Steve Reich is a pioneering composer, who — along with La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass — is viewed as one of the most important figures in minimal music. His compositions have been highly influential, and he has been called “America’s greatest living composer.”
In celebration of Reich’s 75th birthday year, the acclaimed Kronos Quartet will be performing a program called “The Music of Steve Reich” at 8 p.m. Thursday at Campbell Hall, as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures Series. The program consists of three pieces written by Reich for the Kronos Quartet (“Triple Quartet,” “Different Trains” and “WTC 9/11”), plus selections from Reich’s opera “The Cave.”
The following is compressed from a recent phone interview with Reich, who will not be attending the performance at UCSB but was happy to talk about the pieces on the program. Click here for the full interview, with more detail on the program, his work-in-progress “Radio Rewrite” based on the music of Radiohead, and his life in music.
Jeff Mohelis: I’m excited that we’ll be hearing your new piece “WTC 9/11” performed here at UCSB. For people who are unfamiliar with that piece, could you give a quick overview?
Steve Reich: For 25 years we lived four blocks from Ground Zero. We went shopping there, it was part of the landscape that we lived in. On Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I were in Vermont, but my son and my granddaughter and my daughter-in-law were in our apartment four blocks from Ground Zero. And about 8:30 in the morning our phone rang — it was our son saying, “I think they bombed the World Trade Center again,” because they’d bombed it in 1993. From our window you couldn’t see it, because there was a building close to us that blocked it out, but he could hear it and feel it. So we all turned on our televisions just in time to see the second plane hit. I told him “Don’t hang up,” and “get some hardware store masks” that we had in the bathroom and “put them on the baby and yourself and your wife.” We had double windows — “Make sure all the double windows are closed. And don’t leave.”
We had a neighbor who was a very together guy. I knew he had a vehicle. And to make a long story short, we kept the phone open, in touch until about 4 in the afternoon when my son and my granddaughter and my daughter-in-law all got together with our neighbor and into their vehicle. They couldn’t go on the West Side Highway or the East Side Highway (FDR East River Drive), but this guy knew the city very well, and via the streets got out of the city up north to Westchester where his mother was.
We drove down from Vermont, picked up our son, granddaughter and daughter-in-law, and for months we had to stay up there because we lived below Chambers Street, and the Army said that no one goes below Chambers Street for 30 days.
OK, now cut to late 2009, early 2010, (violinist) David Harrington called me from the Kronos Quartet, and said, “Steve, I’d like you to write a third piece for us, and we’d like you to use speech again.” And I said, “For you, David, anything.” And I meant it. I love Kronos, and they’re one of the few people whose suggestions for a piece I will take seriously. But to be honest, I had no idea what the content of that piece would be.
And then, I guess it was about a month or two later, the lightbulb went on in my head, and it was like a brilliantly illuminated lightbulb. I knew exactly what I had to do, and I went about doing it. Which is to record those people who were directly involved in 9/11, and that starts with the air traffic controllers who noticed that American Flight 11 was going south when it should’ve been going west to L.A., when it started out in Boston. And then the New York Fire Department, which records everything that goes on as field comm, field communications — and, of course, the FDNY was the principal people involved, and the heroes of that time were largely made up of firemen, many of whom did not survive on 9/11.
That material comprises the First Movement of the piece, doubled by the strings — the speech melody of the speakers becomes the melody of the strings.
The Second Movement is made by recordings that I made myself of my friends and neighbors who lived in close proximity to the World Trade Center, remembering, now nine years later in 2010, what they did that day.
The last movement is quite a bit different. After 9/11, there weren’t too many bodies, as you may know. The fires were very intense, and what bodies that there were, and largely the parts of bodies, were taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office on the eastside of Manhattan, in the East 30s. There’s a law in Judaism that says when someone dies, you don’t leave the body alone from the time of death until the time of burial. Now, when this happened in 9/11, a number of synagogue members from the Upper West Side started coming down to the Medical Examiner’s Office — this is called “sitting shmira,” you’re accompanying the ... sitting there, usually reading psalms, chanting psalms, singing parts of the Torah that are appropriate to that situation, 24/7, around the clock.
Now as you may know, on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, you can’t take a subway or a bus, or use money, or carry your wallet, or any of the kinds of things that are necessary to move around Manhattan. So they started looking, very quickly, for Jews who were in the area, who were close to the East 30s, and they found women from Stern College, which is part of Yeshiva University, who were very anxious to volunteer for this, and in fact did. These women would walk over on the Sabbath and sit there next to refrigerated trucks and say psalms, chant psalms, sing parts of the Torah. I was able to locate two of them, and you hear their voices in the Third Movement.
JM: Could you compare this to your piece “Different Trains,” which is also on the program, and seems to share some compositional similarities?
SR: Well, they certainly share the similarity of using pre-recorded voices, and using the speech melodies in the voices. That, of course, is the obvious similarity. They’re both about darker subject matter, although the first movement of “Different Trains” is very upbeat. It’s America before the war. It’s American train whistles, which are basically perfect fourths or fifths.
In the Second Movement, when the Holocaust survivors’ voices are there, of course it shifts to a much darker tone. There are air-raid sirens in the background.
“Different Trains” is a longer piece. There’s more string development. “WTC 9/11” is weighted heavily on the voices, and the strings are essential, but they don’t elaborate independently and go on at any length. I think that does happen in “Different Trains.”
They’re very different pieces, but, of course, yes, there is that similarity.
I want to say, this program is a unique program that Kronos put together, of all the pieces that I’ve written for them and this excerpt from “The Cave.” Of course, there’s also “Triple Quartet,” which is, I think, one of my better pieces.
I’m very glad that Kronos is doing this. I hope that they get a chance to do it a lot, and I hope that they can make a recording of this. Because it gives a very, very different impression than, let’s say, the stand up and cheer ending of (Reich’s 1971 piece) “Drumming,” or a lot of the pieces that are percussion heavy. It may be a bit of a surprise, or a revelation or disappointment perhaps (laughs), depending on who you are.
JM: Is it correct that I’m reaching you at your home in New York?
SR: Yes, we live about 50 miles north of New York City. We left the city in 2006. I was in New York for 30 years with earplugs in my ears, and I finally was able to relieve myself of that burden. I’m looking at grass and plants and birds and trees, and not garbage trucks and cement.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.