American Composers Orchestra opens their 2003-04 season at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, October 8, 2003 at 8:00 PM with a concert featuring music by John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, Anna Weesner, Irving Fine and Alan Hovhaness, and the New York Premiere of the string orchestra version of Steve Reich's landmark composition Different Trains, originally composed for live string quartet with pre-recorded additional string parts, a series of interviews and samples of recorded sounds of trains from the 1930s and 1940s. Frank J. Oteri recently spoke with Reich about the new version of Different Trains and Reich's evolving concept of the orchestra.
STEVE REICH: Well…that's a pretty broad question. The string orchestra arrangement of Different Trains is David Robertson's idea. He is a conductor who has spent a lot of time at IRCAM with Boulez conducting the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and they frequently work with a conductor who has a click track in his ears. His idea was what if a conductor wears a click track, and instead of pre-recorded string quartets and the pre-recorded voices and train sounds, what if all the string sounds are live…The difficulty there is, and the difficulty remains to this day—that while on the pre-recorded you can have one quartet, or rather a group that is actually up to four quartets which on stage could be translated to 48 string players—if it's pre-recorded you can change to an unrelated tempo on a dime. To do that on a dime in real time is a real difficulty, and I've noticed in quite a number of other performances of this version that this is a problem that could only really be solved if an orchestra could have that kind of rehearsal time that a string quartet or a small ensemble might have. And even with a group with the quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra string players simply can't change on a dime, and what happens is that every one of these changes of tempo is a little kind of shuttering and rearranging before things get back together again. Also, seriously, with 48 people on stage it's not nearly as loud as it is with the one quartet and pre-recorded tracks where everything is amplified and has a certain edge to it.
FRANK J. OTERI: Are the samples also being triggered live?
STEVE REICH: No, no. All the pre-recorded materials in terms of the speaking voices and the train sounds are on a tape which is playing along with the string orchestra, and there's a click track which is in the conductor's earphone, and there's slight playback of pre-recorded strings to give the live strings a little bit of a buzz and also to help them with the tempo which they hear on the on stage monitors. Nevertheless, to be completely honest with you, I've had some misgivings about this arrangement, and if it comes together it's fine, but if it doesn't it's better for it to be retired. At the moment it's definitely it's not Different Trains, it's an attempt to bring it into an orchestral context.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you've raise something interesting about the whole question of rehearsals, which is something that amazes me when I think about the rehearsal time that went into Music for 18 Musicians which in many ways is a piece of orchestral music…
STEVE REICH: No…it's not orchestral music, it's one to a part, and it's written in such a way that you don't need a conductor because you have audible cues, so it is really, in its bones, a chamber piece, and now that is published by Boosey & Hawkes, it's done as a chamber piece, where at best the conductor can act as a coach during the rehearsals or simple go with the ensemble and play along with other people.
FRANK J. OTERI: But it's orchestral because it's so rich in terms of the varieties of timbres in there…
STEVE REICH: One of the ideas behind Music for 18 Musicians was to come to my orchestra, if you will. The orchestra, in the history, as you know very well, evolved mostly by getting larger. Initially in Haydn and Mozart you had…what…a total of maybe 30 musicians… With Beethoven you get clarinets, trombones, a somewhat larger string section. You know, many people argue that there are too many strings today. There were nowhere near as many people as you have today. Then, by the end of the Romantic Period, by the time of Wagner you have a gargantuan brass section, and the winds have gone to triple or quadruple, and you, acoustically, need to have 18 first violins and 16 seconds and so on. But once the microphone enters the picture, and if you write the kind of music that I write, which is basically coming out historically in western music in terms of the music from 1750 and earlier, i.e. it's contrapuntal music, then what is essential is the clarity of texture that was customary in Bach's orchestra in the Baroque period and earlier periods.
FRANK J. OTERI: Bach's orchestra for a Brandenburg would be even smaller than 18 people.
STEVE REICH: Exactly so. What I'm talking about is acoustics and good orchestration, not psychology…most complaints about orchestras are about the money it makes, the money it consumes, the money and time it takes, but all those things are ancillary to the acoustic reality. So for me the question is, okay, you write music that is basically contrapuntal, very often there's percussion, and when we go fast we go fairly fast. How do you orchestrate this as best as you possibly can? Well, what you want is a very clear voicing which is best attained by having one to a part because you get that kind of slight edge to a single…solo violin, you don't get it with three. Nevertheless how are you going to balance that, and let's say, voices that are singing in an early music style, a non-vibrato, small voice with two vibraphones and two marimbas? Well, you add a microphone. The microphone is not there to make rock and roll; it is there to make balances, to achieve the orchestration which is ideal for the music. So what I've found is that “The Orchestra,” with a capital T and a capital O, is really an orchestra of the late Romantics, which has simply remained in place. There is some literature which is certainly not Romantic, like Stravinsky, who's one of the best orchestrators who has ever lived; and some lovely Bartók and some incredible Ravel, and so on and so forth. But really, they were dealing with something that has been in place since the late 19th century, and for me, it's just not good orchestration for the kind of music I write… Perhaps you could bandage it with excess rehearsals but that's the last thing the orchestra can do given its financial reality…and even if it did, 18 first violinists is wrong! It's just bad orchestration…
FRANK J. OTERI: I'm glad that you mentioned rehearsals again because it's so interesting…in the 19th century when they were rehearsing a Beethoven symphony or even a Mahler symphony there were so many rehearsals, and now, a contemporary composer writing a piece for an orchestra is coming in as sort of an interloper, they're lucky they get two rehearsals.
STEVE REICH: Yeah…well again, this is not my problem. If I were John Adams then this would be my problem because I would be an orchestral writer in my bones and I would be in fact writing that kind of music which is in fact derived from late Romantic music. And then, I would be wanting to have more rehearsals to get this true orchestral music into the kind of shape that the same orchestra can play…you know…a Mahler or a Brahms or what have you, because they've played it a hundred times before. But that's really not my problem. The sociology and all those things are things that I understand of course, I'm alive, I'm in the field, and I dealt with it. But my problem is to be a good orchestrator, and the answer to that is to avoid the orchestra.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to get back to Music for 18 Musicians…you initially rehearsed it for 2 years…
STEVE REICH: Well, I didn't rehearse it for 2 years; I wrote it for 2 years and at that point in my life, writing and rehearsing were, you know, you write some more, you write 5 minutes more, ten minutes more, and then we have another rehearsal. And therefore, things evolved, and the slight changes in orchestration happen, and a cuing system evolves because you got the same kind of players…which can't be duplicated and it's looking at the score now, basically the conducting chores fall on the first clarinet and the vibraphone. That's the way we did Drumming. That's the way we did Octet. That's the way we did every piece… Because at that point, the ensemble was very much the primary vehicle of my music. If you go online to my website and click on concerts and look at the performances I have, I don't know, a couple hundreds of performances a year. But if we do five or seven, that's it. The ensemble is now not as active as it had been… We just came back from playing Music for 18 Musicians and other pieces in Italy, and we will be doing other things in the future for sure, we're going to do Three Tales in Chicago in October. But, we are sort of a special treat; we've got the original instruments! Mostly it's just out there in the water… I can see that my music as a body of work is chamber music, sometimes on a very large scale. But even Desert Music, which was done with over a hundred people, is now down to 40 people because these are the people who want to play it, and have the time, so instead of having three string quartets with 3 to each part we have 12 players as three quartets, we have 1 bass, instead of three to a part singers we have 1 to a part singers…so now we have 30 musicians and 10 singers.. Now that's a BIG ensemble and you do need a conductor but it called the chamber version and it is, because it's one to a part.
FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things that always amazes me about a piece as big as Music for Large Ensemble is that was first done without a conductor…
STEVE REICH: Recently we recorded it with a conductor…
FRANK J. OTERI: Your first recording of it on ECM is done without a conductor.
STEVE REICH: That's correct.
FRANK J. OTERI: And, originally you were very interested in making music without a conductor, but you've definitely warmed to the notion of a conductor in the past 20 years.
STEVE REICH: Look, I'm a practical musician, whatever needs to be done is what I want to do. And, I don't think random actions are very interesting for very long. That's why I say, I have no beef with the orchestra institution. I see it has serious problems, like everybody else in the music world. But as I say, for me, my job is to write good music and then to orchestrate it as best as it possibly can. And in doing that, I discovered that the orchestra is a wrong vehicle for that. I think what I could say to other composers is: be a good orchestrator first, and let that lead you where it leads you.
FRANK J. OTERI: In an essay you wrote about music in the next 150 years, you introduced the concept of an orchestra evolving into an ensemble that would have an early music group, and orchestra, and a new music group…
STEVE REICH: Right, well again, it's practical. By the way it was said by Ernest Fleischmann, I think Boulez has made more noises on that too…Basically, my two cents for how to solve the problems with the orchestras right now is to get bigger…
FRANK J. OTERI: To get even larger than they are?
STEVE REICH: The Big Six and that kind of major orchestral organization around the world… because some of the smaller ones, especially the ones in this country, are going to say goodbye pretty soon…
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s what’s been happening.
STEVE REICH: But these larger organizations could engage, let’s say, three music directors…sort of a Hogwood/Paul Hillier type for an early music ensemble; you know, whomever you like from the normal group of conductors as your classical and romantic conductor, and…you know...a David Robertson-type person to do a 20th century/21st century music ensemble. Now these functions don’t have to be filled in cement, and you can have some gamba players who play cello with the orchestra in the new music group and the percussionists who are in the orchestra could play more actively in the 20th century group and so on. I think for the musicians, it would be a much more interesting musical life. In terms of dollars and cents, it would be offering you a thousand years of repertoire. There is some greater interest in early music than there ever was years ago. I think the record sales of early music are doing better than the romantic and classical music. So I just think here is a possible way of survival, certainly a more interesting life for a musician, and that would be my vote, and then, there would be the benefit of publicity, the marketing, and all the kinds of things that have to be done, all under one roof.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Now it raises the question of these different ensembles playing different music…the early music movement got to this point of specialization in early music and the standard orchestras around the world were upset that they couldn't play Bach anymore and nowadays very few "modern" orchestras perform Bach’s music.
STEVE REICH: I don’t think it’s such a great loss for anybody… If they want to play Bach, let them work hard to learn Baroque fiddle or gamba or whatever, [or] have a chance to sub for some of the people in the early music ensemble…
FRANK J. OTERI: Getting to the contemporary music question and bringing this back to American Composers Orchestra…this is an entity that was created especially for the music of our time…of contemporary American music. They're getting into smaller configurations for some concerts and evolving into a more flexible ensemble that is more than just a standard post romantic orchestra because that’s not what a lot of composers are writing for these days; it’s not their sound world.
STEVE REICH: They can become ACE…the American Composers Ensemble…ACE! If I were involved in something on an administrative level, I would want to start an ensemble, an ensemble on the lines of my own, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the London Sinfonietta, and the Ensemble Modern. They’re all over Europe, these 20-30 men groups that could expand and contract first-rate trained musicians that could get up everyday and play the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg and everything on from there. There’s a resident guy who is part of the ensemble who gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth and start wiring. That’s the way they operate, that’s their daily life. I think this is the most important thing that needs to be done in terms of performance in America. It’s not another five-man group or eight-man group, but it’s 20 to 30-man/woman ensemble with a full array of electronics as a normal way of operating, it’s really what’s needed in America.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now will this be the kind of ensemble that you would want write a piece for?
STEVE REICH: Of course I write pieces for it now…I’m writing a piece now. The orchestration is still not fixed, and it’s something like 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 pianos, 2 marimbas, 2 vibraphones, and either 1 or 2 string quartets, plus 2 or 3 sopranos, 2 or 3 altos and 2 or 3 tenors. I don’t know what number it will be but it’s probably up to 30. And everybody amplified… I’m doing that all the time.
FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of these groups you mentioned also perform actively with samplers, and there’s now a whole generation of composers who have grown up being influenced by you who are writing concert music that incorporates samples. I’m thinking of the music of Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe and a lot of other younger composers all over the country as well, the people who write stuff for the California EAR Unit, like Art Jarvinen, Relâche, Present Music… These groups have all actively done things with samplers… Once upon a time the pop music that was influencing the concert music was jazz, and then it became rock, and now generations have past and now even hip-hop is part of the vocabulary for some composers. That means incorporating samplers, and the institution which has potentially the most difficulty integrating new technology is, once again, the orchestra. Two seasons ago, the ACO addressed a lot of these issues with OrchestraTech. There have been very few works that integrate sampling ideas with an orchestra. Certainly your work integrates samples. Do you think that samplers could ever be effectively integrated with a standard orchestra, is it yet another reason why the orchestra model doesn’t work for the 21st century music?
STEVE REICH: Well, I think we can…John Adams recently did something with the orchestra in his September 11 piece. But it is a little bit like stuffing an elephant into a shoebox. You can do it if you really work at it, and giving it rehearsal time. But orchestras don’t generally have anybody who’s savvy…they don’t have a resident guy who knows how to run a sampler because they don’t do that. So they've got to call somebody from the outside. And then either they know what they’re doing or they don’t know what they’re doing. And then there’s rehearsal time you’re eating up with not getting the wire straight, but there’s this second piece that has nothing to do with it, Haydn, and so on…we’ve got to move this set out of this…I mean, you just introduce practical, real world problems, which I have a great deal of sympathy with as a performing musician. It is a pain in the neck…you might want to do it once because you want to impress people about how modern you are or how up to date you are, and how in touch with the present world you are, but in fact, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t make sense, given what you’re doing is simply adding another layer of things to do in the already spastic rehearsal schedule. So, again, I’m for the orchestra, I’m for the early music ensemble, but the way I feel is why should we have one more performance of Mozart than we have of Monteverdi? They’re both great masters. It’s too much of one and not enough of the other. We could use less orchestras, more early music ensembles, and more new music ensembles. And let the orchestras do what they do as best as they possibly can. So the people will say: "Man, they’re playing the C minor symphony, yeah the Fifth!" People will run; but now it’s being done every minute. It’s a towering masterpiece and I personally love it, but it’s done more than enough. I think we’re just in a period of shake out and a balance is going to happen. And, the orchestra should live forever, and I think it really will, but the question is how many of them…how much money does it absorb, and why force them to do something when there’s something else that does it better and more naturally. And why should somebody coming out dressed in 19th century pretend to be doing Electronica. It’s silly. Do it the right way! Do it with the original instruments. Do it the “authentic” way. That’s what we want to hear.