An experimenter tests his latest variations

Times Staff Writer

Even people who know “Music for 18 Musicians” -- the shimmering, almost African, sort-of jazz piece by Steve Reich that became a landmark of Minimalism -- don’t remember that some of those musicians are actually singers.

“Some people say, ‘Where are the voices?’ ” Reich said the other day of his 1976 composition, better remembered for its marimbas, xylophones and strings. “And that’s good orchestration. You don’t hear the voices as such, but if you took them away, you’d think, ‘Hmm, it’s not happening.’ ”

This week, Reich -- an intense, funny, earthy man of 68 who speaks so rapidly he often interrupts his own train of thought -- has been in Los Angeles rehearsing the new “You Are (Variations),” his first commission from a choral group. The Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform its premiere Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But Reich has worked with the human voice from the beginning of his career. What he calls his “Opus 1,” “It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965, took the words of a black Pentecostal preacher in San Francisco’s Union Square and recorded them for two tape loops that slowly fall out of unison when played back; he compares the process to two windshield wipers that slip out of harmony.

That piece, and other early Reich like 1966’s “Come Out,” which uses a similar tape-loop technique, still sound contemporary. In fact, their choppy, sometimes distorted, rhythm-based sounds resemble the dance music and hip-hop that would follow decades later. A 1999 record, “Reich Remixed,” even allowed DJs and younger musicians to riff on this experimental godfather.


“You Are (Variations)” takes a different tack. Reich is asking the chorus to sing in the vibrato-less manner of medieval and Renaissance “early music.” The texts are not fragments of found art but words taken from a Hasidic mystic, Psalm 16, the Talmud and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Is Reich, whose first pieces were so otherworldly they evoked angry, confused calls to New York public radio during their original broadcasts, growing more conventional with age?

“Electronics is not something that’s gone, some nostalgic memory from the ‘60s,” he says. “But when I get done with [an electronic piece], I think, ‘If I hear one more sample, I’m going to get sick.’ So I just need to go somewhere I can write music, for singers and instruments.”

“No question, the music is difficult,” says Grant Gershon, who’s wanted to work on a new Reich piece since he was named music director of the Master Chorale in 2000. “But there’s something very satisfying with Steve’s music, in that you’re either right or you’re wrong; there’s no gray area. It takes an extraordinary amount of concentration for everybody. When everything is going according to plan, it’s almost like nuclear fission.”

Reich speaks warmly of Gershon and company. Sitting in on rehearsals, he made a low-key presence, bobbing his head to the music.

His only real worry, he said, is the amplification at Disney Hall -- what he called “the scary topic” -- because “You Are (Variations)” does not forgo electronic enhancement. Asked about the hall’s acoustics, he clasped his hands to his chest and looked skyward, as if beseeching the heavens.

“I’m a bit upset to hear you have this 21st century masterpiece which -- I hope it’s not true -- is really only suitable for acoustic and primarily orchestral concerts,” he said.

But even with the rumors about Disney Hall, he didn’t consider adding musicians to make the piece purely acoustic.

“Amplification does something besides make you louder. It also gives detail,” he said.

“I’m from the first generation of people who grew up listening to music from recordings more than they went to concerts. What you get from recordings is detail that comes from the fact that the microphones are placed close, especially in more recent orchestral recordings, certainly in all kinds of pop music and all kinds of chamber music.

“You can hear the guitarist’s fingers sliding across the fingerboard, you feel the bow dragging against the strings because you’re close enough. I like that sound. I like the detail.”

Conveniently for a composer polishing a work that draws from the musical and religious past, Reich is deeply invested in both. Although some of his early work was almost indescribable, seeming to emanate from sources outside mainstream concert music -- late-period John Coltrane, Minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, Javanese gamelan harmonies -- his deepest roots are classical.

Indeed, Reich says he’s learned more from Bela Bartok than any other figure. “I’ve not stolen from him, I’ve plundered him,” he said with a smile, mentioning how the knotty Fourth Quartet informs several of his pieces.

In his early days at Juilliard and Mills College, after he earned a degree in philosophy from Cornell, studying the Hungarian composer showed Reich he was on the right track. “When I was a music student, there was this wall between the street and the concert hall. But Bartok, if you take away the Serbo-Croatian [folk] foundation of his music, there’s nothing left.”

More recently, he’s been drawn to Leos Janacek, in part for the Czech composer’s attempts to craft melodies around spoken cadences. “He walked around Prague with a music notebook, writing down what people said. Not what they sang, but what they said, in Czech. He loved the speech melodies, and it goes into the operas.”

Among his nonmusical heroes are Wittgenstein (“He said there was no such thing as a meaning. It’s how do you use the word?”) and William Carlos Williams, whose raw, very American poetry served as the text for his 1983 “The Desert Music.”

“While his friends T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were going to Europe, Williams was working as a [general practitioner], going to people’s houses, delivering babies in the middle of the night, writing poems on the back of his prescription forms and amassing a body of work that influences all American poets who follow.”

Could Reich have a similar impact someday? His early tape pieces, certainly, have opened doors for musicians who weren’t even born when they were written.

“I’m not a doorman, thank you,” Reich says. “I’m just a composer. And composers work by themselves.”

Even so, in October 2006, when he will celebrate his 70th birthday, New York’s Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Academy of Music will mount a Reich career retrospective.

Besides his earliest work and ‘80s classics like “Tehillim” and “Different Trains” -- both of which marked a growing devotion to Judaism -- the series will include three new works: “You Are (Variations),” a dance piece choreographed by London’s Akram Khan and a vocal/instrumental composition using the same lineup as “Music for 18 Musicians.”

This week, Reich met with representatives from UCLA Live, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other groups to discuss a similar program here.

Any larger meaning, as he surveys his output?

“I ain’t a manifesto guy,” Reich says. “I really don’t believe in that. You’ve just got to stay tuned, do what’s best.”

The retrospectives may demonstrate, however, that Reich’s evolution as a composer has been a series of cycles more than a straight line.

“If you’ve followed him through his career,” says Robert Hurwitz, who has released almost all of Reich’s music on his Nonesuch label, “there’s something organic that’s always coming from the very first ideas that he had. Which I think is kind of a metaphor of his music -- it’s about these huge ideas that start as very small ideas that continue to expand and grow. His music is about the process of listening.”


Los Angeles Master Chorale

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $19 to $79

Contact: (800) 787-5262 or

(213) 972-7282