From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Stephen Michael Reich (born October 3, 1936) is an American composer. He is a pioneer of minimalism, although his music has increasingly deviated from a purely minimalist style. Reich's innovations include using tape loops to create phasing patterns (examples are his early compositions, It's Gonna Rain and Come Out), and the use of processes to create and explore musical concepts (for instance, Pendulum Music and Four Organs). These compositions, marked by their use of repetitive figures and phasing effects, have significantly influenced contemporary music, especially in America.
The Guardian has described Reich as one of the few composers to have "altered the direction of musical history."
Early life and work
Steve Reich was born in New York City. When he was one year old his parents divorced, and Reich divided his time between New York and California. He was given piano lessons as a child and describes growing up with the "middle-class favorites", having no exposure to music written before 1750 or after 1900. At the age of 14 he began to study music in earnest, after hearing music from the Baroque period and earlier, as well as music of the 20th century, and he began studying drums with Roland Kohloff in order to play jazz. He attended Cornell University; he took some music courses there, but graduated in 1957 with a B.A. in philosophy. Reich's B.A. thesis was on Ludwig Wittgenstein; later he would set texts by that philosopher to music in Proverb (1995) and You Are (variations) (2004).
For a year following graduation he studied composition privately with Hall Overton before he enrolled at Juilliard to work with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (1958 to 1961). Subsequently he attended Mills College in Oakland where he studied with Luciano Berio (Reich composed a student piece for string orchestra) and Darius Milhaud (1961–63) and earned a master's degree in composition.
Reich worked with the San Francisco Tape Music Center along with Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley (he was involved with the premiere of Riley's "In C" and suggested the use of the eighth note pulse which is now standard in performance of the piece).
Process music and Minimalism
Reich's early forays into composition involved experimentation with twelve-tone composition, but he found the rhythmic aspects of the twelve-tone series more interesting than the melodic aspects. Reich also composed film soundtracks for The Plastic Haircut and Oh Dem Watermelons, two films by Robert Nelson. The soundtrack for Oh Dem Watermelons, composed in 1965, involved basic tape work, using repeated phrasing together in a large five-part canon.
Reich was influenced by fellow minimalist Terry Riley, whose loosely structured aleatoric work In C combines simple musical patterns, offset in time, to create a slowly shifting, cohesive whole. Reich adopted this approach to compose his first major work, It's Gonna Rain. Written in 1965, It's Gonna Rain used recordings of a sermon about the end of the world given by a black Pentecostal street-preacher known as Brother Walter. Reich built on his early tape work, transferring the sermon to multiple tape loops played in and out of phase, with segments of the sermon cut and rearranged.
The 13-minute Come Out (1966) uses similarly manipulated recordings of a single spoken line given by an injured survivor of a race riot. The survivor, who had been beaten, punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police about his beating. The spoken line includes the phrase "to let the bruise blood come out to show them." Reich rerecorded the fragment "come out to show them" on two channels, which are initially played in unison. They quickly slip out of sync; gradually the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, looped continuously, then eight, and continues splitting until the actual words are unintelligible, leaving the listener with only the speech's rhythmic and tonal patterns.
A similar example of process music is Pendulum Music (1968), which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so. (Pendulum Music was recorded by Sonic Youth in the late 1990s.)
Reich's first attempt at translating this phasing technique from recorded tape to live performance was the 1967 Piano Phase, for two pianos. In Piano Phase the performers repeat a rapid twelve-note melodic figure, initially in unison. As one player keeps tempo with robotic precision, the other speeds up very slightly until the two parts line up again, but one sixteenth note apart. The second player then resumes the previous tempo. This cycle of speeding up and then locking in continues throughout the piece; the cycle comes full circle three times, the second and third cycles using shorter versions of the initial figure. Violin Phase, also written in 1967, is built on these same lines. Reich also tried to create the phasing effect in a piece "that would need no instrument beyond the human body". He found that the idea of phasing was inappropriate for the simple ways he was experimenting to make sound. Instead, he composed Clapping Music (1972), in which the players do not phase in and out with each other, but instead one performer keeps one line of a 12-quaver-long phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later. Piano Phase and Violin Phase both premiered in a series of concerts given in New York art galleries.
The 1967 prototype piece Slow Motion Sound was never performed, but the idea it introduced of slowing down a recorded sound until many times its original length without changing pitch or timbre was applied to Four Organs (1970), which deals specifically with augmentation. The piece has maracas playing a fast eighth note pulse, while the four organs stress certain eighth notes using an 11th chord. This work therefore dealt with repetition and subtle rhythmic change. It is unique in the context of Reich's other pieces in being linear as opposed to cyclic like his earlier works— the superficially similar Phase Patterns, also for four organs but without maracas, is (as the name suggests) a phase piece similar to others composed during the period. Four Organs was performed as part of a Boston Symphony Orchestra program, and was Reich's first composition to be performed in a large traditional setting.
In 1971, Reich embarked on a five-week trip to study music in Ghana, during which he learned from the master drummer Gideon Alerwoyie. He also studied Balinese gamelan in Seattle. From his African experience, as well as A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music about the music of the Ewe people, Reich drew inspiration for his 90-minute piece Drumming, which he composed shortly after his return. Composed for a 9-piece percussion ensemble with female voices and piccolo, Drumming marked the beginning of a new stage in his career, for around this time he formed his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and increasingly concentrated on composition and performance with them. Steve Reich and Musicians, which was to be the sole ensemble to interpret his works for many years, still remains active with many of its original members.
After Drumming, Reich moved on from the "phase shifting" technique that he had pioneered, and began writing more elaborate pieces. He investigated other musical processes such as augmentation (the temporal lengthening of phrases and melodic fragments). It was during this period that he wrote works such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and Six Pianos (1973).
In 1974, Reich began writing what many would call his seminal work, Music for 18 Musicians. This piece involved many new ideas, although it harked back to earlier pieces. The piece is based around a cycle of eleven chords introduced at the beginning, followed by a small piece of music based around each chord, and finally a return to the original cycle. The sections are aptly named "Pulses", Section I-XI, and "Pulses". This was Reich's first attempt at writing for larger ensembles. The increased number of performers resulted in more scope for psycho-acoustic effects, which fascinated Reich, and he noted that he would like to "explore this idea further". Reich remarked that this one work contained more harmonic movement in the first five minutes then any other work he had written. Reich's recording of the work was the first release in ECM Records' "New Series".
Reich explored these ideas further in his frequently recorded pieces Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) and Octet (1979). In these two works, Reich experimented with "the human breath as the measure of musical duration… the chords played by the trumpets are written to take one comfortable breath to perform" (liner notes for Music for a Large Ensemble). Human voices are part of the musical palette in Music for a Large Ensemble but the wordless vocal parts simply form part of the texture (as they do in Drumming). With Octet and his first orchestral piece Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (also 1979), Reich's music showed influence of Biblical Cantillation, which he had studied in Israel since the summer of 1977. After this, the human voice singing a text would play an increasingly important role in Reich's music.
- "The technique […] consists of taking pre-existing melodic patterns and stringing them together to form a longer melody in the service of a holy text. If you take away the text, you're left with the idea of putting together small motives to make longer melodies - a technique I had not encountered before.
In the late 1970s Reich published a book, Writings About Music, containing essays on his philosophy, aesthetics, and musical projects written between 1963 and 1974. An updated collection, Writings On Music (1965–2000), was published in 2002.
Reich's work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of political themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage. Tehillim (1981), Hebrew for psalms, is the first of Reich's works to draw explicitly on his Jewish background. The work is in four parts, and is scored for an ensemble of four women's voices (one high soprano, two lyric sopranos and one alto), piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, six percussion (playing small tuned tambourines without jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone and crotales), two electronic organs, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, with amplified voices, strings, and winds. A setting of texts from psalms 19:2–5 (19:1–4 in Christian translations), 34:13–15 (34:12–14), 18:26–27 (18:25–26), and 150:4–6, Tehillim is a departure from Reich's other work in its formal structure; the setting of texts several lines long rather than the fragments used in previous works makes melody a substantive element. Use of formal counterpoint and functional harmony also contrasts with the loosely structured minimalist works written previously.
Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, uses recorded speech, as in his earlier works, but this time as a melodic rather than a rhythmic element, following the earlier example of Scott Johnson's John Somebody (1978). In Different Trains Reich compares and contrasts his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939-1941 with the very different trains being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule. The Kronos Quartet recording of Different Trains was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 1990.
In 1993, Reich collaborated with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, on an opera, The Cave, which explores the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam through the words of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans, echoed musically by the ensemble. The work, for percussion, voices, and strings, is a musical documentary, named for the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where a mosque now stands and Abraham is said to have been buried.
The two collaborated again on the opera Three Tales, which concerns the Hindenburg disaster, the testing of nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll, and other more modern concerns, specifically Dolly the sheep, cloning, and the technological singularity.
As well as pieces using sampling techniques, like Three Tales and City Life (1994), Reich also returned to composing purely instrumental works for the concert hall, starting with Triple Quartet (1998) written for the Kronos Quartet that can either be performed by string quartet and tape, three string quartets or 36-piece string orchestra. According to Reich, the piece is influenced by Bartók's and Alfred Schnittke's string quartets. This series continued with Dance Patterns (2002), Cello Counterpoint (2003), and sequence of works centered around Variations: You Are (Variations) (2004), a work which looks back to the vocal writing of works like Tehillim or The Desert Music, Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings (2005, for the London Sinfonietta) and Daniel Variations (2006).
In a very recent interview with The Guardian, Reich stated that he continues to follow this direction with a yet unnamed piece commissioned by eighth blackbird, an American ensemble consisting of the instrumental quintet (flute, clarinet, violin or viola, cello and piano) of Schoenberg's piece Pierrot Lunaire (1912) plus percussion. Reich thinks that it will again be with tape, and he also states that he is thinking about Stravinsky's Agon (1957) as a model for the instrumental writing.
Reich's style of composition has influenced many other composers and musical groups, including Philip Glass (especially his early pieces), John Adams, the prog-rock band King Crimson, the new-age guitarist Michael Hedges, the art-pop and electronic musician Brian Eno, the composers associated with the Bang on a Can festival (including David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe), and numerous indie rock musicians including songwriter Sufjan Stevens and instrumental ensembles The Mercury Program, Tortoise, Do Make Say Think and A Silver Mt. Zion.Template:Fact Godspeed You Black Emperor composed a song, unreleased, entitled "Steve Reich".Template:Fact His music has also been a source of inspiration to ambient and techno musicians. A melodic line from his 1987 work Electric Counterpoint was used by The Orb in their 1991 hit Little Fluffy Clouds. This connection has been honored in a 1999 album by DJs and electronic musicians, Reich Remixed, released on Nonesuch Records.
John Adams commented, "He didn't reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride."
Reich often cites Pérotin, J.S. Bach, Debussy and Stravinsky as composers he admires, whose tradition he wished as a young composer to become part of. Jazz is a major part of the formation of Reich's musical style, and two of the earliest influences on his work were vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Alfred Deller, whose emphasis on the artistic capabilities of the voice alone with little vibrato or other alteration was an inspiration to his earliest works. John Coltrane's style, which Reich has described as "playing a lot of notes to very few harmonies", also had an impact; of particular interest was the album Africa/Brass, which "was basically a half-an-hour in F." Reich's influence from jazz includes its roots, also, from the West African music he studied in his readings and visit to Ghana. Other important influences are Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis, and visual artist friends such as Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra.
Reich on himself
- "[...] I drove a cab in San Francisco, and in New York I worked as a part-time social worker. Phil Glass and I had a moving company for a short period of time. I did all kinds of odd jobs [...] I started making a living as a performer in my own ensemble. I would never have thought that it was how I was going to survive financially. It was a complete wonder."
—From an interview with Gabrielle Zuckerman, 2002<ref name="Zuckerrman"/>}}
- 'The point is, if you went to Paris and dug up Debussy and said, 'Excusez-moi Monsieur…are you an impressionist?' he'd probably say 'Merde!' and go back to sleep. That is a legitimate concern of musicologists, music historians, and journalists, and it's a convenient way of referring to me, Riley, Glass, La Monte Young [...] it's become the dominant style. But, anybody who's interested in French Impressionism is interested in how different Debussy and Ravel and Satie are—and ditto for what's called minimalism. [...] Basically, those kind of words are taken from painting and sculpture, and applied to musicians who composed at the same period as that painting and sculpture was made [...]".
—From an Interview with Rebecca Y. Kim, 2000
- "All musicians in the past, starting with the middle ages were interested in popular music. (...) Béla Bartók's music is made entirely of sources from Hungarian folk music. And Igor Stravinsky, although he lied about it, used all kinds of Russian sources for his early ballets. Kurt Weill's great masterpiece Dreigroschenoper is using the cabaret-style of the Weimar Republic and that's why it is such a masterpiece. Arnold Schoenberg and his followers (...) create(d) an artificial wall, which never existed before him. In my generation we tore the wall down and now we are back to the normal situation, for example if Brian Eno or David Bowie come to me, and if popular musicians remix my music like The Orb or DJ Spooky it is a good thing. This is a natural normal regular historical way."
—From an Interview with Jakob Buhre
- It's Gonna Rain, tape (1965)
- Come Out, tape (1966)
- Piano Phase for two pianos, or two marimbas (1967)
- Slow Motion Sound concept piece (1967)
- Violin Phase for violin and tape or four violins (1967)
- My Name Is for three tape recorders and performers (1967)
- Pendulum Music for 3 or 4 microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers (1968) (revised 1973)<ref name="writings">*Template:Cite book</ref>
- Four Organs for four electric organs and maracas (1970)
- Phase Patterns for four electric organs (1970)
- Drumming for 4 pairs of tuned bongo drums, 3 marimbas, 3 glockenspiels, 2 female voices, whistling and piccolo (1970/1971)
- Clapping Music for two musicians clapping (1972)
- Music for Pieces of Wood for five pair of tuned claves (1973)
- Six Pianos (1973) - transcribed as Six Marimbas (1986)
- Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)
- Music for 18 Musicians (1974–76)
- Music for a Large Ensemble (1978)
- Octet (1979) - withdrawn in favor of the 1983 revision for slightly larger ensemble, Eight Lines
- Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards for orchestra (1979)
- Tehillim for voices and ensemble (1981)
- Vermont Counterpoint for amplified flute and tape (1982)
- The Desert Music for chorus and orchestra or voices and ensemble (1984, text by William Carlos Williams)
- Sextet for percussion and keyboards (1984)
- New York Counterpoint for amplified clarinet and tape, or 11 clarinets (1985)
- Three Movements for orchestra (1986)
- Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar or amplified acoustic guitar and tape (1987, for Pat Metheny)
- The Four Sections for orchestra (1987)
- Different Trains for string quartet and tape (1988)
- The Cave for four voices, ensemble and video (1993, with Beryl Korot)
- Duet for two violins and string ensemble (1993)
- Nagoya Marimbas for two marimbas (1994)
- City Life for amplified ensemble (1995)
- Proverb for voices and ensemble (1995, text by Ludwig Wittgenstein)
- Triple Quartet for amplified string quartet (with prerecorded tape), or three string quartets, or string orchestra (1998)
- Know What Is Above You for four women’s voices and 2 tamborims (1999)
- Three Tales for video projection, five voices and ensemble (1998–2002, with Beryl Korot)
- Dance Patterns for 2 xylophones, 2 vibraphones and 2 pianos (2002)
- Cello Counterpoint for amplified cello and multichannel tape (2003)
- You Are (Variations) for voices and chamber orchestra (2004)
- Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings dance piece for three string quartets, four vibraphones, and two pianos (2005)
- Daniel Variations for four voices and instruments (2006)
- Drumming. Steve Reich and Musicians (Two recordings: Deutsche Grammophon and Nonesuch) So Percussion (Cantaloupe)
- Music for 18 Musicians. Steve Reich and Musicians (Two recordings: ECM and Nonesuch)
- Music for a Large Ensemble/Octet/Violin Phase. Steve Reich and Musicians (ECM)
- Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards/Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ/ Six Pianos. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart, Steve Reich & Musicians (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Tehillim/The Desert Music. Alarm Will Sound and OSSIA, Alan Pierson (Cantaloupe)
- Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint. Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny (Nonesuch)
- You Are (Variations)/Cello Counterpoint. Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Maya Beiser (Nonesuch)