You form very close, lasting relationships with the artists and ensembles that play your music. This is the first time that you’ve had your quartets recorded by the Mivos Quartet. What was this collaboration like?

I don’t really remember how it all came about! Olivia De Prato (violinist for the Mivos Quartet, editor’s note) is also the first violinist for the ensemble Signal. I already knew this ensemble well since they’ve played a lot of my work. I think I met her during a rehearsal, and she told me that she wanted to play Different Trains with her quartet. Last year, I went to California to visit my son, and whilst I was there, I went to a Mivos Quartet rehearsal, and they played the three quartets on this album. I only needed to give them minimal feedback on how I thought they could improve their interpretation. I loved working with such talented musicians; I think they produced a great recording.

WTC 9/11, Different Trains, Triple Quartet: none of these three works is strictly speaking a string quartet in the recognised and historical sense of the term – they include pre-recorded tapes, voice recordings and the multiplication of the quartet.

They are indeed very different from a “classical” string quartet. In the early 1980s, flautist Ransom Wilson asked me to write a concerto for him, but I said no. At the time, my compositional approach didn’t draw inspiration from this format. After racking my brains for a while, I called him back and said: “Listen, I don’t know if you’d be interested, but I have a proposal for you. I’ll compose a piece where we’ll pre-record you playing the flute, and you’ll play over it live.” He replied, “Ok!” And just like that, Vermont Counterpoint was born, the first of a whole series. A short while later, clarinettist Richard Stoltzman came along and asked if I’d write a concerto for him… “No, but here’s what we’ll do…” And that was how New York Counterpoint came to be. After that came Electric Counterpoint with guitarist Pat Metheny, and more recently, Cello Counterpoint.

My three string quartets follow a similar approach. In each of the pieces, the quartet is considered a single instrument. However, in a quartet, you have two violins, a viola and a cello. What I want is multiples of the same instrument to create canon effects between identical tones, which creates that specific sound texture that I’ve been working with for most of my life. When you listen to it, it creates a certain ambiguity… “But who’s playing what?!” More to the point, it creates a variety of counterpoints that are arguably even more interesting to listen to. If you take the quartet format as one indivisible unit and then multiply it by three, you have six violins, three violas and three cellos. That’s the kind of ensemble that really appeals to me! A sort of “many-stringed orchestra” or, more nicely put, a chamber string orchestra.

Your three quartets are presented here in one single programme for the very first time—which was your own idea. Was this a way of bringing this hybrid form of writing into the repertoire once and for all?

With Triple Quartet, we’re working within the framework of a chamber string orchestra. There’s nothing extra: no pre-recorded vocals, nothing. This isn’t the case with Different Trains or WTC 9/11. I’m thrilled that there’s finally a recording that brings these three works together because they’ve been played quite regularly—especially Different Trains, a little less so WTC and Triple Quartet. Now they’re finally presented as a body of work, and I think that’s a good thing! Obviously, the approach to the string quartet isn’t the same as it is in more traditional formats like those composed by Bartók, Janáček or Beethoven. In fact, some people say that this isn’t string quartet music, and in a way, they’re right. What I’ve created is ultimately something that’s very musically idiomatic, considering we live in a time when everyone has a multitrack recorder close to hand. They’re even integrated onto phones or laptops!

But let’s go back to the 1980s when I wrote my first Counterpoints pieces: the performer had to rent the pre-recorded tapes from Boosey & Hawkes (a publishing company that exclusively published Steve Reich’s works, editor’s note) and play over them in concert. Nobody does that anymore! Now musicians record their own versions since they can set up their own recording studio at home. Technology has become more accessible to everyone, which has shaped the reality of composing and performing. My quartets are deeply rooted in this particular period of music history. So yes, they’re not Bartók, Janáček or Beethoven quartets: they’re Steve Reich. They might not be played as frequently, but I hope this recording will encourage similar works in the future.

This year also saw two world premiere releases on Nonesuch Records: Runner and Music for Big Ensemble and Orchestra by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Reich/Richter by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Reich/Richter is an audiovisual creation conceived for the stage, where the orchestra is accompanied by video projections of Gerard Richter’s paintings. You originally said that you didn’t want to present this work without the video accompaniment.

Quite the contrary! I want the work to exist in its own right. If it’s presented in conjunction with the film, that’s great! But I don’t want it to become a prisoner to the video. I’m just happy to hear it played. By the way, the album you mentioned is a recording of a concert given at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2020.

I only become political in my music when the politics echo my personal experience

Last year, I went to the French premiere of your latest composition, Traveller’s Prayer, and I was struck by the incredible diversity of the audience. Everyone listens to you, young and old!

That really thrills me! I’m 86 years old, so if I can get 26-year-olds to listen to my music, then maybe there are some lessons to be found in my music. (Laughs.) That’s what every composer wants. My listeners include older people too, people who listen to everything from pop to classical music. We live in an age where you can easily access and listen to all kinds of music. People don’t deprive themselves, and nor should they!

Traveler’s Prayer was composed to excerpts from the Hebrew Bible. Your Jewish roots are tangible in many of your works. How does your religious heritage influence your work?

It gives me material. You’ll notice that, in the history of Western music, there’s probably no text that’s been set to music more than the biblical texts. I’m far from the first to take inspiration from such texts: there was Pérotin, De Machaut and Josquin des Prés in the 12th century, and then later Bach, Haydn… What I’m doing now is unusual for our time because many believe the Bible is no longer relevant. However, I obviously completely disagree with this notion. When I reconnected with my Jewish faith, I wanted to put the Hebrew texts to music. When it comes to songs, there was one Book in particular that deserved to be set to music. The issue is that we have no record of how it was sung! We have a fairly accurate idea of how the Torah was recited thanks to the famous cantillation spans in the Tanakh, but that doesn’t give any indication of the notes since practices vary according to the area—they’re not sung the same in Algeria as they are in Paris or New York for example.

I believe the Yemeni Jewish community is the only one that’s maintained the original singing practice. This is our only glimpse into how these songs were sung in the past. This was perfect for me since it meant I was free to disregard any historical basis and just… compose! Tehillim has nothing to do with the singing tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; in contrast, Traveler’s Prayer draws on the traditional melodies of the Italian Jewish community, which was relatively separate from the rest of Europe. It developed its own melodies, though these are still very playable on a piano. This isn’t the case for the melodies of the Yemeni tradition that use microtonal scales. In Italy, they still have their own tradition, but they use the tempered scale, so I felt comfortable taking traditional melodies and transforming them into something they weren’t. I’m far from the first person to do this—Bach, Stravinsky and many of the composers I admire have done it—so I don’t feel guilty!

Your compositions are often connected to painful historical events: Different Trains alludes to the Holocaust and WTC 9/11 relives the 9/11 attacks, not to mention the Daniel Variations, Three Tales, Come Out… It seems that political engagement and social issues are intrinsically linked to your musical work.

It all depends on the piece. Take Triple Quartet, for example. It has no political basis, nor does Drumming or Music for 18 Musicians. On the other hand, It’s Gonna Rain, one of my very first pieces, is about Noah’s Ark and was written shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile crisis. At the time, I was going through a very complicated period myself, so It’s Gonna Rain naturally resonated both with my personal life and the tense global climate. I only become political in my music when the politics echo my personal experience.

Steve Reich, Music for Eighteen Musicians - Synergy Vocals - Ensemble intercontemporain

Ensemble Intercontemporain

The best example of this is undoubtedly WTC 9/11. My wife and I lived just four blocks away from the Twin Towers at the time of the attacks. We were in Vermont on the day of the attack, but my son, his wife and their child were in our flat in Manhattan. We experienced the attacks live on the phone with them. It was a terrifying experience. It took ten years before I felt I could maybe do something with those feelings. I’d already composed Different Trains, so I came up with the idea of recording the voices of people who’d been there, especially the New York firefighters and paramedics. I’ve always been apolitical, even when I was younger. But as soon as the subject touches my private life, it makes me realise these things aren’t just something you read about in the newspaper. They can suddenly burst into your life, turning it upside down and crushing everything in their path.

(Part 2 of the interview to follow)