Steve Reich: “the restless search of exploring new ground”

See this article in Deceptive Cadence via NPR.

There is no reason to think that creativity and musicianship is dying. Composers still composes, perform, premier, and scandalize. Enjoy.

Steve Reich At (Nearly) 75


Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

This October, composer Steve Reich is turning 75 — an age that for many other artists, especially ones as widely adored as Reich, wouldn’t be marked by much more than a few valedictory laps. Instead, he continues to make innovative music and is still one of the most important and influential voices of our era.

That fact became vivid reality this past Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, when Reich was feted with a concert that was not at all a retrospective. Instead, it was comprised entirely of works Reich has written only within the last four years, performed by artists who have become Reich colleagues as well as fans: the Kronos Quartet, longstanding partners of Reich, all the way back to 1988’s Different Trains; the downtown denizens of Bang on a Can; So Percussion; and the sextet eighth blackbird.

As much as any other contemporary composer, Reich has become an icon to mainstream music fans and musicians like Thurston Moore or Sufjan Stevens. At the same time, though, a number of audience members stalked out of Carnegie angrily mid-concert. Here’s a composer who still wields the power to infuriate some, just as he did when his Four Organs was booed at Boston’s Symphony Hall 40 years ago.

Idol though Reich is, however, his music of the past few years has posed more questions than answers — and maybe that’s exactly what makes his voice so relevant in our own age of anxiety.

The early birthday celebration began with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, a piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas. As with Reich’s previous music for percussion, I’ve been drawn to the nearly pointillistic quality of the rhythmic play, as you can hear in this performance by So Percussion:

So Percussion plays Reich’s Mallet Quartet.
Source: YouTube

But the acoustics of Carnegie Hall revealed other qualities in this piece entirely. The slow middle section — a meditation on space and stillness — offers a real contrast to the kineticism of so much else of Reich’s work. The warm, low woods of the marimbas played in canon against the ringing of the vibes, which in the resonance of Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium pealed as brightly as church bells.

WTC 9/11: A piece that Reich calls addressing “unfinished business” — the business, perhaps, of being human, of struggling mightily through personal and communal loss. Unlike, say, John Adams‘ On the Transmigration of Souls — a piece written in the year following 9/11, and which movingly memorializes the astonishing toll of lives lost and lives shattered — Reich’s WTC 9/11 distills the existential issues of the past decade: What is to come now?

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich's 'WTC 9/11.'l

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich’s ‘WTC 9/11.’

Reich’s piece crystallizes some of the anxiety and searching that characterized not just the chaos and pain of the attack and its immediate aftermath, but the great unknowns that have characterized the last decade for all of us, last night’s Osama bin Laden news notwithstanding.

WTC 9/11 weaves in the voices of NORAD workers and NYFD firefighters as well as interviews with some of those who, like Reich himself and his family, lived and worked in the shadows of the Twin Towers. (Reich and his wife, video artist, Beryl Korot, were in Vermont on September 11th, but their son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were at Reich and Korot’s apartment four blocks away from the WTC on that dazzlingly bright September morning.)

In WTC 9/11, Reich returns to a form that he has long used so effectively in such pieces as It’s Gonna Rain and Different Train,blending recorded and manipulated speech with music. One of the most effective instants of Reich’s textual interlaying of spoken word and music comes in the moment we hear a man, recorded eight years after 9/11, recounting the day. His voice strained and tight with emotion, he says, “It was chaos,” against frantic, harrowing close intervals played by the strings rubbing up against each other. We can hear the anxiety in the man’s voice as he relives that terrible day; the experience is still so close and real — both to him, and to us.

Reich opens up a second meaning of the initials “WTC,” as the World to Come. He draws in the voices of some of those who attended to the Jewish obligation of shmira in the days after 9/11: sitting near the bodies of victims before their burial, reciting and singing Psalms and other Biblical passages ceaselessly. In Reich’s treatment, shmira is almost is an act of willing a new reality into being, though none of us is sure what actually is to be: “The world to come,” as one of Reich’s interviewees muses, “I don’t really know what that means.”

The second half of the concert opened up another channel of Reich’s output, one that again belies any hoary Grand Elder Statesman aura. The piece 2X5 places two quintets of electric bass, piano, drums, and two electric guitars against each other; its world premiere in 2008 fixed Kraftwerk up with some of the Bang on a Can musicians.

There’s often a lot of talk about how Reich marries classical paradigms to pop and rock aesthetics. Some of that crossover is quite real — one of the musicians playing in this performance of 2X5 was Bryce Dressner from The National, and another was Mark Stewart, who on other nights directs Paul Simon‘s band; a third was Glenn Kotche of Wilco.

In pieces like 2X5, however, you hear Reich using the musculature of the electric guitar in a very different context than most rock or pop artists. It’s in the service of techniques like hocketing, the “hiccuping” effect of instruments trading playing and silence to create one bigger musical line. The result is ten musicians bobbing up and down and swaying together that might, in high-handed terms, be called a joyous communion; in simpler terms, it’s ten artists just totally rocking out.

The Carnegie Hall concert ended with Reich’s Double Sextet, which earned the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Written in 2007 for eighth blackbird (who originally played against a recordings of themselves, but here faced Bang on a Can musicians), Double Sextet is a tightly coiled thing that positively vibrates with an inner energy, yet has lyricism at its core, and a sense of space and line thanks to harmonies that constantly shift and are reshuffled within a larger form. Such lacunae and harmonic movements are rather new in Reich’s music, but that’s such a large part of the pleasure of his recent work, the restless search of exploring new ground.

International Teaching: The “It”

As you explain to someone a great experience you have had, you relive it inside yourself. The memory brings back the feeling the ground had under your knees, the pitches of the voices speaking around you, the temperature of the air and the sounds that swam through it. But you know that those emotions you are feeling for a second time cannot quite rub off on this person. There is a barrier which is the simple fact that they have not had the experience themselves.

Over spring break, I traveled to the Netherlands with my conducting professor (conducting, as in conducting a symphony). We were bound for an American school near Amsterdam where he was to be a guest conductor in a high school honor band and choir festival that was composed of students from other American and international schools from around the world. It was amazing to see these students able to put forth their musical talents in such full-sized ensembles, which most do not have back at own home schools.

The world of international teaching is something of a secret. The community they create is small and tightly-nit, albeit spread over thousands of miles. To put it in perspective, the schools have similar relationships with each other as do schools in the States within athletic conferences. Competing in a basketball tournament might mean taking a weekend trip to Belgium or Paris, for example. And participating in an honor band might mean flying to Holland from Beijing.


I’m going to get a little cheesy on you for a moment, but this leads me to the thing that I was most affected and impressed by out of this entire experience. The students collectively spoke dozens of differently, and many have spent most of their lives moving from school to school. One student may feel perfectly at home wherever in the world he or she is, while another feels that they have never had a home. With each other, they can communicate, reason, make fun, laugh, or be somber, and they are safe.

You may think it’s about the music… but that’s not the “it.”

Running, Intergalactically

So we’re back to the three guys we know nothing about fighting each other in a scene we have no interest in. Their flawless choreography lacks all humanity and emotion. But then something happens. Qui-Gon dies, and Obi-Wan is pissed. Hey! Hey maybe this will finally get good. Maybe I’ll get emotionally involved. You see, Obi Wan is pumped. He really wants to kick this guy’s ass. And then, Bam — ! Oh. That’s right. Back to highly choreographed fighting. It’s like all this was planned out ahead of time.

Hey, remember when Luke Skywalker got really pissed and snapped when Vader was taunting him? Remember how worked up and emotional he got? He just started wailing on Vader. There was no grace or complex choreography. He was just pounding him into submission, filled with rage. When you’re worked up with emotion, you begin to loose your composure and control. You exposed your humanity a little…

I gotta really stress this point that lightsaber duels have less to do with the fight itself, but more so with the internalization of the characters. So if you ever said that the duel and the end of A New Hope was the worst one because it had bad fight choreography — there was, like, an old guy and a guy in a mask who couldn’t see what he was doing, so they were just kinda, like, awkwardly hitting with swords — well then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point entirely.

So it says in Part 6 of the The Phantom Menace Review found on YouTube (see below). Keep this in mind as I compare life to Star Wars.

At one time, putting on running shoes gave me dread. For an individual who spent his days more mentally active than physical, I feared the strain and exhaustion of physical activity that was all-too tangible. Mental strain and exertion, however, was an exercise I was comfortable with. Even though I was always aware of how frail I was, I soon came to understand that it prevented me from going further with my mind’s interests. Playing music effectively and with endurance was one of them. Dating was another.

So I ran. Years of playing tennis and running The Mile in gym class came in handy.

“Doesn’t that just make you burn calories and lose weight? Do you need to lose weight?”


I heard tales of runners who felt better, more alive, more energized, blah blah blah. I pondered them like a distant religion and desired to discover what it meant. The desire was often too strong, and I pushed too hard or ran too fast. Why wasn’t this faith in physical exertion bearing any fruit but the fruit of frustration?

“At your own pace take it,” I thought to myself — like Yoda, for whatever reason. “Proving yourself to anyone you are not.” I decided that any effort I make, no matter how small, was good. Luke wailing on Darth Vader? Case and point.

In many ways, the rule of the Dark Side has been like the dead of a Minnesota winter. It comes after the climax of our Hallmark holidays, when people enjoy snow as much as puppies. But soon, snowfall is like a bad joke, and those who want to run free in the warm air that they complained about during the summer are sequestered to the daydream of spring. When the melt comes — as quickly and violently as the first snowfall — running takes on a new personality among Minnesotans. The Dark Side is nearly defeated, and the only way to make sure it goes away for good is to persist with raw emotion. Runners are like Spring’s weapon: unleashed in the hundreds when the temperature hits 40º to fight back the snow like Jedi Knights against the Clone Army. And I heeded the call.

Oh, it hurt. The air was cold in my chest, and the snow was slopping into my shoes. But I was anxious and packed with emotion, like Luke when he finally has the opportunity and the skills to attack Vader in Episode VI.

It is a bizarre thing when discomfort and exhaustion are so satisfying.

*     *     *     *


The Contradictions of a Caucasian

Let me briefly explain the practice rooms at the school I attend.

At the beginning of the semester, you preemptively spend about $80 for a slip of paper that fits in your wallet (I say preemptively because it gets deferred to my student loans). You bring this slip of paper with you into the basement and hand it to a person sitting alone in a small room with only a window looking out to you. This person gives you a thick plastic card that is about the size as the slip of paper, and you go find the particular room that the card opens. The middle of the day is “rush hour,” when so many students are practicing that your card gets put in line, and the person inside the room waits for someone to return their card before speaking through a microphone and calling your name. This could take two minutes, it could take twenty.


It could be the only word you ever hear them say.

But if you don’t promptly get up and get to the window to get your card, they will call your name a second time. If you still have not made it because a cluster of cello players waiting for rooms had impeded the hallway with their instruments and giant ear training textbooks written by the professor upstairs, they will proceed to the next slip of paper in line. When they call the next name, you might get the opportunity to hear two words instead of one. But you would have much preferred to hear just one, because now you have to wait some more.

Today while I sat waiting for my $80 slip of paper to work its magic, I squeezed and crinkled my plastic water bottle to the jingle of thousands of dollars a year spent (preemptively) in this basement. A violinist got her practice room, dropped her instrument and music inside, and left down the hallway towards the coffee shop in the next building. Crinkle crinkle, jingle jingle, wait wait, da capo al fine.

It was at this point, fully immersed in my water bottle, that I noticed what it said on the plastic: “Best When Used By Jan. 2013.” The water that came inside my water bottle would stay completely normal and drinkable until after I graduate from college. Was this new knowledge supposed to make me happy? Because the result was more akin to discouragement. I will graduate in two years. And two years is a long time.

I have never been one to worry about the future to the extent of meriting my Facebook status. But at the rate — nay, the intensity — that my collegiate experience has been, the sound my brain makes is more and more like the sound of a crinkling water bottle. Best When Used By Graduation. Get as much out of me as you can before I end up in the recycling. We won’t be young forever.

There exists an idea that we “need time to recover.” This is viable in many ways. However, I am convinced that it is a psychological recovery rather than physical one. We seek a change to refresh our enthusiasm and self-esteem. The need to “recover” is, the more I ponder it, a first-world idea. Where else would Earth’s people consider stopping their work or their education because they are tired? They work to eat and to afford to learn, and they learn to afford a better life. The question is, can they be happy too?

Let me synthesize my ideas. We pursue careers based on that which we enjoy. Yet, in our culture, we value the notion of rejuvenation from hard work. Do you see the contradiction?

“Rejuvenate” comes from the Latin word juven, which means “young” (and in Spanish, the word for “young” is joven). So, etymologically, “to regain youth.” In our culture, my age is considered young. If I had lived one or two hundred years ago, I would be admonished for not having a child or two already. But every day, the need to rejuvenate arises. To re-youth-ize. Rejuvenecerse.

Again, do you see the contradiction? It’s as though we’re telling ourselves that we made a mistake, and we need to try again. Why should we re-discover youth? Did it go wrong the first time?

Because of how much we work, we can no longer find what makes us happy within that work. We are not young, but we can be satisfied. We work for paper slip educations. We rejuvenate for crinkled water bottles. And while the tuition preemptively jingles, we have the capacity to be content.

Bad vs. Bad

On our planet, there are some really bad movies. There are also some really bad TV shows.

There is also really bad music. Dare I say it, there are really bad books too. Oh, and magazines, and Encyclopedia articles. They can be awful. Let’s not forget really bad plays. And musicals. Operas, too. And then there are terrible websites, political speeches, advertising flyers, bulletin boards and commercials. Sermons, poems, recipes, MapQuest directions, foreign film subtitles, restaurant menus, class syllabi, posters, and the short instructions on chopstick wrappers.

Terrible. Just terrible.

How can they use such bad grammar? How did they translate so poorly? Why are they singing such senseless lyrics? Did they try to get their facts wrong? Why is the plot line so disjointed? Who on Earth are they trying to appeal to? Why are they doing that?

I sound like a toddler that asks “why?” about absolutely everything until everyone around them is annoyed to tears. Why are you crying, daddy?

Since by now you’re probably wondering what the point of this post is, I will slowly develop it through personal anecdotes and poor attempts at humor.

When I was younger, I was a bit of a budding artist. Twice over this holiday season, a particular painting of mine on the wall has been pointed out to me. It is a red cherry hanging from a thin branch, with more branches in the background and small splashes of red echoed throughout. To this day, I am not happy with how the painting turned out compared to my original vision. It came from a photograph. The cherry was a small blood-red droplet in the middle of brown, autumn-dead branches and brambles. That tiny bead of color was stunning. But when it was painted, I was being taught how to balance color and create unity. The red was drawn out and away from the cherry and pulled to the corners, the edges, the everywhere. My single, red cherry was no longer special in the midst of its environment. It was a mess.

You see, there are those who create things who have something in common: ownership of their work. These are painters, composers, authors, filmmakers, etc., and others I am sure. (Psychologists, public relations specialists, actuaries…) They look at their work and feel protective of it. If you don’t believe too strongly in the Seven Deadly Sins, you could call it pride (speaking of gluttony, I won’t tell you how many brownies I just ate).

For myself, I believe this pride has developed into several character traits (they may also be genetic, but that wouldn’t do any favors to this blog post, which is already doing a poor job at keeping your attention). I highly value the work of an individual. People like me dislike the feeling of being out of control of a situation.

While painting that cherry, I felt that I had no control. The principle color was spreading throughout the painting, and I felt like I was watching a bloody massacre develop before my eyes. However, I look at that painting now and appreciate the small struggle. If anything, it taught me about such color balance the hard way. I previously had been drawing dinosaurs and sinking Titanics, so learning a bit about proper art technique did me no harm.

So, I only need to tell myself that it’s really not a bad painting after all.

There are some out there, though. Can you think of any? I can.

Reminds me of school folders and Trapper Keepers. I might puke a rainbow.

So, as we can see, there is bad shit out there. I have seen it fall into two categories: Bad shit that serves a shallow purpose, if any purpose at all, and bad shit that improves the abilities of the shitter so that they will one day shit good.

Don’t be deterred if your song sounds awful, if your painting looks disproportionate, or if in any other capacity you think your creation is terrible. It’s easy to give up. It’s hard to identify what went wrong and bounce back.

Yes, the artist of our unicorn friend certainly used good colors and shading techniques, but I don’t care. The painting accomplishes nothing. If you put it in a room, that room will burst into flames and everyone will die. At least my cherry makes the wall look nice.

The justification for taking time, pursuing a career, and eating soup

Right now, we just finished eating a delicious family dinner. One roommate cooked French onion soup, I baked up some biscuits and threw a salad together, and another roommate provided his mom’s apple pie. McNick carved pumpkins with her girlfriend, and seeds are roasting. It’s so warm, and the smells are amazing. I am sitting in my room, which I don’t do enough (I’m always the last person to come home late at night, so I traipse through in the dark so I don’t wake up my roommate. He works for Land Care and usually gets to work by 7:00 AM a few days a week). Turns out, I kind of like this room.

What’s nice about all of that is that I never feel like I’m in one place. Everywhere I am, I’m only thinking about where I’m off to next. Whatever year I’m in, I’m always thinking about what the year up next will bring. It’s nice to just stay put for a little while, and have the opportunity to decide that I like it. With music education, I haven’t quite had the opportunity to “sit” for a while in my major; everything just heaps together as the days go by, like a snowball rolling down a hill. Do I enjoy any of it? I think I do.

If you’ve read my older blog post, Do You Like Beethoven Yet?, you’ll know that I am still on the quest to justify music education. Over this Halloween weekend, while I was dressed as a white spat, I had a discussion with a Ricky Ricardo on this topic. She (yes, she) believes that a large problem with current music educators is that most cannot answer the question, “why is music education important?” How can we stack up against English, Math, and Science? I feel like a little god standing before Titans.

So what was my next step? Wikipedia.

Music education is a field of study associated with the teaching and learning of music. It touches on the development of the affective domain, including music appreciation and sensitivity. The incorporation of music training from preschool to postsecondary education is common in most nations because involvement in music is considered a fundamental component of human culture and behavior. Music, like language, is an accomplishment that distinguishes us as humans.

What a fantastic 4 sentences.

I encourage you to read the entire article Wikipedia has on music education. It’s very good, with great links at the end to external sources (including another article entirely about Music Education Bloggers. How convenient!).

Near the end of the article, the topic of music advocacy is addressed: “Many contemporary music scholars assert that music advocacy will only be truly effective when based on empirically sound arguments that transcend political motivations and personal agendas.” As I said in the older post, shoving sappy inspiration and dead composers down administrators’ throats will likely not win the day over. Political motivation and personal agendas are becoming a common, poisonous thread sewing together education, politics, media, news, and any other field that has the potential for personal gain. Let’s avoid that, eh?

So, after trying to justify music education for these past few hours, I now need to justify how I sat in front of my computer without completing more important tasks than blogging. I’ll venture to say that it helped me stay put and to sit in my major for a while. It has given me the opportunity to decide that, at least for now, I’m enjoying it.

Paper Cranes

Another August Sunday, another St. Paul Irish Fest. It was a beautiful day to enjoy rugby and hurling matches (hurling, not curling; the ice has not traveled down to Minnesota just yet), eat potatoes, drink cool beverages, and listen to the sounds of fiddles and tin whistles blowing through your shirt. Or maybe that was the wind. Too-ra-loo-ra-laddie.

This was the first part of the group birthday celebrations for Big Sis #2 — the red-haired sibling I never actually had — and was followed by a trip to The Malt Shop south of Uptown (which is south of Downtown… no entiendo tampoco). I was very excited for my chocolate chunk pecan cookie dough malt (read that again) with their homemade cookie dough. This time, however, the waitress informed me that they were out of said homemade cookie dough. I died a wee bit within. But a pumpkin malt instead restored order while a lass in the next room played ABBA and the Beatles on an upright piano. Slainte!

(photo: William C. Shrout)

On to our next adventure.

Our band of buds walked around a bit of the Lake Harriet shoreline and found their botanical gardens. For the men of the bunch, this was not the ideal destination (odiamos la naturaleza), but we had looked at broadswords, scimitars, and daggers at the Irish Fest earlier, so we were content with our current situation. First was a rose garden, which would have been quite romantic were there no screaming toddler to the left of the flowers that were yellow and perfume-y. Her family huddled around her, the father muttering in vain, «Cállate ya, cállate ya.»

Second was the Peace Garden. According to the information display at the entrance, it was declared an International Peace Site in 1999.

“Why can’t we just make the whole world an International Peace Site?” I asked, very like a toddler.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mandals (that would be a man with sandals). “We can’t have world peace.”

Peace sites and war zones. The rest of us are the unfortunate bastards stuck in between.

“Look!” said Big Sis #1 (the blood relation). My eyes darted around — much as they had earlier that day when KurtMan said cleavage cleavage cleavage! — only to realize it was dangling right in front of me: a small paper crane tied by its tail from a low tree branch. Had I stepped only inches to the right, it would be perched on my nose.

More of the small paper cranes appeared as we went along; on the grass, in bushes, in branches. Finally, we came upon a tall thin statue replicating the many steps to making the origami figurine with written instructions encircling it on plaques. A wooden post contained a box of colorful paper slips, and the small birds were scattered everywhere. We quickly stole upon the idea and proceeded to join a family from India to construct our cranes, backs bent over the low plaques, fingers folding, creasing, and smoothing.

I folded, creased, smoothed, unfolded, re-creased, crumpled, uncrumpled, re-smoothed, squished, and ripped. My brain’s left side could not wrap itself around the instructions at my shins, despite the pictures illustrating the process meant to appeal to the kinesthetic learner. The group progressed around the statue quickly — the future engineers, the archaeologist, the future composer, the future film director — while I stumbled back and forth between the different plaques as though strapped to a Maypole in a bad wind.

“This would more likely incite war than peace,” I grumbled, folding the wings together for the third time. The family from India glanced over and snickered.

There are very few times when I lift my hands to my face and work at a detailed task that requires concentration and patience. Sure, I concentrate on my chicken and rice, my music practice, and my blog posts. I cook to feed myself, I practice to improve myself, and I blog to hear myself talk (at greater length than Facebook allowed). At first glance, there is little personal satisfaction from building a single paper crane and dropping it amongst others without even your signature. Is the dream that someone will one day come to the garden to read the signatures on each and every one, and hopefully recognize mine in particular so I’ll become famous?

I think the obsession with personal recognition is a case of a two-sided coin. On one side, it is necessary to have such competition in a capitalist country. Completely necessary. On the other side, when will we stop pushing others out of our way to get it?

What if the dream were different: what if we competed for doing the most amount of good? For not recognizing ourselves, but recognizing a community? For inciting peace instead of war? Ay Linus, que profundo. The first step for me is knowing that it involves patience, concentration, and help, so locating my friends is a must. This is making me realize that recognition is not a product of my own talents but how I use them to affect my piece of planet. The dream is a world where we sprinkle each of our paper cranes and then step back to take in the view.

I, in the rear, finally neared the end of the circle of plaques. To my comfort, I was accompanied by members of the family from India who were having similar struggles trying to crease and fold in ways contrary to the laws of physics. But with assistance from the various brains around us, we breathed into the bellies of our complete and completely wrinkled paper cranes.