely in the end, but he couldn’t possibly have known that when he started.”
The percussionist will play at the concert. “The first time I was exposed to Steve Reich’s music was in 1996, while I was still student at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. I had zero knowledge of what the American contemporary music scene was and listening to his “Nagoya Marimbas” was a sensational discovery that inspired in me a new interest in music from the U.S. After I moved to New York in 1998 to study at the Juilliard School, I soon learned and experienced how important his music is for the history of percussion. And meeting him at a workshop for his work Drumming was definitely one of the highlights of my school life.”
By Trish Crawford