Teaneck lecture features noted composer, visual artist

Teaneck lecture features noted composer, visual artist

Beryl Korot and Steve Reich will speak at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on their collaborations as musical and visual artists.

Ilan Marans, the music and video specialist at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County is New Milford, is eagerly anticipating the tenth annual Alfred and Rose Buchman Endowed Lecture in the Visual Arts, a project of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom.

Chaired by Joan and Reuben Baron, the program, he said, will feature “quite an important person.”

That is no exaggeration.

Musician Steve Reich, who will visit the congregation on May 11, together with his wife and frequent collaborator, Beryl Korot, is widely recognized as one of America’s greatest and most influential living composer.

At the Teaneck program – “A Theater of Ideas: Exploring the Life and Legacy of Abraham through Video, Music, and the Spoken Word” – Mr. Reich and Ms. Korot, a pioneer in the field of video art, will describe their joint work in an innovative art form, documentary video opera.

Using excerpts from “The Cave,” a piece centering on the biblical Cave of Machpelah, the couple will participate in a conversation on their working methods and discuss how Jewish life and teachings have influenced their work.

Mr. Marans, who grew up in Ridgewood and studied music composition at Columbia University, said the recognition of Mr. Reich as a groundbreaking composer is unusual “because many composers are recognized for their contributions only after their death.” Mr. Reich is very much alive and still hard at work.

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.”

Becoming involved in the minimalist movement, working with people such as Terry Riley in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center, “he got into this music, based on repeating patterns,” Mr. Marans said. “His thing was loops, repeated over and over again.” Mr. Reich also became interested in “phasing patterns, or repeating patterns that slowly break apart and are overlaid by the same pattern in a different key. It’s more rhythmically based.”

In the 1980s, while still using phasing ideas and tape loops, Mr. Reich began to integrate recorded interviews into his music. His work “Different Trains” – based on two sets of interviews – won a Grammy. In addition, having reconnected with his Jewish roots, learning not only text but also cantillation, the composer began to integrate those elements into his music as well.

“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.

The three-movement piece includes material from interviews with survivors as well as with people Mr. Reich knew from his own childhood. The music representing his childhood experience is calmer, Mr. Marans said, while the eastern European segment is “more dissonant, or siren-like.”

When he listened to the voices of those he interviewed, “Reich attempted to re-create melodies from what they were saying,” Mr. Marans said. “He was writing conversations in musical notation.”

His video work began when he met Ms. Korot, a visual artist. Together they embarked on a new collaborative journey – producing video operas.

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

“This is not just music,” Mr. Marans said. “It goes beyond the need to make music.”

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.”

In an article written for Mr. Reich’s 70th birthday, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, recalled his close relationship with the musician.

Noting that the Village Voice called Mr. Reich “America’s greatest living composer,” the New Yorker opined that he is “the most original musical thinker of our time,” and the New York Times anointed him as “among the greatest composers of the century,” Rabbi Buchwald said that in 2006 the composer was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Award in Music, “the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, presented in areas of the arts not covered by the Nobel awards.”

Rabbi Buchwald first met Mr. Reich in 1974, when the composer and his then girlfriend Beryl Korot walked into the Bible class the rabbi was teaching at New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.

“Steve took his Jewish studies seriously,” Rabbi Buchwald said. “He decided that he needed to learn and try to master Biblical Hebrew. We teamed him up with Rabbi Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian of Yeshiva University, who became his mentor and taught him advanced Hebrew grammar and [cantillation.]” Only later did Rabbi Buchwald realize that Mr. Reich had decided to include Jewish themes in his music.

Rabbi Buchwald also credits Mr. Reich with inspiring Shabbat beginners service at Lincoln Square. “It was Steve and Beryl who suggested to me in the fall of 1975 that they could benefit from a special Shabbat service specifically designed for those with little or no synagogue background,” he wrote.

In December 1975, Lincoln Square Synagogue launched its first beginners service. Today, Rabbi Buchwald said, “there are between two and three hundred Shabbat beginners services that are conducted on a regular or semi-regular basis throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Andrew Silow-Carroll, a CBS member and editor-in-chief of the Essex County-based New Jersey Jewish News, will moderate the May 11 conversation with Reich and Korot.

He described the Buchman lectures as “a series that brings in people who are tops in their field [and] say really interesting stuff about Jewishness and their art,” noting that “after Philip Glass, Reich is the best known American composer.”

Mr. Silow-Carroll said “The Cave” tries to reflect “the cacophony of voices surrounding Machpelah.” The composer shows “in musical and visual form that these voices are clashing yet partially in harmony.” Using actual tape loops of people’s voices, “he hears a melody in how we speak and composes around that.”

Reflecting on the similarities of Mr. Reich’s music to the sounds of a synagogue, Mr. Silow-Carroll noted that “in a roomful of people who are praying, sometimes they’re all on the same melody. [But] some are chanting, some have better voices, some are faster. You hear all those multiple voices.”

He added that after experiencing Mr. Reich’s performances, “I started thinking in a new way about the prayers and Torah [portions] that you read or chant by rote.” After listening to Mr. Reich, you “bring back some of his rhythms in your head when you go back to what you do. A good visual artist can make you visualize. As a musician, he makes you hear things.

“It’s like listening to a really good cantor with a fresh melody, who makes you understand the text in a new way. He’s a serious Jew – he wants to pull people into the tradition. But you don’t have to be Jewish or know Hebrew traditions” to appreciate his work.

Since “The Cave” represents collaboration between Mr. Reich and Ms. Korot, “who are partners in this,” some of Mr. Silow-Carroll’s questions to them will be about their working relationship. He also plans to ask such questions as what art brings to an understanding of the narrative. Audience members also will have the chance to ask questions.

What: “A Theater of Ideas: Exploring the Life and Legacy of Abraham through Video, Music, and the Spoken Word – A Conversation with Steve Reich and Beryl Korot.”

When: Monday, May 11, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

Cost: Free and open to the public; no RSVP required

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