Steve Reich at SXSW

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Reich mentioned a few of the pieces of music that influenced him to become a pioneer in the repetitive pattern-based style usually known as minimalism. One influence was the John Coltrane album Africa/Brass. Reich loved the idea that Coltrane could create such interesting music while staying for a long time on the same chord. He recounted a jazz player asking, “What are the chords?” and getting the answer, “E … No, it’s just E.”

“If you want to make glorious melody and raucous melody, you can (use just one chord),” Reich said. “Harmonically, you can stay put.”

Another surprising influence was the Junior Walker song “Shotgun,” which has one bass line repeating throughout. “You’re waiting for a B section,” Reich said, “but guess what? There’s no B section … Stay put harmonically.”

William Carlos Williams and other poets sparked Reich’s interest in using the spoken word in his compositions. “When we speak, we almost sing,” he said.

Reich also liked the drumming of Kenny Clark, whom he saw playing with Miles Davis at Birdland. Reich liked the way he seemed to be “floating on his cymbal.” He remarked, “I didn’t know if I could achieve that – that floating.”

Reich also recalled seeing the book Studies in African Music by A.M. Jones. Seeing the complex drumming patterns analyzed on the page was an eye-opener. Finding the “1” beat that’s standard in Western music was all but impossible. “Where’s 1? That was really a shocker.”

In his early years, Reich worked odd jobs to support his composition. He was a cab driver, mailman and social worker, and he once ran a moving company with Philip Glass. Although Reich said his reading of philosophers did not influence his music much, he did say, “I used to read a lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and he said, ‘Get an honest job.’ So I did. I think.”


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