Terror Can’t Shake a Composer’s Belief


In much of his music during the past two decades, Steve Reich, one of America’s best and best-known composers, has concentrated on the state of America spiritually, politically and materially.

Through the innovative use of prerecorded voices matched to musical lines played by a string quartet, “Different Trains” tells the story of his train trips across America as a young boy during World War II, paralleling the train trips of others in Nazi-controlled Europe who never returned. His opera, “The Cave”--made in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, a video artist--personalizes the differences among Israelis, Palestinians and Americans through their reactions to characters in the Bible. Meanwhile, an arresting ensemble piece, “City Life,” employs sampled sounds to offer an affectionate but also uneasy portrait of New York City. Written in 1994, it ends with a movement titled “Heavy Smoke,” referring to the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. (Reich has lived in New York since 1965 in an apartment within the shadow of the now-destroyed towers.)

With Korot, Reich is completing a video opera about technology, “Three Tales,” whose subjects range from the Hindenburg explosion to atom-bomb testing on the Bikini atoll to Dolly the cloned sheep. He spoke by phone from Vermont, where he is staying until authorities allow those who live near the towers to return home.


Mark Swed: “Different Trains” is widely thought to be one of the most effective pieces in any medium about the Holocaust. And what helps make it so effective, I think, is that it doesn’t try to describe what cannot be described. Given that many feel that the terrorist attacks in New York and the Washington area are also indescribable, I think it would be valuable to hear how you approached your enormous subject.

Steve Reich: For a period of time, I had no idea what the content of this piece would be. What was really on my mind was one thing--using the sampling keyboard. All I knew was that I wanted to incorporate the speaking voice and use “speech melody” to actually be part of an instrumental piece. That was what got my juices flowing.

But that’s a formal idea, divorced from any content whatsoever. I first thought to use the voice of Bela Bartok. But there were questions of rights, and I began to think, “Do I want Bela Bartok sitting on my shoulder, as it were, while I try to write a piece using multiple string quartets?” Next, I thought I’d use [the philosopher] Ludwig Wittgenstein, but no one was aware of any recordings of his voice.

I don’t know why, but at some point the train trips I took across America as a kid jumped into my head, and I started thinking about what was going on in another part of the world where kids were taking different trains to very different places. And all of a sudden the lightbulb went on, past the initial formal reason for doing the piece.

But if someone had said, “Look, we want you to do a piece about the Holocaust,” I would have run in the opposite direction. How can anyone take this on? It’s like trying to drink the ocean.

So I think that what you are alluding to was that I had no intention of doing such a thing. I concentrated on part of my own life in a period that I lived through. And I guess the reason why the piece works is because the voices are voices of people who were there. They are not re-creating anything, they are simply bearing witness to what they went through. And without that almost deadpan quality that they have, the whole thing becomes a wringing of hands, which you would be wringing all your life and you still wouldn’t have wrung enough.



Swed: But what about when something momentous such as the events of Sept. 11 occur so close to home? Does that change how you work, for instance, on “Three Tales”?

Reich: “Three Tales” is about technology looked at from a moral or religious point of view. There was no intention to include issues of terrorism in a piece about science, but since terrorists use all kinds of technology in an unbelievably immoral way, that may find its way into the piece directly or indirectly.

A lot of [musicians] I’ve talked to have asked, “How can I do music now?” And I thought, if that is the way you feel now, there was something wrong with the way you were preceding before. If the seriousness of purpose was sufficient then, it will get you through an emergency now.


Swed: Still, we were all shaken up, and that has to affect us.

Reich: Sure, it does. On a personal level, my son, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter were in my New York apartment six blocks from the World Trade Center exactly when this happened. They called us at 8:30 in the morning. My son said there has been a huge explosion. I put on the TV, and while we were talking with him, the second plane hit. There was my son on the phone, while we are watching CNN, and we had no idea what the upshot of this would be. It seemed like anything was possible, like the whole city could be destroyed.

I’ve never in my life experienced anything like that. No one should have to face such a situation. But horrible things have happened in human history with an alarming regularity. And unless you feel that what you are doing is deeply worthwhile, these events are like an apparitional wake-up call questioning the basis of how you are spending your life.


Swed: The fact is that you have directly taken on subjects that are not only deeply worthwhile, but, it seems to me, central to the kinds of things that are going on right now. “The Cave,” in particular is a penetrating look at the way people in the three cultures think. Do you think, in retrospect, that “The Cave” has anything to say about the current situation?

Reich: “The Cave” asks the same five questions to three groups of people--Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Americans, mainly Christians. Who, for you, is Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac? What the piece shows on its most basic level is that the answers in Israel and the answers among the Palestinian Muslims are nuanced and very personal. A great deal is known about these people, they are part of the fabric of life over there.

Over here, the first line of the third act is “Abraham Lincoln?,” which, except in certain parts of the country, is quintessentially the American response [to the Abraham question].

As Beryl said, the American part is long on commentary and short on fact.

There were other things that I learned from reading about Islamic law while doing “The Cave” that gave me pause. As I understand it, under Islamic law, Christians and Jews living in Muslim countries are Dhimis, meaning protected and subjected people--a non-Muslim state, be it Christian or Jewish, in the kingdom of Islam, in the Middle East, is illegal. If that state were the size of a CD, it would be illegal. It doesn’t matter what its borders are.

These realities are never discussed in the press, because in the West, religion isn’t conceived of as anything seriously affecting the world. We think of religion as something separate from daily life, reserved for one day a week, and affecting some of your emotional life but not your everyday actions. Traditional Judaism and Islam, however, demand a great deal of your life every day--what you eat, where you live, what you wear, and on and on and on. Beryl suggested that Muslim religious leaders who feel that the terrorists do not represent true Islam should speak out now loud and clear, worldwide. We treat the Israeli-Arab situation as if it were purely a political question in Western terms with some religious overtones that fan the flames. But over there, you can’t have a purely political solution to a religious conflict. What you need is real religious tolerance, which is practiced in the West but obviously not in the radical Islamic world. That’s the reality that “The Cave” alluded to.