As part of the 80th birthday celebrations for composer Steve Reich — master of minimalism and the dean of American contemporary music — more than 400 performances of his works have been programmed this year in two dozen countries. MusicNOW joins the party with a tribute featuring three of his compositions on Nov. 21 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Joining members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be musicians from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Reich’s Proverb. Also on the program are the composer’s Different Trains and Double Sextet.
As usual, the MusicNOW concert has been curated by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead co-composers-in-residence. Adams cites Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as a major influence on his own works, and ahead of the concert, he sat down with Reich to discuss the program, his legacy and where contemporary “music goes from here.”
Sam Adams: The first topic I wanted to discuss is influence. Of course, influence on your music, but also how you’ve influenced many musicians and composers across many genres. From your history and other interviews you’ve given, you mention a lot of inspirations coming from, shall we say, non-classical roots — John Coltrane, or West African drumming — and I’m curious to know what drew you to these types of music, and is there something that unifies them that interested you as a younger composer?
Steve Reich: Well, before we jump into that, let’s jump to before all that — when I was 14, at which time I had never heard anything before 1750 and anything after Wagner. At the age of 14, I had a sort of rapid succession of friends saying, “Hey, come on, take a listen to this recording of The Rite of Spring.” Hearing The Rite of Spring changed my life. I probably would have ended up doing what I’m doing, but that really … my jaw dropped, the world changed. I didn’t think that kind of thing could be possible. That was followed pretty rapidly by hearing the 5th Brandenburg, which I had never heard. And that was followed pretty rapidly by hearing Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke.
I had a friend who was a better pianist than I was — you’ve probably heard all this before, but, you know, that’s the way it is — and he said, “We should form a band,” and I said, “I’m a drummer.” I had been taking piano lessons but playing John Thomson’s versions of the classics was not something that knocked me out. So I started studying with Roland Kohloff, who later became the principal with the New York Philharmonic at the time. Butch Kolhoff played glow-in-the-dark saws at the local movie house. I started going down to Birdland to hear Miles Davis and Bud Powell and, you know, be-bop. Had to sit in the children’s section since I couldn’t drink. That really was the nexus. And you could say “What’s the common thread there?” Well, The Rite of Spring, Fifth Brandenburg, be-bop… certainly the fact that they are very rhythmic. ABC, that’s A. B, they’re all tonal. Rite of Spring isn’t tonal the way be-bop is, and certainly not in the way of Johann Sebastian Bach, but they have — like Stravinsky said — a magnetic attraction of sound, a place to go. There is, as there is in all good music, melodic content. Melody is the king in a sense. Even in Music for Pieces of Wood, those pitches matter.
All of that was junior high school, high school life, and without that all of the later things wouldn’t have happened, i.e., West African music. First of all, I went to Cornell, and at Cornell, I did study music — in addition to studying Wittgenstein’s philosophy — with William Austin, who was a first-rate musician and a great musicologist. In the then-war between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, he was clearly on the side of Stravinsky. He definitely opened up and encouraged the investigation of Stravinsky’s work. I spent a lot of time, believe it or not, with The Rake’s Progress while I was at Cornell. In his music appreciation class, he played this recording of Balinese gamelan — this was probably on 78 [rpm] records — and I thought, “What is that? That’s really beautiful.” To be continued.
That’s sort of what happened. Particularly at Mills College studying with Luciano Berio, I remember also hearing recordings of West African music. As a student of Berio in 1963, the real clincher was when we, the graduate students, were taken by Berio to Ojai, the festival that Stravinsky set up. They had the visiting dignitaries of the day, including Gunther Schuller, who was at the time beginning or ending his History of Jazz in America. He said at the time, “I have discovered this book that’s the first accurate transcription of Ghanaian drumming.” Studies in African Music by Arthur Morris Jones. I actually ordered the book — I think it was $50! Two volumes: one just notation, one sociology and analysis of the situation. I looked at it and saw patterns and subdivisions of what we would call twelve, but superimposed so that their downbeats did not coincide. The bell is the timekeeper but everyone comes in as they’re supposed to, not necessarily on the downbeat that you might relegate to this piece. This made me feel like it would be great to actually go and play it.
The time I was able to actually realize that was in the 1970. In 1965-66 I did a tape piece, It’s Gonna Rain, and in ’67, in desperation, felt that I was trapped in tape and that I had to transfer this to live music. I made the switch to Piano Phase, all of which starts in twelve beats to the measure. The Violin Phase is also in sets of twelve.
So I went to Africa with something that I had found that was definitely mine, but still I wanted to go there. A lot of people say, “He went to Africa, he wrote drumming.” Slow down. I was the 14-year-old drummer getting a pat on the back, saying, “Yes, stay with that. Stay with the percussion.” When I got done with Berio, I thought to myself, “Where in the world is the percussion the dominant voice in the orchestra?” Africa and Indonesia. So I got $700 from Fulbright [scholarship program] to travel. I had to go and take a loan out from Citibank to make it work. I studied there for five weeks during the summer of 1970 … and got malaria and had to come home early.
The Balinese gamelan I had heard way back in the ’50s when I was at Cornell. There was a man by the name of Bob Brown, who ran the ethnomusicological program at Wesleyan in the ’60s and ’70s. He started something called the American Society of Eastern Arts, which he started up as a guest at the University of Washington-Seattle, then moved it down to Berkeley to a church that he was able to rent. He brought in musicians from Japan, South India, North India, Korea and West Africa and Bali. He propositioned me — because we kind of knew each other through various people, including Russ Hartenberger, a percussionist — saying, “Why don’t you come out? You can study Balinese gamelan and start your own ensemble.” Because I already had my own sound in ’66, I said, “Great!” and that’s what happened.
Now, at that time — I think this is late ’60s, early ’70s — you’ve got the Beatles with the sitars in a rock band, you’ve got Ravi Shankar actively touring. Everybody’s brother is interested in Indian music, mostly northern. I just felt, you know … I’m a drummer. This is the music I’m attracted to. But a lot of people were looking at non-Western music. It was important for me to survive something. I say “survive” because, if you’re an individual and you go to study a culture which is hundreds of thousands of years old, which is very different from your own, you can drown in that ocean. I think that happened to people here and there. I brought home some iron bells from Ghana but I realized — I don’t have perfect pitch — but I knew that there six pitches on these high and low bells in octaves. I went to the pianist and said, “This is in the cracks.” So I got a metal file to get it right. It felt kind of like a musical rape. So instead, we would go to parties, sit on the floor and play African bells. And that was it. Hey, that’s great. Because if you like something, then play and get it out of your system. Enjoy it.
But what I really felt was, as a composer, what I can learn is from the structure of this music and not the sound of it. That really has proved to be, for me, very fruitful. As I thought back on it, in many respects, what do you learn when you go to a conservatory and study Western music? You learn various imitated counterpoint, augmentation, diminution — these kind of techniques. What does a canon sound like? I don’t know. The fact of the matter is that it’s something followed by itself at some musical interval, or some rhythmic interval, and you tell me what it sounds like. That’s a very powerful idea, I think.
SA: Did you find that studying West African music and Indonesian music was also kind of a reaction to the fraught musical environment in Europe and America (mostly at universities) with serialism taking control? Did you feel this was an alternative path or was this something that you were purely interested in from a personal standpoint?
SR: Mostly the latter, but I was certainly aware of the former. I mean, you would have to be embalmed not to be aware of the former. Stravinsky was really buried in Webern because Schoenberg was dead, the coast was clear. But of course he ended up sounding like Stravinsky, anyway, because he really is a great man. I would say that I was really following my own inclinations with an awareness that, if the path that that lay before me for the rest of my life was to write serial and twelve-tone music, I think there are lots of things in the world that interest me more.
SA: I grew up playing classical piano. I did the Suzuki method and played in a string orchestra, so my understanding of classical music growing up was what a lot of people associate with classical music: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, even Wagner.
SR: Me, too!
SA: I feel sometimes so encumbered by having had this upbringing. But sometimes I feel when I listen to your music that there’s a sense of freedom. That you didn’t have to go through that. Maybe that’s a false assumption.
SR: No, no. First of all, when I was a kid, what did I hear at home? What records did we have? What did I learn simplified versions of? Beethoven’s Fifth, Schubert’s Unfinished, the prelude to Die Meistersinger, some Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, Broadway shows, Bing Crosby. But no jazz as such. Another thing that happened at Cornell: When William Austin taught music history, he had a very unique — and for me, revelatory — way of teaching it. First, he’d teach Gregorian chant to the death of Bach in 1750, and next it was Debussy, Stravinsky and into jazz. Then the second half of the course was Haydn through Wagner. I realized that I liked the first half of the course better. You can discover what magnetizes you, what attracts you … but you’re a fool if you think that music is the work of a great genius.
When I was a drummer, I thought it isn’t [imitates first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth] but it is that same idea. Take some little thing and just spit it out. Your father, John Adams, has said this: Boulez is the greatest musician of our time. My teacher, Luciano Berio — being Italian — was much more flexible in his outlook about all this. These are people who are master musicians and have produced something that is very, very rich and worked out and admirable, but it may not be what you want to do. It may be something which in a sense represents a kind of death of a certain style and is mannerist, which was your father’s right-on word. Something that becomes so complex that only a small coterie of people … I was going through that, coming back to New York from San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were these “consciences.” As soon as you heard something from those groups of people, there’d be the pitter-patter of little people going out of the auditorium. It was never taken up by music lovers; it was taken up by academics and by their students and by other composers. That’s a very unhealthy situation.
SA: You say in [Music as a Gradual Process] that there are so many mysteries to be found in processes that are so simple.
SR: Yeah. I think “even when all the cards are on the table, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all” is the quote. That was the thinking in 1968 that very much describes the music of that period. You wouldn’t say that about Proverb, I don’t think. You wouldn’t say that about Double Sextet. Like all good musicology, it represents the music that proceeded the writing of the musicology.
SA: But certainly that attitude has informed the way you composed Double Sextet and some of the later pieces, even though they’re not specifically about process.
SA: But there’s a kind of immediacy in understanding what’s going on formally, or maybe I can only say that because I’m coming from a composer’s perspective.
SR: You are a trained musician. But why does Bach appeal to everybody? It’s the most perfectly made and sometimes unbelievably complex music, and yet it always speaks a language which is immediately comprehensible. I think we’d say that any music which is really great music can be seen by anybody in any field. I mean, Shakespeare is in the park! At a certain level, that’s something to aspire to; as Ezra Pound said, “[Literature] is news that stays news.” If you can stay anywhere close to that, you’re in good shape.
SA: Are there other artists or musicians who have emerged in the last 10 or 20 years who have influenced the way that you think about music and approach composition?
SR: Yes. They made me the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this year, and asked what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to curate a series of concerts. It’s called “Three Generations.” There were people who are now approaching 80 who made a break with [serialism], and that’s myself and Riley and Glass, and — kicking your father 10 years up — John Adams and Arvo Pärt. Let’s call that “Generation One.” It’s wonderful to make that kind of break, but if it just sort of dies on the vine, then people just go back to what they were doing or do something else. Then it’s just this sort of little [thing]. But that’s not what happened.
Then you go down to people turning 60, like the Bang on a Can people — David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon — who are really interesting composers. I remember when I did Triple Quartet, I was listening to Schnittke because Kronos [had just released his complete string quartets]. I was listening to those records. And I was listening to Yo Shakespeare by Michael Gordon, and that’s in there. Another really important influence right after Stravinsky was Bartók. Especially the quartets, especially the fourth and fifth quartet. So when I did a piece —Bartók Fourth, last movement — with Michael Gordon, who’s 20 years younger, and Schnittke, who’s probably about my age but no longer with us.
Now there are people who are turning 40 — there are so many of them, and I’m not as good with names as I used to be. The two who I picked for the series, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, who I think are enormously gifted people who are trained classical musicians — for want of a better word — really good players, and also completely at ease and active in the pop world. Bryce is in The National, and Nico is at the back of everybody’s band. Nico has a real harmonic gift, and I’ve been looking at his drawings. They’re on my piano. I follow Stravinsky’s advice: “Steal from the best.” Younger, older — that’s all fair game.
SA: Obviously you know that there are a lot of electronic musicians who have not only been influenced by you but have actually used recordings of your work as source material. How do you feel about that? Do you love it? Does it depend on the way that the sound is manipulated? What’s your attitude?
SR: All of the above. I was in London — I think in the ’90s — and somebody said, “What do you think of The Orb?” I said, “What’s The Orb?” They said, “You don’t know?” So he gives me the CD and I took it home, and there’s Electric Counterpoint being sampled. I didn’t sue them. I guess I was naïve, or didn’t take it to have meant so much at the time. And then time passed and we were in Japan and the guy who was running that — Hiro Nakashima — said, “You ought to have a remix album.” That gave birth to the Reich Remixed thing. I met a couple people there — DJ Spooky, some other people — and I began to realize that this was really happening. But, you know, for Reich Remixed, I got all the royalties. So these things work themselves out.
I remember in 1974, my ensemble was playing in Queen Elizabeth Hall. At the end of the concert, a guy comes up — long hair, lipstick — says, “Hi, how you doing, I’m Brian Eno.” I’m the kid sitting on the barstool unable to drink at Birdland when I’m a teenager, and now Brian Eno is sitting in my audience. In ’76, we gave the European premiere of Music for 18 Musicians at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and David Bowie was there. When the record was released, he came to the release party at the Bottom Line in New York in ’78, and we met. He was very generous about saying so.
Again, I basically feel very good about [artists who use my recordings to create new work]. You write a piece of music and you want people to listen to it and enjoy it, and you’re really disappointed if you’re not unless you’re pretending otherwise. That’s the way human beings are — it’s natural. I’m the same. Sure, there’s a commercial aspect to it, but that seems to level itself out. When a musician I’ve never met — who I have no connections to, or we’re not in the same part of the musical world together — is really interested in what I do, grabs a piece of it … it makes me feel that I’m being useful to my extended field. There are also people in the classical world, some very close to home, who have been very generous about it, and that’s much appreciated.
SA: I’d like to talk a little bit about technology. Obviously your really early works were a product of technological experimentation with early tape loops. I’m wondering if those early works as well as Piano Phase opened up the floodgates. The musical potential that came out of those projects seems limitless — enough for a career, if not two careers or a hundred. I wonder if you continued to open yourself to other kinds of technological experimentation, or how your views on technology have changed as you developed as a composer.
SR: After doing It’s Gonna Rain and then Come Out, I really felt [like I was] going to be trapped. I thought, “This was really great stuff, but only tape recorders do it, people can’t do it.” Then I thought, “I’m the second tape recorder.” I put on a tape loop at home, I sat down at the piano and I played, and that’s how Piano Phase [came to be]. Then Arthur Murphy, my friend and great pianist and great composer who is no longer with us, we decided to do it together. And the floodgates did open, yes. That’s very accurate. It felt like “Wow, look, Ma — no tape!” [laughs] That technique gave birth to everything, except Four Organs, through to Drumming. At the end of Drumming, I thought, “Well, basta with the phasing.” There are other ways to skin a cat. It’s closed canon, how else can we get there? And then the build-ups started, which is at the beginning of Drumming, anyway — substituting beats for rests in a fixed measure. That’s still with me. These are basically musical techniques realized as human beings with musical instruments.
About 1987, Betty Freeman said to me, “Would you write a piece for Kronos?” And I said, “sure,” but I had no idea what I was going to do. Just about the same time I became aware of the sampling keyboard. Now, I was not interested in synthesizers. I wasn’t interested in electronically generated sound. I also was aware that you could — at least in those days, and probably still — ask a violinist to play a perfect open A-string, tell them “don’t do anything!” and then put that in an oscilloscope and you see all these [waves and things]. The same thing, an A, through most synthesizers is perfect. Whatever the wave format is, that’s what it is. My feeling is that those micro-variations, that’s what gets in your guts. That’s something that you perceive that your brain has been perceiving for a long time. I had that [realization] that synthesizers are a marriage of convenience and with Sextet, I thought, “I can’t travel with two more oboists and two more clarinetists. … It’s four more hotel rooms, four more airfares — let’s just use synths.” [laughs] But when the sampling keyboard came out, I thought, “Oh, wow, I can record somebody’s voice or whatever you like and bring it in on the “and” of three in the 15th measure! Now we’re talking!” Basically to cut to the chase, that [was] the technological base that made Different Trains possible. If I had done that trying to work with tape, I think I’d still have razor-blade cuts on my hands.
The combination with the computer, which I started using in ’85 … again, for purely crass, material reasons. I had just done the Three Movements, and I was going to do the Four Movements from MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] in San Francisco, and somebody told me, “You know, there’s this computer called a Mac, and there’s a program called Professional Composer” — which is a dog — “and if you get the score right, it’ll spit out the parts!” I said, “Really accurate? You don’t have to proofread the parts? You don’t have to pay the copyist?” So I made that switch, and then the sampling keyboard came on, which was of course a part of the “computers-take-over-music” phenomenon. That’s when I re-engaged, saying [spoken rhythmic vocal part] is almost like music. But it isn’t. It’s a recording of a speech melody that has musical characteristics. What if you have actual instruments playing the speech melody? What if you just made an effort to notate it, which I had done earlier? There’s a sheet which is sitting in Basel at the moment — it’ll stay there — of me writing down as best I could what Brother Walter in Union Square said. The process of doing that got me zeroed-in on what we finally used.
1987-88 is when I returned to technology, now using it with musical instruments. At that same time, John Adams and Philip Glass were writing operas. The operatic voice does not appeal to me personally. I’m very interested in documentary material — hence It’s Gonna Rain — but the veracity in terms that … if you’re handling explosive material, get to the source of it. So in Different Trains … when Kronos asked me to write a piece for them, they had no idea and I had no idea what it was going to be. When I got the sampler, I had no idea who was going to be talking. I truly felt that my first choice was Béla Bartók, of course! Who else? He made recordings in English in 1945 for WNYC. And then of course I thought — I’m writing a string quartet, will I have Bartók sitting on my shoulder? And Beethoven on the other? Wait a minute, get me out of here! [laughs] Then I thought that I’d use the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Well, he was a recluse, he died in 1951 … there were no recordings.
God knows it popped into my mind, these trips I took as a kid. I went out to interview my nanny — my nurse — in Virginia, who was then in her mid- to late-70s and living in Queens. Then I was able to locate Laurence Davis, an 80-year-old black, retired Pullman porter living in Washington, D.C. As I was doing that, I began thinking, “Why did I take these trips? What was going on?” 1937, ’38, ’40 … well, we know what was going on. Mr. Hitler was going on then and taking any Jew he could find — first sending them south of Munich and then finally sending them off to Poland and up a chimney. If I had been born in Stuttgart or Brussels or even Denmark, I wouldn’t even be sitting here talking to you. Then I began thinking about what I was doing with Mr. Davis in particular. They’re basically reminiscing about their lives. Because if someone had said to me, “Hey, Steve, would you like to do a piece about the Holocaust?” I would have said, “Are you crazy? No.”
But then someone informed me that there was an archive of Holocaust survivors up at Yale, so I went up there — through Vivian Perlis — and I sat there for a couple of days. One amazing thing after the other, but some people had a more musical voice that the others. Then I realized these people are just talking about their lives. I’m not “creating my fantasy” — there’s something so vulgar about that. Intrusive and vulgar. It seemed like this was the key to something, just as they speak. At that time, it was technologically possible to change pitch but I said no. And tempo change, which was a real technological challenge. There were two click tracks to facilitate that. Nevertheless, if the piece is successful — which it appears to be — I think it’s because I simply made a vow that as they speak, so I write. I’m the faithful scribe. Of course I’m making the piece, of course I’m introducing harmonies, but the source and the materials used have to be the material that’s used, in its form, as they spoke. That was very important. That was the return to technology with a human face.
Like I was saying, at that time — late ’80s — John Adams and Philip Glass were writing all these operas, and I got calls from the Holland Festival of Netherlands Opera, the Frankfurt Opera. I said, “Thank you very much, but no.” And then I scratched my head and thought, “Here’s this great opportunity, what am I doing?” As I was working on Different Trains, I began to understand that I’m working with audio tape, and you hear their voices. What if I work with videotape? I’m married to a great video artist whose work was just bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then you’d see these people, you’d hear what they were saying, and you’d see live musicians imitate. Not just strings, but woodwinds as well — those are the best, woodwinds and strings, because they’re flexible. There’s the opera. It’s not an opera, it’s a piece of music theater. If videotape wasn’t part of our ongoing life, if computers weren’t a part of our ongoing life, if samplers weren’t a part of our ongoing life … these works would not have happened.
SA: You have many works that can be done in more than one way — all the Counterpoint works, and Double Sextet, which we’re presenting in Chicago. Either you have tape and live musicians or only live musicians. Do the pieces take on different conceptual frameworks when they’re done in different versions, or do you really view them as the same thing?
SR: No, I don’t. That would be closing my eyes. [laughs] It’s not “one size fits all.” There is sort of a genre. I would say that, from my personal standpoint, my Counterpoint pieces are best done with tape because it was written as a recital piece. Focusing in on the one person … also, the performance is really good almost every time, because the one part is not very difficult. When they’re played live, it’s sort of like, “Oh, look, there’s Jimmy over there on that part.” Suddenly it’s like a parent-teacher’s meeting, almost. It never has the sharpness and the edge that it needs. But I understand; it works in schools, it works in festivals, and I’m a professional composer and I like to make a living. If people enjoy it and get something out of it, fine. Occasionally it’s really interesting.
On the other hand, Double Sextet is always better live. Try to avoid the tape. Tape was a convenience because Jenny Bilfield, who was the head of Boosey & Hawkes, said, “Steve, you gotta write for eighth blackbird.” I asked about the instrumentation, she told me, and I said, “Impossible!” But then if they pre-record … So that was a marriage of convenience to write this piece for this great group but, to their credit, they — Lisa Kaplan in particular — said they’re going to do this live. When they travel, they’re always teaming up with whoever they’re traveling to to do this piece. If someone wants to do it with tape, well, fine. It’s rentable and you can make your own, but it’s definitely better [live]. It isn’t “one size fits all.” Counterpoint pieces, in general, I find better with tape. Double Sextet — always better live.
SA: I’d really like to talk about Proverb. I was just listening to Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin the other day, and it is such a clear reference. Can you talk a little about the piece, the fragment from the Wittgenstein that you chose, and how 12th century polyphony influenced your approach to writing the work?
SR: Good question, I’d be delighted to. [laughs] [This question] isn’t asked very often because that’s usually not the focus of people who I’m talking with. Paul Hillier, who the story begins with, is well known as a former conductor of early music and also someone with an affinity for contemporary music. I became aware that the Hilliard Ensemble — when he was still in it — was doing my show and Clapping Music, and I thought, “Now that is an interesting musician, and he gets it.” He came to America and was teaching out on the West Coast. He started what he called the Theater of Voices and asked if he’d like to conduct The Cave, which is a vocal work. (That’s the answer to the question of opera: basically to work with the videotape, which produced The Cave and Three Tales, which is going to be done a number of times this fall.) Paul Hillier said, “I would like you to write a piece for my group. I want you to set The Song of Songs.” I looked at it again because I’m familiar with it, and confirmed that it’s very deep, very mystical, and it’s very long, considering if you’re setting a text. I didn’t see how to edit it. So I said, “Look, no, but I’d love to write a piece for you. Let me think about the text.” I realized that I need something shorter.
So I started looking at the Book of Proverbs in the Bible and found a number of things, but I wasn’t entirely clear. I got an encyclopedia of world proverbs and found a whole bunch of things. I happened to be reading a book of Wittgenstein — a sort of general book of shorter writings put together — and here was this one sentence: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” I don’t know what came first in terms of the Pérotin or the text. I really don’t remember. But here again we go back to William Austin teaching the history of music. We were able to reference a text in the library, in the days before the computer, where there would be reserve books that you could look through. One of them was Masterpieces of Music Before 1750 and there was a fragment of Pérotin in there. [Austin] played some of it, and I thought, “This is beautiful, what is this?”
It wasn’t until 1970 that a woman up at the Manhattan School of Music — Ethel Thirst — had published ‘the complete works of Pérotin.’ I got it and I realized that we really don’t know how long the held notes go on, but the material that goes over it was in rhythmic modes. It was the first time we really know where [the rhythm] was. There are also these little triple-meter melodic chunks that sound like something that you might have heard through a window. Street cries. They’re very common man. The long stuff is a huge mensuration, a huge augmentation or lengthening, of the chant melody — and that’s why you have to have two tenors to a part. That’s very interesting. If you take a melodic phrase and begin to augment it to enormous durations, suddenly what was melodic becomes harmonic, and then it comes back. But it isn’t a drone! You think it’s a drone, but then it changes. That, I think, is another very powerful idea. I woke up in the middle of the night in 1969-70 and wrote down one sentence: “Short chord gets long.” Four Organs.
SA: It changes timbrally as well, and I like to teach this to my students. When Pérotin changes from “Vi” to “de,” all of a sudden at a structural marker, there’s a huge opening of overtones. I always think of him as the first timbral composer.
SR: Yes, yes. If you listen acutely to those small changes, those small changes have a richness that just normally goes en passant, goes by. It’s figuration work but if you put the microscope on it, all of a sudden, it becomes a very significant thing. You begin to hear complexities in the simplicity. That’s absolutely true because he’s not only setting the pitches, he’s also setting the text, which is very syllabically oriented. He accents that differently. In any event, Proverb is an homage to Pérotin with Viderunt Omnes on the piano. There are lots of things that he does that I don’t do, like crossing voices. I do things that he doesn’t do. He didn’t do canonic counterpoint. But if you can’t hear the similarity, you’ve never listened to Pérotin.
SA: I wonder where you see music going from here.
SR: You can ask, but can I answer it?
SA: The things that you’ve seen develop in the last 10 years or so, or the things that excite you about the next generation of young composers.
SR: I think we here in America are maybe in the richest time that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime for having so many good young composers. That includes yourself, the Sleeping Giant collective out of Yale… It includes Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, who I mentioned, and Andy Akiho — a really, really talented young guy. I just think it’s amazing. I feel, I must say, that this has sort of been part of this evolution of something where people aren’t writing something and can’t stand what preceded them but are happy with who preceded them and want to carry it further. And they are! It’s fresh, and it’s new, and it’s different, and we’re very fortunate to be in such great shape.
Samuel Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, recently completed three new works for pianist Emanuel Ax as part of the Schubert Project.