"The Music of Steve Reich" Preview- Conductor Alan Pierson discusses the Feb. 9 concert





Composer Steve Reich, Pulitzer and Grammy-winning recipient of Northwestern University’s 2016 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in musical composition will attend music rehearsals, discussions with students and faculty and a performance of his work when he visits the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music from Feb. 7th through February 9th, 2017.

Nemmers prize winner Steve Reich; photo by Wonge Bergmann

The first residency attendant to the prize culminates in a concert entitled “Contemporary Music Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble: The Music of Steve Reich” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus.


Following an intermission, Reich will engage in a conversation with faculty member Alan Pierson who will conduct the Bienen School of Music ensembles in the program honoring Reich’s work.

Conductor Alan Pierson; photo by Ros Kavanaugh


Called “Our greatest living composer” by The New York Times, Reich’s work embraces aspects of Western classical music as well as the structures, harmonies and rhythms of non-Western and American vernacular music, particularly jazz. The works of Steve Reich have been performed by orchestras and ensembles all over the world for decades and he has been the recipient of numerous awards and well-deserved accolades in his long and illustrious career.


In the program honoring Reich’s work, the Bienen School of Music ensembles will feature three of the renowned composer’s most well-known pieces: “Clapping Music,” “City Life” and “Music for 18 Musicians.”

Members of Bienen School of Music's Percussion Ensemble at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall


 Composed in 1972, “Clapping Music” was written for two musicians and is performed entirely by clapping. Reich’s intent was to “Create a piece of music that needed no instruments beyond the human body.”


Written in 1995, “City Life” is scored for winds, strings and percussion and also incorporates typical city sounds (such as car horns, brakes, slamming doors, subway chimes and police sirens) and speech samples.

Members of Bienen School of Music's Percussion Ensemble at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall


 “Music for 18 Musicians,” completed in 1976, is built upon two overarching types of rhythm: the regular, rhythmic pulse created by pianos and mallet percussion and the rhythm of the human breath created by vocalists and wind instruments.


Reich’s originality and influence has inspired generations of musicians in multiple genres, from his early taped-speech pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) to his digital video operas with video artist Beryl Korot, “The Cave” (1993) and “Three Tales” (2002).


“There’s just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history, and Steve Reich is one of them,” reported The Guardian (London).

Members of Bienen School of Music's Percussion Ensemble at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall


On the eve of the upcoming concert and discussion, this reviewer had the opportunity to interview Alan Pierson, faculty member, Conducting and Ensembles, at Bienen. His learned and enthusiastic remarks are paraphrased below.


Pierson has been variously described as a dynamic conductor of monstrous skill and a musical visionary, gifted and dynamic. He is one of the Directors of The Contemporary Music Ensemble, the other being Ben Bolter. They see the ensemble as “A lab for students to experience a wide variety of playing styles called for in contemporary music."

Alan Pierson conducting; photo by Cory Weaver

 “I have a long history with Reich”, he explained,” So the experience I am helping to give the students is one I cherish having had myself”. While Pierson thoroughly relishes his pedagogy, he reflects, “Reich is one of those amazing composers who has never held a faculty position".

Pierson became acquainted with Reich's work when he was a student at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute program during the summer of 1992. He informed me, “Our professor, Michael Pisaro, played us Reich’s "Tehillim" (1981) and it was part of what inspired me to explore conducting". Later, as an undergrad, Pierson himself organized a performance of  “Tehilim”, one of the first pieces of Reich’s to include text, and Reich himself came, thrilling Pierson. He will conduct one of the musical works at Tuesday’s concert, “City Life”; the other two, a la Reich, will proceed sans conducting.

"Minimalist" composer Steve Reich; photo by Alice Arnold


 Tickets to the concert are $6 for the general public and $4 for students with valid ID and are available on the [email protected] website, by phone at 847-467-4000 or by visiting the Pick-Staiger box office.


Unless otherwise noted, photos by Michael Nowakowski


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