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Red Bull Music Academy: Steve Reich lecture Q&A from students

After he'd given a lecture to the students of the Red Bull Music Academy, Steve Reich took a series of questions from the floor; here are his answers. Illustration by Gemma Milly.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Illustration by Gemma Milly
Illustration by Gemma Milly.

Steve Reich gave a very inspiring lecture to the students of the 2010 Red Bull Music Academy (which you can read here). Afterwards he took a series of questions from the floor and I’ve tried to transcribe the answers as best I can on this blog, viagra 100mg because they were an intriguing bunch:

How do you balance the listenability of your music with what you want to create?
When I write I’m alone in the music, and my theory is if I love it I hope you do too, but I think it’s valid to question listenability if you’re writing a jingle. It’s not the same with a fine art composition. People are intuitively smart about music so you can’t fool them – they will smell a rat [if your music doesn't come from the heart].

How easy is it to get into composition if you’re not classically trained?
Sometimes you can see shapes in music and follow them. My son got Pro Tools and everything changed because he suddenly saw what he was doing and the eye got involved in addition to the ear. It changes your perspective when you can see the music you are composing. I work with Sibelius; it’s easy to learn the basics but you should ask yourself – will it be useful? Will it help you?

Are you interested in audio illusions?
Well I haven’t used phasing since the 70s but [having said that] my entire arsenal of equipment is Macbook Pro, Sibelius and Reason. My new piece will feature speech samples from 9/11and they are triggered from a notation programme. I also wanted to create the equivalent in sound of stop action in a film, and something called granular synthesis can stop a sound anywhere, even on a consonant – “I saw a fishhhhhhhh…..” – it does a fantastic job of it.

Of course the audience want to know more about his new project…
During 9/11 I was living on Broadway, four blocks from Ground Zero. My son and grandkids were in the apartment when it happened, and I won’t go into details but it was terrifying but basically our neighbours saved my family. I didn’t do anything about it but a year ago I realised I had unfinished business and so I’m in the middle of a new piece based on the Jewish tradition whereby you don’t leave a body before it’s buried. These women didn’t know what parts were in the tents [at Ground Zero] but they came down and said psalms 24 hours a day.

I worry that I’m saying something flippant now, but how did you describe your music in the early days?
Hey, lighten up, they got London once so let’s hope they’re not back in a hurry!
It’s not important what you call your music: journalists want a label, but they’ll invent something anyway so it doesn’t matter. Philip Glass called it repetitive music. I don’t like ‘minimal’ but it’s better than trance or some other things. If a journalist ever pushes you on this say ‘wash out your mouth, it’s your job to write the next piece’. Don’t put yourself in a box – it’s someone else’s job to do that. Be polite though, and don’t make enemies if you don’t have to.

What is the process when you start writing? And how much has it changed?
Oh boy! I briefly did pieces for orchestra, and they were by far not my best works; they were too phat. I learnt that in the late 80s, so since the beginning, minus a little break, I have written for ensemble, e.g. six pianos. I want identical pairs of instruments. Before Music for 18 Musicians I used rhythmic melodic pattern, like drumming on a phone but then I thought what happens if if I worked things out harmonically and it really worked, so I continued. I start with a harmonic super structure, which before computers was done on a multi track tape. I’ve always worked in real sound, not in my head. I’m a crippled man, I have to hear it! In the mid 80s I got a grant and bought a Tascam 8 track, which weighed a tonne, but I used it for the next ten years until midi appeared. Different Trains was composed on a Mac which was easy. No, that’s a complete lie, it crashed every 15 seconds! I invent harmonic movements that don’t come intuitively, which is a bit like hanging onto a horse for dear life [to keep control]. All the details are done on computer but there is a lot of garbage. My trash can runneth over!

How do you advise moving from the creation of songs to symphonies or longer works?
It’s usually a mess when pop musicians try to do that – for example I would never advise Radiohead to write a symphony – they’re geniuses anyway so why bother. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that is mad. But if you are really serious about it it may mean going to music school to get the practical knowledge, which could be a laborious series of years.

Do you think it’s better to concentrate on emotion or concept?
Bach was the greatest improviser of his day but I’m not much of one so the bedrock of anything I’ve ever done has rested on musical intuition. How does it sound on Monday, Tuesday, next month? Does it keep sounding good?

And with that there is a standing ovation for this most revered of modern composers. I think there’s a room full of people here who will go away and reappraise the oeuvre of Steve Reich if they haven’t already done so.


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