Learning from a musical master
Known as the ‘godfather of minimalism’, the now 75-year old Steve Reich came to prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a curious radical, able to unearth a new musical language from the seemingly disparate influences of classical, jazz and African drumming.
His first landmark work came with 1965’s tape-manipulation, It’s Gonna Rain, favouring tone, rhythm and repetition over the romantic roots of his early schooling. Built solely from his field recording of a preacher’s voice, the 17-minute piece was created using two analogue tape machines played side by side. Though first played together in sync, a gradual shift in speed created a slight ‘phase’ effect, imbuing the composition with a percussively hypnotic, ethereal quality: of its source, but something new entirely.
This discovery led Mr Reich to attempt the ‘phase’ effect using traditional instruments. Early results, including Piano Phase, Four Organs, Drumming and his seminal 1974 masterwork, Music for 18 Musicians, were typified by repetition of canonical Western motifs, duelling tempos inflected with African percussion and a form dedicated to process; a signature technique that continues to this day. These repetitive figures and layered rhythms, forming a dreamlike, dense skeleton of insistent (and often beautiful) harmonic and percussive detail, can be traced through nearly all forms of modern music.
While Mr Reich is cognisant of his work’s impact on music history, he humbly explains that he wouldn’t have been in the position to influence it without also being its student. Speaking in Australia to present his work at the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Recital Centre in early 2012, Reich says he was but sating his curiosity when his discoveries coalesced.
“I was doing what I was doing and I was liking what I was doing, and then I began thinking, you know, what exactly is this, really?” says Mr Reich. “And I realised, well the whole phasing kind of thing is a variation on canonic technique. Then I dropped the phasing idea and stayed with the canonic idea. The idea of writing something followed by itself, playing the same instrument, has been with me ever since.”
It’s a discovery that still reverberates today, claims Matt Westwood, a third year Bachelor of Music student at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). After attending an intimate masterclass session at the Melbourne Recital Centre with moderator Stuart Greenbaum and assembled students, Mr Westwood is able to pinpoint both the personal and broad appeal of the composer.
“He has shown how powerful it can be to treat composition as creating a unique soundscape. I never imagined music could sound like Music for 18 Musicians, or like his phase music. And in a more general way, it’s also very inspiring to see someone become so successful as a composer in the 21st century. It gives me hope that one day I could too be successful as a composer.”
Mr Reich’s refined compositional process similarly affected May Andrewartha, another third year Bachelor of Music student present at the masterclass.
“He’s influenced me by using a small amount of material to develop large and complex works,” she says. “I like the idea of using minimal material to maximum effect.”
And for first year VCA student Maize Wallin, who’s undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Contemporary Music (Inter-active Composition), the value of the masterclass was simply hearing the icon speak.
“It was great to know exactly what was going through his mind while he wrote WTC911, and how he translated those thoughts so literally to music,” Ms Wallin says. “And it was amazing to sit in the hall and just soak up the texture of his music.”
The masterclass was part of the ‘VCA & MCM Master Teacher Program’, supported by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.