By Seth Colter Walls
Minimalist composer Steve Reich, a true giant of American music, was finally given a Pulitzer Prize this week. Still in a hurry, at age 72, to finish his latest piece, the speed-talking Reich spoke with NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls. Excerpts:
Walls: The Pulitzer committee's taste in matters classical has long been criticized as narrow and academic. As a composer outside the "university" mold, were you surprised to win?
Reich: Yes, I was surprised. But I was even more surprised to see David Lang win [last year]. Of course, I'm sorry they never gave it to Duke Ellington or Morton Feldman or Conlon Nancarrow. Hopefully, there's still time to give it to Terry Riley and Philip Glass. But obviously, there's been a change in the weather on the committee since [WNYC radio host] John Schaefer took the chair.
Some say this amounts to more of a lifetime achievement honor for you, and that this piece isn't necessarily the best work to have won for. Is there truth to that?
Well, look. It would have been nice to get it in '71 for "Drumming," or in '76 for "Music for 18 Musicians." But they happened to pick a very good piece when it comes to [my work from] the last 10 years. Yeah, I'm glad they got this one. I guess I'm a member of the "better late than never" club. [Laughs] If you hang around long enough ...
I missed the premiere of "Double Sextet" last year, and when I heard it had won, I found myself upset that there was no way to buy the piece yet.
Yeah, that's just part of the recording business. When you have a 24-minute piece, the official recording hinges on finishing and recording two other pieces to go with it [on a CD]. I'm working on two other pieces right now, and have to finish writing the second one, actually. I've got a piece for all rock-and-roll people already completed, and it's going to premiere later this year.
What's the instrumentation?
Two electric guitars, electric bass, piano and drums. It's called "2x5" because, like "Double Sextet," there will be two ensembles playing the same [music], or a band playing against a recording of itself.
How did that come about?
Well, there's a festival in the U.K. this summer where [early electronic band] Kraftwerk is coming back, and I got asked to write a piece. And Mark Stewart, who plays guitar for Paul Simon but also Bang on a Can, and Bryce Dessner and some other people wanted something to play. It's going to be huge, you know, in front of 5,000 people. It'll eventually be on the record with "Double Sextet" and a percussion piece, so it probably won't be out till 2011.
As you were writing "Double Sextet," you talked in interviews about turning away from the more expressionistic language of other recent pieces, and going back to ...
More rhythmic forms, yeah. Very heavy. "Double Sextet" is on the verge of rock and roll itself. The interlocking piano parts are really, really heavy-duty. And Lisa Kaplan, the pianist in eighth blackbird, she's really a rocker, you know? And that's what glues the piece together. The woodwinds and strings play this much longer melody against it. What happened was the piece started with my publisher saying, "You've got to write a piece for eighth blackbird." And I asked, "What instruments do they play?" And she said, you know "One flute, one clarinet," and I said, "God, I can't write for that. I've got to have these pairs of instruments."
Explain that method a bit. Your first works were "phase" pieces, and you've since written several works for twinned groups of players, who actually play the same notes all the way through. Describe the effect you're after.
Say you're playing piano, a short, repeating pattern, and I join you in unison. And with the same one-bar pattern, you stay put and I get just a little bit faster—because that happens—and eventually it's like I'm one sixteenth note ahead of you. Like a round or canon, like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Except we're both playing piano. The audience, they don't know who's playing what. If I was playing a harpsichord and you were playing a piano, that wouldn't happen. But when you have multiples of the same instrument, you get a web of interlocking sound where you don't know or care who's playing what. But it's a propulsive, very complex web that really grabs your ear.
By Seth Colter Walls