Interviews with the Composer


 “The string orchestra [of Desert Music] is divided in three and the percussion goes in the center… right in front of the conductor, in a piece where… the beat, is going all the time. If the strings around the percussion can hear it, then it’s fine. If you put the percussion sixty feet away from the conductor in the back of the hall, and the strings are sitting right next to the conductor, he’s beating what the percussionist is playing but the 60-foot delay in the sound causes the whole orchestra to not be together. It’s impossible… So I began to realize that my musical acoustical difficulties were also intimately tied with the sociology and practical realities of stagecraft.” (1)

(Reich discussing critical aspects of the orchestration of ‘Desert Music’ that allow the highly rhythmic passages to keep together)

“So when “The Desert Music” is done nowadays, instead of having a full string orchestra divided into three parts, we have solo strings, three string quartets, and a solo bass. This allows each quartet to play together; there’s no difficulty. As you add numbers of players, you have a richness and thickening of the sound.” (2)

(This quote details the versatility of the piece and the number of ways it is able to be performed)

“I think that everybody has to work that out for him or herself [in an orchestra].”(2)

(The role of the each individual performer is significant in contributing to meaning as a whole.)

“But now, for over 100 years, we’ve had the microphone. And the microphone makes possible… a small vocal style or any other instrument assuming a very major presence even against a large background.” (2)

(Reich here again refers to the different orchestration options, made possible by modern amplification so that the piece can be performed to the same level without as many performers in a large venue)

Perceived meaning by audience: 

“It is enormously important to me that the audience likes the music. But the only way I’ve figured out how to do that is, if I love it, hopefully you’ll love it too.”(2)

(Reich’s criterion for composing music for his context)

“I think real success as a composer is measured in two ways. Number one, that the musical community of players wants to play your music–they hear something that makes them want to play it–and that the general audience wants to hear it. If you’ve got both of those things, you’re succeeding.”(2)

(This quote explains Reich’s logical reasoning behind achieving success as a composer of today, excluding the works that push boundaries or challenge our perspective which may be appreciated in the future)

Selected topics from an interview with Jonathan Cott

Music and Text: “…All pieces with texts – operas, cantatas, whatever – have, in my opinion, to work first simply as pieces of music that one listens to with eyes closed, without understanding a word. Otherwise, they’re not musically successful, they’re dead ‘settings’. (3)

“…Pulsation and vocalise, pure sound. ‘I am wide/awake. The mind/is listening.’ And off you go into pulsation. Words come to an end, and musical communication takes over” Reich referring to the effect of the musical ‘pulse’ created in ‘Desert Music’ (3)

Constant ambiguity: “…Listening to umm-pah.pah, umm-pah-pah over and over again is intolerable and, indeed, a mistake. So if you want to write music that is repetitive in any literal sense, you have to work to keep a lightness and constant ambiguity with regard to where the stresses and where the beginnings and endings are.” (3)

It leaves language behind: “...One has to be in relative stillness to hear things in detail. All meditative practices are based on some sort of silence – inner and outer. Williams says: ‘We half closed/our eyes’ – you’re closing your eyes to hear more intently. And Williams continues: ‘We do not/hear it through out eyes./It is not/aflute note either, it is the relation/of a flute note to a drum.’ And then, suddenly, the eyes are open, ‘I am wide/awake.’ He sort of reaches out and grabs you: ‘The mind/is listening.’ At which point the chorus sings ‘dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee…’ It goes into something completely non-verbal, it leaves language behind.” (3)

“…the human construct that we call our music is merely a conversation – something we’ve all evolved together, and which rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can. And no more and no less.” Steve Reich discussing the similarities between language and music (3)

Totally wide awake: “...You know, some critics of my earlier pieces thought I was intending to create some kind of ‘hypnotic’ or ‘trance’ music. And I always thought, ‘No, no, no, I want you to be wide awake and hear details you’ve never heard before!’ People listen to things any way they wish, of course, and I don’t have anything to say about it, even if I have written the pieces. But I actually prefer the music to be heard by somebody who’s totally wide awake, hearing more than he or she usually does, rather than by someone who’s just spaced-out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions.” (3)

Reich’s idea of the Desert: “…Finally, there is another desert that is central to The Desert Music: White Sands and Alamagordo in New Mexico, where weapons of the most intense and sophisticated sort are constantly being develloped and tested. Hidden away from the eyes of the rest of the world are these infernal machines that could lead to the destruction of the planet – and it is to this possibility that the words of William Carlos Williams, which I set in the third movement, refer (‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish’). So it was these images that particularly struck me, though they seem to be ingrained in people’s thinking generally when the idea of the desert comes to mind.” (3)

Other psychological desert concepts

Edmond Jabes;

“You do not go into the desert to find yourself but to lose yourself.”

Ralph Lichtensteiger (2004) based a poem on this quote that I believe metaphorically describes a psychological journey into the desert, where reality becomes confused and every piece of a concept is analysed and rephrased to find meaning as a ‘way out’. A similar idea can be seen in Reich’s music where harmonically and lyrically he too creates a psychological desert.The poem can be found through the link; Into the Desert (Laura)

“Contemplation is the highest and most paradoxical form of self realization, attained by apparent self-annihilation.” Thomas Merton (3)

“The desert becomes a paradise when it is accepted as a desert. The desert can never be anything but a desert if we are trying to escape it.” Thomas Merton (3)

(1) Interview with Richard Kessler, viewed 13/05/11 <;

(2) Zuckerman, G 2002, An Interview with Steve Reich, American Public Media, viewed 13/05/11 <;

(3) ‘The Desert Music – 1982 – 1984’ (N.D.) Collection of quotes, viewed June 2011 <>
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Meaning- Mind Map


(4. How would you describe the role of the vocalists in creating meaning within ‘Desert Music’?)

“The music that the vocalists sung was very important, as well as the textures they created, however the words were not clear to me“. (audience member)

“I couldn’t really hear or understand the text, so they seemed to play more of a harmonic and dynamic role in creating meaning..” (audience member)

“In the writing of the work, I feel the ‘libretto’ was very central to the meaning of the work’ (performer – vocalist)

“In the Fitters Workshop, the vocal text was indecipherable due to the acoustic echo” (audience member)

“I don’t know, I didn’t think they were saying anything…” (audience member)

“…being able to hear the text would be nice… the vocal cluster chords did give an impression of heart…” (audience member)

“…the way he used the voices within the piece gave an almost unearthly quality to the overall atmosphere” (audience member)



(2. Please explain your perception of how the instruments were create the idea of a musical ‘Desert’)

“The repetition created a soundscape, sending the musician/audience into a “trance-like” state.” (performer)

Harmonic stasis– instruments pulse a single chords with crescendo then diminuendo….Huge chords spanning all registers.” (performer)

“It [Desert Music] seemed to express the intricate life / eco system of the desert within the rhythmic complexities, and I imagined a larger view over the desert with sweeping dynamics” (audience member)

“I think the psychological desert (the process and range of the human mind in thought) was conveyed musically by the contrasts in musical motion

“The shimmering patterns were like heat mirages…the relentless pressure of sound like heat that gets to you…” (audience member)

“Through the minimalist style of the piece, i was able to depict an image of the sparseness that is associated with an image of the desert” (audience member)

“I think maybe it was better, a sparser texture could have made it seem more like a desert with just one instrument playing each part.” (audience member)

(4. What do you think your role was within the ensemble in terms of musical meaning?)

“I doubled [on piano] the chorus lines for most of the time and provided the missing brass section. Basically filling out the the sound. Reich intended quite a thick/rich sonority.” (performer)

“Flutes were the only winds and our role was to enhance the depth of the structure” (performer)

“I guess the main contribution was that we sang the words” (performer – vocalist)

“By being incredibly repetitive, and ultimately boringcreating sameness.” (audience member)

Composer’s notes and perceptions of musical meaning:

(1. …Did this piece challenge your ‘normal’ thinking of this desert concept?)

“I definitely felt mentally / cognitively challenged…my mind was engaged the whole time..” (audience member)

“As I learnt the piece, I understood the metaphorical nature of the work better…” (performer – vocalist)

“Yes – it was relentless and confronting” (audience member)

“…maybe if I had known this prior to my listening. I don’t really get a psychological desert, unless he was trying to make people crazy!” (audience member)

“Possibly, since I didn’t think the title was relevant” (performer)

(2. Reich set out to merge music with spirituality. Do you think he was successful?)

“Yes, in the sense he successfully employed his musical ideas to communicate the themes of the text.” (performer)

“Yes, very dreamlike, plays with your mind.” (performer)

“We all had difficult parts…which required much technical concentration. As vocalists – we were encouraged to sing mechanically, to keep up, and be clear. ‘Conventional’ expression was difficult to consider” (performer – vocalist)

“No..except that in pain there can be awareness…” (audience member)

“can not all music be called a ‘spiritual experience?’ I don’t think this piece was very spiritual though.” (audience member)

(4. As a whole. what do you think Reich was trying the express in Desert Music?)

“A soundscape that invades our mind as you listen to it. Our mind is a desert, going through various states.” (performer)

“I thought he was expressing the imagery of a desert, but the psychological metaphor makes alot of sense now!”(audience member)

“[To the quote included in the interview ‘Man has survived hitherto…’] This was one of the most meaningful lines in the text, I thought…I think this conclusive line is quite significant” (performer – vocalist)

“The feeling of Desert…in reality and feeling” (audience member).

“I have no idea.” (audience member)

(5. Do you have any other comments on how this piece affected you personally?)

“I’ve never felt so cognitively engaged by music before…I really enjoyed it”

“The acoustic was difficult and I would have got more from it with background information” (audience member)

A spiritual journey” (audience member)

“To be honest I don’t know…I know that he takes instruments to the machinistic rather than musical” (performer)


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Biography of Steve Reich

Stephen Michael Steve Reich is an American composer who was born in New York City on October 3, 1936.  Because his parents divorced, he had to spend the time in New York and California.  He had piano lessons when he was a child and people described him as growing up with the “middle-class favourites”.  He wasn’t exposed to any music written from before 1750 or after 1900.  He started to do study music for real when he was 14 after he heard music from earlier and the Baroque period.  Also, 20th century music.

He created the style of minimalist music.   He used tape loops to create phasing patterns that was in his early compositions, “it’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out”.  And he used simple and audible processes to find out something new in musical concepts.  You can see it through “Pendulum Music” and “Four Organs”.  These are part of his innovations and the compositions are marked by their use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons.  It strongly showed a big influence on contemporary music, especially in the US.  With the introduction of historical themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage, especially the Grammy Award-winning Different Trains, his work showed a darker character in the 1980s.

Steve played jazz during he was learning drums with Roland Kohloff.  He took some music courses when he was in Cornell University but he graduated at 1957 with honours in Philosophy.  He studied composition with Hall Overton after two years.  And he studied at the Julliard School of Music with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti from 1958 to 1961.  Afterwards, he went to Oakland, California to attend Mills College and he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud and he earned a degree of master in composition.  In the college, he composed Melodica for melodica and tape and it appeared in 1986 on the three-LP release Music from Mills.  He worked with the California Tape Music Centre along with Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and Terry Riley.  He was involved in the premiere of Riley’s in C.

Steven Reich found his own ensemble of three musicians in 1966 and it rapidly grew up to 18 or more members.  Him and the musicians toured the world since 1971, and have the distinction of performing to sold-out houses at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line Cabaret.

Steve studied drumming at the Institue for African Studeis at the University of Ghana in Accara with the help of a grant from the Institute for International Education.  At the American Society for Eatern Arts Seattle and Berkeley, California, he also learned Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang.  And he studied the traditional forms of chanting of the Hebrew scriptures from 1976 to 1977 in Jerusalem and New York.

Steve’s piece called Different Trains in 1988, marked a new compositional method, rooted in It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments.  The New York Times described this piece as “a work of such astonishing originality that breakthrough seems the only possible description…possesses an absolutely harrowing emotional impact”.

His composition style influenced so many musical groups and other composers.  He has been described by “The Guardian” since he is so influenced composer who may change the direction of musical history.  The critic Kyle Gann mentioned that he is an America’s greatest living composer.

He was warded many prizes.  Recently, he got Pulitzer Prize for Music on April 20, 2009.

  • 1990, he received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Different Trains.
  • 1994, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
  • 1999, he won a second Grammy Award and Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres
  • 2000, he was awarded the Schuman Prize from Columbia University, the Montgomery Fellowship from Darmouth College, the Regent’s Lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley, and Honorary doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts and was named Composer of the Year by Musical America magazine.
  • October 2006 in Tokyo, he was awarded Premium Imperial award in music.
  • May 2007, he was awarded The Polar Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of music.
  • December 2006, he was awarded membership in the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.
  • April 2007, he was awarded the Chubb Fellowship at Yale University.
  • May 2008, he was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music

Steve and Beryl Korot’s music theatre video piece, The Cave exploring the Biblical story of Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael and Issac, was described by Time Magazine as “a fascinating glimpse of what opera might be like in the 21st century”.

Steve and Beryl Korot’s three-part digital documentary video opera called Three Tales is a second collaborative.  It is a three act music theatre work in which historical film and video footage, photographs, video taped interviews, text, and specially constructed stills are recreated on computer, transferred to video tape and projected on one large screen.  Performers, musicians and singers take their places on stage along with the screen, presenting the debate about the ethical, physical and religious nature of technological development.  Three Tales was awarded at the Vienna Festival in 2002 and toured all over Australia, America, Europe and Hong Kong afterwards.

Over the years, Steve has received commissions from the Barbican Centre London, the Holland Festival, Hebbel Theatre, Berlin, the Brooklyn Academy of Music for guitarist Pat Metheny; the Rothko Chapel’ San Francisco Symphony; Spoleto Festival USA, West German Radio, Cologne; Settembre Musica, Torino, the Fromm Music Foundation for clarinettist Richard Stoltzman; the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Betty Freeman for the Kronos Quartet; and the Festival d’Automne, Paris, for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Major orchestras and ensembles around the world, has performed Steve’s music and some noted choreographers have created dances to his music.  Steve’s composition style has influenced so many other musical groups and composers.

Reference : and

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New Arrangement of Desert Music

In all, Steve Reich had three scorings done for Desert Music, a piece of music that is an orchestral setting of poetry by William Carols Williams.

Reich composed the piece in 1984, at a time when minimalism was turning from the austere works of the 60’s and becoming more lyrical. Desert music was a more lush, and orchestrally orientated minimalism piece, and represented the height of the trend of variations.

The original work was written for orchestra and a choir – a large ensemble – and was designed to be haunting, in order to covey his commentary of mans ambiguous relationship to technology. The sound was quite full, and some critics claimed that in parts it became messy if instruments weren’t exactly in sync with one another – especially important with so many cross rhythms within the piece.

Reich then decided to eliminate all of the double parts on the strings and in the choir. He then decided it would be best to amplify the single performers who played each part. As a result we hear a much tighter, cleaner sound and performance, and the individual layers of the piece come through a lot clearer.

The new score still requires about 40 players, but it allows the audience to focus on one person, or one instrument when they add a new layer of rhythm and sound to the piece, rather than having to focus on a group of musicians. In a way, the audience hears the music more, as they are also seeing it in it’s most basic form.

Personally, I prefer the reduced version. It is simpler, cleaner, smaller, but still produces a mesmerising, enchanting vibe – something that will remain for a long time!

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Desert Music (1982-1984) [Summary of composer’s notes]

Steve Reich Notes on ‘Desert Music’

From Boosey and Hawkes Website > Composers > Catalogue Search 

Reich’s ‘Desert Music’ was composed in 1983 and first performed as a full orchestral version in 1984 by the Cologne Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of West  Germany. It was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and West German Radio, Cologne. The piece is a 46minute work set to sections of poems by Dr William Carlos Williams and the title itself was also based on Dr Williams’ book of poems ‘The Desert Music’ (1).

The five movements of the piece are described by Reich below;

‘…there are five movements forming a large arch, A-B-C-B-A. The first and fifth movements are fast and use the same harmonic cycle. The second and fourth are at a moderate tempo, share the identical text (“Well, shall we/ think or listen?…”) and also share a common harmonic cycle which is different than the one used in the first and fifth movements. The third, middle, movement is the longest (17 minutes) and is itself an arch form A-B-A where the A sections are slow and the B section moves up to the moderate tempo of the second and fourth movements. The third movement has its own harmonic cycle. There are no pauses between movements and the piece is played attacca from beginning to end. The changes of tempo between movements are made suddenly by metric modulation always using the 3:2 relationship to either get slower (dotted quarter equals quarter) or faster (eighth note triplet equals eighth note.)’ (1)

Reich details that he composed three harmonic cycles that underlie the text selections for the piece. He describes them as ‘dark’ and chromatic in tone and is presented as a series of ‘pulsing’ chords. The ‘A’ type movements have a D dorian minor centre as well as altered A and F chords that provide a level of tension and mystery. The ‘B’ sections also utilise the altered A dominant chord but no specific tonal centre. The third movement is the most ambiguous harmonically and consists of altered dominant chords again with the root of the chord moving in thirds, both major and minor in order to prevent clear cadence points. This vagueness is encouraged and supported by the words in this movement such as man being ‘unable to realize his wishes’, the wishes here can be understood as referring to the classically trained desire for structure and resolution (1). The later movements move back towards the D dorian minor centre and ends partially resolved, and still harmonically ‘ambiguous’ (1).

On orchestration, Reich states that the original version for full orchestra and 10 – 27 voices was used so that there could be multiple poly rhythms voiced. When extra ‘snap’ for rhythms is required, strings are frequently doubled with wood winds. Variety within vocal and orchestral sound is also achieved through mixing and amplifying of wind and vocals at the same time, creating an interesting texture and tone. Reich offers that percussion were primarily chosen to keep the harmonic ‘pulses’ going. Maraccas, clicking sticks, timpani, tam-tam and large bass drums were added for textural interest and for keeping with the Desert theme (1).

This ‘pulse’ is described by Reich as significant ‘both musically and as a kind of wordless response to and commentary on the text itself’. The pulse conveys the harmonic progressions as a ‘pulsing chorale’ from a musical perspective, as well as developing the piece as it transforms from a semiquaver beat into intertwining groups of two and three beats. Reich attributes this design to an idea used in his earlier work ‘ Tehillim’ in 1981 (1).

Regarding the meaning of this work, Reich reveals that one of the central focal points of ‘Desert Music’ is the ‘constant flickering of attention’ between how words sound when they are set to music and the function of the words themselves as a multifaceted form of meaning within the piece. Reich did mention that he hoped the meaning of the piece would ‘speak for itself’ but it can be understood that it stems from a personal affection for the writings of Dr Williams, especially his later work before his death in 1963 (1).

‘…I have loved Dr. Williams’ poetry since I was 16 years old… I was fascinated by the symmetry of his name – William Carlos Williams. I have continued reading his work to the present… It is from this period (1954 to 1963) in the poet’s work that I have selected the texts for The Desert Music – a period after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dr. Williams was acutely aware of the bomb and his words about it, in a poem about music entitled ‘The Orchestra’ struck me as to the point: “Say to them:/ Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant/ to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize/ them, he must either change them or perish.” When I began work on The Desert Music I thought those words were too grave to set and thought I would use a tape of Dr. Williams reading them instead. When the time came to compose the third movement in the summer of 1983 I did know how to set them because the character of the harmonies in the third seemed to generate just the right setting. I was very glad now I did not resort to using a tape. In the center of the piece is the text, also from The Orchestra, which says, “it is a principle of music/ to repeat the theme. Repeat/ and repeat again,/ as the pace mounts. The/ theme is difficult/ but no more difficult/ than the facts to be/ resolved.” Those at all familiar with my music will know how apt those words are for me and particularly this piece which, among other things, addresses that basic ambiguity between what the text says, and its pure sensuous sounds…’ (1)

1. Steve Reich (1983) ‘The Desert Music’. In Composers; Catalogue Search from Boosey and Hawkes Website. Retrieved May 2011 from:

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