The Storytelling Composer
Steve Reich was born October 3, 1926 to lyricist June Sillman and Leonard Reich. His parents divorced a year later, and Reich divided his time between his mother’s home in California and his father’s home in New York (as a child, he would often take the train between the two states, and those memories later served as the inspiration for his pivotal work, Different Trains, about the experience of living through the holocaust, mixed with the experience of living in the States during WWII). Reich took piano classes as a child, but his interest in music really took off when he discovered, at the age of 14, the Baroque period along with 20th century music. He was accepted into Cornell University, and graduated with honors with a B.A. in Philosophy, minoring in music. He then studied at Mills College in Oakland California under Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud and earned a master’s in composition.
Steve Reich’s early works show his deep connection to and fascination with the spoken word. Starting his career in earnest in the 60’s, he first composed soundtracks for three films by experimental film director Robert Nelson. His first major work, It’s Gonna Rain was heavily influenced by fellow minimalist and collaborator Terry Riley and this piece incorporates a Judgement Day sermon given by a local Pentecostal street-preacher. In 1966, he wrote Coming Out incorporating a single spoken line given in a interview with Daniel Hamm, a survivor of the Harlem Six police beating. Reich explored other experimentations in composition, for instance, his piece Pendulum Music consists of several microphones swinging over loudspeakers providing feedback (a piece which was later performed by Sonic Youth in the late ‘90’s). In 1966, he founded his own ensemble, initially a trio which later grew to an 18 member ensemble. To support himself, Reich did odd jobs, including starting a furniture removal business with Philip Glass.
In 1970, Reich traveled to Ghana with a grant from the Institute for International Education, studying drumming at the University of Ghana in Accra. This formed the basis for his piece Drumming for a nine piece percussion ensemble with piccolo and female vocals. In 1973, he studied Balinese Gamelan and Gamelan Gambang, and then in ’76 studied Jewish cantillation in New York and Jerusalem. In the 80’s he began to explore his Jewish heritage with Tehillim (for four women’s voices, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 6 percussion, 2 electronic organs, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass with amplification) and his string quartet Different Trains which incorporates augmented recordings from interviews the composer conducted with live string quartet performance.
It was in the 70’s that the composer truly came to prominence. As Alex Petridis writes in The Guardian, “His name first really came to prominence in 1973, as a result of what Alex Ross's history of modern classical music The Rest Is Noise calls "the last great scandal concert of the 20th century".
A performance of his piece Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973, which provoked such uproar in the audience that the musicians onstage couldn't hear themselves.” In 1993, Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, collaborated together to create the composer’s first opera, The Cave, then collaborated again on Three Tales (which tells the story of the Hindenburg disaster, nuclear weapons testing, and Dolly the sheep). In 2006, Reich was the Pulitzer Prize for Double Sextet (which our Artistic Collegium will be performing on the 22nd). In 2013, Reich based his piece Radio Rewrite on the famous indy-band Radiohead (touted by Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler has giving some of the best live performances of anyone he’s seen and termed by Paul McCartney as his dream collaborator). The project, commissioned by the London Sinfonnieta was the result of a chance meeting and a little cross-pollination with their lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
Last year, the composer and three partners created a rhythmic education app available on iTunes, based on his piece Clapping Music. Now 80, the composer is currently serving as a composer in residence at Carnegie Hall where his season of music will outline, “the language of composition changed from the mid-20th century to the present by pivoting from serial atonal music toward a more harmonic and rhythmic style.” Says the composer, “All great music is contemporary. If it’s still alive and kicking, then it’s contemporary. If it fades away, it was a period piece. It had its moment, and that was it.”