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The Reich Stuff

Composer Steve Reich likes rock, vegetables, non-Western music and modern technology. But no Brahms, please.

November 17, 1996|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

NEW YORK — SoHo's children are middle-aged these days, and composer Steve Reich, a fixture on New York's rebellious downtown loft scene when he was a bearded youth, recently turned 60.

It is a becoming age for such a serious artist, another stage in what, in his purely Minimalist days, he called "music as a gradual process." Reich has not yet run out of Bastilles to storm--at the moment he is mulling "the whole computer superstructure on which our society rests"--but he also has his son's college tuition to pay.

"I don't know how anyone makes a living here," groans the artist who once drove a taxicab and ran a moving company to pay for his composing habit, and now says that 75% to 85% of his income comes from Europe. "There's nothing going on in this country."

It is symptomatic of the manic pace of his professional life that Southern California's portion of "nothing going on" includes Thursday's all-Reich UCLA concert at Veterans Wadsworth Theater (featuring his own ensemble and Theater of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier); a performance of one of his signature pieces, "Drumming," at a Green Umbrella New Music Series concert on Jan. 27; and the West Coast premiere of Reich's multimedia work "The Cave" at Irvine Barclay Theater in Orange County on May 15.

On the recording front, Nonesuch last month released a CD of new works and is planning a 10-CD retrospective for release next March. Reich is one of the very few composers in America who can be sure that every piece he writes will be recorded and, most likely, sell.

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"How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life." The one-line text of Reich's 14-minute piece "Proverb" (which is on both the new CD and Thursday's program), quoted from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, could be the Minimalist credo. And it might once have been a perfect epigram for a composer who, as Reich did 30 years ago, twice built quarter-hour works--"It's Gonna Rain" in 1965 and "Come Out" in 1966--out of nothing more than a phrase of speech, looped, doubled and repeated, with the two loops slightly out of sync.

Yet Reich is not a man of small thoughts or great patience. He is a wiry, edgy and voluble New Yorker who spits out ideas like a tennis ball machine, expressing his antipathies in categorical statements.

He dislikes orchestral string sections ("too fat, too wide a sound") and composers with tenure ("the whole academic establishment could perish tomorrow and it wouldn't change a thing"). He has no interest in the core classical repertoire ("I detest German romantic music--after Beethoven, I'm outta there"). He has no tolerance for composers who ignore rock 'n' roll ("If you don't learn from it, then you're a fool"), or those who imitate it too closely ("No one can pursue the style of the month and succeed"), or those with an ideological approach ("I don't like people who have manifestoes").

There is a reason he has tossed whole segments of Western culture from his life: to make room for a range of other influences, such as bebop, 12th century organum, Ghanaian drumming, musique concrete, Jewish liturgy and baroque canon. The soundtrack of the Manhattan household in which Reich grew up in was the standard symphonic one, but what he remembers most vividly was hearing Charlie Parker, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Bach's "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5 at age 14.

"It was like I was living in some house and someone told me, 'Look, there's another room,' " he recalls.

There is nothing pastiche-like about the way Reich has assimilated these sources, though. However disparate they seem, Reich has found a way to bind them in his own style. From Stravinsky, he suggests, he extracted the notion of static music built on driving rhythms and a fondness for ostinatos (nuggets of melody that, rather than developing, simply repeat). From Parker, he lifted the indecorous jounce and skip of 1940s jazz. From Bach, he learned the practice of canon--the art of building a piece methodically from a melody that is doubled, layered and overlapped with itself.

Reich has always thought rhythmically, and his first love was the drums--at Cornell as an undergraduate he played with a weekend rock band. Even during his "serious" years as a student at Juilliard in New York and Mills College in Oakland, he kept one ear glued to the jazz world, especially that of John Coltrane.

A dozen years after Reich was shown that "other room," he discovered A.M. Jones' transcriptions of West African drumming in a four-volume set called "Studies in African Music." Reich found himself powerfully attracted to African music and spent the summer of 1971 studying drumming in Ghana. He was intrigued less by the instruments' exotic sound than the music's structural bedrock: the dizzying but rigorously logical play of interlocking rhythmic patterns.

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