You are here

Steve Reich: City Life

Interview | Composer By Paul Tingen
Published August 1995

Steve Reich's latest composition, City Life, is an eclectic blend of classical music and sampled urban sounds, all played live. A few days after the UK premiere, Paul Tingen talked to the acclaimed avant‑garde composer about his inspiration for the piece, and its realisation on stage.

Saturday morning, May 13th 1995, the foyer of a hotel in Central London. American composer Steve Reich was in a good mood, clearly driven by a great passion for music and all the paraphernalia that comes with it. He had reason to be cheerful — three days earlier, his most recent composition, City Life, had been received by a wildly enthusiastic audience at its UK premiere, performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Featuring a string quartet, six wind instruments, two pianos, three percussionists and, unusually, two sample players, City Life is undoubtedly Reich's most approachable work to date, and arguably his best. All five movements of this 24‑minute composition are centred around samples. New York street and radio sounds (such as car horns and door slams) provide a backdrop to the first movement, while a pile‑driver (second movement), speech samples (third movement) and a heart beat (fourth movement) finally lead to the slow and lushly orchestrated drama of the fifth movement, which features samples taken from the New York Fire Department's internal radio, recorded during the crisis of the World Trade Centre bombing in 1991. Reich explains that this is his piece of reckoning with New York City, his home for many years, and a place he finds increasingly intolerable to the degree that "I'm reaching the point where I want to get the hell out of New York and move to Vermont, where I normally only spend my summers. I go out on the streets with ear plugs now, because the street noises are so loud that I feel that my hearing is adversely affected by them. With all that going on, I thought, 'hang on, why not bring it into a piece of music?'. Yet at the same time, I did not want to use it with a John Cage attitude — let's take this and see what happens. I wanted to really inlay the street sounds like a mosaic into the piece, and be very exact with it."

Musique ConcrÉTe

Reich points out that the application of everyday sounds has, in fact, a long history within the classical music tradition, most strongly exemplified in the musique concréte movement of the beginning of this century: "City Life is part of a kind of thinking that has been going on for at least a hundred years. In the old days, when composers didn't have electronics, they would imitate storms in other ways — programmatic music has been with us forever. In the first half of this century, Gershwin used car horns, Varése sirens, Antheil an airplane propeller, and later there was Cage, who used radios and all manner of incidental noises." Even though Reich also cites the application of samples in rap and rock music as other examples of the desire to include everyday sounds into music, it is clear from his education that his first frame of reference is the classical music establishment (see the 'Reich Stuff' box for a brief overview of the composer's achievements).

Reich is renowned for using a variety of compositional techniques, and City Life represents a culmination of these (see the 'Speech Melody' box). However, he is keen to point out that the new work differs from his previous two sample‑based compositions: "The first big difference is that whereas Different Trains and The Cave are run with tape, City Life is played entirely live. With Different Trains I was building up not only many samples, but also many overlayered string quartets. You're really hearing between 12 and 16 players at the same time, and the only way to realise this was to use tape. With The Cave, the players had to stay in sync with the video images, so players are hearing a pre‑recorded sampled string track to which they play, and that keeps them in sync. For City Life I thought to myself: 'wouldn't it be nice to use the sampling keyboard as an instrument and forget about the tape?' So my first idea for the piece was to have an ensemble of musicians and two sample keyboard players all playing live, and this would give that little flexibility in tempo which is normal in music.

"The second and really big difference is that the speech samples become only the germ of a piece, rather than what the piece centres around, so the music really takes over. The sample 'check it out', for example, is the basis of the first movement. It's a Spanish‑American clothing salesman, just near where I live. I use it loosely, sometimes varying the speed of the sample, sometimes it comes in before or after the beat. It's really a bit of colour that comes in, even though it has suggested the main musical motive: 'tatata.' Then in the second and fourth movements there's no speech at all. I used other sampled sounds that I could do musical things with. In the second movement there is a pile‑driver, and car alarms, so you get this kind of Einstürzende Neubauten‑type effect. These sounds both act as a drummer, keeping time, and as a sound effect. In the fourth movement, a heartbeat sound fulfils these functions.

"In the third movement the samples take over. The movement begins with speech samples alone, played by the two keyboard players. I live opposite the City Hall, where a lot of demonstrations are held, and I recorded these speech samples at a black demonstration, things like 'it's been a honeymoon' and 'I'm fired up'. This speech samples‑only section is reminiscent of the tape pieces I did in the '60s, It's Gonna Rain and Come Out, yet they're played live. The samples are broken up and playing in a rhythm that comes from West Africa. The other players then join in, playing the same rhythm, but displaced like a canon or a round, something that I used to call phasing. They build this big texture and you feel like you start 'hallucinating' these musical patterns, like in It's Gonna Rain and Come Out."


Queried about why he's so fond of using samples in his pieces, Reich answers that it's the 'documentary' aspect that appeals to him — the possibility of bringing real‑life events into his work. Reich prefers real‑life to synthetic sounds, and it's for this reason that he's not too keen on synthesizers or samples of musical instruments. (He uses the latter only to pad out orchestral parts when necessary, or to cue real musicians, like in The Cave.) "Singing and talking are very different things. When people say things in a certain situation, that's a photographic reality which you cannot repeat on stage. It has to come from the moment it was actually said, when it has the emotions and the inflections of the reality at the time. So you can't repeat talking in a piece in the same way as you can repeat singing. The only solution is sampling."

Reich's preference for using sampling in a documentary fashion resulted in him walking around the streets of New York armed with a Sony professional walkman, and a Neuman KMR81 shotgun mike sticking out of an attaché case, trying to be as invisible as possible: "I didn't want to enter into what was happening. The grainy quality of many of my samples simply has to do with the way I record them, simply to analogue cassette using Dolby C. For example, the demonstration in front of the City Hall I recorded from the loudspeakers of the PA system. New York is grainy and gritty, and I liked the fact that my samples are like that. We cleaned them up a little bit, boosting the voices around 2.5 to 3kHz, but basically they are location recordings, and you don't want to make them perfectly clean. They're not studio recordings."

Back in his New York apartment, Reich transferred the chosen samples to one of his five Casio FZ1 keyboards: "Casio gave them to me back in the '80s, but I have to admit that they're getting on a bit, so I'm considering buying a Yamaha KX88, and then using the Casios simply as external controllers. The FZ1 has a 35kHz sampling rate, so my recordings lost a little bit in the transfer to the Casio, and when I had finally finished the piece, I had to deal with the reality that no‑one else has these Casio samplers, and what's more, they don't have enough memory to hold all the samples for the five movements for the piece."

As a classical composer, who scores his pieces for any ensemble that will play them, Reich was confronted with a rather unique problem. Sections of pieces like The Cave or the Counterpoint series were simply mixed down to DAT, which could then be played back anywhere in the world. For City Life, however, Reich had to find a data storage format for his samples that was as universal as possible: "MIDI is such a success because all machines understand it. All manufacturers quickly agreed on a common protocol and stuck by it. But with sampling, the situation is insane. The closest you can get to a lingua franca is the S1000 protocol. So I sent my Casios over to Germany and an engineer there converted them to the Akai S1000 format. I decided not to convert it to the S3000, because that again could cause problems, as the S3000 can read the S1000, but not necessarily the other way round. If you write things on a S1000 everyone can read it, and this is the reason why I've decided to get the old S1000, with the new RAMs."


Reich elaborates on the sampler theme by stressing that he used the Casios only for non‑musical samples. Despite his earlier professed dislike for synthetic sounds or sampled musical instruments, he uses the latter when he's orchestrating a piece. His tools of the composing trade are a Macintosh Quadra 650 computer, with Finale and Performer software, and Digidesign's SampleCell: "What SampleCell gives me is the orchestra in the box. I have inside my hard drive every instrument that I would ever need. This is really the most superior way of working. I also have a little Mackie 1202 12‑channel mixing desk, which is fantastic, so I can route my two SampleCell cards and also have my mike inputs. I don't have any effects boxes at home, because my attitude is that what I'm doing is making models. I'm making a mock‑up of the final piece, and I don't want to spend time perfecting the sound. It's why I don't mind using orchestral samples at this stage."

Reich explains that the reason he used the Casios for the non‑musical samples was because "I wanted other people to be able to play these samples. This is one of the areas where technology can work both positively and negatively. In the old days when I composed, I overdubbed the parts onto tape. I played and sang every part in every piece. I wanted to make sure that I really had it right, even though it may have sounded ridiculous. My version of The Desert Music was like a bunch of chipmunks singing the piece, but the conductor can feel the gesture and go: 'aha, that's what he wants'. It says more in terms of nuance than any kind of markings that you can give with notation.

"When computers came along, I no longer had to play all the parts. It went faster, but sometimes I wrote parts that I could have written a little better had I actually played them. Also, when working with computers it's tempting to just get very mechanical and cut‑paste when you want a repeat. This can be a convenience, but it's also a bad habit. In my pieces there will often be small differences in the repeats, and this works better when I play the parts myself. Working with computers really is a tension between using the advantages, and watching out for the Faustian deal that says: 'hey, it's easy, come on, do it'. So, for City Life I preferred to do things the hard way again, and played the samples in order to know how the parts feel for the players. I will do the same for my next piece, Proverbs, which is for ensemble and six voices — no samples. I have already bought the AudioMedia cards to be able to play and sing the parts first, and sequence them later."

Fish In Water

An important aspect of making the samples playable for the ensemble keyboard players was both the mapping of the keyboards (during the London performance, two Yamaha KX88s and one SY77, all linked to the S1000) and the scoring of the parts. Reich explains how he went about this: "If samples had a pitch, I would naturally try to put them at the appropriate pitch. There was, for example, a really nice Porsche car horn in the piece that was pitched at E flat, so I would put it where the E flat was. If there was no pitch, then I would put it where it was most comfortable for the player hand‑wise. I wrote the parts down as a conventional music score, and would write things like 'door slam' or 'car horn' next to the notes, so that the players wouldn't be surprised. In the end, they simply had to sit there and play the parts as if it was a normal piano score. That's the beauty of putting sampling into classical music ensembles, you simply write out the part, program the keyboard and the publisher sends them the printed music and a computer disk."

Reich was also concerned with cutting the sample at the right place and adjusting the velocity — both essential for timing and groove. Although he cut the samples himself at his home studio, he spent considerable time during the rehearsals for the UK premiere of City Life making sure that "the sensitivity that we gave to each individual note was right. Basically you want to give the player some freedom with the velocity, because you don't want his performance to sound like a MIDI tape, but you don't want too much freedom either, because that can make the piece sound unsteady. And you want the relative loudness of the notes to be right, so that they fall into the beat, rather than drag it or push it. These things weren't entirely sorted out for the French and German performances, and I learnt from that. I spent the first rehearsal in London with only sampler 1, sampler 2, the director and a technician, making sure everything worked perfectly, because the samples are the motor of the piece."

The one aspect of the composition that Reich did not have control over was the performance itself, and the expression imparted by the players. As it was, the London Sinfonietta gave City Life a very memorable first performance, creating a genuine swing in certain sections, especially the mesmerising opening, and it is in this context that Reich expresses his satisfaction that European classical music ensembles have finally learnt to 'groove': "When I came to Europe in the early '70s I felt like: 'hey, fantastic music tradition you have here, but in terms of what I'm trying to do they're completely stupid, they have no idea of what it is I'm coming with, and I'd like to teach them a new way of playing music'.

"Ten years later when Pierre Boulez's prestigious Ensemble Inter Contemporaine played Desert Music I thought to myself: 'great prestige, and these people can play 17 over 6, but can they play 4 in the space of 4?' In other words: can they really lay it down? I realised that the European ensembles were finally starting to get there, because they were burning. Especially now that the young classical musicians are now listening to jazz and rock 'n roll, and are familiar with computers. There's a new breed of 'classical' musician that can really swing, whereas with the old breed they were huffing and puffing and putting their head in the sand. The attitude problem that used to ignore people like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is disappearing. All I can say about it is that composers who are like that have some kind of an emotional problem."

Reich touches here on the ever increasing crossover that is happening between different forms of music. Although his days of playing at festivals on the same bill as Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk appear to be over, he nevertheless signals a new awareness within the classical music tradition of the possibilities opened up by rock music, and more especially those offered by music technology. "Sampling", he says laughing, "‑‑ I thought they invented it for me personally, it allows me to use these real‑life sounds that classical music has used for a long time, and fit them into the sonic mosaic with real precision. Sampling can have a huge effect on classical music. I may be the person who does it the most, but I don't think I will be the only person. We're like fish swimming in the water and right now part of that water is the whole sampling technology — it's creating all kinds of new music."

The Reich Stuff: A Little History

Steve Reich studied music at the Julliard School of Music and Mills College with famous classical composers like Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio, and later became part of the so‑called 'minimalist movement' — a step away from serial and atonal music — along with composers such as LaMonte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. His use of simple, repetitive and tonal motives, the application of shifting and layered rhythms (often inspired by African and Gamelan music) and his early tape loop pieces (such as 1965's It's Gonna Rain and 1966's Come Out), all had a strong influence on rock musicians of the '70s and '80s. Brian Eno's minimalist ambient style is the most obvious example, as are his collaborations with Robert Fripp (No Pussyfooting) and David Byrne (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts).

While he is widely considered one of the world's most famous contemporary 'classical' composers, this paradoxical and seemingly contradictory position that Reich holds on the international music stage illustrates the fact that he is still busy crossing boundaries, exploring new musical areas, and generally inspiring a largely stagnant classical music scene to move on to new things.

Reich has always had a keen interest in music technology, as was demonstrated by his early use of tape loops, amplifiers and swinging microphones. Some of his earlier pieces include electronic keyboards, such as Four Organs (1970), Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and Variations For Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979). Later, he wrote three pieces that featured one player who was required to overdub himself on tape and then add the last part live, whilst playing to the backing tape: Vermont Counterpoint (1982) for 11 flutes, New York Counterpoint (1985) for 11 clarinets, and Electric Counterpoint (1987) for 11 electric guitars and two electric basses. The Counterpoint pieces are characterised by pulsating, vibrating, repeating musical fragments, as if Reich is trying to imitate a looped digital delay or the spring vibrato found in old‑fashioned guitar amps. All three emerged from the composer's desire to write for a soloist, yet avoid the traditional soloist and accompaniment structure which he dislikes so intensely.

Speech Melody: Different Trains

City Life, explains Reich, is the third piece that uses sampled sounds, especially speech, as the basis for a composition, the two former pieces being Different Trains (1988) and The Cave, Reich's large‑scale multimedia event from 1993 (see feature in October 1993's SOS). Written for string quartet and taped samples, Different Trains is one of Reich's most challenging works. It is based upon the trains that were used to transport the Jews to the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War. The composer collected train and speech samples, some of them from Holocaust survivors, to form the foundation of the piece, the most original aspect being the way in which the approximate pitch of the speech samples are used. It's a compositional process that he also applied to The Cave and to a lesser degree City Life, and that, he says, forced him to develop new ways of composing.

Reich: "I call it speech melody. Usually when I have a series of harmonic progressions that go around in a cycle, and which a jazz musician would call 'changes'. That's like the coat hanger to hang the piece onto. When working with samples, it's completely different. Different Trains isn't a narrative in the strict sense of the word, but it does paint a historical picture. I recorded people talking about their experiences, isolated the fragments that caught my ear, like 'nine‑teen‑forty‑one', took them to the keyboard to see what the notes and phrasing were, and wrote them down. So the first thing I had was about five pages of music notes consisting of loads of little speech motives. Then the idea was to do two things at the same time: tell the story and make sure that the change of key and tempo would make musical sense whilst I was moving from one sample to another.

"It's a very limiting way of working, but I thrive in those kinds of tight limits. I had to find harmonic solutions that I would normally never have come up with. Musicians develop habits — they often use certain keys, I often move in thirds in the bass — and you like them, yet you have to fight against them as well. Well, if you solve a problem like that and you like it, then it becomes a new part of your vocabulary that you can use in pieces that have nothing to do with speech samples. So it was a way of getting pushed into new direction, and I really like that."

Reich Talks Technology

"I think that when you're working with a computer — any technology, as a matter of fact — you find it a blessing and a curse. Anybody who's involved with technology — Laurie Anderson talks about this — hates it, because it holds you down. Something is always going wrong, the rehearsal is always late because there's something that doesn't work in the technology. All of a sudden you get a crackling or buzzing noise out of your board. There's always a problem. I often wish I could smash it with a hammer. Yet on the other hand, you keep buying these new boxes. You can achieve magic with technology, and you get addicted to it."