[This interview was done in preparation for Reich’s appearances at Vassar College’s 2009 ModFest. It originally appeared in the Woodstock Times.]

Steve Reich’s 70th birthday was marked around the world with festivals, including Steve Reich at 70 in New York, a collaboration among the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center. His music has won two Grammy awards. A critic for the New York Times called him “our greatest living composer,” an opinion I would agree with wholeheartedly.

Although Reich’s music is sometimes heard in Hudson Valley performances, I haven’t seen the composer himself in this area since the 1980s. So it’s big music news that Vassar College’s seventh annual Modfest, a three-week celebration of contemporary arts, will be honoring Reich and bringing him to Vassar during this year’s festival, January 22 to February 13, including an all-Reich concert on January 31 and an conversation with the composer on February 1 followed by a concert of his percussion works.

When I spoke to Reich in December, I had just learned that his archive had been sold to the Sacher Foundation in Switzerland. I began by asking him how he felt about his archive going there.

SR: It feels incredibly good. I’m in the company of Bartok and Stravinsky and my teacher Berio and my friend Ligeti and many other greats. My music has long been supported more in Europe than in America. Felix Meyer from the Sacher Foundation walked in and said he wanted to do it. I like to deal only with people who operate on intuition. Bob Hurwitz at Nonesuch just says, “I want to record it.” If you need a bureau of investigators, I’m not your man. Besides, Sacher will help pay for the costs of scholars from anywhere who want to go there to study the archives.

LG: At one time all performances of your music were by your own ensemble [Steve Reich and Musicians]. Now there’s even a Steve Reich Ensemble in London. How do you feel about having your music played by so many other people?

SR: Nothing in this world outside of my family makes me happier than to see people around the world playing my music. If I don’t know them from a hole in the ground, that makes me feel excellent. My ensemble plays for special occasions. We played at MassMOCA. We’re going to play for the reopening of Alice Tully Hall. But unless there are occasions like those, my band-leading days are over.

I can still turn in a pretty good performance because I have the inside track on interpretation. I perform mostly as a guest these days. I’ll be playing with Ensemble Modern soon. Gerhard Richter is having an opening in Cologne and we’re going to play Drumming Part 1 and Music for 18 Musicians at the Cologne Philharmonic. Often I just coach people. I go out and play Clapping Music [for two musicians who clap rhythms] with someone. I don’t miss performing a lot. I was never a strong performer. Composers write music. I know percussionists who run rings around me.

LG: Do you get to hear all the recordings of your music? Are there any bad ones?

SR: I hear some of the recordings, especially if they are by people I know. There are many out there I’ve never heard. I’ve heard some terrible ones, which I won’t name. But if you shop around you’ll hear abysmal recordings of Copland and Bach, so once you’re out there in the world you don’t call the shots. I’ve also heard breathtaking ones, so it all balances out.

LG: Is there a simple way to describe your music to people who haven’t heard any of it?

SR: Honestly, no. If you have time to listen to a recording or a friend’s iPod, that would be the best way to get acquainted. I don’t think words do it. It has a regular beat, in the same world as pop music. But it isn’t rock and roll and it isn’t jazz. People both in the classical and pop worlds have taken a liking to it, which makes sense considering my background. But one listen is worth a thousand words.

LG: How has your religion affected your music?

SR: It’s an old tradition. Music emerges in religious contexts all over the world, chanting and playing. In the West it goes from Hebrew chant to Gregorian chant. Only with the time of Mozart and Haydn do you have the aristocracy taking over to pay composers, as opposed to the church.

Today we live in an ultra-secular world, with predominantly ultra-secular artists and music. But we have many musicians, myself, Glass, Gorecki, Pärt, Michael Gordon, Tavener, Kancheli, and others who are religious people. Music had its birthplace in religion and it is very tenacious. I’m part of an old and very honorable tradition. Religion has played an increasingly important role in my life since I returned to Judaism in 1975 and wrote Tehillim in 1981.

LG: In the Sixties and Seventies, your music started with ingeniously derived motifs and developed them with ingeniously chosen formulas. When did that change, and why?

SR: From It’s Gonna Rain through the phase pieces through Drumming, I was basically working with the idea that all changes would happen through rhythm. None of harmony and instrumental timbre. That’s a radical idea, but it was fascinating and when you’re young you can spend all your energies on such a radical idea.

By the time I finished Drumming, I started taking a step backward with Music for 18 Musicians, which develops with harmony, like the work of thousands of other composers. That’s the beginning of something that continued. I will now start at the piano, work out a harmonic schema, and the piece will follow that. But it’s very loose. What are the patterns? There’s lots of my vocal music that uses real melodies. All the elements of Western music–extended melody, expanded orchestration, more various and sometimes chromatic melody–have entered my music, but you still feel that rhythmic energy. It’s there as a given. Also the rate of change has changed tremendously. Drumming is 29 pages of score. Music for 18 Musicians is 300 pages. They take the same time to play. The rate of change may not be as great as Brahms, but it’s much faster than in the phase pieces.

The main event at Vassar is Signal Ensemble, a dynamite group, playing Daniel Variations, a very recent piece, then Music for 18 Musicians, my greatest hit.

–Leslie Gerber

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