New York Fetes Composer Steve Reich at 70 American composer Steve Reich turns 70 Tuesday. Reich is a pioneering minimalist, working in a style of music characterized by an almost hypnotic repetition, with subtle changes in texture.

New York Fetes Composer Steve Reich at 70

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Revolutionary American composer Steve Reich turned 70 years old on Tuesday. To celebrate, three of New York's major cultural institutions are engaging in an unprecedented collaboration: a month-long festival of his work. Jeff London has this profile.

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JEFF LONDON: It's not every day that Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall get together to honor a single artist, but Ara Guzelimian, Carnegie Hall's artistic advisor, says if there's anyone who can bring these competing arts organizations together, it's New York-based composer Steve Reich.

Mr. ARA GUZELIMIAN (Artistic Advisor, Carnegie Hall): I for one just feel so grateful to be living in New York City at a time when Steve Reich is working at full steam at the height of his powers. And so for once, rather than celebrate a composer 250 years after his birth, as the music world has done for Mozart this year, we're celebrating in a very big way somebody sitting in out midst.

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LONDON: Steve Reich is one of the pioneering minimalist composers, a style of music characterized by an almost hypnotic repetition, with subtle changes in texture. Reich's restless, muscular music has been a fixture on the world culture scene since the 1970s. His background is somewhat unorthodox for a contemporary music icon. Reich majored in philosophy at Cornell University, and he's a Judaic scholar. His musical tastes, though, are Catholic. They range from classical composers like Stravinsky and Bach to jazz greats John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to African drumming and Balinese gamelan.

After he graduated from Cornell, he studied with composer Luciano Berio, who wrote in the mathematically rigorous 12-tone style that was all the rage in the late 1950s.

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Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): The last piece I wrote at Julliard was my first 12-tone piece. It was for string orchestras. Terrible piece. And how did I deal with the 12-tone? Well, you know, I thought, well, don't invert it. Don't put it in retrograde. Just repeat it over and over again, and then maybe somehow you'll be able to sneak some kind of harmonic reality in the back door. So Berio takes a look at it and he says, you know, if you want to write tonal music, why don't you write tonal music?

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Mr. REICH: I said, look, that's what I'm trying to do.

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Ms. JANE MOSS (Vice President of Programming, Lincoln Center): It's inconceivable to me that Steve Reich is turning 70.

LONDON: Jane Moss is vice president of programming at Lincoln Center.

Ms. MOSS: He is such a startling sort of revolutionary figure in American music and music around the world. It's funny. I feel like 70 is a totally meaningless number in relationship to him, because I'm sure the creativity will continue until he's 150.

LONDON: As Steve Reich enters his eighth decade, he's doing anything but slowing down. He's written three pieces that will have New York premiers next to older work at all three institutions. Lincoln Center is premiering You Are Variations.

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LONDON: Steve Reich writes his music in a language that's accessible for most listeners, but he's constantly pushing boundaries and using new technology. In the 1960s, he experimented with tape loops.

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LONDON: And in 1988, he wrote Different Trains for the Kronos Quartet, which utilized the latest digital technology to incorporate recorded voices of Holocaust survivors with instruments.

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Mr. REICH: Different Trains is really music and speech, and the documentary reality and the musical reality are fused, welded together. And so the fact that there was a technical innovation going on with this extremely loaded emotional material, it was a very moving experience.

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LONDON: Carnegie Hall's Ara Guzelimian says whatever the piece, whatever the subject matter, Steve Reich has a distinctive musical voice.

Mr. GUZELIMIAN: Like any other great composer, there is such a recognizable fingerprint. His music has evolved and changed, sometimes in very unexpected ways, through the course of his career. It's also, you know, on a much simpler level just such appealing music.

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LONDON: Carnegie Hall will be presenting several concerts featuring well-known Reich pieces like Electric Counterpoint, played by guitarist Pat Metheny. But they will also be presenting the New York premier of Daniel Variations, a tribute to Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan. The piece uses quotes not only from Pearl himself, but from the biblical book of Daniel. Reich says he's found some eerie contemporary parallels.

Mr. REICH: Daniel is sort of a member of the Jewish aristocracy who was taken captive by the Babylonians, led by Nebakanezer, some 500 years before Jesus and taken off to Babylonia, i.e., Iraq. And he's known to be gifted in many ways, including dream interpretation. So Nebakanezer has a dream, and you know, all his guys, his team can't interpret it. And he says,: I saw a dream; images on my bed and visions in my head frighten me. And a chill went through me when I read the line, because I live four blocks from the World Trade Center.

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LONDON: That's a computer-generated mock-up of music from the first movement of Daniel Variations, which Reich has created as a rehearsal tool for his musicians - kind of a karaoke method for learning the music.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has been presenting Steve Reich's music since 1971, when his seminal work, Drumming, played there. They'll be presenting a New York premier on Steve Reich's birthday: Variation for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, played by the London Symphonietta and choreographed by Akram Khan. Khan, who's currently in London rehearsing the work, says Reich's music is made for dance.

Mr. AKRAM KHAN (Choreographer): There's something about the flow of energy, the way he constructs music, which creates a flow of energy that is very desirable towards movement.

LONDON: Joseph Melillo, executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, says one of the most exciting aspects of the festival is that all three institutions get to showcase new work alongside older pieces.

Mr. JOSEPH MELILLO (Executive Director, Brooklyn Academy of Music): You know, at 70 he can still do it, and that's the important thing, is how much he is a vibrant part of today, of 2006.

LONDON: Steve Reich will be spending a good part of his 71st year globe-hopping. London, Dublin, Paris, Freiberg, Budapest and Helsinki are all presenting birthday tributes. But the festival in New York City may be the most emotional for him.

Mr. REICH: I'm hopeful that it really will come off really well, and of course, you know, it's a tremendous honor, and it's really great to know that your hometown is behind you.

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LONDON: For NPR News, I'm Jeff London in New York.

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SEABROOK: At our Web site, you'll find music and hear Steve Reich talk about his creative process. That's at This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

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