Upon the release of his quartets, presented for the first time in their entirety by the Mivos Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon, the 86-year-old composer and founding father of minimalist music gave an unfiltered and generous interview for Qobuz. As passionate as ever and as fascinating as ever. (Part 2 of 2)

You’re currently working on your latest piece, Jacob’s Ladder. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?

I’ve got the score in front of me as we speak. So far, I’ve written… 11 minutes and 24 seconds of music! (Laughs.) The instrumentation is quite similar to Traveler’s Prayer: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two vibraphones, a piano and a double-string quartet. In terms of singers, there will be two sopranos and two tenors. Despite the similar instrumentation, the composition itself will be very different. Traveler’s Prayer was unique in that there was no real pause, no regular rhythmic marking—not that that was a deliberate decision! Whilst I was writing the piece, it was as if the music itself was guiding me and telling me what it needed. In Jacob’s Ladder, it’s the other way around. I’ve used the original Hebrew text, just a single verse from the Bible. Perhaps most notably, there’s very little singing, which I’m not used to. When I was thinking about the topic of “Jacob’s Ladder”, I asked myself, what ladder are we talking about exactly? What would be the musical equivalent of a ladder? The first thing that comes to mind is musical scales, isn’t it? Ascending and descending scales. But if I created a piece with only ascending and descending scales, then the music would be terribly dull! But I realised that all melodies have ascending and descending movements, and I saw a parallel with our own idea of spirituality: the descent and ascent of angels, of messengers. The Hebrew word mal’âkh refers to both these meanings. Angels come and go from here to heaven. At the moment, I’m just developing the text, though I’m always more interested in the parts where there is no text and I can write the music very freely. Anyway, it’s hard for me to tell you about a piece that’s still in progress; I think I’ve already said too much!

You’ve said you no longer travel since the Covid crisis. This greatly limits your involvement in the artistic follow-up of the ensembles that perform your works around the world. Is this frustrating for you? Or do you enjoy seeing your music take on a life of its own?

If my music can’t take on a life of its own, then I’ve failed! I’m not interested in myself. I’m not interested in being anything more than a footnote. I won’t live forever, and my music will eventually outlive me: that’s my mindset. Covid has nothing to do with my decision to stop travelling. I’m 86 years old, and obviously, my health isn’t as good as it used to be. My priority is to live as long as possible so that I can continue to write music without needing to worry about organising concerts and tours. I frequently played with my own ensemble, Steve Reich And Musicians, for forty years. During those years, it was essential that I was at the rehearsals, concerts and recordings. However, when I turned 70 in 2006, I decided to stop my commitments to the ensemble. Since then, my concert activities have been reduced to occasional appearances with ensembles that play my music, such as the Ensemble Modern, Intercontemporain and London Sinfonietta. I coach them a bit too. I can’t travel as much as I used to: it takes me days to recover from just one trip from New York to London!

Let’s go back to the 60s when you discovered and developed the technique of phasing. Did you know back then that you were onto something revolutionary that would have a major impact on the future of the music business?

(Laughs) Not at all! At the time, I was just experimenting. It was around 1962-63, and I was studying at Mills College in California. One of my professors was Luciano Berio, and one day he showed us two pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen: an Electronic Study and Gesang der Jünglinge. I remember thinking, “There should only be the voice!” That reinforced my desire to write non-electronic music, what was called musique concrète at the time, and to use the spoken voice as an instrumental source because it combines sounds with the meaning of words. Leoš Janáček knew it long before I did. You might not realise it, but you sing when you speak (he repeats these last words several times with the same intonation to the point of humming them). See, my voice is very soft, but it’s much more powerful in It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. The reason I isolated a particular phrase in each of these two pieces was to capture the melodic clarity it contained. In a way, repetition was the best way to dive into the musicality of the word. You really hear and understand what’s being said to begin with, but after a while, you focus your attention more on the melody than on the meaning of the words. Melody and meaning are intertwined; they’re one and the same.

I accidentally discovered phasing while I was writing It’s Gonna Rain. I was using two different tapes to isolate the words “It’s gonna” and play them against “Rain”. The two tapes were slightly out of sync (they weren’t as accurate as computers are these days), and I thought, “Wait a minute! This gradual shift is much more interesting than any other relationship between two motifs. At first, two identical motifs play in unison, and then they separate and cause a kind of reverberation. Then they descend into complete chaos before establishing a new relationship. This offers an infinite number of contrapuntal relationships. This was the beginning of my fervent exploration of phasing. Though after six years, I said stop. I was interested in developing these close canon relationships, but I didn’t want to have to systematically go through the whole cycle of phases, which are very difficult for musicians to perform live. After Drumming, I stopped using phasing in my pieces.

All composers compose according to their personal experience with language

You say that the word and the melody are the same thing: where does this intimate relationship with the word come from?

From reality! It’s happening right now between you and me. For example, if I were to say, “NO! That’s enough, good night!” (He assumes a very aggressive tone), you’ll produce a hostile reaction. But if I say, “Listen, it’s getting late, let’s leave it here. Good night!” (He assumes a much gentler tone), your reaction will be totally different, and yet I said the exact same thing! The melody of my voice can have a greater impact on you than the words themselves. This is a shared reality. It’s not unique to me. It’s universal. Once you realise this, the idea of recording voices and using them for their musical dramaturgy becomes a lot more obvious. How could I compose a piece about the Holocaust? I was in America during the Second World War, and neither my parents nor my grandparents were involved. The only possible way for me to compose Different Trains was to record the voices of those who’d witnessed these events first-hand, the people who were there and survived. They were the only ones who could possibly talk about it. Everyone else may as well shut up; they don’t know what they’re talking about. But these people do; they’re front-line witnesses! That’s why I did it. That’s why I think Different Trains works so well. If I couldn’t have done it this way, I would have refused to do it. The only solution was to hear the truth from each of these witnesses who were talking about a real, lived experience. Do you know what Janáček used to do? He used to walk around Prague with music paper and write down the melody of what the people were saying (not what they sang!). At first, the voices were German, so he thought it was too harsh (laughs). Then, he tried again with Czech, and it was much nicer! All composers do that. They compose according to their personal experience with language. “Bel-canto”, “rock ‘n’ roll”… These words describe musical genres but also local realities. Don’t make me listen to Italian rock ‘n’ roll. It doesn’t suit the language. One day, I was talking to Stephen Sondheim (the great Hollywood lyricist, editor’s note)—may he rest in peace, he was an incredible guy—and he’d written this song where the line goes, “Another hundred people just got off of the train” (he repeats the line, counting the meter, showing the equivalence of the text with the effect produced), and I said, “Once you’ve said that, you don’t have to finish the song, you’ve said it all.” That gave him a good laugh!

Your music resonates with artists from other disciplines: from choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker to painter Gerhard Richter and video artist Beryl Korot. What is your relationship to the other arts?

When I was younger, I used to go to art exhibitions and galleries a lot. A lot of the works from my early career—such as the tape pieces, Piano Phase and Violin Phase—were created in contemporary art museums and galleries before they entered the mainstream music circuit. Tehillim premiered at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and Drumming at MoMA. I’ve had very good relationships with artists like Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt and Michael Snow. My wife, Beryl Korot, is still very much involved in the contemporary art scene; in fact, she’s exhibiting in Los Angeles soon. I’m going with her, and we’re going to meet a lot of people that she knows much better than I do! Visual arts are still a part of my life—I recently collaborated with Gerhard Richter, a great artist—but they don’t play such a big role in my life as they did in the 70s.

Your influence has reached far beyond the contemporary classical music scene, even inspiring the world of rock and techno. The question is, what are your musical influences?

Like most people from my generation, I was a huge Beatles fan; I particularly loved the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was also very fond of Motown, Junior Walker. But my real musical passion was jazz, especially Miles Davis or John Coltrane and his so-called “modal jazz”, especially on the album Africa/Brass, where he plays in E throughout. It’s 1961, well before Terry Riley’s In C, and you have 16-17 minutes of recording time, and you ask yourself, “What are the changes, the harmonies?” The answer is E; it’s always E! Junior Walker also had this song, Shotgun, where the bass repeats the same motif over and over. Most songs are in the A-B-A format: the opening section, a contrasting section, and then a return to material from the opening section. This wasn’t the case in Shotgun, and it was during the same time as Coltrane! That’s how quote/unquote “minimalist” music came about at the time. Lots of musicians (including the Beatles) also showed great interest in non-western music: Indian, African and Balinese music. There was also a growing fondness of “harmonic stasis”.

There’s one final question we wanted to ask a visionary composer like yourself: what are your hopes and predictions for the future of contemporary music?

(Laughs.) Well, I hope we can survive the self-destructive potential of over-sophisticated technology for a start. Musically, I can already see a lot of talent in the younger generations, especially women. I’m thinking of Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe and Gabriella Smith: three leading female composers in America. They’ve been loosely associated with what I’ve done, but they’re going in very different directions, and they’re absolutely remarkable. I hope we can continue to put time and energy into reinventing ourselves musically, no matter how reality changes around us. As far as I’m concerned, I hope that my music will continue to interest future generations. If musicians still want to play it and the public still wants to listen to it, then I’ve done my job properly!