Pointed Counterpoints

A decade after their first collaboration, Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet rediscover the art of the ensemble composition

Timing is everything: In the early 1960s, 10 years before the renowned new music ensemble Kronos Quartet formed, minimalist composer Steve Reich was studying music at Mills College in Oakland. In the late 1970s, when Kronos was ensemble-in-residence at Mills, Reich was already well established back in his native New York. And in the early 1980s, when Kronos first approached Reich about a commission for the ensemble, the composer had no interest in writing a work for string quartet. Yet it now seems inevitable that these giants in the field of contemporary classical music would eventually work together.

When they did, it was certainly worth the wait. Different Trains, Reich's first quartet, was composed for Kronos in 1988, and is considered by many to be one of Reich's best works, earning him a Grammy for best contemporary composition in 1989. Still, it took another decade before Reich wrote his second string quartet -- and collaborated again with Kronos. The resulting work, Reich's Triple Quartet, receives its West Coast premiere on Sept. 24 and 25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in a program that also features premieres by Kayhan Kalhor, Terry Riley, and Osvaldo Golijov.

Like his colleague and contemporary Philip Glass, Steve Reich seems the quintessential New York composer. He's lived in the city for most of his life, and has performed there with the Steve Reich Ensemble for over 30 years. But before Reich made a name for himself in New York, he spent five years in the Bay Area, where the ideas behind his complex, polyrhythmic compositional style first took shape. "It was when I was about ready to be through with my graduate studies at Mills in June of '63," recalls Reich from his Vermont retreat, "that I began working with the S.F. Mime Troupe and did the music for their production of [Alfred Jarry's surrealist play] Ubu Roi. And that was a very, very exciting experience. I felt like I had finally reached an audience I wanted to reach. The people who went to the Mime Troupe were artists and interesting people from all walks of life -- very different from the kind of academically oriented audience we'd get when we'd have a new music concert at Mills or at the 92nd Street Y in New York City."

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (second from right) was "absolutely delighted" that Steve Reich worked  with them again.
Caroline Greyshock
Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (second from right) was "absolutely delighted" that Steve Reich worked with them again.

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After graduating from Mills and working briefly at a community music school on Capp Street, Reich formed his first ensemble. "It was, believe it or not, an improvisation ensemble," laughs Reich, who's known for his perfectly timed, exacting compositions. "I proved to myself at that time that improvisation for the likes of me was not going to work."

Yet one of Reich's greatest influences at the time was minimalist guru Terry Riley, who is known for his highly improvisational approach to composition. "Terry and I got very friendly back in 1964, when he was working on In C," explains Reich. "And I had this group of players around, so I said 'Look, I got a bunch of people who you can add to the people you know. And I'd be happy to play in it.' " When difficulties maintaining the piece's momentum arose during rehearsal, Reich, a former drummer, suggested having one of the musicians keep the pulse. "That gave birth to the high C's that are drummed out on the piano."

The "pulse" has always been an important aspect of Reich's compositions, the result of a lifelong interest in percussion that began at age 14. The teenage Reich frequented jazz clubs like Birdland to hear bebop drummers Kenny Clark and Max Roach, and soon formed a jazz band with a high school friend. "He was a better pianist than I was," Reich says, "so I became the drummer." Reich continued to study music while majoring in philosophy at Cornell, and it was there, in a music history course, that he was first introduced to Balinese gamelan and West African drumming. But it was only after studying composition at Juilliard and then at Mills, at a time when atonal art noise ruled the academic music scene, that Reich realized how important this introduction would prove to him.

"I didn't become a composer to be Luciano Berio, or Karlheinz Stockhausen, or John Cage, or anybody like that," he says adamantly. "I became a composer because I loved Stravinsky and I loved Bach and I loved bebop. All of this music shares a rhythmic profile. And where is rhythm and percussion the dominant voice in the orchestra? In Indonesia and Africa."

So in 1970, Reich went to Ghana to study drumming with the Ewe tribe. When he returned to New York, he taught the members of his ensemble the various rhythmic patterns that he'd learned in Africa, which led to his 1971 piece, Drumming. "It was that structure, the polyrhythms superimposed on each other in African drumming, and the different timings of the speeds of the strands of music in gamelan, that really were crucial to confirming what I was doing. I got a kind of big pat on the back that said, 'Yes, what you're doing makes sense.' "

What Reich was doing was what he refers to as "phase" pieces, in which a spoken or musical phrase is looped on a tape and played against itself at varying speeds, moving in and out of sync. Reich says he discovered the phasing process by accident, while working on It's Gonna Rain in 1965. "I had two identical tapes of a Pentecostal preacher, Brother Walter, whom I recorded in San Francisco's Union Square," explains Reich in the liner notes to his 10-CD box set, Works: 1965-1995, released by Nonesuch in 1997. "I was playing with two inexpensive tape recorders -- one mono jack of my stereo headphones plugged into tape recorder A, the other into tape recorder B. And I had intended to make a specific relationship: 'It's gonna' on one loop, against 'rain' on the other. Instead, the two recorders just happened to be lined up in unison, and one of them gradually started to get ahead of the other. When I heard that, I realized it was more interesting than any one particular relationship because it was a process of gradually passing through all the canonic relationships making an entire piece and not just a moment in time."

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