Steve Reich talking with students and staff from the VCA & MCM.

Steve Reich: learning from a master

New York native Steve Reich established his career in appropriately outlier fashion: by rejecting the path of his forebears. Last month VCA and Melbourne Conservatorium students had an opportunity to learn from the musical genius. 

By Marcus Teague

Known commonly (perhaps maddeningly) as the ‘godfather of minimalism’, the now 75-year old Reich came to prominence in the ’60s and ’70s as a curious radical, able to unearth a new musical language from the seemingly disparate influences of classical, jazz and African drumming.

Reich’s first landmark work came with 1965’s tape-manipulation, ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ , favouring tone, rhythm and repetition over the romantic roots of his early schooling. Built solely from Reich’s field recording of a preacher’s voice, the 17-minute piece was created using two analogue tape machines played side by side. Though first played together in sync, a gradual shift in speed created a slight ‘phase’ effect, imbuing the composition with a percussively hypnotic, ethereal quality – of its source but something new entirely.

This discovery led Reich to attempt the ‘phase’ effect using traditional instruments. Early results, including ‘Piano Phase’, ‘Four Organs’, ‘Drumming’ and his seminal 1974 masterwork, ‘Music For 18 Musicians’, were typified by a stoic repetition of canonical Western motifs, duelling tempos inflected with African percussion and a form dedicated to process; a signature technique that continues to this day. These repetitive figures and layered rhythms forming a dreamlike, dense skeleton of insistent  (and often beautiful) harmonic and percussive detail can be traced through nearly all forms of modern music.

Steve Reich talking with students and staff from the VCA & MCM.
Steve Reich talking with students and staff from the VCA & MCM.

While Reich is cognisant of his work’s impact on music history, he humbly explains that he wouldn’t have been in the position to influence it without also being its student. Speaking in Australia to present his work at the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Recital Centre in early 2012, Reich says he was but sating his curiosity when his discoveries coalesced.

‘I was doing what I was doing and I was liking what I was doing, and then I began thinking, “you know, what exactly is this, really?”’ says Reich. ‘And I realised, ‘well the whole phasing kind of thing is a variation on canonic technique.’ And yeah, that made me feel like I was connected to something in Western music. Then I dropped the phasing idea and stayed with the canonic idea. The idea of writing something followed by itself, playing the same instrument, has been with me ever since.’

Such discoveries don’t come without being armed to understand them, Reich insists. ‘It’s kind of like you’re digging in the ground and you hit a certain geological strata,’ he says. ‘’What it is that you’re looking for?’ I’m doing something and thinking about what I’m doing and then something [else] — which I had studied and learned years ago — will bubble up; a subconscious bubbling up to consciousness. It was very significant, and actually it opened the door for a new way of me working rhythmically.’

It’s a discovery that still reverberates today claims Matt Westwood, a third year Bachelor of Music student at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). After attending an intimate masterclass session at the Melbourne Recital Centre with moderator Stuart Greenbaum and assembled students, Westwood is able to pinpoint the personal and broad appeal of the composer

‘He has shown me how powerful it can be to treat composition as creating a unique soundscape,’ says the student. ‘I had never imagined that music could sound like ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, or like his phase music. And in a more general way, it’s also just very inspiring to see someone become so successful as a composer in the 21st century. It gives me hope that one day I could too be successful as a composer.’

Reich’s refined compositional process similarly affected May Andrewartha, another third year Bachelor of Music student.

‘He’s influenced me in that he is able to use a small amount of material to develop large and complex works,’ she says. ‘I like the idea of using minimal material to maximum effect.’

For first year VCA student Maize Wallin, who’s undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Contemporary Music (Interactive Composition), the value of the masterclass was simply hearing the icon speak.

‘It was great to know exactly what was going through his mind while he wrote ‘WTC911’, and how he translated those thoughts so literally to music,’ Wallin says.’ And it was amazing to sit in the hall and just soak up the texture of his music.’

Surprisingly, for the global impact of his body of work, Reich claims producing emotion has never been a motivating force. ‘I don’t think about it,’ he explains. ‘I think about trying to write the best music I can, and part of it is thinking, “is this music getting to me?” Do I want to hear it again? Does it send chills up and down my spine? Do I want to hear it again on Wednesday as much as I do Sunday? Do I like it next Thursday as much as I liked it last Wednesday?” And if the answer to all that is “Yes”, then I know I’ve hit something good. So it’s a question of it being something that moves me emotionally and something that satisfies me intellectually. [When] those things go together, I say, “Yeah, this is well done. This is good.’

The masterclass was part of the ‘VCA & MCM Master Teacher Program’, supported by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.