Steve Reich has been on a tear since a series of concerts celebrating his 80th birthday back in October. Earlier this month, during a star-studded celebration of Nonesuch Records, the composer bounded onto the stage at Brooklyn Academy of Music to present former label head Bob Hurwitz with a sheaf of sheet music. And last week, the man in black was back at Carnegie Hall for some the usual rapid-fire convo about his seminal work “Different Trains,” which was performed as part of an ongoing series he curated in honor of three generations of modernist composers. The cavalcade continues, with Symphony Space hosting an epic free program, “Wall to Wall Steve Reich,” later this month.
During the q&a with Nadia Sirota at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, Reich reiterated some of the points he made in an NPR interview in October. He noted that he and his fellow octagenarian composers (including Philip Glass, whose “String Quartet No. 5” was also on the program) came of age during the ’50s. At that time, John Cage and other instructors at Mills College, where Reich was a student, were pushing Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. The style’s focus on atonality didn’t jibe with Reich’s appreciation for everything from Coltrane to Bach. “In a sense if I wasn’t around,” Reich said, “and Philip Glass wasn’t around, and Arvo Pärt wasn’t around, somebody would’ve come in and said, ‘This place is a mess, give me a broom, I want to clean it up.'”
But don’t let the talk of “cleaning up” fool you into thinking Reich uses the M word. Asked whether he considers “Different Trains” a work of minimalism, he said “Heaven forbid!” and cracked a joke about telling people who use the word to go home and wash out their mouth. Then he launched into what he described as a recurring routine. He told the audience to pack their bags because they were going to Paris, and then described them taking a cab to the grave of composer Claude Debussy, who famously hated it when critics described his music as impressionistic.
“Come on, get your shovel,” Reich told the crowd as he mimicked digging up Debussy’s grave and then asking: “Excusez-moi, Monsieur. Êtes-vous un Impressionniste?”
“Merde!” was the imagined response, which drew applause.
Whatever you want to call it, Reich acknowledged that there was a common thread between himself, Glass, and the other composers being honored in the series. (Next Wednesday, April 19, the Bang on a Can All-Stars will perform the music of its three founding members; April 26 will be dedicated to the music of Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly).
“I mean, I want to be loved– if I’m not, I feel bad…” Reich admitted, to laughter. “So, it was a delight for me to find musicians who are 20 years younger who are now approaching 60, namely Bang on the Can group (Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang) and others in their generation… who in fact liked the music that preceded them, they were interested in all the composers on this series… And they were taking it somewhere else…”
He went on to describe the thinking behind his curation of the Three Generation series: “Isn’t it even greater that 20 years after Bang generation there’s another very large generation of musicians who are picking up the ball from them, from us, and going on their own way?”
In case there’s any doubt about Reich’s enduring influence, on April 30 the American Composers Orchestra will present a (free!) eight-hour marathon of his music at Symphony Space. During “Wall to Wall Steve Reich,” groups such as Alarm Will Sound, Dither, and Mivos Quartet will perform work such as Reich’s heart-wrenching “WTC 9/11,” and the ACO will wrap things up with “The Desert Music,” his 1983 work inspired by the post-nuclear writing of William Carlos Williams. Reich will make two appearances during the marathon to speak with the ACO’s conductor, Alan Pierson. You can find the full schedule here.
Reporting by Angelo Fabara.