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Composer Steve Reich reflects on 30 years of Minimalism and his new LA Phil world premiere

Composer Steve Reich reflects on 30 years of Minimalism and his new LA Phil world premiere
Composer Steve Reich in New York City in May 2005. (Jeffrey Herman)

Steve Reich played a big part in setting off the Minimalism revolution in music that toppled the 12-tone authorities from power over classical composition. He also helped bring elements of tonality and groove back into the mainstream.

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And at 82, he continues to astonish his fans with new music.

This weekend, the Los Angeles area is awash with Reich. Thursday night through Sunday, conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are giving four performances of the world premiere of Reich’s first new orchestral composition in more than 30 years, “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra,” at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The performances are being recorded for release on Nonesuch sometime in 2019.

Also, on Saturday and Sunday at Long Beach’s Ernest Borgnine Theatre, Long Beach Opera is presenting Reich’s video opera, “Three Tales,” which comments on man’s relationship to technology via events like the explosion of the Hindenburg, the nuclear tests on Bikini island, and Dolly, the cloned sheep.

The L.A. Times recently caught up with the ever-resourceful composer by phone, and he shared some of his inspirations and his plans for the future.

What led you back into writing for symphony orchestras after more than 30 years away from that scene?

I guess I was in L.A. because we go to L.A. every January or February to visit our son and to get away from the cold here. And I was looking at the orchestral setup here and I thought, “Hmm, those first desk strings are really in a tight semicircle.” They could hear each other very well. And the first two flutes and first two oboes and first two clarinets are ditto, also close in. If I were to add two vibraphones and two pianos, I’d have exactly the piece I was working on at the time, “Runner,” which is for an ensemble of 19 musicians. This is the ensemble that is sitting there in most orchestras. So I could write a piece for the kind of ensemble that I’m already writing for, and then fill in that part of the orchestra which would be supportive in a helpful way; that would be the string section and [four] trumpets in the brass section.

The piece seems to take after other works of yours, since it’s structured in the form of a palindrome in five continuous sections.

Well, it probably came from when I was at Juilliard back in 1960 or ’61 and I was really paying a lot of attention to the Bartók Fourth and Fifth quartets, both of which are in the A-B-C-B-A form. And I found that very, very interesting and very attractive. “The Desert Music” is a big example of that form expanded out even larger. Also, the piece that preceded this piece, “Runner,” casts a very long shadow over Music For Ensemble And Orchestra. In “Runner,” I structured the movements exactly as I structured the movements here.

What was it like dealing with orchestras that weren’t used to playing your music back in the 1980s, and how have things changed 30-plus years on?

Things, of course, have changed. Back in the 1980s, I was just coming to be known, and the style of music I was part of was also just starting to get known. I’d say of the orchestral pieces, really by far the best is “The Desert Music,” a huge piece which includes a chorus, which means it isn’t done that often. When “The Desert Music” was first done with the West German Radio Orchestra in 1984, it was a horrible performance. The musicians were totally out of touch with my idiom. There was no way to correct it. In Europe in particular, if you are making your living playing basically German Classical and Romantic music, then the kind of medium that I was offering, which required a crisp rhythmic articulation, was just not idiomatic to the orchestral medium.

Now it’s 30 years later and most of the members of many orchestras, certainly the L.A. Phil, are very well aware of what I’m doing. They don’t need an instruction manual.

Regarding “Three Tales,” how did you happen to choose these three subjects?

Beryl [Korot, Reich’s wife] and I had done “The Cave” and Klaus-Peter Kehr was at the time at the Vienna Festival. He said, “Would you like to do a piece on the millennium?” We began thinking about it, and we both came to the conclusion that if you were in outer space and looking at Earth, what happened in the 20th century was really drastically different and had a huge impact. The whole structure of the planet has been drastically changed. But you need stories to tell.

So we started to think about something in the early part of the century, something in the middle, and something near the end. We came up with the Hindenburg, then the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini and this enormous power that still hangs over our heads. Finally, we were wondering what to do with the third act and one day we opened up the paper and there’s this picture of the sheep. We both looked at each other and said, “That’s it!” It’s the beginning of the analysis of our genome, of the incredible effects of that — artificial intelligence, robotics, things that are on everybody’s mind.

Any new pieces you’re working on?

I’ve been spending the last year working on a piece by Gerhard Richter, who made a film and I’m writing music for it, a completely abstract film based on paintings manipulated by computer. It’s the first time I’ve done anything with film. It begins with these very simple lines, very fine and very brilliantly colored and they are constantly shifting in motion. The very ending for “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra” is the very beginning of that film, and I wanted to go on with that idea. Right now, it’s just called “Reich/Richter,” and it will open at the Shed, the new performing arts center still under construction here in Manhattan, in early April of next year. Fourteen musicians from the Ensemble Signal or [International Contemporary Ensemble] will play it several times a day for eight weeks. So you will have plenty of opportunities to hear it. Next, I’m going to write a piece with a biblical text for the Colin Currie Group.”

“Steve Reich & Beryl Korot’s Three Tales”

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When: Nov. 3, 6 p.m., Nov. 4 at 2:30 p.m. Where: Ernest Borgnine Theater, Scottish Rite Event Center, 855 Elm Ave, Long Beach. Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission. Price: $49 to $110. Info: www.longbeachopera.org

“Mälkki Conducts Mahler’s 5th”

When: Nov. 1-3, 8 p.m., Nov. 4, 2 p.m. Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Price: $20-$194. Info: www.laphil.com

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