PALO ALTO, Calif. — For a composer whose work is heavily steeped in repetition, Steve Reich doesn’t stay in the same place for very long, and he rarely thinks inside the box.
Reich has employed tape loops, feedback, percussion pieces rooted in Balinese gamelan and West African drumming, compositions based on human voices and human biology, and operatic works steeped in the Holocaust and the roots of contemporary religion. He’s composed music for large ensembles with no need for a conductor (“Music for 18 Musicians,” 1974-76), and works that consist of nothing but two people clapping (“Clapping Music,” 1972), treated with Reich’s signature phasing technique, in which two repeating instruments shift in and out of unison.
All this experimentation has paid off: In his 46-year career, Reich, 73, has won two Grammy Awards, shared the 2007 Polar Music Prize with Sonny Rollins, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music earlier this year for “Double Sextet” (2007). He will perform on “Clapping Music” during a staging of six of his compositions on Jan. 9 at Stanford University.
“Basically, I go in and out of technology,” Reich said. “After ‘Drumming’ (in 1971), I became interested in moving away from technology. I moved to chamber orchestra. Then the idea of sampling arose, and I was asked to do a piece for Kronos Quartet (“Different Trains,” 1988). I found out about a sampler keyboard. I could take any sound you could imagine and rework it. That suggested a new way of doing opera.”
Village Voice calls Reich “the most original thinker of our time” and The Guardian (U.K.) hails him as among “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history.” His 1968 composition, “Pendulum Music,” based on sounds produced by swinging microphones back and forth in front of speakers, was highly influential to a number of early noise bands such as Sonic Youth and Throbbing Gristle — think of Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” with actual melodies.
An earlier work, “It’s Gonna Rain” in 1965, prefigured hip-hop. In the piece, Reich uses a tape loop of a street preacher he recorded while living in San Francisco. As the preacher utters the title line, a pigeon happened to take off; the sound of its wings flapping becomes the percussive instrument of the piece. The words themselves overlap one another so that, at times, they become unintelligible. For Reich at the time, the piece was merely an exercise to break away from Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique he had been utilizing in his work.
“It’s Gonna Rain” is now considered a classic bit of experimentation — ambient musician/ producer Brian Eno hails it as the music that spawned his career.
Reich has lately turned to purely instrumental works. His most recent composition, “Mallet Quartet,” is designed for four marimbas, or two marimbas and two vibraphones. The piece will get its U.S. premiere as part of Stanford Lively Arts at Stanford, performed by New York City quartet So Percussion. Also to be performed will be “Music for Pieces ofWood” (1973), “Nagoya Marimbas” (1994), “Drumming Part 1” (1970-71) and “Four Organs” (1970) — a piece which, when performed in 1973 in Carnegie Hall, nearly got Reich booed off the stage.
“I just finished ‘Mallet Quartet.’” Reich said. “Now, lo and behold, I feel the need to go back into sampling. I’m beginning to use a technique that I used in ‘Dolly’ (from “Three Tales,” a video opera with his wife, visual artist Beryl Korot, in 2002). You know how you go to a movie and see a freeze-frame (while the film is rolling)? There is now a technology that allows you to do that with sounds.
This piece will take vowel sounds and sustain them so a cello can double them. This will be a different kind of piece.”
Reich has just completed “2X5,” his first piece to be scored for rock music instruments — two drum sets, two pianos, four electric guitars and two bass guitars. The composition premiered in July at Manchester International Festival, performed by Bang on a Can, sharing the bill with electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, who have also performed Reich’s work.
Reich, who studied at Julliard and received a master’s degree in composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., weaves intricate pieces, based heavily on intuition, but also complex mathematical precision. Even his sparsest compositions, such as “Clapping Music” or “Vermont Counterpoint” — a flute played against a recording of a flute — are elaborate works that rely on a nimble sense of timing by the performers.
“(The musicians) push as far as they can go and it can really stress me out, as I hope that everyone is going to end where they need to end,” said Jenny Bilfield, artistic director and executive director for Stanford Lively Arts, who has seen Reich’s works performed a number of times, going back to the late 1970s. “That kind of electricity is really where Steve’s sweet spot is.”
Throughout his catalog, Reich celebrates the human voice: He twists voices to sound like instruments, and instruments to mimic voices, such as the polyphonic chants of Middle Ages composer Peronin and scat singing in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald, as employed on “Music for 18 Musicians.” Much of the time, he blends the two so a listener can’t separate the voice from the instrument.
“There are many different ways I’ve used the voice, but many people wouldn’t even know they’re there unless they see the performance,” Reich said. “I blend (the voices) into the music. I use the voice to sing the words, then I also use prerecorded voices. What interests me there is, sometimes when we speak, we speak very melodically but also very boring; but on tape you can isolate the melody.”
Oftentimes, it’s not what’s being said, but how it’s being said. Many times, it’s up to the listener to “complete the text,” as Reich puts it.