Eight Days of Steve: Evan Ziporyn

Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 10:50 PM

I'm not a first -- or even second -- generation Reichian: I was still in grade school in the late '60s when the Bob, Russ, etc. were taking the bus down from Wesleyan to rehearse what became Drumming in Steve's loft. He entered my consciousness my freshman year of high school, when Betty Jacobsen -- a hip, elderly "Materials of Music" teacher -- tore our heads open with It's Gonna Rain.

At Yale in the '70s all the weird music types listened to Reich samidzat style, outside the classroom, along with Eno, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, James Chance, and Lydia Lunch. And when Steve came to New Haven in 1980, he wasn't even invited to speak to the composers -- he gave a talk at an inner-city arts program, at what was then the Educational Center for the Arts.

All this is a bit hard to conjure now that he's so rightfully lauded in all corners. But it's all happened relatively fast: I got to know Steve when I invited him to do a residency at MIT in 1995; his enthusiastic acceptance at first baffled me, until I found out that no other American university or conservatory had ever invited him to do one!

I only play two pieces with Steve's group: New York Counterpoint (the clarinet piece) and Music for 18 Musicians, which is really about as good as it gets from a performance point of view. Music for 18 Musicians is the ideal world, made manifest in musical form -- I want to live in it, I get wistful and watery eyed when the chords come back at the end. I don't want it to end.

The organization of that piece -- musical and interpersonal, in this case one and the same -- tells you almost everything you need to know about what that group is and how it came to be. The vibes part isn't just played by Jim Priess -- it is Jim Priess. But the final piece in the puzzle for me is always what happens after the concert, after the bows, when we're all leaving the stage to meet friends and celebrate. Steve meanwhile is meticulously going around the stage, gathering up the parts, which are always left on the stands. It turns out he's the group's librarian. That's as much a part of his job description as composer, leader, visionary.

During tours with the group I occasionally act as covert participant/observer, pumping the vets for info about what it was like back in the day. A lot of the stories are unrepeatable, for one reason or another. My favorite was Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, explaining how she got the gig singing Tehillim: "He kept running out of auditions, complaining about vibrato -- and saying, 'Why can't they just sing like Joni Mitchell?' So I did, and here I am."

For me as a composer, Steve is the baseline, our own Papa Bach - the clearest enunciator of best practice, not only for myself but for many of the living composers I  most admire. Even if our music doesn't sound like his. It's a simple set of principles, distilled very consciously from his own sources: Perotin, Bach, Coltrane. That's a very careful list, with Steve as a kind of molecular gastronomist chef: distilling the common, hidden link between them, something only he could have found and extracted. And making it all seem so obvious after the fact. These principles are now so familiar to us that they don't have to be named - also because the primary one is lucidity, transparency. Steve himself quotes James Tenney to sum it up: "the composer is privy to nothing."

And yet of course that's a lie -- beyond the phasing and the canons, the signature bell pattern, even beyond the Wittgensteinian aesthetic of spareness and directness -- there are two other things that are less mentioned, but which, as time goes on, seem more and more important to me: charm and grace. I feel these most when I play the music, as the patterns are assimilated, the technical challenges overcome, the grooves lock in. What stays with me is something quite old fashioned: good tunes and amazing harmonies, the length of a breath and the rate of the heart, simple human qualities. Or as Steve himself put it, in describing his breakthrough Music for Mallet Instruments, "You mean I get to make it pretty?"

He always tells me exactly what he thinks of my music -- but I'll keep that information to myself. Instead I offer two short pieces of my own here, the first not just because his reaction to it was uncharacteristically positive but because it exemplifies my point above -- he liked it because, as he told me, "the melody just rolls right out out of the clarinet."  It's a short change-of-scene piece from my puppet opera Shadow Bang called Angkat...

This next one is just here because Steve's influence is pretty unmistakable. This is an unreleased track called Postcard (w/Simon, Skyler and Ava). Simon and Skylar are dogs; Ava is my daughter; the violinist is Todd Reynolds; and the found sounds are all recorded at the source of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Finally as of this year, Bang on a Can has its own Steve Reich piece, 2x5, which we premiered at the Manchester Festival in July, opening for Kraftwerk. Having discovered them both at pretty much the same formative moment, this felt like something coming full circle. We inherited this piece from its originally intended ensemble (no names -- someone else can tell that story), our recording will come out on Nonesuch this spring, with the U.S. premiere to follow in the fall. Here's a little rehearsal video, courtesy YouTube. That's me on piano (I had to audition for the part!!!), Robert Black on bass, David Cossin on drums, and our favorites guitarists who don't happen to be Mark Stewart, Bryce Dessner and Derek Johnson.

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Comments [2]

Jeff Abell from Chicago

Thanks, Evan. WFMT, here in Chicago, is devoting their entire programming week to Beethoven (in honor of his birthday Wed.), so I'm having my own Anti-Beethoven festival, listening to anything that could never be construed as LvB. Your piece for clarinet, violin, river, dogs and squealing child makes a perfect contribution.

Dec. 14 2009 06:00 PM
Richard Mitnick from Highland Park, NJ

Thanks, Evan, you and your colleagues at B.O.A.C. are among our greatest hopes for the future of musical growth.

Dec. 12 2009 11:16 PM

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