Steve Reich (born Stephen Michael Reich, October 3, 1936) is an American composer. Reich is known as one of the pioneers of minimalism, although he sometimes deviates from a purely minimalist style. Reich has developed a number of very influential compositional ideas including using tape loops to create phasing patterns (such as in his first works, It's Gonna Rain, Come Out); and using processes to create and explore musical concepts (Pendulum Music, Four Organs). These compositions, marked by their use of repetitive figures and phasing effects, have significantly influenced contemporary American music as well as contemporary music as a whole; The Guardian has described Reich as one of the few composers to have "altered the direction of musical history".
Early life and work
Reich was born in New York, but his childhood years were split between divorced parents in 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 began studying drums with Roland Kohloff in order to play jazz. He attended Cornell, where he took some music courses but graduated (in 1957) with a B.A. in philosophy. (Reich's B.A. thesis was on Ludwig Wittgenstein; later he would set text by the philosopher to music in Proverb (1990) and You Are (variations) (2004).)
For a year following graduation he studied composition privately with Hall Overton; he then 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 (composing a student piece for string orchestra) and Darius Milhaud (1961–63) and earned a master's degree in composition.
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 had 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, involving basic tape work, using repeated phrasing together in a large five-part canon.
Later, Reich was influenced by fellow minimalist Terry Riley. Riley's 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 is made up of recordings of a sermon about the end of the world given by the African American Pentecostal preacher 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.
Come Out (1966) was constructed along similar lines. A single spoken line given by an injured survivor of a race riot is manipulated. 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 rhythmic and tonal patterns of speech.
The 11-minute piece is an example of process music. So is 1968's Pendulum Music, which consists of the sound of seveal 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 applying this phasing technique to live performance rather than recorded work was the 1967 Piano Phase, for two pianos. The performers begin by repeating a rapid twelve-note melodic figure in unison. One player continues, keeping tempo with robotic precision, while the other slowly speeds up until they are lined up, one sixteenth note apart, and then resumes the previous tempo. The cycle of speeding up and locking in continues throughout the piece, with a new figure being introduced once the original figure has come full circle. 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.
Four Organs (1970) deals specifically with augmentation, and was based on a piece written in 1967, Slow Motion Sound, which was more of a prototype piece. Having never been performed, the idea of slowing down a recorded sound until many times its original length without changing pitch or timbre was applied to Four Organs. The result was a piece with maracas playing a fast quaver pulse, while the four organs stress certain quavers using an 11th chord. This work therefore dealt with rhythmic change and repetition. 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.
Drumming (1971), a 90-minute piece for a 9-piece percussion ensemble plus female voices and piccolo, marked a new stage in Reich's career, and the beginning of his shift in focus toward composition and performance with an ensemble of musicians. Composed shortly after his return from a five-week trip to study music in Ghana, in which he learned from the master drummer Gideon Alerwoyie. Drumming draws much of its inspiration from that experience as well as A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music about the music of the Ewe people. He also studied Balinese gamelan in Seattle. Around this time he formed his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, which was to be the sole ensemble to interpret his works for many years; the group remains together today 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 would be classed as his seminal work by most, 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, and the extension of performers resulted in a growth of 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. It was the first release in ECM Records' "New Series".
Reich did explore these ideas further in his pieces Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) and Octet (1979). Both these works have been highly praised and have been re-recorded several times. 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 pallette in Music for a Large Ensemble but the voices carry no meaning. 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 summer 1977. After this, the human voice singing words would play an increasingly important role in Reich's music.
In the late 1970s he 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 on his Jewish background. The work is in four parts, 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 text 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 brings melody in as a substantive element. Use of formal counterpoint and functional harmony also goes in contrast to the loosely structured minimalist works written previously.
Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, uses recorded speech, as is 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). Different Trains takes Reich's memories of childhood cross-country train trips and the associated sounds, comparing and contrasting them with the different trains sending other children to death in Europe under Nazi rule.
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 more modern concerns, specifically Dolly the sheep, cloning, and the technological singularity.
A recent direction for Reich is a return to works for the concert hall without using any sampling techniques, which were employed in City Life (1994) or in Three Tales. This trend started with Triple Quartet (1998), a piece 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 and series of pieces 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 indie rock musician Sufjan Stevens. 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.
He has also influenced visual artists such as Bruce Nauman, and has expressed admiration of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's work set to his pieces.
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