THE DEVELOPMENT of an ICONIC RECORDING
The 3-LP set of Drumming, Six Piano and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ
For at least one critic, 1974 was the year when Steve Reich emerged with the now famous Deutsche Grammophon album “which [brought] Reich above ground“, the 3-LP set of Drumming, Six Pianos and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ.
The album was released in the autumn of 1974. The history of its inception, however, went back to May 1972 and is richly documented in a series of letters, telexes, telegrams and internal memos preserved in a Deutsche Grammophon A & R file – including no fewer than 46 letters from Steve Reich himself, mainly addressed to his producer Dr. Rudolf (Rudi / Rudy) Werner. Below are some extracts which give a flavour of the complexities of A & R and project development which are drawn from a far longer document included in the new 2016 box set setting out more of the correspondence. They show an artist keen to work with the yellow label, fiercely protective of his musicians, determined to secure distinguished cover art, ready to sort post-production glitches, persuasive in ensuring the best possible album emerges and furious at lack-lustre marketing.
THE SET UP: A letter from Reich (21 April 1973):
Many thanks for your letter of April 17th which I just read. I am very happy to hear that you have agreed to record Six Pianos and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ instead of Four Organs and Phase Patterns. I think we are all making a wise decision.
I have three provisions of my own which I believe are of the utmost importance if a set of excellent recordings are to be produced in Germany (as opposed to making them here in late February or March as we had originally intended). They are:
1. That you personally will be my A&R man and produce all recordings with me yourself. It has, as you know, been my wish from the very beginning of our first meeting in Berlin to work with you in this production.
2. That Polydor International GMBH purchase 2 round trip air tickets New York-Stuttgart-New York for two of my finest American musicians who would not have been able to play our entire 4 week tour but whom I must have with me if we are to make serious recordings, With reduced air fares, I feel this is a small expense for you. I will normally be bringing with me this time 9 Americans and if you will fly over the other 2 that will give us 11 and I will only have to add probably Cornelius Cardew as the 12th musician necessary for Drumming. I am sure you will find this a small extra expense well worth the money.
3. We must record on more tracks than the 4 you mention which will simply not work as you will get muddy, unclear recordings without having a separate track for each instrument. I have tried this already in Germany and with the BBC in London and elsewhere in this country and you might as well just hang two microphones from the ceiling and record us as use four tracks. I myself would have to personally run the mixing console during recording to get the crucial proper balance and of course I will be playing. I’m afraid that I really must insist on the following equipment which I am sure you can find;
Six Pianos – minimum 6 tracks, I prefer 8
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ – minimum of 8, I prefer 12
Drumming – minimum of 12 tracks, I prefer 16
I would also add that the best recordings were made in Germany so far were at the Godorf Studios that work with the WDR in Köln [Cologne] and this was because we had young engineers that recorded a lot of pop music. I would request young engineers that also record pop music for all these recordings as my experience has shown they are the best for my music. (You know I wish only to work with you as A&R man and to have my recordings issued only on your classical (Yellow) label or Avant-Garde label, but when it comes to engineers one must give some credit to the people in pop music – you know what I mean, and I leave the choice of engineers to you.”
17th December 1973 – Regarding ‘Six Pianos’
“As to the arrangement of the six grands: put them in a circle with the keyboards all on the outside so that as all the pianists sit playing they are all looking into the circle and can see all the others. Keep the circle as small as possible since this is ‘chamber music’, and we should sit close together in order to play together.”
“My general feeling about all our recordings is that I would like to have us record full performances for you and then, if necessary play sections again. Since we are multi-track recording I know that you will have to put ‘baffles’ and various kinds of acoustical separations between us, but it is imperative that we all hear each other very well, so we will all definitely need to wear headphones that give us a properly balanced mix of the whole ensemble as it is playing. We will also have to see each other for various cues that are given by nodding the head during the music so that any large ‘baffles’ will have to have glass windows to permit vision. I am sure you understand very well…..”
THE COVER ART….
27 November 1973:
“….when I made the record of Four Organs for Angel, everything went well except the cover, which in my estimation is vulgar. It is the product of the mind of a ‘Hollywood’ art director for Capitol records – and it looks like that. I very much admired the cover for [Stockhausen’s] Mantra that I know you liked very much too, I am thinking of using some of my own notation for a cover for Drumming, and only want your assurance that you will help me to make a cover I can be proud of. – I’m sure you will”.
4 July 1974
Reich expressed frustration about the, “redundant, cluttered ‘Steve Reich and Musicians’ in orange print from the front of our box”. ”…It amazes me that you will not immediately grant me this since it is my name and you are embarrassing me personally by using it three times on this cover”. But the whole disagreement seems to have been more a problem of communication than anything else. Terry wrote: “Want to let you know that this has long, long, been taken care of.”
21 August 1974
In a handwritten letter, Reich wrote back to Terry Neumann (Creative Services) and Lutz Bode (designer), having received final proofs:
“Dear Terry and Lutz – Many thanks for the completed box and booklet. They are both beautiful! I can’t tell you how happy I am with the job you have done. The booklet, of course, was a complete surprise and you have done a perfect job. You make me very proud to have worked with you… I hope you will forgive my insistence that the cover of the box be changed, but I really felt it had to be done. – And I hope you are as pleased as I am with the finished result. Thank you both very much.”
THE RECORDING SESSIONS.
Reich and Werner met up in Stuttgart on January 18th 1974 to go over scores and make final preparations. Then Reich and the five members of his ensemble travelled to Hamburg on January 21st, arriving just a few hours before the first recording session for Six Pianos which took place between 9pm and half-past midnight. On January 22nd there was another session from 2 – 5:30pm when Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ were also recorded. Drumming was recorded over four sessions between January 23rd and 25th.
POST PRODUCTION GLITCHES
On 11 March 1974
“Dear Rudy - Greetings from New York! I have been listening quite carefully to all our recordings and am completely satisfied with absolutely everything except the last part (part 4) of Drumming for the reasons we already discussed….”
Werner replied on 20 March:
“Dear Steve, Thanks for your letter of 11th March. Regarding the part 4 of DRUMMING I can tell you that Klaus Hiemann and I have gone over the tapes again, which means that we have cut down the bass at 240 hz for 3 dB. We have also played this tape to some competent colleagues and they all found it very good. Please do not be worried and rely on the abilities of the Polydor-staff.”
To which Reich replies on 23 March 1974
Many thanks for your letter of March 20th. Of course I’m sorry to hear that we will not be able to mix-down from the 16 track, but if that is not possible, may I ask you to please send me a copy (19cm) of your new 4 track tape? I have been listening very carefully here to Drumming part 4 and I noticed that the best sound comes from not only reducing the bass a great deal from the drums on the left where the low G# is being played (it is not played by the drummer on the right) but also by reducing the level of the drums on the left. I would suggest lowering the volume of the drums on the left by 3 to 6 dB even if they are mixed in with the marimbas and glockenspiels on channels 1 and 2 of the four track tape….”
Another very important issue is the price of the proposed box set in America: “ I have talked with many people here both my age and younger and older and have also visited Sam Goody, the biggest record store in New York. At present the list price of Deutsche Grammophon records here is $7.95 for each LP. That would mean that the list price of our box would be almost $24 plus the tax. At that price I can guarantee you that almost no boxes will be sold. Even when they make the “discount” price at Sam Goodys the price would still be about $19 and that is just too high….”
TEST PRESSINGS and SALES WORRIES….
4 September 1974
On the acknowledged receipt of a test-pressing of Drumming sides 3 and 4, which he approved, “Naturally I listened to side 4 very carefully and it is excellent! The record sounds so much better than the tape copies that I have. The label information is correct and beautifully laid out – everything is outstanding and I have absolutely nothing to say but thank you Rudy for making it happen. I’m very, very happy about it and I hope you are too” He indicated he want to buy a large number of boxes, “(maybe 50) in addition to the free ones for the musicians.”
But he was not so happy just two days later on 6 September 1974:
“I just saw the September issue of “High Fidelity” magazine here where they have a section naming all the new releases for the fall of this year. Under Deutsche Grammophon there was no mention of our 3 LP box! Can you possibly do anything to make sure that the American part of Polydor does not “shoot down” our box by not giving it any publicity? I sincerely fear the worst from your American counterpart. I really fear that they will ignore this 3 LP box completely and that, as a result, it will hardly sell at all here in America – and I am an American. It’s really ironic, isn’t it? I’m sure it will be some sort of success in Europe, but here in my own country – what will happen? – Very little, I am afraid…”