Skip to main content

Father of Minimalist Music Steve Reich.

Minimalist composer Steve Reich. He's considered one of our foremost living composers. There's a new CD "Reich Remixed" (Nonesuch) a dance album in which American, British, and Japanese DJ's pay tribute to Reich, by sampling and reassembling his music. Reich will be the subject of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. And Reich's "Triple Quartet" written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet, will have its world premiere on May 22nd at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.


Other segments from the episode on May 11, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 11, 1999: Interview with Steve Reich; Review of Nathan Englander's book "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges."


Date: MAY 11, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051101np.217
Head: A Retrospective of Composer Steve Reich's Work
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As one of the fathers of so-called "minimalist music," composer Steve Reich created a vocabulary that has influenced nearly every form of music: classical, electronic, jazz and pop. In fact, the new CD called "Reich Remixed" features Reich compositions re-interpreted by DJs and re-mixers.

On May 22 a new Reich composition called "Triple Quartet" will be given its world premiere by the Kronos Quartet at the Kennedy Center. And this summer's Lincoln Center Festival will pay tribute to Reich by featuring a retrospective of his work.

We invited him to do a retrospective of his work with us. Music-wise, it's easy to do with the help of a 10 CD box set that was recently released.

Steve Reich, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Since you have a retrospective CD and since Lincoln Center will be doing a retrospective of your work, I thought we should start with one of your very early pieces. And this is from 1965, "It's Gonna Rain."

This is a tape manipulation piece. What principle were you working with in this piece?

REICH: Well, I guess really the bottom-line principle is that sometimes when people speak they almost sing. And there's no better example of that than a black Pentecostal preacher who is really -- it's impossible to say if they're singing or speaking. It's hovering between the two of them.

And this was a young man who called himself "Brother Walter," it was in the Union Square Park of San Francisco in '64, or late '64 when I recorded it. And he is talking, or laying it down, about the flood in the Bible and Noah and the ark, and you've got to remember that the Cuban Missile Crisis was in '62 and a lot of us were thinking that, you know, this was something hanging over everyone's head especially in San Francisco at that particular period in the early '60's. That kind of thinking was rampant that we could be so much radioactive dust in the next day or two.

So, this seemed very appropriate for the time in history when I was living, and also I was going through some difficulties in my own life which this speech spoke to. And I was playing with tape loops on a technical level -- tape loops are a little bits of tape that are spliced together back then so that they just go around and around and around and repeat themselves.

And when you take a bit of speech like, "it's gonna rain" the way he says it, you really begin to hear the music of what he's saying and what he says increasingly blended together so it's hard to separate them.

It isn't that the text disappears, it's that it gets intensified so far as where I hear it. And then there are actually two loops of his voice going -- starting in unison and then one slowly creeps ahead of the other. I just did it with my thumb on the recording reel of one of the machines.

And so they go, what I said, was out of phase. If you like, it's like a canon or a round like "Row Row Row Your Boat." Only instead of, you know, "row row row your boat gently down the stream," and on the word "merrily" the second voice comes in.

Well, imagine they both started together and one just started to get faster than the other. It's hard to do. And you get first a kind of shaking -- a reverberation -- and then you get a sort of imitation. And then gradually you begin to hear it as a round or canon. And that's exactly what happens in this piece.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Steve Reich's, "It's Gonna Rain" originally recorded in 1965.


GROSS: That's an excerpt of Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," recorded in 1965.

Now, I'm wondering when you created "It's Gonna Rain," were you thinking of it more on an intellectual level? I wonder what would happen if I did this type of phasing and tape manipulation? Or was the kind of rhythms and the odd sounds that you were getting as a result of that tape manipulation really like aesthetically exciting to you?

REICH: Definitely the latter. I don't work as a scientist. That's not -- not an intellectually -- not an emotionally rewarding way to work. I was just following my intuition, I was following my nose so to speak. And this guy's voice was fantastic. And it was full of melodic content, it was full of meaning.

So I began working with it because I sensed that, you know, there would be a lot happening there. Actually, the going out of a phase that first happens was kind of an accident, but when I heard it I thought this is fantastic. It's a kind of seamless process that, you know, goes on and on.

After doing that piece and another piece like it, I then began to apply that principle to live musicians from about 1967 until 1971 and then sort of moved on from there.

GROSS: Let's skip ahead to 1971, and another groundbreaking piece that you did called "Drumming." Now, you wrote this after studying African drumming and Balinese Gamelan music. Are there things that you took from those music's that you applied to "Drumming?"

REICH: Well, not really. But let's put it this way, particularly Ghanan drumming acted as a kind of huge pat on the back or green light. I was -- I started studying drums when I was a kid. I was actually 14. First I was studying piano and I finally heard bebop, Miles Davis and the drummer Kenny Clark when I was 14. And I immediately fell in love with that, and I had a friend who was a better piano player than I was, so I became a drummer.

And when I had gone through music school and sort of swept that under the rug, so to speak, when I got out of - after Juilliard and Mills College in 1963 I said to myself, well, where in the world is drumming the main voice in the orchestra, so to speak. And the answer to that is two places, in West Africa -- and I guess in East Africa as well -- and in Indonesia.

What happened was -- in nutshell was that I felt very strongly that I didn't want to come back and, you know, imitate the sound of African drums or African bells or either the Polynesian instruments. They're very beautiful. They're very pretty.

But they have their own history. They have their own tradition. They have their own context. And for me it just felt totally out of place. The bottom-line was this: I found the thinking, the way the African drumming is organized, which is basically short patterns in what we would call subdivisions of 12/8. Little patterns in three, patterns in four, patterns in six superimposed so that their downbeats don't coincide.

So if you say, where is the downbeat, where is the one? Well, the answer is the rattle has it here, the bell has it there, this drum has it somewhere else. That's a totally different way of organizing music than you find here in the West. And that idea travels very easily.

It doesn't say anything about sound. You can have, let's say, tape loops of a preacher's voice or musical instruments -- musical instruments tuned to our scale. So there's no imitation of any African instruments, of any specific African drumming patterns. But the idea of having -- of being able to make a music which is richer than all the electronics that were being made at that time, remember we're talking 1971 -- Stockhausen is working with a bank of equipment, John Cage is working with banks of equipment.

And I felt, you know, drums, a skin, metal glockenspiels, wooden marimbas -- and the richness of the sound that comes out of those instruments, especially when they're piled on top of each other -- multiple marimbas, multiple drums, multiple glockenspiels -- is far richer and experienced than sine waves being sent out at you.

GROSS: We're going to hear the beginning of the second movement of "Drumming." Do you want to say a little bit about what's happening in this part?

REICH: Well, it's interesting, the second movement is for three marimbas played by up to nine players, and two women's voices. Well, what are other women's voices doing? When I started writing the piece I was working with a multi-track tape recorder, so I played some of the patterns and then I'd play against myself.

And I'd hear like two or three voices at a time. When I heard them, I thought hey, I hear somebody singing. But, you know, there was nobody singing. What it was was that the marimbas are pitched and have a very long decay - it's a long sound. You think you're hitting a piece of wood, it rings for a long time because there's a resonator underneath it.

And it begins to sound as if there are women singing kind of like Ella Fitzgerald, "doo doo doo doo," that kind of singing - we used to call scat singing. And so I thought to myself, well, this is coming from the marimbas. What if you really did have women in the room, and what if they really were listening carefully to this -- it was all notated in front of them -- and they began singing some of these patterns that are really there, but they would reinforce them.

Giving, if you like, a kind of audible chalk talk. And that's exactly what's happening here, you're going to hear these marimba patterns brought to the surface of the music by the women's voices.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is an excerpt of Steve Reich's "Drumming" from 1971.


GROSS: That's an excerpt of Steve Reich's "Drumming" from 1971.

Now, I've always wondered this; so many of your pieces deal with repetition and with slight variations over a long period of repetition. How do you know what is long enough, what is the appropriate length for a piece? Because it doesn't have the kind of narrative arc of a melodic piece or something, you know, where there's a climax in a more traditional way.

So, how do you gauge the length of one of your pieces?

REICH: Well, again, Terry, I think what you said applies very well to what we just heard. And maybe up through "Music for 18 Musicians" in 1976, but after that the pieces are...

GROSS: ... oh, I agree. Yeah. Absolutely.

REICH: So for these early pieces, basically the scores and the -- when written and the oral transmission of the information when it was oral were the same. Which is you can repeat this bar, I would say to James Price or Russ Hartenberger (ph) or Bob Becker (ph) who were the sort of core members of my group way back when and are still around, you know, let's say anywhere from five to fifteen times.

But you don't -- I don't want you to count those number of times. I want you to feel, well, that's clear now I'm going to move ahead. And so therefore the score reflects that. It gives you certain limits. For instance, we made a recording of this piece of drumming for Deutsche Gammophone (ph) back, I think, in '74, and it came out to be an hour and 20 minutes long.

Now that's not a long side, but it's certainly in the ballpark. We re-recorded for Nonesuch in '86, I think it was, and it was 56 minutes. And everybody said, oh, well, you know, they must have been shortening it for the CD. Wrong.

We simply were playing it that way. It was now 15 years after the piece was written, and the zeitgeist or we've gotten older or whatever had changed, and we just played it a little bit more tersely. It works either way.

If you play "Drumming" over and it takes you 25 minutes that's a mistake. It if you play "Drumming" and it takes you two hours that's a mistake. But anywhere between, let's say, 55 minutes and 70 minutes, 80 minutes that's OK.

And that allows the musician, the individual player who is making, you know, is making decisions at any given moment, to simply judge it as a good musician. I'm giving that responsibility to them. They want to do something so that you really get the idea, and they don't want to bore you.

So that's one of the fringe benefits of playing this kind of piece.

GROSS: My guest is composer Steve Reich. The Lincoln Center Festival will do a retrospective of his work in July. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Steve Reich, and he has a recent 10 CD box set retrospective. Plus there's a new CD called "Reich Remixed," which features DJ re-mixes of Reich compositions.

When you were first playing your repetitive pieces I was wondering if your audiences had to learn to listen in a different way, and to not expect that dramatic arc of tension and release of Western melody and harmony.

REICH: Well, you know, a lot of this music has to do with a lot of Western music, which is prior to 1750. As a music student, I was -- I went to Cornell when I was an undergraduate and I studied music history there with William Austin who is a very great musician and a wonderful teacher.

And the way he taught Western music history was like this: he started with a Gregorian chant -- I think nowadays people taking him might start with a Hebraic chant -- and he went up through the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750. And the next thing he did was to have you see Duke Ellington, Gershwin, jazz, Stravinsky, Bartok.

Then when all of that was done he started again with Haydn and went up through Wagner. Now me, I left the first day out of the course.


And that's really where I stand - where I've stood all of my life. And that's, you know, it's an intuitive choice. It's not -- it's how I feel about things.

And there are a lot of community of interests, if you like, between earlier music, let's say starting from about 1100, composer's like Peretin Leonone (ph) -- what was called the School of Organim (ph) in Paris in the 11th and 12th century -- I feel very close to. Obviously, chronologically I couldn't be farther away, but this is music which changes very slowly. Which is the earliest music to work in either two, three or four voices. Which is systematized to some extent. Which is, I think, emotionally very powerful.

And the, what are called, the isorhythmic techniques -- certain techniques for repetition that were found a lot in France and in Belgium in 12th, 13th, 14th century -- I found really exciting. I mean, I felt like I learned something from that. Sonata allegro forms, the form that drives the symphony and the sonata forms, from Haydn up through Wagner is something the narrative form with the climax and, you know, the exposition and the development and the recapitulation that you're talking about.

And that is a quasi literary form. And there are many people who are very in love with that, and I respect that. That some of the music is -- obviously some towering geniuses who produced music like that. Personally, I'm not interested.

I'd rather hear something of Bach or before than any of that period, and that's reflected in the music that you hear of mine.

GROSS: In the liner notes to the new CD retrospective, there are some notes by Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor. And he describes playing your composition "Four Organs" in New York city, and this was pretty early in your career.

And Thomas writes, "in all my years as a performer I have never seen such a reaction from an audience. There were at least three attempts to stop the performance by shouting it down. One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage wailing `stop! Stop! I confess!' The audience made so much noise that in spite of the fact that the music was amplified we were unable to hear one another's playing."

Now, how did you feel when that happened? I think you were performing on that.

REICH: Oh, I was. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

REICH: I was getting lost along with Michael, and he was mouthing the syllables, you know, "one, two, three, four."


And, you know, it really was a time bomb that I was unaware of. Michael was at the time one of the conductors of the Boston Symphony, and he had planned this concert of multiples -- we were four organs and he had a multiple orchestra piece of Mozart. And he had a piece called the "Liszt Hexamoran, (ph)" which is a piece that Liszt wrote for six piano virtuosi of the day, and he had six grand pianos out there.

Well, this was a subscription concert for the BSO in New York at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and it drew the kind of audience that you might expect. Which in those days was a very conservative, you know, elderly type of audience.

The last thing in the world an audience like that would want to hear would be a very hard edged piece for four screaming Farfisa electric organs amplified with maracas. So, he kind of set the stage, I just wasn't paying attention to that. I was worrying about rehearsals and electrical plugs and tuning and things like that.

But when it happened I turned white as a sheet. But Michael sort of clapped me on the back and said, "hey, this is history."


GROSS: Did you feel like, yes, this is as exciting as the rite of spring -- the audience is rebelling against this new and exciting adventurous music? Or did you feel like, boy, is this really a mismatch?

REICH: Yeah, I think more of the latter. I'm not -- I'm not on the (unintelligible) bourgeois, you know, let's shock people bandwagon. I want people to love what I do, and I want them to really -- to enjoy it, to love it.

And so I didn't have that feeling, perhaps Michael was a little bit more of the provocateur at that time. He certainly had engineered a situation guaranteed to explode when it did. As I say, I just felt I was taken aback and what's going on here.

Maybe in the long run, you know, that was a worthwhile thing for him to have done. I've never personally tried to present myself in situations whereby that kind of reaction will happen.

GROSS: Steve Reich. His 10 CD box set is on Nonesuch Records. There's also a CD called "Reich Remixed," featuring DJs re-mixing his work. Steve Reich will we back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with composer Steve Reich. In July, the Lincoln Center Festival will do a retrospective of his work. We're doing a retrospective with him on FRESH AIR with the help of a 10 CD box set of his work.

Let's jump ahead to 1981, and hear an excerpt of your composition "Tehillim." Now, you talked a little bit about how you studied African drumming and Balinese Gamelan music, at some point you kind of explored your own roots in Jewish music. And you studied with a Jewish cantor.

What sent you back to study and cantorial music?

REICH: Well, actually it was a trip to Africa, strangely enough. When I was in Africa, besides studying music, I was -- I enjoyed being over there. It was a very nice period of time. And one of the things that I admired was the fact -- in fact there was no notation, as you observed earlier.

Each musician was playing something that they learned from their father or their uncle or someone in their family. And it had been so passed on that way for, you know, obviously a couple of thousand years or so.

And I thought, when I came back, gee, isn't there anything like that that I'm a part of? And I thought, wait a minute. I'm a member of one of the oldest groups on the planet -- I know nothing about it. I was raised as a reformed Jew and I had zero information.

I couldn't read Hebrew. I never studied Torah. I didn't know anything about it. Didn't know any of the practices. And so I began sort of scratching my head, and like many people in the '60s I'd been through -- I had done half of Yoga for 10 years and breathing exercises, and I had done some southern and northern Buddhist meditation and some transcendental meditation just like the Beatles. And it had all been quite positive. It was really very very positive stuff.

But somehow there was a hole there inside of me, and so I thought to myself, well, maybe I ought to look in my own backyard since I haven't the foggiest notion of what's going on there. And I ended up studying at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper Westside of Manhattan and studied biblical Hebrew and the text of the Torah in its weekly portions.

And slowly began changing my eating habits and slowly began trying to avoid giving concerts on Friday nights and put the answering machine on and stopped composing from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. And found, wow, this is really -- this has an effect on one's life for the better.

When I was studying Hebrew -- Hebrew, as you may know, is a continental language. There are no letters for vowels, there's no "A," "E," "I," "O," "U." Instead, there are little dots or dashes which are fixed below or above the consonants, and they are the vowel points.

When I was study Hebrew with my teacher there was yet another little marking there, and I asked him, "well, what's that?" He said, "oh, that's the musical notation." I said, "really? How do I learn about that?" He said, "well, you have to study with a cantor to do that."

So I looked up someone who was at the Jewish theological seminary through a mutual friend, and he taught me a little bit about how to do it, and how the notation worked. And the notation was basically -- have you ever looked at a Greek vase and you see a funny picture of a guy who looks like a conductor and he's sort of motioning with his hands and the musicians are looking at him?

He's not a conductor. He's doing what the Greeks called, "kyronomy (ph)." He's using his hand as a notational reminder, "hey, it goes like that." And this was a common way of notating music within cultures prior to our system of notation, which by the way evolved from the human hand.

There are five lines on the staff because there are five fingers on your hand.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

REICH: Yeah, well, you know, live and learn.


So these hand signs are only good if you live in town, so to speak. In other words, you learn the way they do it in Athens, and that might be different, you know, elsewhere in the country. And the same thing with the notations of chanting in Jewish -- in a Torah text.

You learn it the way it's done in Yemen if you're a Yemenite Jew, and it's a totally different scale and a totally different sound if you're a German Jew living in Cologne or a Jew living in Cochine (ph), India of which there are quite a few. So, this was very interesting for someone like me who has always had sort of an amateur interest in ethnology, and it was something that was also far away from the way I work because I wasn't born into this. It was a tradition which I didn't receive as a child. It was something I received when I was in my 30s.

So, I began to think, well, I'd like to set a Hebrew text, but I don't want to set the Torah because its' chanted a certain way and it doesn't need me or any other Jewish composer to do anything to it; it's just fine the way it is.

Curiously enough, the psalms, which everyone knows, were sung and were the most musical text of all. The tradition amongst the Jews in the West has been lost on how to sing them. And when you hear them sung at synagogues they're -- usually it's a borrowed hymn tune from the Catholic or Protestant churches from the 19th century.

The only people on Earth who seem to have a living tradition of how the psalms go are the Jews in Yemen, and I was not there. So I decided to set -- "Tehillim" is basically the word for "psalms" -- the original word for "psalms."

I took a small piece of four different psalms and set them in the original Hebrew, and after years of doing pieces of a more unusual sort, that you've heard a little bit of today, I came up with a piece which was very very melodic in the simplest sense of the word.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the opening of "Tehillim."


GROSS: That's an excerpt of Steve Reich's 1981 composition, "Tehillim."

One of the things I really so admire about your work as a composer is that you kind of rewrote the musical vocabulary in a way and stripped it down to some basic essentials and then started building on that. Never kind of abandoning that initial vocabulary you came up with, but always kind of adding to it.

REICH: Yeah, that's very good. That's right, Terry. Thank you.


That's well put. Couldn't do better myself.

GROSS: Because like in "Tehillim," you know, you have the drumming; I think there's like clapping hands in it too, kind of like your clapping hand music. Plus, you've got the addition of the singing and the melody on top of that.

You know, I'm wondering like when you were say 15 or even when you were in college and you knew you were getting really serious about music, what did you expect you were going to be doing before you knew that you'd be kind of writing your own musical vocabulary and coming up with your own style of composing; where did you think you were going to fit in?

REICH: Well, I mean, I was pretty worried about it because, you know, Bartok was five and Mozart was four and I was 17, and I was just getting a start late. So I was very apprehensive. And I was a getting a great deal of support for my father, who felt I should do something a little bit more of a clear supportive nature financially.

GROSS: What did he do for a living?

REICH: He was a lawyer.


REICH: But my mother was a singer and they were separated -- they were divorced actually when I was one year old. And of course my mother was quite supportive, but I had been brought up primarily with my father so he had the, you know, I looked him. But I started looking away, obviously.

It was a difficult period of time, actually, no one was call me up from WHYY in Philadelphia and asking me anything.


So I was just -- actually when I was -- I went through music school and when I got done I felt that I didn't want to teach, and there were no other prospects. So I just -- I worked for the Yellow Cab Company in San Francisco and I worked for the U.S. Post Office for a while.

So it wasn't a rosy path. I felt a little lonely. I felt that when I was a music student the style of music at that time in the colleges was either like the Europeans Pierre Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, who I was studying with, or John Cage -- basically meant non-rhythmic music, music you couldn't possibly whistle or tap your foot to.

And I felt very far from that and therefore kind of out of it. And it was a difficult period of time up to about '65, '66 when I finally began to hit on this and meet a few other people, like Terry Riley in particular, who were working in this vein.

GROSS: My guest is composer Steve Reich. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is composer Steve Reich. We're doing a retrospective of his work with the help of a 10 CD box set.

Let's skip ahead to the '90s, and I want to play an excerpt of a pretty recent piece from 1994 called "City Life." What's the inspiration behind this piece?

REICH: Well, basically, sampling. What's sampling? The pop world came up with a keyboard called a "sampler" I guess in the middle '80s, which was basically a kind of keyboard that you go to the store, you buy it, you bring it home, you plug it into the wall, you press middle C and nothing happens.

Because you've got to record something. It's basically a digital recorder with a keyboard attached. And it means that you can have a musical instrument on your keyboard which you can program with whatever, you know, your voice, my voice, a Beethoven symphony, a dog barking -- whatever you possibly could want.

And it means that you could integrate that into a musical ensemble in a way that would hitherto have been impossible. It's quite -- it's much more musical integration than let's say having a tape playing while musicians are playing with it, which I've certainly done my share of.

So, "City Life" was about taking the idea of sampling, which I had done in some earlier pieces, particularly "Different Trains," and saying look, let's just put it in the band. Let's just have two guys playing it.

And so, "City Life" was scored for about 20 odd musicians. There are two pianists and then there are two additional keyboard players who just play sampling keyboards. And when they play A flat or what have you, out comes "Check It Out" or a door slam or another sound that -- many of which I recorded here in New York City.

And then those sounds are, if you like, married off to various instruments in the ensemble. So when you hear the air brakes on a bus that kind of go, "gssshhh." You hear a crash of a cymbal which is a similar kind of sound actually. And when you hear a car door slam you'll will hear a bass drum with it.

And it's just what it says, it's trying to give a picture of life, in particular New York City, in the '90s. There's a whole movement that's filled with car alarms I'm sure you'll be delighted to hear.


GROSS: Let's hear Steve Reich's 1994 composition, "City Life." This is from the opening movement.


GROSS: That's pretty catchy.

REICH: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. So, are those like found sounds that you recorded? Did you go out and record the door slams and the car alarms?

REICH: Some I recorded -- some I recorded, and some were like on CDs -- sound effect CDs.

GROSS: Oh, that's cheating.

REICH: No. No. No. You know, Stravinsky said if you're going to steal, steal big time and do it well.


REICH: So, it's a mix. But I was looking for fog horns later on in the piece and there weren't anymore fog horns, but there was a great long deep one on the Staten Island ferry actually. So, you know, it's a mix.

GROSS: Right. OK. Now, I want to jump ahead to your new CD. And this is a CD called "Steve Reich" -- well, it's called "Reich Remixed." And I want you to explain what the premise of this CD is.

REICH: The premise was this: I told you earlier that I was, you know, involved with jazz when I was a kid, and later on I became very involved with John -- listening to John Coltrane had a huge effect on what I did. And later on I guess -- I remember in 1974 my ensemble gave a concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and when the concert was over a guy came up with long hair and lipstick and said, "how do you do, I'm Brian Eno." I thought, hmm, that's interesting.

In '76 we were in Berlin and David Bowie is there and then he came again in 1978 when we played "Music for 18 Musicians" at the Bottom Line Cafe because it had been released on a jazz label, ECM. And I thought to myself at the time, gee, I'm a kid who was sitting in a bar watching Miles and watching Coltrane, and now these guys are listening to me. That's great. That's poetic justice. That's the way the world ought to be.

Now, cut to about eight years ago when I was in London doing an interview with one of these sort of pop keyboard magazines, and the guy says to me, "well, what do you think of the Orb?" And I said, "well, what's the Orb?" He said, "you don't know?" I said "no, I don't know."

So he gave me this CD of this sort of DJ type group called the Orb and there was this piece called "Little Fluffy Clouds," which had big chunk of "Electric Counterpoint" -- a piece I did for the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny -- and a drum machine and a girl talking. And I thought to myself, now, here's a whole different generation of people like 10 or 15 years younger than Bowie and they're sampling what I've done. This is another thing.

About '96 I was in Japan with my ensemble giving concerts there, and the young man who works for Nonesuch recordings there, Hiro Nakashima (ph), said to me you ought to have an album of these young DJs re-mixing your music because a lot of them are interested.

So he contacted David Byther (ph), who runs the international division of Nonesuch here in New York, and David contacted a woman by the name of Amy Coffey (ph) who worked with a pop label in London. And between the three of them I began getting CDs and DATs and cassettes of different DJs who were interested in re-mixing and sent in re-mixes of various pieces of mine -- I'd say about 20 of them.

And between David and Hiro and Amy and myself we picked the nine or ten that you've got and here they are.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to choose one of the remixes from the new CD and tell us why you're choosing it.

REICH: OK, well there are a number that come to mind, but I think I'd like to hear -- I'd like to have the people listening to take a listen Howie B, who is a British DJ, do -- on a piece of mine called "Eight Lines." He seemed to be the one who dived into this project the hardest and the longest. He took the original 24 track recording of the piece and was able to get each individual voice.

The funny thing about that piece is it's written in 5/4, which is not your most danceable meter. Usually when you're on a dance floor you're dancing to things that are in 4/4. But most of people who are on the DJ album -- on the remix album here -- have in fact put their pieces in 4, which is quite understandable.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Howie B decided to stay the course and stick in it -- not only that, he thickened the plot and went into 10 at one point. And yet, the whole thing works. It's very light on it's feet and I think you can dance to it. So only somebody interested in these arcane matters like the composer would even pay any attention to that.

So, I like it.

GROSS: Let's hear some it. And this is from the new album, "Reich Remixed."


GROSS: So, Steve Reich have you ever danced to a remix of your own composition?


REICH: No, not really. I stand up there in a boring sort of way and look over the shoulders of the DJs so I can kind of figure out what they're doing.

GROSS: And have you watched people dance to it? Were you at Irving Plaza recently when they did...

REICH: ... I was just talking with the people here in the studio about that and we were all remarking that very few people were dancing. I mean, I think that sort of reflects on the American audiences in this kind of a scene in general.

The same kind of thing was held in Paris about a month ago and everybody was dancing. So I think it's probably just -- I'm not in on the way things are done here, but everybody was watching the videos when we were there.

GROSS: There'll be a tribute to you at Lincoln Center in New York soon, and there'll be several days of performances of your music. I imagine you'll be one of the performers in that.

REICH: I will.

GROSS: Are you looking forward to that?

REICH: Yeah, I am.

GROSS: Well, it sounds great. Congratulations on the Lincoln Center retrospective.

REICH: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: And a real pleasure to talk with you again.

REICH: My pleasure too. Thank you.

GROSS: Steve Reich's 10 CD box set is on Nonesuch Records which also released the new CD, "Reich Remixed." His new composition, "Triple Quartet" written for the Kronos Quartet will be given its world premiere May 22 at the Kennedy Center. The Lincoln Center Festival retrospective begins July 13.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Steve Reich
High: Minimalist composer Steve Reich. He's considered one of our foremost living composers. There's a new CD "Reich Remixed," a dance album in which American, British and Japanese DJ's pay tribute to Reich. Reich will be the subject of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival, and Reich's "Triple Quartet" written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet will have its world premiere on may 22 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Retrospective of Composer Steve Reich's Work

Date: MAY 11, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051102NP.217
Head: For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Nathan Englander's debut collection of short stories is called "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says she now has an almost unbearable urge to read more of Englander's work.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Nathan Englander is a young guy. In his "I am Heathcliff" sultry book jacket photo he looks to be in his mid 20s. But though he's just a kid, Englander possesses an old soul, or to be more exact an old Jewish man's soul.

The superb stories in his debut collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," sound as though they could have been written by Isaac Beshevis Singer or Bernard Malamud. I mean to pay Englander a compliment by saying this, because his voice never feels imitative or contrived.

He just must have been one of those kids who liked to hang out with the grandparents at family gatherings absorbing the old country references, the "you'll laugh til you cry" emotional rhythms of their stories, and a wisdom way beyond his years.

The first couple of stories here are set in a terrible time and place that's not yet long ago and faraway enough. In "The Tumblers," a village of Jews are herded onto a train bound for Auschwitz, but some of the breakaway and hide on a circus train where they desperately try to mimic half remembered stunts so that they can pass for acrobats.

Here's how Englander describes the scene on the train, "who knew that Razel (ph) the widow had doubled jointed arms or that Shenile Olbarrow (ph) could scurry upside-down on hands and feet mocking the movements of a crab. Falling from a luggage rack, from which he had tried to suspend himself, Mendel on his back began to laugh. The others shared the release and laughed along with him. In their car near the end of the train there was a real and heartfelt delight, they were giddy with the chance God had granted them.

The Rebbe interrupted this laughter. `Even in the most foreign situation we must adhere to the laws,' he said. Therefore, no man was to catch a woman, though husbands were given a dispensation to catch their airborne wives."

Horror and hilarity also mix it up in the "27th Man," where a Kafka-esque error lands a young unpublished writer on a list of eminent writers to be purged by Stalin's minions. In the confines of the communal jail cell the fledgling author writes a story in his head, a masterpiece, which he recites to his literary idols a couple of minutes before they're all shot.

Other stories in this collection take place in the present, but they have an archaic air about them because they are set in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Jerusalem. In the title story, a husband whose wife denies him sex is given permission by his rabbi to seek out a prostitute.

Englander plays around with notions of purity here, musing without preachiness over the dilemma of just who gets to call who unclean. At first, the story called "Reb Kringle" seems to be written solely for laughs. It's about a white bearded Orthodox rabbi named Itzik who unwillingly works as a department store Santa every year in order to pay his synagogue's bills.

Englander has a ball with the dialogue between Santa Itzik and the kids who sit on his knee. "`So, Nu (ph),' Itzik said, `have you been good this year?' The boy nodded. `Did you pay federal and state taxes, both?' The boy shook his head no."

But when this particular boy confesses that he's Jewish and that he's being denied Hanukkah by his new Gentile stepfather, Santa Itzik transforms into a wrathful Moses.

In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," a middle-aged WASP attorney has a religious awakening in a New York taxicab when he realizes that he is somehow Jewish. I imagine that a similar aesthetic awakening must have happened to Nathan Englander.

In a luminous moment, Englander must have rightly recognized that beneath his hip, bad-boyish looks dwelt the old soul of a writer more at home in the schul (ph) and schtettle (ph) than he is in the college dorm or coffee bar.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" by Nathan Englander.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Nathan Englander's debut collection of short stories, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges."
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Nathan Englander; Maureen Corrigan

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue