Steve Reich: “I’ve Never Written a String Quartet”

by Chris Vitiello on April 20, 2011

Steve Reich at the Pinhook (photo: Chris Vitiello)

A public conversation between composer Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington took place at the Pinhook on March 17, with moderator Stephen Jaffe,  under the sweltering lights of a Japanese film crew. The following highlights from the talk illuminate some interesting facts about Reich’s influences, from flamenco bars to jazz drummers. For context: Reich’s Different Trains integrated historical texture into the string quartet via the melodic use of recorded voices; a technique reprised in WTC 9/11, which Kronos recently premiered at Duke.

Harrington on recording Different Trains

Really, our music has never been the same since then. In terms of the string quartet genre, it opened the door for the events of the world to enter the art form. The reason I started Kronos Quartet in the first place was in order to play Black Angels by George Crumb, which had done that in a similar way for me during the Vietnam War. I was a young person trying to figure out what I was going to do in life, and there was this awful event going on. I remember being in high school, watching people dying on television. And so, how do you become a musician in that context? Different Trains proved that a concert can be a place where really important, essential topics that you read about in the newspaper can be dealt with in a meaningful way. I’m totally confident that WTC 9/11 will re-prove that fact.

Reich on making speech into music

David Harrington at the Pinhook (photo: Chris Vitiello)

When people talk, their speech melody is imitated by a viola or a cello. String instruments are extremely well-adapted to imitate the human voice. But when someone says “From Chicago,” you get “Da, da-dee, da,” and it isn’t really like a viola would play it. No one speaks in musical notation. So there’s this residual irregularity that’s built in. They aren’t here at the moment, but [Kronos violist] Hank Dutt and [former Kronos cellist] Jean Jeanrenaud put an enormous amount of sensitive interpretation into this. They had to decide, when is this an up and when is this a down bow? All these things really make the difference between it sounding right and sounding mechanical. People still ask me, “Do you want me to play it exactly as written or play it with the voice?” And I’ll say, “Play it with the voice. The notation will give you a good guide, but it would be better if you just bend it a bit.”

Reich on never having written a string quartet

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” Well, what’s that small thought? A small thought is canon. A round. “Row, row, row your boat.” For me, they’d be in different rhythmic positions, an idea you’ll find in It’s Gonna Rain, and in the pieces I’ve written for Kronos. Okay, string quartet. Two violins, great. One violin can play against the other. Where’s the other violist? Where’s the other cellist? Sorry, no can do. I’ve never written a string quartet. I’ve cheated. I wrote for three or four quartets in Different Trains, three string quartets in Triple Quartet, and three again in WTC 9/11. So everybody refers to them as quartets but they’re not. And I couldn’t have done them for solo quartet. I would have just been flatfooted.

Reich on Jimmy Garrison’s bass on Coltrane’s “Africa”

It sounds impossibly boring—the idea [of playing E-minor for half an hour]. But the music sounds impossibly beautiful. Why is that? The lesson the piece can teach is that if you maintain the same harmony long enough, almost any note and any noise becomes acceptable and comprehensible within it. That was a very important lesson. And it wasn’t lost on me, or Terry Riley, or La Monte Young, or Philip Glass—it wasn’t lost on anybody who was alive at that time.

Reich on drummer Kenny Clarke

I wouldn’t describe him as a virtuoso at all. I would describe him as a magician. He basically played ride cymbal, and very few accents on the bass and snare drums. But that quality of time is what I am trying to get to. I wanted to be Kenny Clarke and I failed. But maybe some of the pieces are an attempt…in Music for Eighteen Musicians, the pulse is trying, in some way, to equate to that buoyant, floating quality he creates. He played very simply but was able to float rather than drive a band.

Reich on the origins of Clapping Music

Steve Reich at the Pinhook (photo: Chris Vitiello)

[Scene: A late-night flamenco bar in Brussels after an ensemble performance, 1971.] We go in and everybody orders some drinks, and two women come out with too much lipstick on. They pick up a guitar, and they really don’t play very well, and they don’t sing well either. But then they start to clap, and all of us snap around because they are fantastic at clapping. It was like blocks of wood being hit together. So as we went out into the foggy Belgian air afterwards, with several drinks under our belts, we just started improvising clapping patterns at each other. And the light bulb went on in my head—What happens if the freight isn’t delivered? If there’s a power failure? If there aren’t any amplifiers? If the instruments didn’t arrive, we could just clap at the audience.

Out of that came Clapping Music.

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