Composer Steve Reich passed through this afternoon, to give the Eighth Tony Dummett memorial lecture. In fact, it was more of chatshow appearance than a lecture. After an encomium from a member of the University of Sussex's music department, the 75 year old Reich—very chipper in a jaunty peaked cap—reminisced down the front, prompted by some bod from the London Sinfonietta.
We learned that Reich was born and bred in New York, and his family home was four blocks from the World Trade Centre, so the events of the 11 September 2001 affected him personally. He and his wife were in his country place in Vermont at the time, but his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild were trapped in the chaos. An army line outside his place meant that the family couldn't return home for a month afterwards. It would nevertheless be eight years before he began work on a reaction to these events, entitled 9/11 WTC, following a commission from the Kronos Quartet. A recording of the piece was played. It was not my cup of tea. I am none the wiser as to his political reaction to the event, and am left with the suspicion one does not remain "America's greatest living composer" by emitting anything other than the anodyne and obvious. Ho hum!
But he was an interesting raconteur, and generous in sharing his compositional methods (MacBook Pro, Sibelius, Reason, Granular Synthesis). Then he took questions from the assembled audience. These he answered fairly, though it was perhaps an irony that the founder of minimalism gave very short shrift to questioners whom he felt were trying to get him to repeat himself. He positively beamed at a drummer who had tried to reconstruct his phasing technique and found it impossible. Reich agreed it was very difficult—when he first devised the technique he always played against a tape and didn't know if it would be possible with another human being. Then he and fellow Juillard student Arthur, both having practised against tape, managed to find a pair of pianos and a method. (One musician must remain absolutely steady, one move).
Abby's* question:Q. As a composer who also leads a live ensemble to play your work, what is your attitude to mistakes?
A. [a kind smile] Mistakes happen, always have happened, and always will happen. What I will say is that recording is a crash course on the piece. We record something, then we go into the box and all the musicians listen to it, some wincing, and then we do it again, and they do it better. And that improvement stays with you into future performances. Also, Glenn Gould is mocked for playing music just as it was written, but I think he's a genius, and I think it's very interesting to produce a version that the composer would have been very happy with.
[Related quotes: "I'm not a great improviser. I greatly admire those who are, but it is important to understand that improvisers are always improvising from some underlying structure—in be-bop, it's a chord progression, in Indian music, a raga, in African music, a rhythmic pattern laid down by the master drummer and so on..."]
*Abby's childcare fell through so she couldn't go, so she primed me to ask this question on her behalf. It's probably a good thing I was steered away from Palestine...
§This blogpost's title is shamelessly lifted from Mike Powell's chiste on Abby's Facebook page.