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Steve Reich: A Wild Compositional Ride

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Steve Reich: A Wild Compositional Ride

Steve Reich: A Wild Compositional Ride

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Composer Steve Reich has studied African drums, the chanting of Hebrew Scriptures, Balinese gamelan and classical music compositions. The diversity of his interests combined to help him win worldwide recognition in the mid-1970s with "Music for 18 Musicians."

(Soundbite of "Music for 18 Musicians")

HANSEN: Now Steve Reich has written a couple of pieces that he says may be his best work. This week, these pieces will be released on his new CD, "You Are (Variations)." Jeff Lunden has this report on Steve Reich's latest music.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

From the opening measures of "You Are (Variations)," the music is unmistakably by Steve Reich; the propulsive, interlocking rhythms in the pianos and percussion...

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

LUNDEN: ...searing strings...

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

LUNDEN: ...smooth vocal lines.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

LUNDEN: Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and conductor of "You Are (Variations)," says keeping all these different elements together isn't easy.

Mr. GRANT GERSHON (Conductor and Music Director, Los Angeles Master Chorale) Steve's pieces remind me a little bit of at Disneyland, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. It has that kind of feeling to it, or almost like, you know, playing a pinball game where you've got several balls in action all at once. In this piece, for instance, there are several points where it'll go on for almost 300 measures of very fast, constantly changing meters. And as a conductor, of course, that's a great challenge, and it's also--it's great fun. And when everything is going right, there's such a feeling of exhilaration.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)"; voices)

LUNDEN: "You Are (Variations)" has four movements, each with short sayings culled from sources as diverse as the Hebrew Psalms and German philosophers. The composer has been a serious student of Judaism for the past three decades. The text of the first movement, "You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are," comes from the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic mystic from the 18th century. Steve Reich says his words resonate on many levels.

Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): "You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are" is, amongst other things, first true of us human beings. I mean, you know, you and I can be--and everybody else listening can be, you know, sitting wherever they're sitting, but what's in your mind is sort of really where they are. But it's also a wonderful description of how we listen to music. As the music goes, so we go if we're really listening.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

Chorus: (Singing) You are wherever your thoughts are. You are wherever your thoughts are.

LUNDEN: Reich has been getting people to listen to music in different ways for the past 40 years. His interests are wide-ranging. He's as apt to talk about quantum mechanics as he is to tell you about the computer program he uses to compose music on his laptop. And his work reflects years of studying African drumming, Balinese gamelan, Hebrew cantillation, jazz and early Western classical music. For instance, in "You Are (Variations)," Reich doubles all the vocal lines with woodwind instruments. It's a technique he says he picked up from a master.

Mr. REICH: Yeah, this is a trick I learned from a composer you may have heard of; his name is Bach. If you're a singer and there's an instrument playing with you, it's a wonderful feeling because the pitch is there; someone is playing that pitch. You have this wonderful `voicestrument,' a blend of vocal and instrumental timbre.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

Chorus: ...(Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: The text for the final movement of "You Are (Variations)" comes from another rabbi and translates from Hebrew to `Say little and do much,' which could be a description of Steve Reich's minimalist musical aesthetic, which builds powerfully from small phrases, chord progressions and rhythms into a complex hold.

(Soundbite of "You Are (Variations)")

Chorus: ...(Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Reich says he usually maps out his pieces with a harmonic ground plan, kind of an overarching idea of the musical structure. But in the case of "You Are (Variations)" and "Cello Counterpoint"--the other piece on the new CD--he found himself diverging from his original plans.

Mr. REICH: Intuition just grabbed ahold of me and said, `Hey, let's just go somewhere else.' And you never want to turn your back on that.

(Soundbite of "Cello Counterpoint")

LUNDEN: Steve Reich wrote "Cello Counterpoint" for Israeli cellist Maya Beiser, who arranged a commission for it. He first heard Beiser when she was a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a cutting-edge group of New York composers and musicians.

Mr. REICH: Maya Beiser is a wonder. The intensity of attack, the way she moves the bow on the string, is so declarative and so forceful without being overbearing that the piece just sparkles. I mean, that kind of energy is really her.

LUNDEN: "Cello Counterpoint" is in eight parts, and Beiser plays them all. In performance, seven are on tape and Maya Beiser plays the eighth part live.

Ms. MAYA BEISER (Cellist): The way one approaches a piece like that is literally just--there are eight lines and each one of those lines are quite complicated, so you really need to learn a piece times eight before you go to record it. We recorded the piece in three days, three insane days of just working non-stop.

(Soundbite of "Cello Counterpoint")

LUNDEN: Steve Reich directed Maya Beiser's performance in the studio. Using a stripped-down recording, Beiser describes how the different parts came together.

Ms. BEISER: We built the recording in a very strategic way from the bottom up. And it's a fascinating process the way you do that and you sort of slowly create the piece. And, you know, we mostly would get the groove, so to speak, part first, the complicated rhythms. There were a lot of very complex rhythms going on of sevens and fives and sixes that constantly shift.

(Soundbite of "Cello Counterpoint")

LUNDEN: Steve Reich will be celebrating his 69th birthday on October 3rd, and he's looking forward to marking the occasion with the release of his new CD.

Mr. REICH: I am self-critical and I think I have some sense of, you know, good-better-best when it comes to my own music, and I think this is as good an album as I've put out in a long time, or maybe just period.

LUNDEN: For his 70th birthday next year, he's already working on two new pieces. One is called "Pearl Variations: In Memory of Murdered Journalist Daniel Pearl." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "Cello Counterpoint")

HANSEN: Steve Reich reveals more about his composing process, and there's a stripped-down clip from "Cello Counterpoint" at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Cello Counterpoint")

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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