Sydney Morning Herald APRIL 23, 2012 - by Michael Dwyer


Minimalist composer Steve Reich has made one thought count in countless ways through his life's work.

Steve Reich has a piece called Proverb built around a quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life," sings one soprano, then another, then a third in lapping counterpoint, like billiard balls chasing patterns in a process known, in music and billiards, as canon.

With the addition of two tenors, two vibraphones and two organs, the piece expands into an ecstasy of variously composed rounds and echoes in homage to the twelfth century European composer Perotin.

"He wrote the first four-part music we have in the West," Reich explains with due respect.

But the proverb itself has a more intimate echo. It's a kind of self-referential remark on the small thought that has fascinated this hugely influential New York composer and filled his work in strange and beautiful ways for nearly fifty years.

"Canon, like many of the techniques of the Middle Ages, is like an empty vessel," he says. "What are you going to pour into it? It could be water. It could be sparkling water. It could be bourbon. It could be ginger ale. To me, that's the beauty of canon."

It was a Pentecostal preacher, recorded in San Francisco's Union Square in 1964, who first made Reich's cup run over. He merrily recounts the day he looped identical tapes of Brother Walter's doomsday rant on two cheap tape recorders and listened as they slowly moved out of phase and back again to inspire his first, landmark minimalist piece, It's Gonna Rain.

"I simultaneously pushed the start buttons and by pure chance or by divine gift, the two tape recorders were in exact unison," he hoots. "The odds against that are rather high."

He describes how the sound in his headphones began to shift and bounce inside his head, down his body until the floor started to reverberate.

"It began to echo, and then it started to do these irrational rounds or canons until finally it got to 'It's gonna! it's gonna! rain! rain! rain! rain!'

"I was listening to this dumbstruck. I was thinking, this is a whole process of making music from one small melodic fragment, spinning out this entire piece which is basically itself. And all it really is, in terms of Western music, is a variation on Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

"Phasing" was "a technocrat word" Reich applied to the technique. Brian Eno was one of many who would later declare himself similarly dumbstruck. But the composer bristles slightly at the suggestion that his process was, at that point, perhaps more profound than the result.

"A voice saying something quite meaningful, repeated enough times and going out of phase with itself to create this web of sound, intensifies the literal meaning of what's being said," he says.

Reich was classically trained from childhood but within parameters - "basically Haydn to Wagner" - that failed to ignite much passion.

But at fourteen, his world was changed by baroque music on one hand and some seemingly diverse twentieth century titans on the other. Within a few months in 1950, he heard recordings of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the bebop of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Kenny Clark.

"It was like I'd lived in a house all my life and there was one room I'd never seen," he says. "I walked in that room, and I'm still living there."

As a budding composer, this chosen residence made him an outsider at New York's Juilliard music school in the late 1950s where the ideology revolved around such tonally challenged contemporary classicists as Boulez, Stockhausen and Beri.

In direct contrast to Reich's influences, "music was not supposed to be highly rhythmically charged and was not supposed to have a harmonic centre," he says.

"In fact, if it did have those things, you were laughed at." Heartened by his own experiments, Reich gradually expanded on his phasing process with real musicians in formations as ostensibly simple as Clapping Music, for two pairs of hands, and Drumming, for voices and percussive instruments. Both early 1970s pieces will be performed by the Chicago sextet Eighth Blackbird when Reich speaks at the Melbourne Recital Centre next Monday.

The other two selections - Vermont Counterpoint and Different Trains - illustrate his later return to tape as a vital foil to live performance elements.

"A predetermining factor in everything I do is the instrumentation," he says. "I'd even go so far as to say my inspiration is my instrumentation because I don't write for standard ensembles.

"I need to have pairs of identical instruments who can play canons against each other, at this stage of the game with much more varied melodic and harmonic content, but that part of me that started with It's Gonna Rain is still there."

Reich's Double Sextet for Eighth Blackbird and tape won the Pulitzer Prize five years ago.

A complex challenge of which he is particularly proud, he is delighted that it will also be performed in Melbourne as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival next week.

A different festival in a different city suggested his current challenge. Reich says he was unfamiliar with Radiohead's work when he saw that band's Jonny Greenwood doing "a bang-up job" of his 1987 Electric Counterpoint for guitar and tape in Cracow last September.

"I started investigating their records and I thought, 'Gee, these chords are interesting, these melody fragments are interesting. Let's see what I can do with it that doesn't sound like Radiohead but still sounds like something good'."

One of the pieces he selected for his Radio Rewrite project is Everything In Its Right Place. Asked if he recognises himself in the song's spooling and spiralling architecture, he bounces into an old story instead.

"When I was fourteen I used to go to [a Broadway jazz club] Birdland and hear Miles Davis and Bud Powell, and later when I was at Julliard I would go hear John Coltrane and all of those people [were] a huge influence.

"Then one time in 1973-74, when my ensemble was playing at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the concert was over, a guy comes up with long hair and lipstick and says, 'How do you do, I'm Brian Eno'."

The memory tickles him greatly. "I call that poetic justice," he says.