In February, we will be celebrating the masterful minimalism of Steve Reich in a UK tour, featuring Music for 18 Musicians, which has become one of the most iconic works of American minimalism. We spoke to conductor Andrew Gourlay about his experiences of interpreting and conducting Reich, what to expect from the performance and his advice for young conductors.
For someone who has not experienced Reich’s music before, what can they expect from this upcoming tour?
There are not many living composers who genuinely have a cult following, but Steve Reich is certainly one of them, and for good reason. This is direct and exciting music with a true identity. Expect a memorable and intense experience.
What is most important when interpreting or performing the music of Steve Reich, and minimalist music in general?
You need a seriously good sense of rhythm!
Personally I find the greatest challenge to be the sensation of accents that occur disarmingly off the beat, often during bars that are already intricate and complex rhythmically.
Are there any facets of performance that are particularly challenging for you and for the players in these all-Reich programmes?
The level of concentration in the room is fierce, especially in his more complex works, so it can be a bonding experience journeying through the piece together. The demand on the players can be extraordinary at times. Not only do they need a flawless sense of pulse, but an awesome level of co-ordination. Personally I find the greatest challenge to be the sensation of accents that occur disarmingly off the beat, often during bars that are already intricate and complex rhythmically. The result can feel like trying to focus on keeping a table-tennis rally going whilst someone else throws bags of crisps at your head.
Reich has had a vast influence on contemporary music and various artists, for example, David Bowie. Do you have any favourite artists or songs in which you can hear his influence?
If I may, I’d like to flip this question on its head… As a teenager I was a big fan of Radiohead. So I was delighted when the London Sinfonietta asked me to conduct Reich’s Radio Rewrite. The material is inspired from Radiohead songs, but treated in Reich’s own distinct voice. The music feels fresh. Well worth a listen for fans of either genre.
Conducting contemporary repertoire can be extremely liberating. The very fact that the music is so new means that it hasn’t become clogged with the weight of expectation or tradition.
What is your favourite thing about conducting?
Being in control of the flow of music. It’s a sincere privilege to work with seriously talented musicians and find myself at liberty to pace a piece of music with them in the way that I want. It comes with responsibility, but it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.
Do you have any advice for young conductors who may be a little intimidated by contemporary repertoire?
Don’t be ridiculous! Conducting contemporary repertoire can be extremely liberating. The very fact that the music is so new means that it hasn’t become clogged with the weight of expectation or tradition. I find premieres particularly exciting. It can be a real thrill to inject life into a new piece of music. On a technical level it’s true that some contemporary rep can present challenges of complex beating patterns and tempo relationships, but that’s half the fun! It just takes a lot of repeated practice and preparation (mostly in your mind) until you can do it as second nature. And the learning process itself can be rewarding. If you open up a crazy score and feel overwhelmed with confusion, try to turn it into a positive emotion - be inquisitive. If you approach a score like a detective and spend a lot of time making sense of how it all fits together, it will eventually speak to you.
Any good book or Netflix recommendations that you’ll be using to fill your time between rehearsing and performing on tour?
I’m currently on another Grisham phase… Sycamore Row most recently, which I found very impressive. When I’m working hard on a piece of music it can easily infiltrate and swarm around my brain at night. Page-turners like his help me to focus on something else. Most of my Netflix viewing is guided by my partner Mats, who helps me keep more on-trend than I otherwise would be! But that means that I need to save most of it til I’m back home. If you’ve only got a spare twenty minutes, though, and want some quick-fire entertainment, grab a quick dose of retro murder mystery with an episode of Forensic Files – there are more than 400 episodes so that’ll keep you going for a while.
Andrew Gourlay conducts Music for 18 Musicians in our UK tour from 12–15 February.
Photo by Johan Persson
Published: 25 Jan 2019