Steve Reich (updated with interview transcript)

One of the nice things about having moved the global/galactic headquarters of LondonJazz to N1 is what King’s Place can do for the life of the mind. Last night I polled up for an interview with Steve Reich hosted by the London Sinfonietta – they’re cranking up the fundraising for a new Reich commission in 2011.

And what was the 73-year young Reich talking about, with a pace, enthusiasm and verve which left his interviewer Robert Worby for dead on the starting blocks? Among many other things…whisper it gently folks: the J-Word.

Q. What has been the influence of jazz on you?

-the life-changing sound of Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, and where that had led Reich with sounds amplified from it- he did a vocal impression of it.

-the sticks, the ride cymbal of Kenny Clarke bringing “magic buoyancy” to a big band so the whole band was floating over his beat. “Yes, Max Roach was the greater technician, but… “

-words of praise for versatile, complete musicians who have performed Reich’s works -Pat Metheny and Mark Stewart

-(This more on live music in general than jazz) Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing,” communication. What happens when “audiences love it and musicians love to play it.” “I’m devoted to people who play music live. It’s what I’ve done for most of my life.”

One moment stays in my mind. Reich was enthusing about Ella and Frank Sinatra. The interviewer tried to rein him back with a curious remark:

“You’re employing crooners.”

What followed was a fascinating bringing-into-context of the artificiality of the operatic voice “built to be heard over of an orchestra of at least thirty-five musicians, and normally more” versus “the conversational tone, part of what we normally associate with the voice” that amplification has brought back.

Check out the Sinfonietta’s South Bank’s haloween Steve Reich extravaganza programme HERE



A transcript of Steve Reich on microphones and singing

SR: Well the microphones are there precisely as you mentioned […] how are the women going to be heard against the marimba when they’re singing and drumming? They’re singing like this [falsetto voice] ‘doo do do do do, do do do do do’; well, if they sang like this [deep voice] ‘DO DO DO DO DO’ […] it’s absurd, it’s a joke, it’s vulgar. So they have to sing, to sing musically, idiomatically, correctly, in small voice the way, let’s say, Ella Fitzgerald might have sung it. But they have to be heard, so you have to amplify them if you want to have them heard vis-a-vis the marimba. And if somebody says ‘well, why don’t you have 5 singers do it?’ well no, sorry, no […] they’re not going to be together, there’s going to be a clouding of the texture. It’s why I don’t write for the orchestra anymore. 18 violins can’t do what one amplified violin can do…

RW: [Interrupts] You’re employing crooners, aren’t you?

SR: Excuse me?

RW: Crooners, the idea of crooning, Bing Crosby…

SR: You’re using the word crooning… well, I shudder at the thought… [audience laughs]

RW: No, but what I mean is…

SR: I’m thinking of Emma Kirkby, I’m thinking of Alfred Deller, Ella Fitzgerald, let’s stick with them.

RW: I’m thinking of the idea that crooning would never have taken off if it weren’t for the microphone. They wouldn’t be able to sing quietly with a big band.

SR: Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and any popular singer of the time could not be heard without a microphone […] the microphone had a huge influence on every singer and vocal style throughout the world after […] after World War 1 […] when does the microphone come in?

RW: Oh well, before that they used megaphones, didn’t they? Jazz singers used megaphones to get out there…

SR: No, no no no, the microphone comes in.. in the 20s? Talking movies come in in ’29, that was the first talkie… anyway it comes in very very early, and it does definitely influence vocal style […] it makes it possible to sing in this very conversational tone […] and pop music today, how can you hear anybody over amplified electric guitar? It’s the only way. So it’s become part of what we normally associate with the voice but the style of the voice I first heard with Alfred Dellar. Alfred Dellar was the first English reviver of early music. Right now we have a lot of early music singers and groups, I’ve worked a lot with Paul Hillier as some of you may know and he’s certainly not the first, it goes back way before that… and that style of singing is non-vibrato, small voice because you can’t sing Machaut and you can’t sing… you really shouldn’t sing Bach either for that matter, with a big operatic voice. That operatic voice was built to be heard over a minimum of 35, 40 instruments, even the Mozart opera, and by the time you get to Wagner they’ve got to belt it out. Why? Because you’ve got a huge brass section, 18 firsts (violins), 16 seconds… it’s pure acoustics! The operatic voice is based on acoustics […] real, solid musical thinking. But once you introduce the microphone, you open up other possibilities, and that’s what we’re talking about

RW: And that’s part of the Steve Reich sound.

SR: That’s part of my sound, that’s part of the world we’ve been living in for quite some time.

RW: But it wasn’t… that idea of amplifying the instruments came in… I guess jazz musicians did it a bit, but…

SR: In contemporary classical music I was probably the first to say ‘look, everything is amplified’ and probably because I grew up listening to – I went to concerts, sure, and I played piano […] – but I would say if you measured the number of hours, I spent more hours listening to recorded music than live music. Nowadays you ask people that question and it’s like [pulls hands wide apart] recorded music [hands together] live music. So people walk around with iPods in their heads and that’s most of their life. So amplified music has become… was becoming the norm when I grew up, so I’m the first generation of composers to grow up with that as the norm. I think it has certainly had an effect on Philip Glass, it’s had an effect on John Adams… and rightfully so. I said before, I think all music is ethnic music, and I don’t mean we all walk around in loincloths… I mean if we twist dials on radios then we say fade in, fade out, and if we use electronic equipment that’s just part of our life. If we watch videos all the time, then we think about using video screens in operas […] whatever the life is that you lead, it’s going to find its way, one way or the other, into your music and if it doesn’t… then you’re living in some kind of bubble and that usually produces a kind of academic and uninteresting music, although there are exceptions to every rule and one exception is Arvo Pärt, who is to my ear the greatest living European composer… and couldn’t give a damn about microphones and everything else we’ve been talking about. So there are no formulas, are there? None whatsoever.

Categories: miscellaneous

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