"Like many people in the '60s," he says, "I got involved in Hatha Yoga and Northern Buddhist meditation and Southern Buddhist meditation. It did a lot of good for a high-metabolism New Yorker like me. But after about 10 years, I felt 'something is missing.'"
Reich, who turned 70 this week with elaborate celebrations in New York and London, grew up in Reform Judaism, at a time "when Big Bad Reform was really Big Bad Reform," he jokes. "Religiously speaking," he says, he was "a blank slate." At a certain point, however, he felt that the spirituality he sought might, in fact, be "in my own backyard."
An ardent admirer of oral transmission of cultural traditions, Reich suddenly realized he was "a member of the oldest tradition on earth," and didn't know anything about it.
So he set out to fill that gap.
Today Reich is an observant Jew. He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and studies Torah weekly. And his growth as a Jew has filtered into his music in works like "Tehillim," "Different Trains," "You Are (Variations)" and his collaborations with Beryl Korot, a video artist who is also his wife. But he is adamant that he is not a Jewish composer.
"I am Jewish, and I am a composer," he says. "I don't write Jewish music. The only true Jewish music is hazanut [cantorial music]."
"Setting a Hebrew text is very important to me," Reich says. "But that's concert music using a religious text. Stravinsky wrote a mass, and that's religious music because it's used in the Catholic Church, but to me Jewish music is one man chanting Torah. The rest is folklore."
Still, Reich won't downplay the significance of his Jewishness in his life. "This has made a tremendous improvement in my life," he says emphatically. Is there a New York component to his music to match the Jewish component? Reich acknowledges, "Everyone is shaped by when they're born and where they live," yet he doesn't have an easy answer to the question. "Fish swim in the water but they don't know much about the water. But if you take it away, they're dead. I think the energy, the rhythmic energy in the music is me -- Hashem's plan for me included that -- but New York certainly fueled it. It's a city of enormous energy."
And true to its form, in October, Reich's hometown will be resplendent with birthday tributes, including programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a retrospective of his video work with Korot at the Whitney.
In addition, Reich's new opus, "Daniel Variations," written in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists, will have its world premiere Oct. 8 at the Barbican Centre in London.
Reich admits that he is dazzled, amused and delighted by the fuss.
"If you're going to turn 70, that's the way to do it! I've been very fortunate," he admits. "So many wonderful things have happened."
But Reich is hardly resting on his birthday laurels. Where is he headed next musically?
The answer to that question is, he says, a bit complicated.
"'You Are (Variations)' was written after 'Cello Counterpoint,' which is a highly tooled, precision piece," he says. "When I started 'You Are,' I said to myself, 'I'm just going to do what I know how to do and follow it wherever it leads. I'm going to see what happens.' I had never consciously had that attitude composing. In the past I always felt I had to set a problem for solving. Lo and behold, the harmonies begin to get very dissonant, and you end up doing something you didn't know you knew how to do. That is only possible after years and years of work. And it's one of the best pieces I've ever written."
As an example of the way that his working methods continue to evolve, he offers both, "Daniel Variations," the vocal piece he wrote for the Daniel Pearl Commissioning Project of Meet the Composers, and "Sinfonietta," a recent instrumental piece.
"Daniel Variations" uses four texts, two from the Book of Daniel, one from Daniel Pearl himself and a fourth that is Pearl's paraphrase of a jazz song title from the '20s.
Reich explains, "Whenever you choose a text, the text forces you to do things you might not otherwise do. The whole idea of a four-movement piece came out of choosing those texts, and the fact that it's about a person who was murdered affects the way I wrote. With a text, you find yourself asking, 'Bach did this, Stravinsky did this, what have you got in mind?' And you are forced by the text to make [musical] decisions that if you were writing instrumental music, you might not do."
By contrast, he continues, "The Sinfonietta piece is completely instrumental, a bit closer to my earlier pieces. It's more repetitive, does things I haven't done in years. But it fills out the harmonies in ways I wouldn't have done when I was younger."
In December, Reich will begin working on a piece for Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet based at University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.
"They are a flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion," he says. "That is an instrumentation I would never write for, ordinarily. I'm going to have them do a recording of themselves, then play against it. I've been working in these interlocking pairs for [decades], and I'm still married to it, but I'll be working with strict contrapuntal ideas that I haven't thought about for a long time."
Reich's formula for keeping the music and him fresh after all these years is simple.
"I get bored easily," he confesses. "After I did 'Drumming,' I said, 'I've done X number of these phase pieces and I don't want to do any more.' So I didn't. If I'm not interested in the writing, you're going to be walking out halfway through the piece."
Does he regret his decision nearly 50 years ago not to pursue a doctorate in philosophy?
"Not for one second," he says. "Not even for a millisecond."
Nonesuch Records is issuing a five-CD set of Reich's music, "Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective," to coincide with the birthday celebrations.
Steve Reich. Photo by Alice Arnold