Reich In Many Words: Images Of The Artist, Still Awaiting The Man

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Steve Reich paints a compelling portrait of his life in his memoir, ‘Conversations.’ (Photo by Jeffrey Herman)

Conversations. Steve Reich. Hanover Square Press. 352 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — The pioneers of minimalism are getting on in years, and the inevitable memoirs have been flowing. John Adams wrote one (Hallelujah Junction). Philip Glass wrote one (Words Without Music). And Steve Reich just wrote one, but as is his habit for music, he did it his own way.

Or shall we say, Reich more or less did it Stravinsky’s way. Inspired by Stravinsky’s conversation volumes with his friend, amanuensis, gatekeeper, and favored conductor Robert Craft, Reich has issued his own Conversations book. But while Stravinsky used only one source feeding him questions, Reich engages a wide, eclectic span of 19 conductors, musicians, singers, a record company executive, and fellow composers in conversations about himself and themselves, their names cleverly printed on the cover within music staves — five names per staff. He used his pandemic downtime productively, conducting these conversations mostly via Zoom during 2020 and the first part of 2021, with a few additions from earlier years.

A bit of a personal digression first: When I was a teenager, I came into the possession of a seven-inch 33 RPM sampler called The Wild Sounds Of New Music. At the time, Columbia Masterworks was recording and releasing a lot of the stuff, giving away this sampler in the hope of reaching young audiences raised on rock. It turned out to be quite a harvest, for this one little record introduced me to the music of Luciano Berio, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich.

Of all of them, the Reich excerpt, which consisted of several bars of Violin Phase as played by Paul Zukofsky, seemed to be the strangest and most severe — a repetitive, abrasive-sounding pattern for two violins moving in and out of phase. I did not return to Reich’s world until I was in my early 20s when Music For 18 Musicians came out — and that surprisingly (for me) beautiful, hour-long, dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness journey, perfectly suited for long road trips, reeled me in for life.

Similar Reich discovery stories pop up everywhere in the book; very often it was a chance encounter with a recording that did it. As for Reich himself, his big aha! piece — part of the expository story about his beginnings that he quickly outlines with David Lang — was hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring for the first time, an epiphany that he shares with Frank Zappa, William Kraft, and who knows how many other future composers.

There’s a lot of ego-massaging in this book — in both directions. Many pile on the compliments, paying homage to the minimalist master, and Reich returns the favors, demonstrating that he keeps his ears open. There is a lot of nuts-and-bolts shop talk about composing and performing that might fly over the heads of casual readers who are not musicians.

In some of the conversations, we learn more about Reich’s conversation partners than we do about Reich himself. Conductor David Robertson goes on and on about the technical aspects of Reich’s pieces, and the composer — himself no slouch when it comes to volubility — can hardly get a word in. Composer Julia Wolfe’s segment is mostly about Julia Wolfe, after a brief bit about discovering Music for 18 Musicians by accident at a dance class. Reich certainly gets points for being a generous colleague.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood reveals his boyhood obsession with the Baroque recorder after Reich wonders how a composer who can write like Messiaen for orchestra in film soundtracks could also be a famous rock ‘n’ roller. Later on, in the dialogue with Ensemble Signal conductor Brad Lubman, Reich goes into detail about how he drew what he wanted from the chord changes of a single Radiohead song and transformed it into his own language in Radio Rewrite.

Michael Tilson Thomas reminisces about the tumultuous New York premiere of Four Organs. which he organized and which caused such a commotion in Carnegie Hall that MTT immediately thought it was Reich’s Rite of Spring moment — a contemporary succès de scandale. When discussing Reich’s work on The Desert Music (MTT led the U.S. premiere and first recording), Reich says that he considers himself his own worst critic, and that he can only concentrate on composing one work at a time.

The conversation with the late Stephen Sondheim is really a joint 2015 interview moderated by John Schaefer at Lincoln Center. Sondheim says he discovered Reich through a chance purchase of Octet from the mail-order Records International service, was knocked out by it, and immediately passed it on to Jerome Robbins (one of Sondheim’s collaborators on West Side Story) with the command, “You’ve got to make a ballet out of this.” Which Robbins did, prompting Reich to quip, “I’ve come to recognize Stephen Sondheim as my best PR agent on the planet.” They soon reveal that they share some New York theater roots through Reich’s mother, June Carroll.

Kronos Quartet co-founder David Harrington concentrates on the genesis of Different Trains. Reich initially wanted to use the sampled voice of Béla Bartók, then that of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (both of whom were crucial obsessions of Reich’s youth) before he finally hit upon the idea of doing something closer to home — his own cross-country train rides between divorced parents as a child versus those who were sent on trains to the concentration camps in Europe. It became a turning point for both Reich and the Kronos Quartet — for Reich, deepening his explorations of his Jewish heritage and the use of sampled spoken voices; for Kronos, amplifying the quartet and adding a sound engineer as a member of the band, thus opening up more possibilities for composers.

With composer Nico Muhly, who evidently put in a lot of study time prior to the conversation, Reich discusses the enormous problems of putting together the video opera The Cave with video artist (and wife) Beryl Korot, with its constantly quick-changing speech patterns synced to video images on five screens. The conversation with Korot gives us a more direct line into the origins of The Cave and what it means, while confirming that Different Trains was a “study” piece for it.

From all of this talk, we learn a lot about Reich the working composer — his methods, his influences (it is telling that from his student years onward, he was mainly interested in music before 1750 and after Debussy), his perfectionism, some of his experiences in getting certain pieces off the ground. About his personal life, we learn almost nothing; about things other than music and his faith, very little. Even his conversation with Korot sounds like she is just another of his collaborators. He is hardly an isolated artist; his speech, his easy use of slangy expressions mark him as someone who is always in touch with the American zeitgeist. Yet my overall impression is that this series of thought-provoking conversations gives us just a partial portrait of Steve Reich the person. We’ll have to wait for a real memoir — if it is ever in the cards — for a full portrait.