A few weeks after Berlin’s Atonal Festival launched with a performance of Steve Reich compositions, the Minimalist pioneer appeared onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with his once-estranged friend and fellow avant-garde cardinal, Philip Glass. The pair reunited last week for a series of concerts, one of which attracted a much younger experimental musician: Daniel Martin-McCormick, a Brooklyn-based producer who recently released his Endgame LP under the moniker Ital. Martin-McCormick has closely followed and studied the pair’s music for over a decade, but he walked away from the September 10 show feeling uneasy about the revered artist and his legacy.
Our own Mark Smith of the live techno duo Gardland can relate, as he left the Atonal exhibition (which he reviewed for us here) feeling dubious about “what new light could be shed on Reich’s ossified yet doggedly relevant compositions.” We connected the two producers to discuss why these iconic pieces fell flat, and how Reich’s once-radical experimentations have contributed to conservative impulses in techno culture.
What were your expectations before you went to the show?
My expectations were met—but I was also a little underwhelmed by it. They did “Four Organs” and “Drumming,” which are not my favorites. I like the tape loop pieces, “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain,” because they’re so raw, and present one pure, fused idea—but they have a really different tone when you go to see them in these concert halls. The stories you read about the performances in the 70s, where they’re playing in a loft for six hours, and they brought their own sound system, and they were blasting—it sounds quite punk. You can imagine how that would be very intense and overwhelming, but as it was last night, it was dry as a bone.
The Philip Glass stuff translated a little better. His early work has a barrelling, apocalyptic intensity, which then turned into New Age music. Glass and Reich both started off quite visceral and almost doom-y, and then they end up New Age-y.
The Glass stuff they played was really beautiful. It was “Music in a Similar Motion,” which I absolutely love. They did a piece from “Einstein on the Beach,” which was incredible, but then they did some later stuff and it was awful—horrible exotica, dumb lounge music. I love seeing it, but I knew it was going to be half awesome and half…cerebral music for old people.
I recently saw “Drumming” and “Music for Eighteen Musicians” at Atonal in Berlin. I’ve heard these pieces a million times, and I was wondering what more I could get out of it. There’s an endless string of performances, and a glut of producers name-checking these guys.
It’s quite cliché to say that the Minimalist composers have so much to do with techno—and I don’t really hear that. You can draw interesting parallels, but I don’t think there’s a direct influence.
The whole thing about process music that’s really interesting is that people were taking these anti-ego, anti-musical, anti-expressive parameters, and imposing them on music so they could get to a new experience. Reich devises the parameters so that it’s human to a point, but it takes away a lot of this composerly “expressive” responsibility and it crowbars open a new room in your psyche. I feel like electronic music is kind of the same; Step sequence writing or gear writing is like submitting to an inhuman system, but it becomes more and more humanized as technology develops.
Reich has always reacted very strongly against attempts to tie him to dance-orientated electronic music, but I do feel there is one parallel. A piece like “Drumming” is very good at elucidating the relationship between rhythm and timbre, and I feel like that’s a trait of good electronic music. Having said that, perhaps there’s an over-emphasis on sound design and aesthetic in dance music, to the detriment of the rhythmic element. So where do we go? Is Reich an indicator of how we can break out of the dogma that is keeping rhythm in this apparently rhythmic music so constricted?
To me, it ebbs and flows. Obviously, you have footwork and drum n bass, jungle—these more challenging rhythmic styles. I feel like each of these genres goes through a three-stage expansion: It starts off with the core idea, then it goes to a classical era, and then more of a baroque, intensified technical thing. At a certain point, enough is enough, and it’s time to start over. I think, in the current techno world, there’s not going to be a top-down innovation. There’s no way you’re going to be a big name operating in that world, getting big bookings, and then all of a sudden start playing crazy phased speeds. But if you’re off in the corner somewhere, it’s different.
Somebody like Jamal Moss, his drum programming is insane. When we were jamming together, he busted out these beats that were mental, seven-something time. I remember he looked me in the eye really hard and gave a speech that I always thought about. First, it kind of scared me, but now I think about it more. He said “This beat is so crazy that if that you play it on a $30k sound system it doesn’t matter what you put on top because the drums are INSANE.” So I’m like, “Wait, we can put anything on top of this?” He’s like “What you want to put on top of it?” He was possessive of it, but at the same time wanting it to be out there and to slam. We didn’t end up using it because it was too crazy. Someone like Jamal can come up with rhythmic innovation.
You erase your ego by sublimating to a pre-existing system. Obviously, there’s a market in the DJ world to have more and more tracks. I actually fell asleep in front of the DJ booth at Panorama Bar one time at a Perlon night, and this Italian guy came up to me and yelled, “You cannot sleep at the Panorama Bar!” Yeah, well, the music is fucking mind-numbingly boring. How do you even know which track you’re playing when they’re all just like (makes minimal percussive bloop sounds). When can we stop shuffling and freak out?
Maybe you can innovate new phase patterns by train wrecking all your mixes.
Are audience expectations to blame? There are people like Jamal and Theo Parrish who use a lot of intentional off-mixing, which some people just can’t handle. These guys have been DJing for longer than most of their audience has been alive and can respect that beat matching is only one way to skin a cat.
Well, I think Jamal and Theo are pretty different. DJing is so open ended, but there’s these glacial, massive, constant forces pressuring you to think it should only be a certain way. Isn’t this supposed to be a deviant culture? Aren’t we supposed to be out away from orthodoxy? We are meant to be creating a subculture where new ideas can flourish rather than constantly hammering home the same things. That’s not the marketplace or people’s expectations.
So how do you fit into that problem?
I have no idea—I’m just me. I can only be myself. There’s a community of people that I’m involved with, so I can align myself with a subset of artists. Life is an epic journey and I’m just trying to tell my story through music.
In terms of DJing, I have no patience for doing a techno set when I’m at the techno club and doing a house set at the house club. It sounds horrible. I just want to play the music I like all the time, and if that means there’s certain clubs I can’t play at, or certain festivals where I don’t fit, that’s fine, because there are others that I do fit in to. I don’t necessarily want to win techno mountain and beat everybody else. I’ve seen cool guys who are my age who make tracks and say “This is my deep house track. This is my Berghain track,” and I’m like “Well, who are you?” Life’s too short to buy into anyone else’s system.
That’s the reason why I wanted to go the Reich and Glass show last night. Even though after 1981 they both started to suck, they really did define their own system and aesthetic and their own language and parameters and built up the entire structure of their music. They had their own ensembles, they worked with new labels, they made music in ways no one ever had before and everybody was incredibly influenced by it. That’s very inspirational. Even if they’re going to play some stuff I like and some stuff that I don’t, it’s still so powerful to go there and drink from that fountain, because that’s where it’s at. It’s not about being a minion in someone else’s club.