Five Ways of Looking at Steve Reich


David Meir Grossman in Tablet (Steve Reich, 2005. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo Jeffrey Herman):

1. “You’re floating 10 feet off the Earth. Try to put your feet on the ground and ask the next question.” It’s Wednesday, March 26, and Steve Reich is haranguing me for my sucky interviewing skills. We’re talking over the phone because it’s two days before the Big Ears Festival, in Knoxville, Tenn., which Reich is headlining. That he’s less than pleased with my interviewing ability is in fact only making me more nervous, because Reich is a legitimate genius who has changed the shape of his chosen field. The New York Times called him “our greatest living composer,” and The New Yorker has said he’s “the most original musical thinker of our time.” So, if he says I’m blowing this, he’s probably right.

Reich is impatient, a quality that surely comes from having a mind that works 10 times faster than everyone else’s, most definitely including mine. At one point in our conversation I try to suggest that “WTC 9/11,” his disturbing 15-minute meditation on Sept. 11 that came out in 2011, reminds me of the Internet. The piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, uses one of Reich’s several trademark techniques, that of vocal sampling. Unlike other Sept. 11-related pieces, “WTC” does not offer redemption. Reich bumps the pre-recorded voices—friends, air-traffic controllers, first responders, cantors—shoulder-to-shoulder and cuts off the words mid-sentence, only to complete them later. It’s a tension-filling technique and can call to mind the way conversations take place over the Internet. Reich sees where I’m going with this and pointedly cuts me off. “I don’t follow chats, I don’t find it very interesting to do that. What I was doing on ‘WTC’ had nothing to do with the Internet whatsoever, OK?”

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