Steve Reich: A major minimalist

"I read Torah all the time, so obviously I want to bring it to my music," says America's greatest living composer.

steve reich 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
steve reich 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Considered by many to be America's greatest living composer, Steve Reich, 70, arrives in Israel this week as a guest of the Jerusalem Music Center and Tel Aviv University. He'll be lecturing, leading master classes and rehearsing with local musicians, culminating in a concert Saturday night, March 10, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Speaking by phone from New York, Reich admits to disappointment at the small scale of this visit, recalling that in 1996 his work "Tehillim" opened the IPO's 60th anniversary celebrations.
Click for upcoming events calendar! Nonetheless, the importance of his presence is hard to overestimate, as it provides 46 local musicians with an opportunity to receive first-hand knowledge of one of a very few living composers who have "altered the direction of musical history," in the words of The Guardian. Born in New York, and raised there and in California, Steve Reich first studied philosophy and then music; Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud were among his teachers. He also studied drumming in Africa and Torah cantillation in New York and Jerusalem. In 1966 Reich founded his own ensemble of three musicians, which rapidly grew to 18 members. Since 1971, Steve Reich and Musicians have toured the world frequently, performing to sold-out houses in venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line Cabaret. While Reich's music is played by major orchestras all over the world, it hasn't been performed in Israel for a long time. And for this visit, he has been invited by educational and not musical bodies. Responds Reich: "Israel has a lot of problems, and is struggling for its very existence. I have a tremendous admiration for this country. I am somewhat disappointed that this time I am invited to do something small. Anyway, whatever I can do for Israel, I do. I'm not here to impose my ego; I'm doing it for almost no money. I'll be happy if Israeli musicians learn something and enjoy something and play my music." It has been said that Reich continues the traditions of great composers of the past. Are there composers today who work in the same direction? "There are many - John Adams and Michael Gordon, to name just a few. Arvo P rt is quite separate, and I don't think I've influenced what he has done, but I believe he is the most important composer alive today. Not only composers, but also DJs and pop musicians such as David Bowie and Brian Eno - I was very fortunate that a lot of artists in different parts of the musical world, including dancers and choreographers, have been influenced by what I did." In recent years Reich has turned to Jewish sources for inspiration. "I am interested in Judaism. I practice it, and pray three times a day. I try to eat kosher and I keep Shabbat. I read Torah all the time, so obviously I want to bring it to my music." "Tehillim," his first piece based on Jewish themes, was written in 1981. "'Different Trains' brings in aspects of the Holocaust in a very documentary way," notes Reich. "'You Are (Variations)' which will be played in Tel Aviv, uses texts from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, from Tehillim, from Wittgenstein - who was Jewish, but hardly knew it," chuckles Reich, "and fragments from Pirke Avot." Another piece, "Daniel Variations," is dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered in 2002 by Muslim fanatics in Pakistan. It will recorded this week in Los Angeles. Speaking about the sources of his music, Reich says: "I am unusual. I have no interest in any music from Haydn to Wagner. I call it romantic music. I am interested in music from 1750 and earlier, and from Debussy and Ravel on, and in nothing in between. My musical influences include Bach and French early music. Ravel is important for me, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, African drummers are important for me. John Coltrane was a great influence on me, and not Brahms, not Wagner, not Dvorak, not Sibelius," he recites. "These are great composers in whom I have no interest, and from whom I learned nothing." Why is that? "Ha! God made me that way!" Asked what he can't accept in these composers' work, he replied: "I find it ugly. I don't want to hear it. It's horrible. Too much Brahms makes the brain thick. Why not rather listen to some thin music from the Middle Ages. You should also learn something from the younger people, who don't like romantic music. This romantic music is for older people. It is great music and it should be played, but we should have the same amount of Guillaume de Machaut as we have Mozart. It must be 50% Josquin Desprez, 50% Beethoven. That's my idea." Reich's current visit includes master classes and workshops at Buchman - Mehta School of Music at the Tel Aviv University this Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. a public conversation with the composer will be held there. On Thursday at 8 p.m., Reich will speak about his piece "Daniel" at the Jerusalem Music Center, where Israeli composer Amnon Wolman will serve as moderator. Next morning, Friday March 9, at 10, Reich will conduct a master class at the same locale with the Israeli Contemporary Quartet. On Saturday, March 10, at 8:30 p.m. the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum will take place. The program features pieces by Reich and a world premiere of works by Michael Gordon and Israeli composer Avner Chanani. For reservations call (03) 695-4220 or 607-7020.