Steve Reich's Life & Works
American Minimalist who created a sensation in the 1970s with Clapping Music and Drumming.
Early Life & Career
Steve Reich was one of the founding fathers of Minimalism. Repetition has been an important ingredient in his music throughout his career. But so have the human voice, the timbres of vibraphone and xylophone, and a sound defined by its sumptuous beauty. After an abortive series of piano lessons, Reich took up the drums at the age of 14, studying with Roland Kohloff. He entered Cornell University two years later to study philosophy before taking composition lessons at New York's Juilliard School, and with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California.
Initially attracted to the ideas of post-war European composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez, Reich grew to find their music increasingly irrelevant. He came to the conclusion that he simply didn't like atonal music. Berio's response was blunt: 'If you want to write tonal music, why don't you write tonal music?' Reich assisted the San Franciso-based composer Terry Riley with the first performance of In C (1964), generally considered the first minimalist masterpiece. He then created his first tape pieces, It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), where loops of short speech fragments are played against themselves, creating a dense, colourful texture as they slip out of synchronicity.
Reich called this technique 'phasing', and began to experiment with applying it to live performance, asking one musician to remain at a precise tempo while another plays the same material at a different speed. Piano Phase and Violin Phase (both 1967), are now considered classics. But Reich was still far from making money from his music. Returning to New York, he worked as a social worker, a taxi driver and in a post office. After meeting his former Juilliard School classmate Philip Glass at a concert, the two men set up a furniture moving company to support their musical activities. They formed an ensemble together to play each other's music, although they later fell out and remain on frosty terms.
This piece grew out of the idea to do a piece for all the pianos in a piano store. The piece which actually resulted is a bit more modest in scope since too many pianos can begin to sound thick and unmanageable.
Piano Phase for Two Pianos
Reich called this technique 'phasing', and began to experiment with applying it to live performance, asking one musician to remain at a precise tempo while another plays the same material at a different speed.
Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards
In approaching the orchestra for the first time Reich began with what he knew. The principal continuity is borne not by the strings but by the group listed last in his title: the keyboard instruments that had featured prominently in his earlier music – in this case two pianos and three electric organs.
Three Movements for Orchestra
Reich dictates precise spatial and temporal relationships for Three Movements. Marimbas, vibraphones, and pianos move to the front of the stage (the pianos also have an alternative placement to the conductor’s left), as he explains, “because these instruments play constantly and supply the ongoing rhythm of the piece. If they were put in their usual position in the rear of the orchestra time delay between what the rest of the orchestra heard from them and what they saw of the conductor’s beat would not be in sync."
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ
Two simultaneous, interrelated rhythmic processes. The first is that of constructing, beat by beat, a duplicate of a pre-existing repeating musical pattern, the duplicate being one or more beats out of phase with the original pattern. This then triggers the second process, augmentation of another simultaneous but different repeating musical pattern.
Scored for marimbas, glockenspiels, tuned drums and two female voices, Drumming was inspired by Reich's study of the music of Ghana.
Music from Around the World
Reich travelled to Ghana in 1970 to study African music, and took classes in Balinese gamelan in 1973 and 1974 in Seattle and Berkeley. The results were heard in his 90-minute masterpiece Drumming (1971) and the beguiling sounds of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973). Music for 18 Musicians (1976) summed up his musical concerns in a huge canvas of shifting textures and glowing harmonies that was a million miles away from his early experiments in repetition. Clapping Music (1972), in which two or more musicians explore phasing using only their hands, has become a cult classic and is still performed by Reich and members of his band.
After meeting the video artist Beryl Korot in 1974 (they married in 1976), Reich embarked on a rediscovery of his Jewish roots, studying Hebrew, the Torah and the traditional techniques of singing Biblical verses. He wrote Tehillim (1981) as a result, four psalm settings of lithe rhythmic energy. But this piece only came after three important commissions:Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), Octet (1979), later reworked as Eight Lines, and Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979). In 1980 he became the first composer to sell out New York's Carnegie Hall in a concert of his own music.
Expansion to Orchestra
A grand setting of poems by William Carlos Williams for large chorus and orchestra, The Desert Music (1983) heralded a series of ambitious orchestral works, including Three Movements (1986) and The Four Sections (1987). Different Trains (1988) was the first piece in Reich's fruitful relationship with the Kronos Quartet, which has since produced Triple Quartet (1998) and the Twin Towers memorial WTC 9/11 (2010). Different Trains contrasts the train journeys Reich took as a child, as he travelled between New York and California to stay with his divorced parents, with the trains that took children to the Nazi death camps. He based much of the piece on speech melodies and rhythms, shadowing the taped voices of his interviewees with cello or violin, a technique he developed further in his multimedia collaboration with Korot, The Cave (1993), about the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.
Reich extended this speech-based technique in Three Tales (2002), another collaboration with Korot. This remarkable piece uses the rhythms and melodies found in interviews about three controversial technological developments - the Hindenburg airship, US atomic bomb testing and animal cloning - as the basis for its wide-ranging music. Reich started off playing to small audiences in left-field York art galleries. But he has since attracted a wide and committed following of listeners who respond to his sometimes complex rhythmic experiments as much as to the sonic seductiveness of his music. Like many of the so-called minimalist composers, he has moved beyond the movement's roots, but it is this mixing of the intellectual and the beautiful that has made his music so potent.