Steve Reich can talk a mile. The most amusing, Reich-splaining part of this interview is him talking about how, exactly, he was influenced by jazz.:
Yeah, sure, all jazz is improvisation. What I’m saying is what jazz is for me is yes, improvisation is a big part of it, I understand that and I’m just not a very good improviser and I’m not interested in improvisation at all, but I understand that it’s a very, very important part of music. What interests me in jazz is the feel of jazz, the tones of jazz, the gestures of jazz, the way John Coltrane sounds as opposed to some classical saxophone is like two different universes. I’ve had a tremendous influence where, when I was a kid I took piano lessons, but it wasn’t until the age of 14—when I was a kid before the age of 14 I never heard a note of music before 1750, I never heard a note of music after Wagner, and I never heard any real jazz, I heard you know, pop music and all kinds of Broadway shows and that kind of stuff. But at the age of 14 for the first time I heard the The Rite of Spring, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the drummer Kenny Clarke and I decided I want to be Kenny Clarke and I started studying percussion at the age of 14. I studied with Roland Kohloff, who was the local great drummer and later became the timpanist with the New York Philharmonic, and I remained a drummer ever since. And so hence all the percussion in my group. And I went down to hear Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and all those groups started when I was 14 years old, on through high school, on through college when I got to Juilliard and continued doing it, and I started listening particularly to John Coltrane.
I got out to the West Coast and I was studying with Luciano Berio during the day, and every time he was in town I would go to hear John Coltrane at night. Now what was it I learned, improvisation? No, forget about it. What I learned was this: John Coltrane could play for half an hour on one harmony. Think of the album, or if you don’t think of it, go out and buy it or steal it whatever, called “Africa Brass”. Do you know it? “Africa Brass” is 17 minutes and it’s all on the low E of the double bass. So if you go to a jazz musician and say ‘hey man, what are the harmonic changes of “Africa Brass” – “This is E” “well what changes?”.”E for 17 minutes!” “Well that sounds strange, how are you going to play one harmony for 17 minutes?” Well I’ll tell you how: you have incredible melodic invention from Coltrane himself, who’s either playing gorgeous melodies or screaming noise through his horn, you have incredible timbral variety because he was working with another great jazz musician Eric Dolphy, who arranged all the brass in the “Africa Brass” and part of it was french horn, which sounded like elephants coming through the jungle. He also was working with Elvin Jones, who as you may know, is a drummer who sounds like he’s two or three or four drummers all at once. If you have rhythmic complexity, timbral variety and melodic invention, then you can stay put on a single harmony for half an hour, and it’s fascinating, it’s fantastic, it gives it more intensity because you’re focused on these other things. And in a funny way my piece “Drumming” doesn’t sound like “Africa Brass”. I didn’t even think about “Africa Brass”, but really it syncs the exact same way. There’s one slight change of key in the glock section, but basically it’s in six sharps for an hour. It doesn’t change. Because of the rhythmic complexity in the drums, the complete change of timbre into marimbas, and the rhythmic complexity and the melodic invention of the women’s voices and then the complete change of timbre into glockenspiel and the melodies in the flutes and piccolo and whistling, and then the complete change of timbre to all those instruments playing together you can listen to one key for an hour and enjoy it. So my interest in jazz is in gestures, the way Kenny Clarke could make an entire band sort of float in a magical way I never heard in any classical music, and the gesture of tones, the style of playing, THAT’S what I loved about jazz.
He also closes talking about his Radiohead piece and a great rant about artists getting expensed out of NYC. Filed under: Steve Reich.