Encounters

Do what you do

Steve Reich on Drumming Live — By Lucien Rieul

Our partner Trax Magazine met with Steve Reich, a legend of contemporary music. The American composer muses about Drumming Live, which is currently playing at the Opéra Bastille, and on his collaboration with the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s first ballet, Fase (1982), was already based on your work, namely, Come Out, Clapping Music, Piano Phase and Violin Phase. Were you initially surprised that your music, particularly your early pieces, could be danced to?

My pieces have often been reinterpreted by choreographers, but Anne Teresa is in my eyes the most remarkable of all. What she did with my music is a masterpiece… And the irony is I didn’t met her until 16 years after the premiere of Fase. At the time, she sent me a letter asking if she could work with certain musicians from my ensemble – they would be playing live while she danced. I said “okay”, and when they returned after the performance, they said to me “You really should see what she does, it’s amazing”. I finally got to see the piece in New York, when it was performed at The Kitchen. It was great, and with Drumming, I think she has developed her style even further. 

Do you think that her choreography reveals a new facet of your work; something that would otherwise be imperceptible?

In the 1990s, when Anne Teresa performed Drumming, I was already approaching sixty, however, when I composed it, I was still a young man. When I saw her choreography, I realised that she had captured the essence of my music. When it could seem systematic and severe, Anne Teresa was able to bring out a romantic aspect. The dance steps, the interplay of motifs exposed the emotions which run through those pieces: sometimes there’s tension, sometimes there’s humour! The interpretation of Clapping Music in Fase even made me think of something from vaudeville. It’s a gift to be able to combine a formal, highly sophisticated, almost abstract dimension with a powerful psychological and dramatic character. It’s the tension between those two angles that brings greatness to her work. 

Drumming is a piece which can seem highly methodical. However, for you who trained as a percussionist, wasn’t it also a way to regain a certain spontaneity?

Drumming in my eyes is a composition that is extremely positive and exciting. I began learning percussion at the age of 14, after the piano, and I played in a few groups when I was in high school. I also helped to pay for my college tuition by performing in groups: that was my most meaningful experience of performance. Drumming has been an opportunity for me to create something in synch with what I really played, unlike Violin Phase or Piano Phase.

You had also just returned from a trip to Africa. Did the traditional polyrhythms influence the way you normally compose?

I travelled to Ghana, because, at the beginning of the 1960s I’d heard recordings of African music and read some transcriptions of Ghanaian percussions. You have to realise that historically, there’s no system of notation in Africa, so it was really something quite rare. The book in question was called Studies in African Music by Arthur Morris Jones, a British musicologist. For myself and other students, it was truly fascinating to see those rhythmic structures on paper… However, this wasn’t a discovery, in fact it was more the opposite! I suddenly realised that I was already in the process of reproducing those structures in pieces like Piano Phase. I had been doing it instinctively, drawn by their ambiguity. The trip to Ghana made me aware of the long history of rhythmic counterpoints and repetitive motifs. It was like a pat on the shoulder as if to say: “Keep doing what you’re doing! Get back in synch with the percussionist you were when you were 14!” And so that’s what I did. 

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