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Sound Unbound with Steve Reich

Nothing Concrete text
5 Feb 2020
14 min listen

In the first episode of our new podcast series, Steve Reich speaks about the profound impact hearing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at 14 had on him and his future career as a composer.

The relaunched Barbican podcast, Nothing Concrete kicks off with a brand new series, Sound Unbound, introduced by Josie Long as we meet with creative minds to learn about the music that moves them. First up, composer Steve Reich. 

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I heard the recording and my jaw dropped. And I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was like someone had said, well you've lived for 14 years here, but there's one room you haven't seen yet. 


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Nothing Concrete: Sound Unbound with Steve Reich

In our new series, Josie Long talks to creative minds about the music that moves them. First up, Steve Reich speaks about the profound impact hearing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at 14 had on him and his future career as a composer. 


JL: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, a Barbican podcast. I'm Josie Long and in this new series, Sound Unbound, I'm talking to artists about the music that moves them.

Let's meet our first guest. 

SR: Hello, I'm Steve Reich, I'm a composer, and I'm sitting in my dressing room at the Barbican concert hall in London. 

JL: Steve Reich - and I now realise that is how you pronounce his name - is one of the pioneers of minimalism and it's hard to understate his influence. From the 1960s, he alongside the likes of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, have been making maximum use of minimal material to create a distinctive sound driven by repetition, looping and sonic pattern making. He's drawn his influences widely, from Bach to African drumming but there's one piece of music that's really left its mark on him. 

SR: The piece of music that probably, certainly began my thinking to becoming a composer and proved to be absolutely true was The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. Maybe the great masterwork of the twentieth century. 

Well, I mean, on a more personal level I was brought up in a relatively middle class family and the music, the recordings that we had, the 78s - Beethoven's 5th, Schubert's Unfinished, Overture of the Mastersinger - basically some classic and Romantic music. No music past Wagner, no music before Haydn. So I'm 14 years old, it was 1950, a friend of mine says, 'Dude you've got to come over and hear this' and I was like, oh okay. And he played me a recording of The Rite of Spring, I think it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I heard the recording and my jaw dropped. And I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was like someone had said, well you've lived for 14 years here, but there's one room you haven't seen yet. 

And in a sense, I opened that door, I walked in that room and I'm still living in that room. Along with Johann Sebastian Bach and John Coltrane and several other people. I mean, music had been something - I'd taken piano lessons - but after The Rite of Spring, I then heard the 5th Brandenburg for the first time 

And then I heard Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and the drummer Kenny Clarke for the first time. 

The juncture, at the age of 13, 14, determined my life. Absolutely, it was a determining time. And then I began to study percussion with Roland Kohloff who was a great drummer, and he became the timpanist of the New York Philharmonic so it just turned out that I was sort of always at the right place at the right time. That first right place, at the right time was hearing The Rite of Spring at the age of 14. 

JL: I can imagine that even the least initiated classical listener will probably recognise something about The Rite of Spring. 

Stravinsky wrote the music for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and there was a riot - or at least something approaching a riot at the premiere in Paris in 1913. It's also the soundtrack to Disney's Fantasia. The bit with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs. But what's it actually about? This is Ben Gernon, he's a conductor and he's our musical expert here on Sound Unbound. 

BG: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring has to be one of my most favourite pieces of work both to listen to and to perform. The Rite of Spring is a collection of prehistoric, pagan practices. Stravinsky really wanted a girl to dance herself to death and it's important to note that in no Pagan culture was that normal, other than the Aztecs. So this was really something he wanted to put into this piece but what we have is this wonderful portrait, a collection of portraits of prehistoric pagan rituals. So for me, it's barbaric, it's pretty revolting, but it's also a wonderful celebration of the earth in which we live. 

I think this music is so brilliant because for me, the main driving factor in this piece is the rhythm. You cannot escape the inevitability that this girl is going to dance herself to death at the end. Now how does Stravinsky create this wonderful sense of momentum? The opening of The Rite of Spring is extremely special and mysterious. You have this extremely high bassoon note, which really ought to be on the cor anglais or a higher pitched woodwind instrument. It's actually quite difficult for the bassoonist to play - and they play completely on their own. Stravinsky said that he took this from an old Lithuanian wedding song that he'd heard and a male voice that sounded quite strained. So I think the effect he's trying to create here is one of tension. And then for me, what is really exciting, and possibly might be one of the most famous parts of this piece, is the Dance of the Young Girls. 

Where we have this very metric rhythm, that's very stable, but he offsets us and he throws us into this rollercoaster ride and nobody quite knows where the beat is coming. So we have this wonderful sense of syncopation and you already get the sense of these girls, these dancers, already being in this very ugly dance.

SR: Part of the greatness of this music [sings] - now here's the melody, but the compass, how far the notes, usually with a range to the 5th, if you were going from C to G, and everything was happening in that little area which builds up a kind of tension. And every so often there's a flash of colour. 

A lot of Stravinsky feels to me, metaphorically, as if it was a huge river and then an enormous dam holding it up, and Stravinsky is that dam holding this pressure, this emotional intensity which you know is there, but he's holding it back. 

It's in the folk tunes itself, they have that potential, they're not monotonous, there's something energetic about it. Because they are so constrained, that constrain promises energy, contains the energy. There's a great emotional intensity. And at the same time, just an enormous amount of skill in terms of the writing of the parts. For instance, in The Rite of Spring, you have all these irregular accents but because there were dancers and Stravinsky was aware it was going to be a ballet, he frames them so you can count them in groups of four. So it's not wild abandon at all, everything is really under control, so there's that incredible combination of what seems like overwhelming energy - if you look at it carefully, it's quite worked out, it's quite tailored for musicians to play so it'll fit well on their instrument, superbly well on their instruments, and then dancers can follow it too because the layout of the irregularity is regular so they can count it. So it's, you know, the more you look the more you find out. 

BG: I think conducting this piece is terrifying, it's also exhilarating. Essentially, this piece is very simple. Although it sounds extremely complex. So as a conductor, you have to just be very straight forward, make sure you're showing everybody where they need to be. But underneath there's this `tremendous emotional force and volcano that's brewing inside you. You end the first part on this adrenaline high and then the second part starts, very soft and extremely mysterious. So as a conductor, you're constantly managing these different atmospheres but really your end goal is this young girl's death and the complete collapse of everybody's energy at the end. So I find it thrilling but also incredibly exhausting to conduct. 

JL: The intensity of this piece of music made a huge impact on the young Steve Reich, but did it shape his music in turn?

SR: I got a tremendous of energy from Stravinsky, a tremendous amount of information, but I've never tried to work out the notes and say, well how would I manipulate that chord or melodies. It's more the general principles that I got, and the energy, and of course the rhythmic part of it is extremely important. Who could imagine anything, how could I have imagined it working, basically you know, Beethoven 5 to Wagner, that kind of motor energy coming out of a piece of classical music. So, that can't be understated, of course, it's pivotal. 

BG: For me, there's a really interesting comparison between Steve's music and Stravinsky's music and that's Stravinsky and Steve are both masters of ostinato - so the repetition and the layering of rhythms to create excitement and drive. 

For me, The Rite of Spring has this brilliant drive, right to the end, and also Steve's music is founded upon this great sense of pounding rhythms, of layering complex and more complex rhythms on top of each other. And for me, that's the most interesting comparison between Stravinsky and Steve Reich. 

JL: But Reich and Stravinsky have something else in common. A riotous - or at least revolting - audience. The Riot at the Rite in 1913 is wrapped up in myth and no one really knows what really happened. There's plenty of speculation online if you want to find out more. But Steve remembered how it felt when his piece, Four Organs, simultaneously delighted and disgusted the Carnegie Hall audience

SR: I was not in Paris, I was not even born in 1913 when the Rite of Spring premiered and there was a famous riot that took place. But I was alive, well and performing at Carnegie Hall with Michael Tilson Thomas, in 1973 when we did the New York premiere. Actually it wasn't even the New York premiere, it was the uptown premiere [laughs]. We'd played it at the Guggenheim Museum for a very small audience who just loved it. But at Carnegie Hall, Michael had programmed it along with, he called it ‘multiples’, basically pieces where you had multiples of the same instrument. And my piece was the Liszt Hexameron, very unknown piece for six pianos. And apparently, he had written it for Chopin himself and various others and the way they performed it was people sort of dressed up as 'oh that one's Chopin'. Now who is going to come to that? What kind of audience is attracted to the Liszt Hexameron? There were, as we said, in those days, a lot of blue haired ladies - and I don't mean punks [laughs]. This is old style blue haired ladies. And the last thing in the world they were expecting was four Farfisa and mini compact screamer organs with four maracas. So I went in, you know, just to check is the wiring set up OK, are we going to be heard? Completely oblivious to the sociology of the situation. Because, that’s sort of, I’m a little bit that way. I was very concerned about how we're going to do what we're going to do because I was running my own group and this was a different group. 

Anyway, so we started and the piece is about 22, 23 minutes long and it basically uses the same set of notes for 23 minutes. But they augment, they get longer but they also break apart and form melodic content. But that wasn't... I think what happened in the hall was after the first 2 or 3 minutes people realised those notes aren't going to change. And once that got clear, there were first rumblings, and then the rumblings became mutters, and it got pretty loud. And you have to be glued to the score of Four Organs because there are tiny changes and repetitions, things getting longer and the only way to do it is to zero in, on this case Michael Tilson Thomas who would nod, meaning change to the next bar. But you have to know what bar you're in - or if you've missed a nod! And so by the time we got to the end of the piece, there was just pandemonium in the house. 

He was going '1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!' Because the screamer organs and people screaming - and we stayed together. I mean, sort of. And then 'bravo' 'boooo' - you name it. And I turned white as a sheet. And Michael said to me, ‘Wonderful! This is history!' and he's thinking, you know, 1913 and I'm thinking 'I want you to love it!' Anyway, it all worked out. I'm still very close to Michael Tilson Thomas and the piece was very recently done at the Winter Garden in New York City by members of a cymbal ensemble and I asked them, and she wrote back, 'Sorry, no riot they loved it!' [laughs] So, things change and that's all for the good. 

JL: Thanks to Steve Reich, Ben Gernon and to you, for listening to this episode of Sound Unbound, with me Josie Long. 

In the next episode, we'll be talking to folk musician Karine Polwart. 

KP: 'There's something about the feeling of that piece of music and the story behind it becuase it was written in 1980 as a political protest, which was relatively rare in the world of classical music, but not at all rare in my world of folk music'. 

Thanks for listening to Sound Unbound, part of Nothing Concrete from the Barbican. To listen to the rest of the series, subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts and if you'd like to hear more of the music connected to this episode, listen and subscribe to the Barbican's Sound Unbound playlist on Spotify. 

Sound Unbound is produced by Freya Hellier for Loftus Media. The assistant producer is Alex Quinn. 

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