‘Every creature has a song’

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot present their 20th century opera, ‘Three Tales,’ to a Jerusalem audience.

Reich 311 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
Reich 311
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
He is considered the greatest living American composer and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year. She is a pioneer in the realm of video art exhibited around the world. On Monday night, New Yorkers Steve Reich, 73, and wife, Beryl Korot, 65, presented extracts from their collaborative works, “The Cave” and “Three Tales”, to a small audience at the intimate Jerusalem Music Center.
The couple are frequent visitors to Israel, and Reich is a member of the the JMC’s international advisory committee.
“The Cave” is a documentary video opera on the Tomb of the Patriarchs exploring the roots of religion through the biblical character of Abraham and features three acts containing interviews with Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.
The more recent “Three Tales”, called an electronic opera, is a reflection of the 20th century through the stories of the Hindenburg, Bikini and Dolly, addressing the impact of technology from the dirigible disaster to artificial cloning. It combines historical film, video footage and computer-created images projected on a large screen to the backdrop of Reich’s haunting and repetitive, minimalist electronic music.
“‘The Cave was finished in 1993, and was shown around Europe live and produced on stage on five video screens, and we thought, ‘there must be an easier way,’” said Reich. “Technology changed so that Beryl could do multiple images on one screen, and we were asked, ‘would we write a piece about the 20th century?’” The result is not only a marvelous, multimedia reflection on the last century, but an exploration of the ethical debate over the future of the human species.
“You remember back in the late nineties, everyone was thinking about Y2K and the end of the millennium and how everything’s gonna blow up, and people were writing works or novels or short stories or essays about the end of the 20th century?” Reich recalled. “So we said we’d think about and we went home and we talked about it. And very quickly, we thought, if you were in space looking down, and you took a picture of planet earth in the year 1900, and then you took another picture in the year 2,000. you would say, ‘I don't even recognize it anymore.
Look at all the cement, look at all the electric lights.
“My father was born in 1904 and he told me about how horses used to bring trolleys down Broadway when he was a kid [and about] the gaslights in New York City. So technology has been for better and for worse the most conspicuous and most obvious change in the 20th century. But technology is a very abstract idea, so we needed some stories to tell the beginning of the century, middle of the century, end of the century.”
DONNING A characteristic cap, the New York-born Reich described the three operatic acts with the same kind of understated humor that underlines his satire.
“The first story was ‘Hindenburg’, not the general, the Zeppelin. It was a dirigible filled with hydrogen, and it was built in Germany in the 1930s with big swastikas on its tail. It made the first Transatlantic flight and it came over Manhattan, and over New Jersey, it burst into flames, and they filmed it and you saw the swastikas falling down in what became a very prophetic image for 9/11.
“The next tale was ‘Bikini’, not the bathing suit, but the tiny Pacific Island after World War II where there was an atomic bomb test. Bikini was basically the UN Navy saying, ‘We want to show the Russians what we got.’ So they said to the residents of Bikini, ‘We need your island for a little bit,’ and we moved them off the island, and guess what, they’re still not there. It’s a little bit like us with Eretz Yisrael. But they haven’t got it back at all yet. A lot of them live in California.
“The third tale came from us reading the newspapers in the late 1990s about a sheep cloned in Scotland. So ‘Dolly’ is the last act.”
Korot, who called the work “a theater of ideas,” said the character of science and scientists was a central element.
“The thing about Dolly is that technology was finally coming inside our bodies,” she added. “The first act is looking back to the 19th century with hot air balloons and the whole romance of aviation, and ending with the Hindenburg disaster, and the captain of the ship who dies, saying, ‘It could not have been a technical matter.’ “The second act is based on two stories of Genesis, two views of mankind taken from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith, of man and woman having dominion, and then humble man and woman taken from the rib who was supposed to serve Adam in the garden. Those were the Bikinians. The big navy ships came and took over their atoll in Bikini, and they were actually put into exile. And then the third act is all about the scientists.
“People think science is ultimately objective and it has nothing to do with human beings who are investigating it.... I remember we had an afternoon in our home with MIT students, and I remember suggesting that, and [they were impressed] that anything like that would ever be entertaining.”
ASKED BY The Jerusalem Post if “Three Tales” could be considered a historic document in addition to being an entertaining work of art, Reich replied: “Any good art always looks like the period in which it was made..... Kurt Weill’s masterpiece, ‘Threepenny Opera’, is only a masterpiece because it's so true to the Weimar Republic, which you don’t know, I don’t know, it doesn’t exist. But because it’s so real to its time and its place, it has a place for everybody else. I don’t know whether this will last or not. History will tell. But the general principle is: the more local you are, the more universal.”
In the “Dolly” act, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides the lyrics to Reich’s catchy score: “Every creature has a song. The song of the dogs. The song of the fly. The song of the fox.
What do they say?” Like all “good art,” as Reich put it, “Three Tales” poses fascinating questions about the human condition. The answers are left for the audience, and ultimately the future.
Reich and Korot are not everyone’s cup of tea. The woman sitting next to this writer yawned constantly through the performance and even fell asleep at one point. At the end of the 90-minute show, though, the audience was overwhelmingly appreciative, giving the couple warm applause.