So, after getting this piece assigned in January and traveling to Knoxville for it, here it is! My piece on composer Steve Reich. I thought a lot about this piece structurally. The idea of doing something ‘definitive’ was clearly out of the question: though an ardent fan, I’m not a compositional music expert by any means, and he’s been covered several times before by the best and the brightest, i.e. The New Yorker, The Times, etc.
The one real advantage I had, as a writer, was that despite all that coverage, Reich is only a household name in households that are fluent in modern classical music, which isn’t many. I had the chance to introduce him as a musician, but wanted to resist a career-spanning work, as it would surely falter when compared to compositional experts who have handled the subject before, like Alex Ross.
My answer was fragmentation. I initially split the piece up into the six separate moments where I would see/hear Reich live over the Festival + my interview, without any hint of transition. My original title, which I use for the link above (I love the current title too!), is meant to suggest the minimalism of one of Reich’s titles, Music for 18 Musicians, etc. I grew very taken with Reich’s music during the course of this piece and it came to influence my writing of it. Initially, in an ode to Reichian repetition, every section ended with some version of “_____ applause”, and the adjective was supposed to grow slightly with each section. ‘Big’ became ‘piercing’ became ‘thunderous’, etc. Writing the idea out now, it deserved to be cut: far too subtle. I think the Reichian minimalist influence still dots the piece, though.
This piece also presented a specific challenge for me: how to write about compositional music (it’s worth noting that this is Reich’s idea, to use ‘compositional’ instead of ‘classical’. I think it’s a change that makes sense would recommend you update your style guides accordingly) without being able to read it. Giola, etc. In the piece, I mention asking one uneventful question before Reich hung up, and it was about this: if someone needed to be able to read music to fully understand his works. He responded,
Absolutely, of course. If you want to understand what Bach, or what Bartok, or what I’ve done, the best thing is to put on a recording and take out a score and maybe go out to a piano later with a score and see exactly how it works, see how its done. Obviously that’s not the case in non-notated music.
That threw me a little! I think a key question in seeing compositional music live is, what’s the difference between seeing it and listening at home? One of the most interesting things about live music is how improvisation can lead to revelations of character, and notation might not allow for that. So I decided to answer that question by describing in detail what it was like to see it in person, with a focus on the physicality of the musicians. I only decided this in the midst of seeing Drumming, as a physical act it was simply too astonishing not to report on in great detail.
I like the piece a lot. although it’s not perfect. I’ve heard online that there should be more callbacks to the initial bad interview, which is a fair point. That interview was so stressful to me, I might have subconsciously decided to sequester it off from the rest of the piece. It’s a learning experience, like any other. I feel really good about it.