At 80, Steve Reich is still a very busy composer. Considered the founder of minimalism, this subtle American ﬁrst became known for his repetitive pieces, using audio tapes of human voices and of noises, manipulating loops and putting them out of sync to create a hypnotic effect. He then transposed this concept of repetitive minimalism onto instrumental music, from chamber music to opera. Ever changing, intuitive and seductive, his work speaks to a very wide audience. We met in Paris during his residency at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
Citizen K Homme: In what context did you write your first two repetitive pieces, the starting point for minimalism?
Steve Reich: I recorded It’s Gonna Rain, a piece about Noah, the ﬂood, and the end of the world, in San Francisco in 1964. It was at the time of the Cuban crisis, when Khrushchev wanted to send his nuclear warheads there. We could all have gone up in a cloud of radioactive dust. I was really worried about it, and I was also going through a divorce. Come Out was created to support the civil rights movement, based on a statement by a young African-American unjustly accused of murder.
Are you looking for new expressions of feeling?
Stravinsky said: “The melody is queen.” For me, it is always there. When writing a melodic structure, we always wonder if it works. Is it something that you want to listen to a second time? Is it ambiguous? Because if you want to listen to your music again and again, it must have this ambiguity - where is the beginning, where is the end?
You once wrote: “All music turns out to be ethnic music.” What did you mean by that?
I studied the music of Ghana and Bali, believed to be ethnic music because they come from societies other than ours. But if these cultures listen to our music, from their perspective they could also say that it is ethnic music, with all our complicated machines!
Do you attach great importance to lyrics, to vocal music?
If you impose a text on the music, this text will make you do something that you would not have thought of otherwise. That’s good, because it challenges you. You choose a text that commands you: “Now you will do what I tell you to do.” This is what happened to me when adapting Hebrew psalms or the poems of William Carlos Williams.
You don’t reject tradition?
Traditional values in music never go away. Only their content changes. Musically speaking, what is a canon? (Humming a tune): That one is from the 13th century! But it could also be from Bartók. In a sense, anything that follows itself according to any rhythmic interval whatsoever is a canon.
Do you feel that you benefited from a golden age of music?
A younger composer friend of mine conﬁded in me one day that he wished he had been born the same year as me. He was trying to say that my generation was preceded by Boulez, Stockhausen, John Cage. There was no melody, no need to tap your foot to keep time, no audible harmony. Everything was more volatile, freer if you want.
Are you interested in perceptible processes?
“Process” is a word I used in an essay I wrote in 1968, entitled Music as a Gradual Process. But it wasn’t a manifesto; I hate manifestos. This would be tantamount to saying: “I am not able to live my life, I need to tell myself how I must live, and now, OK, I can follow the recipe.”
What do you think of the current situation in the United States?
Talking about current events is not really my thing. I do not like artists who give you their political opinion, because deep down they know nothing and just give an automatic response modelled on what everyone else says