As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
Steve Reich is one of the most renowned composers in contemporary music. The 83-year-old American’s endless curiosity had led to thrilling experiments and musical breakthroughs. In this podcast, Reich and Healy discuss being inspired by the sound of the city, the “amazing wizardry” of Aphex Twin and the innovations of Reich contemporaries and fellow-travellers Terry Riley and Philip Glass.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Matty talking to Brian Eno, Stevie Nicks, Mike Kinsella, Conor Oberst and Kim Gordon.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to do this with me, I really appreciate it.
So how are you?
I’m well, considering. Yourself?
I’m good. I’m in Oxford at the moment, whereabouts are you?
I’m in Playa Vista, part of Los Angeles.
Oh okay, nice, so you’ve got nice weather at least.
Very nice weather, yes.
So, Steve Reich, thank you so much for doing this call with me. I’m a massive fan and I’m so excited to be able to talk to you about what you do. One of the things I wanted to start off talking about with you, if you don’t mind getting quite deep… I’m actually wearing a Franz Kafka t‑shirt in honour of our interview, because I feel like in his work and in your work, there is this… I don’t know how to describe it, but kind of a jostling with the idea of resolve, or lack of resolve. Obviously with that, there’s this inherent kind of feeling of tension that comes with it. But your music seems to kind of define and open up this whole kind of emotional category that was almost not there before, and I wondered if that was something that you could talk about. Where did that come from? Where was the impetus for that?
Well, I suppose music history wise, it probably goes back to ABC, just trying to avoid 5 1, and I love 5 1 when you do it. Everything has got to be in its right place. So for me, what has come to be called minimal music, is predominantly what I do. Actually, when you talk about not resolving, have you ever heard a piece of mine called The Desert Music?
Right, yes, I do know that piece.
It’s a setting of poems by William Carlos Williams, and one of the poems that I can remember properly: “It is a principle of music to repeat the same, repeat and repeat again, as the pace mounts. The theme is difficult, but no more difficult than the facts to be resolved.” And I take off on the word “resolved” and make sure that it’s never resolved. So that was the only time I consciously dealt with that. The normal western geniuses that are alive and well, music like your own and lots of other popular music, are difficult to see in with what I do – a lot of things that I was attracted to going back to Stravinsky, Bartok, even John Coltrane.
Africa/Brass I’ve heard you talk about before.
Yes, so you’ve got me covered, right. If you wanted to, musician to musician, talk about what it is that people got to call “minimalist” – the principle of reality, there is a very, very slow rate of harmonic change, much slower than people were used to. You do find it in John Coltrane’s music, you find it in a lot of non-Western music. You have to go back to the 12th century, to what was called organum. [The composer] Leonin in a parish in the 12th century, had these very long held tones and decorative dah-dah-dah-dee-dah-dah, which was itself taking a church melody and lengthening it, like pulling out a piece of taffy, to enormous length. It’s not a drone, it’s just a very slowed down melody which gives you a slow change of harmonic rhythm. And I think that is kind of like the headline about what happened in the late 1960s, 1970s with myself and Riley and Glass and some other people.
So that’s interesting that you say that. Would you say that that idea of this expanded, drawn out sense of harmonic quality – for me that sounds like that idea has really hit home in something like Piano Phase. You know, the two pianos essentially – if I’m right – it’s essentially two pianos that start out in unison and then over this long period of time, kind of move away from each other and come back together.
You’re absolutely right, and that’s 1967. What’s happened since then, is a faster and faster rate of harmonic change into a lot of recent pieces, which is sort of inevitably what happens. You start out young and free, you follow what you intuitively feel is the right thing to do. And then you say, “Well, done that. What if I did this new thing?” It had a more complicated orchestration, it had more changes of harmony, not as fast as what goes on in a lot of popular music, although sometimes it is. As you know, there has been a lot of… David Bowie was very interested, he was a very keen musician.
Yeah, of course. You hear it Steve, there’s a song – one of my favourite songs of later contemporary music is a song called All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem, and that’s completely reliant on the idea of this lack of resolve and this kind of slow harmonic change over a long period of time. I know that you’ve spoken about Maggie’s Farm being an example of that in pop music as well, almost like starting to drone. One of the things I’ve found interesting, Steve, not to pivot too far but I’ve got so much to talk to you about, is that kind of electronic music and music with synthesis actually seems to be the place that has taken so much of your influence; if you look at artists like Aphex Twin, do you know what I mean? That scene is incredibly indebted to you, and I don’t know whether that was something that was ever… I can’t imagine it was ever an intention of yours.
Well actually, again, as you know, with It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, those were pieces that used recordings of a black kid getting arrested for murder. And the speech melody, which really hovers over everything we do, even as you and I are speaking, it is how we say things to each other that connotes the full meaning of the words and if you wrote them out very different to how they are when you are speaking. So that is something that I’ve been interested in since way back, when I listened to Luciano Berio, the composer. So what happened was, after doing those two tape pieces in 1965 and ‘66, I thought well, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life like the mad scientist wrapped up with his tape recorder. I felt I wanted to move this to live music where people can’t do that gradual space shift. I wanted to go back to the idea where people can’t find the second tape recorder. That’s how Piano Phase happened: I put the tape loop of the repeating pattern in that piece and then started in unison with the loop. It was only later that I started playing with a friend of mine where we had access…
Is that right? So that started out as you fiddling around with analogue equipment, with two loops across two tape machines?
Well the making of It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out was done with two tape recorders and tape loops entirely. There’s no additional sound except the original voice thing – there are additional voices that are added to the counter point, if you will. But then the movement to instrumental music was basically taking an idea of discovering the tape recorder and applying it to live music and it worked, and influenced everything I did from Piano Phase up to Drumming in 1971. Then after that I used other means of achieving similar ends.
So is it fair to say then, that in your life there was almost this crossroads moment where if something had moved you in a different way or if you’d been witness to something else, maybe you would have not even made what you call the music, necessarily, musical composition. Or is that always where you were going to end up?
That was always where I started. I started when I was 14 because I heard Stravinsky, Bach and [inaudible], playing percussion with Roland Kohloff who was a local good drummer and later became a timpanist with the New York Philharmonic. I was intending to be a composer, and when as a student I did that, in the late 1950s, early ‘60s, 8 became a piece of equipment that even young people who had no money could afford to buy. And so I had a $150 tape recorder and other people began playing tape loops. So that was a sort of byway, an offshoot of this fascinating phenomenon. And my immediate response was, well, how do I get back to live musicians? Which is where I started and what I devoted my life to. I just explained to you how that bridge happened back to instrumental music. And then basically there was no further use of electronics until Different Trains in 1988, where the speech melody was married to actual instruments playing that melody. That was a return, if you will, to It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out in light of all the instrumental music that I had written in the interim.
That’s so interesting. That’s fascinating to hear that whole full circle.
By the way, you probably don’t know – about the time that I met Johnny Greenwood, it was in Krakow, Poland, and one of the other luminaries there was Aphex Twin.
What he did was a fourteen microphone version of Pendulum Music, with lasers and mirrors attached to the ends of the mics. Light beams and feedback, and he was in control of this amazing wizardry. I just think the levels on this piece… because Pendulum is the most “fully electronic” piece I ever did. So of course he grabbed onto that and did a fascinating version of it.
That’s so cool. I wanted to ask you – I was talking with Brian Eno the other day, doing a conversation similar to this.
Right. Brian Eno’s been very kind, he once said that if it wasn’t for It’s Gonna Rain – that began his career. I remember and I thank him yet again.
Brian has this idea that he talks about, a word that he uses which is “scenius”, where he talks about if a genius is the creative potential of an individual, scenius is the creative potential of the collective and he talks about how most geniuses, whether it’s Picasso, Goethe, whoever we regard it is – their genius tends to be propped up or in the context of a very, very flourishing scene. I’ve also heard you talk about environment quite eloquently, and how expression is inherently just reactions to time and place. I was just wondering what New York, and you mentioned Glass and all these kinds of people – I was wondering how important, or what impetus do you put on the collaborative spirit of your environment that you grew up in or were in your formative years? I’m interested to hear about that.
Well, absolutely. Music in particular is a communal art. Certain periods of time, well let’s talk about the end of the 19th century – Paris was the centre of the artistic world. As you correctly point out, Picasso was there but he’s also visiting and perhaps peeking into Braque’s work, and then he might tell them what he did. That’s a kind of healthy scenery that always goes on. That’s the life of artists from the get-go. So being in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s – I lived on Duane Street which is on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, and around the corner about 100 yards away was Richard Serra. And a couple of blocks further away on Chamber Street was the filmmaker, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow, who made a film called Wavelength – a very, very important film that again is a pivotal work in that period of development. If I wasn’t around those people and earlier around Terry Riley in San Francisco, and Phil Glass and I had a moving company and we went to school at Julliard together. Without all that back and forth, informally… Imagine that people in general have radio antennas attached to their ears, and if you’re all in the same area and you have those antennas, you’re going to pick up the same station. So people like Riley and Glass and Serra and Snow and myself were tuning in to the same station. The results are what they are.
That’s fascinating. That’s exactly what I thought. Staying in the idea of New York and stuff like that, because for me, I don’t know how you create but my office is on the west side of London and I tend to stay a lot of the time on the east side of London, so I do a lot of travelling and a lot of my music consumption or listening to music and coming up with ideas kind of happens on trains and whilst I’m travelling. I think I’ve always loved Baudelaire’s idea of “flaneur”, that’s another Parisian idea – walking through the streets just to kind of appreciate its own beauty. I see myself as quite a voyeur and I feel that the active part of my creative ideas come in those moments, and it’s basically me struggling to capture them. Very seldom do I sit down and have the ability to kind of write in the way that I do when I’m out and about. I was just wondering, I don’t know if it’s before or after you went to New York – you spent time as a taxi driver in San Francisco and stuff like that. I was just wondering if, for me, obviously your music is so interpretative, but it feels so much like being in the centre of a cosmopolitan place, or it feels very much in tune with life and movement and the passing of time. I wondered whether there’s any truth in that interpretation.
When I was a taxi driver, I was actually recording people unbeknownst to them and making a tape piece out of it, I bugged the cab. But then we moved out of New York City in 2006, just to avoid the noise. We live about 50 miles north of there, although at the moment as I say I’m in Los Angeles visiting our son. I do spend time in the car, but generally when I am listening, I tend to listen to either the news or the classical station. But I do agree totally with your assessment of how the street, in its most general sense, the pace of your daily life, influences your music. You know, fish don’t think about it but the water has a big impact on their lives. And we don’t think about all the things you’ve mentioned, being on the Tube or being in a taxi or walking the streets. You’re not thinking about it – I may be thinking about a piece or I may not, but these other things are happening and they will, absolutely. And if they don’t, then you probably aren’t a very interesting musician or composer, because you’re somehow insulated from the reality that’s around you.
I think that might have been the case, unfortunately, when the twelve-tone serial phenomenon hit back in the ’50s and as I was coming up. It was very much, “Do this, or be ignored.” I always felt it was real for bombed out Cologne in 1946 and ‘47, or even WW1 Vienna, but it seemed totally out of place with 1960s New York and California. So I became increasingly aware of all the things we’re talking about during that period of time, because I thought, you know, I love John Coltrane, I love Miles Davis. What is this with the dark brown angst of Vienna? It’s real, but it’s not happening at this moment. It’s someone else’s reality.
Right. And it was kind of about the truth of your time. I suppose any great artists desires to document their time and their environment…
And they don’t have to think about it, as a matter of fact it’s a good thing they don’t think about it, otherwise you get Americana and all kinds of things like that. It just happens.
Will you just talk to me a little bit about 12 in music?
You know too much!
I’m just such a big fan and I’ve got this opportunity, I’ve thought about what would you ask and stuff like that. For the people that are listening… well no, I’ll just let you explain properly what I mean.
Well, when I was a student back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, 12-tone music was the predominant language, and as a matter of fact was already changing from Berio into what became known as serial music, which was basically a further complication and mechanisation of all aspects of music – not just the order of the notes, but the order of the rhythm and the dynamics of the orchestration, etc. And in this domination of 12, I found myself spontaneously making pieces like Piano Phase and Violin Phase, and then Drumming. Bah-dah-dah-dah, bah-dah-dah-dah… they’re all basically pieces, rhythmically, which divide the subdivisions of 12 – six and six or four times three, or three times four. And I began to also get interested in African drumming at that point, through a book called Studies in African Music by the Englishman A.M. Jones, who spent most of his life in what was then Rhodesia. And again, he pointed out that the basic patterns are often in divisions or multiplications of what we would call 12. I began realising that in terms of musical rhythm, 12 is a magic number in terms of flexibility, and ambiguity. If you are going to be writing something that is repetitive, then that music itself is inherently ambiguous and lends itself to reinterpretation unpredictably in the ear of the listener – you’re on much more solid ground than if you go oom-pah-pa, oom-pah-pa… I mean, people are gonna walk out, and they should because that kind of repetition is, in fact, boring. But if you have a very strong reality that has constantly keeping people really listening to what is “not changing”, then you have a different reality and one that is not boring at all.
That is so fascinating. And it’s so true. Have you heard this whole thing about… I’ve heard maths friends of mine talk about how, if we had the relationship globally or on a societal level with the number 12 in the way that we do with 10, we round everything off to 10, and pparently – I’m not very good at maths – if we did everything by 12, everything would be way more streamlined.
I plead ignorance!
I tell you what, if we ever get out of this pandemic situation, Steve, and I find myself either in New York or wherever you are – do you live in Los Angeles now?
No, we’re visiting our son and then we were gonna leave in March, but when the pandemic hit, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to LAX, so we’re just staying put waiting to figure out how to outlast it. I’m a senior citizen so I’m a vulnerable type. I spend half my days ordering groceries online. How are you holding up under the current situation?
I’m doing alright. Luckily I’m in the studio, and it’s kind of like a countryside studio and we had a couple of projects that were lined up for later in the year, so I’ve gone into making a little bit of music, I’m doing some stuff slightly in collaboration, a little bit with Brian and stuff like that, so I’m messing around. If you ever wanted to do anything, we should do something. But I was going to say, when I am next in New York, it would be lovely to maybe grab some dinner and talk about the number 12.
You’re on it. If I ever get safely back to the East Coast, we’ll do that. I wanna thank you again – I heard both your solo version and of course the ensemble version of I Love Jesus Christ  God Bless America, and your persona, particularly in the solo, is exceedingly quiet and reserved, as you may have noticed. So to hear you on the phone is like, who is this guy? You have very different realities, which is good, which is great. I think I Love Jesus Christ  God Bless America, is wonderfully and deceptively simple and successful. So congratulations, and I know you’ve probably got many different things to do, but keep it up, it’s wonderful.
Thank you so much, I’ll keep in touch Steve, and again, thank you so much, this has been not only a great thing for me to be doing, but it’s a bit of a teenage dream of mine, so thank you so much.
Thank you, Matty. Be well.