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Beryl Korot

Jewishness in Steve Reich's music

I wanted to share this article about a lecture I attended given by Steve Reich and his collaborator and wife Beryl Korot, on the Jewish influences in their work. The program was called “A Theater of Ideas: Exploring the Life and Legacy of Abraham through Video, Music, and the Spoken Word” Reich had not really worked with video until he met Ms. Korot, a pioneer in the field of video art. Their presentation described their joint work on a documentary video opera they made, "The Cave."

From the article:

For “The Cave,” Reich interviewed Christians, Jews, and Arabs about Machpelah. As he was recording those interviews, he wrote down melodies.

. . . While Mr. Reich’s Jewish identity was not yet fully awakened when he composed his earlier works, today he is a shomer Shabbat Jew. His piece “Tehillim,” created in 1981, “is arguably the first one in which he draws extensively from his Jewish background.” A later piece, “Daniel,” composed in memory of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was based on verses from the Book of Daniel.

“His [Jewish] literacy enables him to do so much more to instill his Jewish values into his music,” Mr. Marans said. “He is the first person to have gotten to this point – a proud, learned religious Jew who is using that to create his music.”

From the article, an interesting comparison between Reich and Schoenberg:

Pointing to the composer’s many accomplishments, Mr. Marans noted that Mr. Reich was a pioneer of minimalism, which started in the 1960s and ’70s. Breaking with the tradition embodied by such composers as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven – who based their music on the idea of a melody, and people harmonizing with that melody – Mr. Reich chose a different path, following in the footsteps of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Contemporary classical music does not necessarily provide “an easy listening experience,” Mr. Marans said, adding that while the old forms are still available, “if you’re doing that, you’re not as original as you can be. People are constantly adapting and changing things.”

For example, after learning music theory and harmony, “Schoenberg began to radicalize his understanding,” creating serialism, or patterns of melodies and rhythms in a self-contained series, Mr. Marans said. Toying with Schoenberg’s idea, Mr. Reich, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate and eventually moved on to study composition at Mills College, “also started to rethink how we envision composition.”

And on the Jewishness of Steve Reich's music: 

“Conceptually, Jewish music revolves around the idea that the artist is putting his Jewish self into his music,” Mr. Marans said. “Different Trains,” for example, incorporates Holocaust music. But it is not sad; instead, it tells a story, juxtaposing the composer’s own experience traveling on trains when he was young with the use of trains during the Holocaust.