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Minimalist music pioneer Steve Reich was inspired by Stravinsky and Coltrane

American composer Steve Reich has reinvented sound over 50 years; he performs in Singapore next month

In his five-decade career, composer Steve Reich has followed the beat of his heart. These days, it drums faster before each concert he plays.

"I'm a lot more nervous than I used to be. I'm not as good a performer as I was when I was 35 years old," says the American composer, who turns 80 in October.

On March 17, he will perform at the Esplanade Concert Hall with the London Sinfonietta. The evening begins with Clapping Music, the deceptively simple 1972 piece written for two performers who use the rhythm of their hands to create new harmonies.

"Clapping Music is a very simple piece, but very, very exposed," Reich says in a phone interview from California, where he is visiting relatives. "The slightest mistake and it's obvious."

So before he heads onstage, he may meditate to calm down or hang out with his fellow performer and crack a few jokes.

Reich is a legend in his own lifetime, a pioneer of minimalism in music. His work is performed by rock stars and the New York Philharmonic alike, though he has never written for the traditional orchestra or string ensemble.

I'm a lot more nervous than I used to be. I'm not as good a performer as I was when I was 35 years old.

AMERICAN COMPOSER STEVE REICH, who turns 80 in October

Double Sextet, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, is written for the unusual grouping of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello.

  • BOOK IT / ESPLANADE PRESENTS | SPECTRUM: LONDON SINFONIETTA WITH STEVE REICH

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: March 17, 7.30pm

    Tickets: $38, $58 and $78 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). There will be a post-show dialogue with Steve Reich

In 1966, he had to create the Steve Reich And Musicians ensemble to play his work. It won a Grammy Award in 1999 for a Nonesuch recording of Music For 18 Musicians, a piece the Sinfonietta will perform here.

His hallmark is repeating what he calls "melodic modules" to create phases and pulses in the listening experience - rhythms of various periodic lengths in the music.

In Music For 18 Musicians, the haunting pulse at the start leads to wider waves of sound that wash over the audience. It is a complex work, requiring piano, xylophone, marimbas and clarinets, among other instruments.

Also lined up for Singapore is Radio Rewrite, inspired by British rock band Radiohead. Reich was stuck while working on a commission for the Sinfonietta in 2010, when he attended a concert in Krakow, Poland, and heard his Electric Counterpoint being performed by Radiohead's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood. Impressed, he went back and listened to Greenwood's music. It broke the block.

Reich will not be pigeonholed.

"I write music," is what he says of his style, which has inspired legendary choreographers such as Jerome Robbins of the New York City Ballet, Czech artist Jiri Kylian of Nederlands Dans Theater and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker of Belgian modern dance company Rosas.

His influence is acknowledged by composers, such as fellow Americans, Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe, 57, and 30something Nico Muhly. Reich, composer-inresidence until next year at Carnegie Hall, has programmed both their music for a series of concerts at the New York venue to celebrate three generations of musical evolution. He has also written a new work, Pulse, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall for his birthday concert in October.

Minimalist pioneer

Born to a lawyer and singersongwriter who split up when he was only a year old, Reich was a drummer in his teens. He decided to become a composer after falling for the rhythms in music as diverse as Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring and jazz from Miles Davis.

A later influence was John Coltrane, notably the 1960s album Africa/Brass, with 30 minutes of melody entirely in E. Listening to it changed his thinking, he says.

"How in the world can somebody do that without being boring? Through incredible melodic and rhythmic complexity."

But in the world of music at the time, honours were reserved for composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, whose music had no fixed beat.

"I became a musician because of Stravinsky and Coltrane and these were not the kinds of music I could pursue in the academic world," says Reich.

He graduated with honours in philosophy from Cornell before studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and completing his master's in Mills College in California.

"I couldn't devote my life to something I didn't have an emotional connection to," he says. So rather than "accept the restrictions of new music", he left to do his own thing.

He recorded a street preacher in San Francisco and anticipated the rap industry with the tape-looped vocals of It's Gonna Rain (1965). He studied percussion in West Africa and gamelan music in Seattle and California, then completed Drumming (1970-1971), a work hailed as a masterpiece.

He studied cantillation, or traditional ways of chanting the Hebrew scriptures, in New York and Jerusalem, which led to the 1980s works for chorus and ensemble, Tehillim and The Desert Music. Later came the Grammy Award-winning Different Trains, a medley of train whistles, vocals and instruments inspired by his early years shuttling between parents.

Next were video-operas, collaborations with his wife, artist Beryl Korot.

The Cave (completed in 1993) interprets the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Three Tales (2002) considers the impact of technology on the 20th century, from the Hindenburg zeppelin explosion in 1937 to the atomic tests in Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and 1950s and the 1996 cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Reich is not sold on all technology. He uses music software and has a MacBook Pro for his travels.

"But I have the most important things here - pencil and manuscript paper," he says, explaining that he still maps out new works by hand.

He dislikes the move towards streaming music. Clapping Music was released last year on the iTunes store, but he has a fondness for physical recordings.

"It's all very nice to talk about distribution, but recording companies don't want to make records because all we do is go to a streaming service and it's a fraction of a penny for each play."

On the plus side, there is still an undiminished appetite for live concerts, such as his performance in Singapore.

"People still want to hear people perform," he says, then laughs.

"We used to do concerts to support record sales, now it's the other way around. It's turned the world upside down."


Steve Reich's life

Steve Reich was born in October 1936. After his parents divorced, he grew up spending six months of the year with his lawyer father in New York City and the other six with his singer-songwriter mother in Los Angeles.

He began playing the drums at age 14 and, after graduating from Cornell with honours in philosophy, studied composition with jazz pianist Hall Overton.

Reich entered the Juilliard School of Music in 1958, studied with influential composers William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti and graduated in 1961. At Mills College, where he obtained a master's in composition, he worked with the pioneering composer of electronic music, Luciano Berio.

In the 1970s, he studied drumming at the University of Ghana in Accra as well as the gamelan at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California. A new interest in his Jewish heritage also led him to learn traditional ways of chanting Hebrew scriptures.

He won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition in 1989 for a recording of Different Trains by the Kronos Quartet, brought out by the Nonesuch label. A second Grammy was awarded in 1999 for Best Small Ensemble Performance, when his Steve Reich And Musicians ensemble recorded his Music For 18 Musicians, also with Nonesuch.

In 2009, the composer won the Pulitzer Prize with Double Sextet, written for the unusual grouping of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello.

He is the 2016-2017 composerin-residence at Carnegie Hall in New York and has also written for the Barbican in London.

He is married to video artist Beryl Korot and has two grown sons, one from a previous marriage.


Rhythms of Reich

Steve Reich was one of the pioneers of minimalism in music in 1960s America. His signature is phasing, using in-sync or out-of-sync repetitions of what he calls "melodic modules" to create harmony and change tempo. Here are some of his notable works:

It's Gonna Rain (1965)

Reich found rhythm in the spoken word before the music industry discovered rap. Made from the recording of a preacher he taped in San Francisco, most of the first half of the 17-minute piece is the titular phrase looping against itself. Street sounds such as the beating wings of a pigeon taking flight provide a background pulse.

Drumming (1970-1971)

The influence of Reich's studies in West Africa are obvious in this work, over an hour long and written for the bongo drums, marimbas, glockenspiels and two female voices imitating the patterns of the marimbas. Reviewers hailed it as a minimalist masterpiece.

Clapping Music (1972)

The three- to five-minute piece Reich often performs in concert is so simple that it is difficult to perform. Two people begin clapping in time, then move out of sync and later back in sync again.

Music For 18 Musicians (1974-1976)

Written for strings, piano, clarinets, voice and percussion instruments such as the xylophone and marimba, this roughly hour-long piece is mesmerising. An insistent pulse is set at the start and later, waves of longer periodic rhythm wash over the listener. A 1998 recording won a Grammy Award.

Different Trains (1988)

This Grammy Award- winning piece, 27 minutes long, first evokes Reich's memories of childhood train journeys between the homes of his divorced parents. It later segues into the train journeys made by Jews towards death camps in World War II. Written for string quartet and tape, Different Trains features the whistles of moving trains and the voice of Reich's then nanny, Virginia.

Double Sextet (2007)

This work won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for music and is written for the unusual grouping of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello. It can be played by two ensembles or an ensemble and its pre-recording.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Marching to his own beat'. Print Edition | Subscribe