Feature

Steve Reich's 6 favorite books

The American composer recommends works by Igor Stravinsky, Herman Melville, and more.

Steve Reich, a pioneer of the minimalist movement in contemporary classical music, has been widely described as America's greatest living composer. In his new book, Conversations, he revisits his career in dialogue with friends and collaborators. 

Poetics of Music by Igor Stravinsky (1942).

I read this when I was 17 and totally taken with Stravinsky's music. He clarifies his admiration for structure and clarity in the work of Bach and Haydn, and his reservations about Wagner. Perhaps most provocative are his views on artistic freedom: "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit." Buy it here. 

Conversations With Igor Stravinsky by Robert Craft (1959).

Craft's questions to Stravinsky are answered energetically, with detail about his relationships with Debussy, Ravel, Nijinsky, and others. I found these conversations a real education about the world in which the music I love was created. Buy it here.

The New Bach Reader by Hans T. David et al. (1998).

A marvelous book, full of anecdotes in original letters and other family papers of Bach and his contemporaries. Requests for more musicians, firewood, and money indicate some practical realities in the life of perhaps the greatest composer in all of Western music. Buy it here. 

Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1980).

A collection of remarks on subjects that range widely: religion, art, music, being Jewish, the nature of science, and more. I've periodically been absorbed in Wittgenstein since I was 17 and have set two of his remarks to music: "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life" and "Explanations come to an end somewhere." Buy it here.

The Desert Music by William Carlos Williams (1954).

I bought my first William Carlos Williams book when I was 16 and continued reading one book after the other. For me, his greatest poetry was written during his last 10 years, including poems in this collection. I've set several of them for chorus and orchestra. Buy it here. 

'Bartleby the Scrivener' by Herman Melville (1853).

Not musical, but set in my Lower Manhattan neighborhood. Melville writes here about Wall Street. A legal scribe decides he would "prefer not to" work, but never leaves the office until he is finally removed and gently put in prison, and slowly wastes away. Mysterious and unforgettable. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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