In conversation with the American minimalist music composer Steve Reich
At 80, Steve Reich is still a very busy composer. Considered the founder of minimalism, this subtle American first became known for his repetitive pieces, using soundtracks of human voices and noises, manipulating loops and desynchronizing them to create a hypnotic effect. He then transposes this concept of repetitive minimalism to instrumental music, from chamber music to opera. Always changing, intuitive and attractive, his work is aimed at a very large audience. We met in Paris during his residency at the Louis Vuitton Foundation.
Citizen K Homme: In what context did you write your first two repetitive pieces, the starting point of minimalism?
Steve Reich: I recorded It’s Gonna Rain, a song about Noah, the flood and the end of the world, in San Francisco in 1964. It was during the Cuban crisis, when Khrushchev wanted to send his nuclear warheads there. We could all have climbed in a cloud of radioactive dust. I was really worried about it, and I was also in the process of getting a divorce. Come Out was created to support the civil rights movement, based on a statement by a young African American wrongfully accused of murder.
Are you looking for new expressions of feelings?
Stravinsky said: “The melody is king. For me, it’s still there. When you write a melodic structure, you always wonder if it works. Is this something you want to listen to a second time? Is it ambiguous? Because if you want to listen to your music over and over again, it has to have this ambiguity – where’s the beginning, where’s the end?
You once wrote: “All music turns out to be ethnic music”. What did you mean by that?
I studied music from Ghana and Bali, considered ethnic music because it comes from societies other than ours. But if these cultures listen to our music, from their point of view they could also say that it is ethnic music, with all our complicated machines!
Do you attach great importance to lyrics, vocal music?
If you impose a text on the music, that text will make you do something that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. This is good, because it challenges you. You choose a text that commands you: “Now you are going to do what I tell you to do. This is what happened to me adapting Hebrew psalms or poems by William Carlos Williams.
Are you not rejecting tradition?
The traditional values of music never go away. Only their content changes. Musically speaking, what is a canon? (Hums a tune): This one is from the 13th century! But it could also come from Bartók. In a sense, anything that follows at any rhythmic interval is a canon.
Do you feel like you have enjoyed a golden age of music?
A young composer friend told me one day that he wished he had been born the same year as me. He was trying to say that my generation was preceded by Boulez, Stockhausen, John Cage. There was no melody, no need to stomp to keep time, no audible harmony. Everything was more volatile, more free if you will.
Are you interested in noticeable processes?
“Process” is a word I used in an essay I wrote in 1968 titled Music as a Gradual Process. But it was not a manifesto; I hate manifests. It would be like saying, “I’m not able to live my life, I need to tell myself how to live, and now, OK, I can follow the recipe.”
What do you think of the current situation in the United States?
Talking about the news is not really my thing. I don’t like artists who give you their political opinion, because deep down they don’t know anything and just give an automatic response modeled on what everyone is saying