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Steve Reich discusses composing Reich/Richter, a new 37-minute work for large ensemble, for a film by renowned painter Gerhard Richter, created in collaboration with filmmaker Corinna Belz. Reich/Richter debuts on April 6 at The Shed, New York City’s newest arts space, performed live by Ensemble Signal and the International Contemporary Ensemble through June 2.

How did this project first come together?

It goes back to 2009. I used to play occasionally with the Frankfurt based Ensemble Modern—Drumming Part 1 and Music for 18 Musicians. Richter was having a show at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and wanted me to play Drumming Part 1 with members of the ensemble inside the show and to play Music for 18 Musicians at the nearby Cologne Philharmonie, all of which we did. It went extremely well and Richter and I had a chance to meet. We didn’t spend much time together but there was warm, mutual respect and admiration.

Seven years later, in 2016, I heard that he would like to discuss a new project. He suggested meeting at the Marian Goodman Gallery where he shows in New York. We met there and he showed me his Patterns book. It starts with one of his abstract paintings from the '90s. He scanned a photo of the painting into a computer and then cut the scan in half and took each half, cut that in half and two of the four quarters he reversed into mirror images. He then repeated this process of divide, mirror, repeat from half to quarter, eighth, 16th, 32nd, all the way up to 4096th. The net effect is to go from an abstract painting to a series of gradually smaller anthropomorphic “creatures” (since the mirroring produces bilateral symmetry) to still smaller “psychedelic” abstractions to very fine stripes.

Richter said he was making a film of the book together with Corinna Belz and would I consider writing the music? I said it was a very interesting project and that I would like to see some of the film. They sent some and I agreed to compose the score.

Does the film follow the same progression and structure as the Patterns book?

No, in the film, it’s basically the book backwards and considerably less systematic. It starts with the stripes, and then it changes gradually to larger and larger “abstract images” or anthropomorphic “creatures.” The film never gets to the full painting, but it gets close and then it goes gradually back to the stripes. So it’s kind of an arch form.

I know you’ve worked with arch forms in the past. Was that what attracted you to the project?

It was one factor but what really got me involved was the very beginning of the film with the pulsating, color shifting, glowing stripes. Instead of dividing, mirroring, and repeating, the film was multiplying and repeating. In computer terms, the initial stripes were made with 2 pixels. Then they gradually grew to 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on.

Now, just before I started work on this project, I completed two pieces: Runner and Music for Ensemble and Orchestra. Both pieces end with an oscillation between two gradually changing notes played by almost all the instruments. I felt that I wanted to begin a piece with that oscillation, and here the film began with 2 pixels. It was a perfect way to move from the end of my just-completed pieces to the beginning of this project. The structure of the music would be tied to the structure of the film. That was the basic idea.

You’re saying the film and the music are both based on the same structure. How exactly did that work?

The exact timing of the film, as with any film, is measured in standard SMPTE time code. It indicates the exact hour, minute, second, and fraction of a second of the film, and was visible in a window in the lower–right hand corner of the film as I worked with it on my computer. The time code indicates the exact moments where the visuals shift.

As I said before, when the film begins with the 2-pixel stripes, the music starts with a two–16th note oscillating pattern. When the film goes to four pixels, the music moves onto a four–16th note pattern, then to eight, and 16. After that, I began to think, this is going to get ridiculous, so at that point I began introducing longer note values—initially eighth notes, and later as the pixel count grew in the film, to quarter notes. By the middle of the film, when the images move from 512 to 1064 pixels and the images becomes larger and more “creature” like, the music really slows. Later, as the pixel count begins to diminish, the music moves back into more rapid eighths and then 16ths, ending with the most intense rapid movement. However, the changes between an image shift and the music changing are not so exact. Richter, Corinna, and I all agreed to keep some flexibility.

Do you think the music would have turned out differently if it wasn’t tied to the film?

The music only exists because I was asked to compose music for the film. Much of the film was completed before I started composing—that is the usual order when writing music for a film. There are other situations where the music preexists the film. For instance, a number of young filmmakers have made films to accompany my piece Different Trains. They have to adapt their timing to the music.

For me, in the traditional situation of writing for a preexisting film, I found it forced me to think of new ways of composing. I’m not a movie-music composer. I’ve never done this kind of thing before—but then again, working with Richter’s film is not your usual kind of movie either. Ultimately though, the two parts came together to create a new work. Frankly, I don’t know if the film would be as interesting to watch as a silent film. And I don’t intend what I’ve written musically to be presented as a concert piece by itself—I think that they’re very much mutually reinforcing.

You’ve long been closely associated with the visual arts scene in New York. Do you feel like there’s something about your music that is particularly suited to arts collaborations?

It’s certainly true that when I first came to public attention in New York and elsewhere in the 1960s and early ’70s, my major performances were at museums. The world premiere of Drumming, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians, was at the Museum of Modern Art in its original movie theater in 1971. It had never been used for music before that except when John Cage presented a concert there in the 1940s. The premiere of Four Organs was at the Guggenheim Museum. Pendulum Music, performed by myself, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, and James Tenney was done at the Whitney in ’69. My ensemble gave the London premiere of Tehillim at the Hayward Gallery during the first show of Mark Rothko in the UK while the American premieres were performed first in the Rothko Chapel in Houston and then in the 20th-century galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There was a real camaraderie on a personal, intellectual, and artistic level in the New York arts community in the ’60s and ’70s. I lived on Duane Street and Richard Serra lived around the corner—Michael Snow just a few blocks away. When I gave the concerts at the Park Place Gallery run by Paula Cooper around ’67, Rauschenberg and the whole Judson Dance scene came. That was the context in which I was living. I’ve been married for 45 years to visual artist Beryl Korot with whom I’ve collaborated on two video operas. So I have a long history of being connected with visual artists.

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Reich/Richter was commissioned by The Shed, NYC; The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Gustavo Dudamel, Music & Artistic Director; Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley; Barbican Centre and Britten Sinfonia; Philharmonie de Paris; and Oslo Philharmonic.

Interviewed by Carol Ann Cheung (2019)

Photo: Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed

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