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May 07, 2009

Two arts beating as one.

By David A. Ross

Sartre and de Beauvoir. Scott and Zelda. Pollock and Krasner. Ike and Tina.
Whatever their métier, couples who collaborate are fraught. Steve Reich and Beryl Korot fit as comfortably into that tight spot as two people can.
He just won the Pulitzer Prize in music, in part for his recent Double Sextet and in part for a body of work that has led more than one critic to acclaim him as “the greatest living American composer.”
She is less famous but no less serious and accomplished, a widely acknowledged pioneer of video art.
That difference in public profiles can make for defining moments. For example: when the libretto was printed for their first collaboration, an opera titled The Cave, his name was on it. Hers was not.
“That was incredibly irksome,” she says.
They have been married for 15 years since then (34 years in all). His reaction to her being slighted is one reason why. “It was as appalling to him,” she says, “as it was to me.”

Common Threads
The ties that bind can be a mysterious weave. In the case of Reich and Korot, they are as ephemeral as counterpoint and Jewish mysticism and as concrete as the streets of New York.
Both were born in New York City—Korot in Queens, Reich in Manhattan, where his mother was a Broadway lyricist. His parents divorced during his infancy, and he split his youth between them, shuttled by train from New York to California and back.
That was the inspiration for Different Trains in 1988. While he was commuting cross-country in the late 1930s, “Hitler was getting hold of any Jewish kid my age, adults of every age, and taking them off to Poland. There’s a famous picture of this little kid—he’s got his hands up and a little peddler’s cap on. He looks just like me. I had that kind of peddler’s cap. So it clicked.”
The “it” was Reich’s breakthrough work, which musicologist Richard Taruskin called “one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium to the Holocaust.”
Reich’s pull toward Judaism, which had begun 15 years before, coincided roughly with the beginning of his relationship with Korot. “I wasn’t a fan at all,” she says, recalling that she first became aware of him during an art show at the Kennedy Center in 1974. “That was the first time I ever heard his work.”
They met later that year at New York’s The Kitchen, a center for video art and avant-garde music and dance. A few weeks later he called from Berlin and asked her to meet him there.
Far closer to her Jewish background than he was to his at the time, she accepted the invitation in part because she wanted to visit the concentration camp at Dachau. That trip inspired Beryl’s most ambitious early video work—and that inspired Steve.

A Tapestry in Time
Korot’s work on Dachau 1974 began with a problem: the images she brought back to her studio from that trip to the camp were “very, very static.”
The solution was as ancient as the technology for implementing it was new. A few years before, she had taken up weaving. The loom seemed to her like “a kind of early computer—it programmed patterns according to numerical structure.” For Dachau 1974, she remembers, “I actually used the handloom and programming weaver’s notations on a handloom to give me an idea how to structure multiples in video.”
Running parallel video streams through time, layering image on image on multiple monitors as a weaver runs threads of color, she brought her images to life.
While she worked on Dachau 1974, Steve was writing his seminal work Music for 18 Musicians, a profoundly contrapuntal work that reflects his love of Bach. “When you describe [Dachau 1974] it sounds like you’re describing a four-part counterpoint,” he says now. “So we were birds of a feather, besides our relationship as man and woman.”
In retrospect, the idea of a collaboration seems to have been inevitable, but they approached it warily. In the late 1980s, Steve was asked to do an opera. “He was so not into working with that traditional or theatrical format,” Korot remembers. However, he was finishing Different Trains at the time, incorporating voices and video, and the thought occurred to them both that “he was working with speech and content, which was my thing…Steve always saw my work as extremely musical and we began to think maybe [Different Trains] could be a model for the beginning of an opera. So we continued to talk about it, but then I didn’t really want to do it, and we went through a further year of discussion about it.”
Finally, she remembers, they decided “we have to have a meeting.” They met at Ellen’s Coffee Shop in lower Manhattan—“we had to meet outside the house to make any sense out of all this”—and both of them brought their notes.
Out of that meeting came The Cave.

Solo for Two Voices
She recalls the 15 years that followed as “a ceaseless conversation” about their work. The Cave alone took more than three years and put an enormous strain on every aspect of their lives, from the financial to the emotional. “Our life was taken over,” as Korot puts it.
One day their son Ezra—then a teenager, now a 30-year-old musician—came into their studio with a video camera to shoot his parents at work. Korot cringes at the memory. “Much to my horror, I was too busy to talk to him or even respond.” With mixed relief, she adds, “Steve was nice.”
Reich and Korot both needed a break from each other when The Cave was finished, but there was no break. They dove directly into their second collaboration, Three Tales, an electronic/digital opera exploring the implications of three pivotal technological events: the explosion of the Hindenberg, the first H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll and Dolly, the first cloned animal.
In the last few years they have finally managed to get back to their separate work. Both are thriving, but their lives are as crowded as ever. Defying his grand old man status, Reich will premier his first rock piece, 2×5, as an opening act for Kraftwerk this summer. A solo show of Korot’s latest work, which began at the prestigious German museum ZKM, will open this summer at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.
A recent visitor to their Modernist home in suburban Pound Ridge, N.Y. thought to ask them in the course of an intense but fluid conversation: what do they do together, in their free time?
“This is a big problem,” she says.
“We walk in the preserve,” he suggests.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“We have to eat like the rest of the human race, so we do that together.”
“We haven’t discovered a hobby yet,” she says.
The conversation quickly resumed, but the speed bump was telling: it spoke of two lives in which love is work, and vice versa.

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A Reich rock piece… damn!

Wesley Marcarelli
Aug 26, 2009

This is a great article! I can’t wait to hear Reich’s rock piece.

Wesley Marcarelli
Aug 26, 2009

The really dug the interview piece about layering loops in Balinese and Ghanian music, inspiring tape loops early in Reich’s career- this really explains a lot pivotal points in experimental music, everything from Krautrock bands like Brainticket to 90s trip hop to Aphex Twin to Animal Collective song structuring. Awesome.

Kate Henderson
Aug 26, 2009