Steve Reich

Born:  October 3, 1936, in New York City, NY

Early Studies        Tape Phasing        Drumming        Music for 18 Musicians



Early Studies:

            On October 3, 1936, Steve Reich was born in New York City.  The son of divorced parents, he frequently traveled between his home in New York where his father, a lawyer, lived, and California, where his song-lyricist mother resided.  He studied piano, but picked up the drums when he was 14 years old.  It was around this time that he discovered jazz and modern music, which inspired him more than the Beethoven classics he learned as a piano student (Potter, 153-154).  In 1953, at age 17, he entered Cornell University to major in philosophy, although he still studied music.  His interest in modern music continued at Cornell, and under the tutelage of his music professors he discovered the music of Debussy and Stravinsky (Potter, 155).  It was the latter that had the most impact on his musical career.  Reich once described his discovery of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps by saying, “…it was as if somebody had opened a door, saying, ‘You’ve been living here all your life, but you haven’t seen this room.’  I just couldn’t believe that such a thing could exist.  It completely changed my mind of what music was about” (Duckworth, 20/20, 110).  After graduating in 1957, he studied privately for a year, and then went to Julliard in 1958 to study composition.  He counted Persichetti among his teachers, and was classmates with a young Philip Glass, although they did not see much of each other at this time.  While Reich managed to compose several works, he felt that the atmosphere at Julliard was too stifling and conservative, and so he left Julliard in the summer of 1961 for California (Potter, 155-156).

            Once Reich reached California, he enrolled in Mills College to obtain his masters degree.  His reason for choosing Mills College was entirely due to the fact that composer Luciano Berio would be his professor.  Berio and composer Darius Milhaud both taught Reich, and although his respect for them was high, Reich felt that Mills College was even more restrictive than Julliard in terms of accepting newer styles of composition (Potter, 156-157).  Nevertheless, Reich tried to adapt to the Mills style while making it more interesting.  For example, the accepted form of composition was serialism, and so Reich wrote 12-tone pieces.  However, Reich refused to use the retrogrades, transpositions, and inversions that go with 12-tone composition, he simply used the line in its original form throughout the whole work.   His graduation piece, entitled Music for String Orchestra, was written in this style (Potter, 157).

            After graduation, Reich experimented with the 12-tone in different ways.  He created a piece known as Pitch Charts, where all the instruments had the same pitches.  They would start at the first pitch, using free rhythms and attacks (Potter, 160-161).  Upon one player’s musical cue, they would then add the next pitch, and so on until all 12 tones had been performed.  This piece, and others composed at this time, was originally performed by an improvisational group Reich had assembled.  Members included local musicians and his old classmates, most famously the Grateful Dead’s bass guitarist, Phil Lesh, on trumpet.  Looking back on Pitch Charts, Reich believes that it was not as effective as he wished, and the unsatisfactory feeling may have contributed to his next phase of experimentation (Duckworth, Talking Music, 295).


Tape Phasing:

            After graduation from Mills College, Reich became friends with San Francisco composer Terry Riley.  Riley showed Reich part of a new work his was composing called In C.  Reich was excited by the new work, and offered to get members from his improvisational group, as well as himself, to play in its premiere.  He also suggested to Riley that the piece might be easier to perform with percussive eighth note Cs being played throughout the work, to which Riley agreed (Duckworth, Talking Music, 296).  At around the same time that In C was being prepared, Reich was experimenting with musique concrete.  He found what he thought would be a good basis for a piece in a sermon given by Brother Walter, a preacher known for his fiery public speaking.  Reich taped a sermon Brother Walter gave on Noah’s time on the ark, and started experimenting with the tapes (Duckworth, Talking Music, 296-297).  He found a phrase that had the pitches necessary to establish a D major tonality: the phrase, “It’s gonna rain.”  That phrase was spoken in a way that the pitches established were E, D, D, and F#, a perfect fragment for his piece (Potter, 169).  Under the influence of In C, Reich created two tapes from that sentence from the sermon.  He had the phrase “It’s gonna” on one tape and “rain” on the other.  He listened to both at the same time, attempting to get them right on top of each other.  However, the tape he was listening to in his left ear was playing faster than the tape in his right.  The resulting sound was one of unison sound gradually phasing out, only to return to unison again (Duckworth, Talking Music, 297).  This effect excited Reich, and he soon made that effect Part 1 of his two-part tape-phasing piece “It’s Gonna Rain.”  Reich described the first movement as beginning with the loop separated “180 degrees out of phase, so that the word 'it’s' falls on top of ‘rain,’ more or less” (Potter, 167).  When the sampling rate is speeded up, the result is that the last word of the phrase creeps into audibility, starting with the first letter of ‘rain,’ and then getting in the rest of the word.  Following this, the phrase plays in unison, phases out over a period of time, and finally returns to unison.  A different technique is used in Part 2 of the piece, in which the text discusses the people shut out of Noah’s Ark and left to die.  Reich used multiple phasings for that piece; he phased his chosen text using two tapes, and then phased those two tapes with two more.  The resulting sound, however, proved too disturbing for Reich, and the second part was not performed at the work’s premiere in January of 1965, at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (Potter, 167).

            A second tape piece began when Reich was asked to edit the tapes of a benefit for the Harlem 6, a group of young black men who had suffered police brutality.  Reich agreed as long as he could use anything he though would be useful in his compositions.  He found his inspiration through a story told by one of the six, who described being beaten by officers while in prison.  The authorities would not let him go to the hospital without bleeding, so the young man said, “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” (Gann, 198).  Reich took that phrase, started with the complete sentence, and then eventually pared it down to the words, “come out to show them.”  Come Out premiered in 1966, with a different approach to the phasing than in It’s Gonna Rain.  In Come Out, the phrase slowly phases out until the listener hears four voices in canon, then eight. Then, at last, it reaches the point of white noise, where a continuous wall of sound can be heard with no indication of any words, until the piece finally fades out (Potter, 176-177). 



            In 1971, inspired by an African drumming course at Columbia, Reich traveled to Ghana to study African music and instruments.  While a bout of malaria cut his trip short, he came back from Africa convinced of something he had been pondering since Come Out’s composition.  Namely, that music performed by live instruments had more variety than electronic music, and was inherently more interesting.  This theory had already led him to experiment with live phasing, where he recorded himself playing piano and then played it back as he performed live with the recording, carefully controlling his phasing.  Eventually, he was able to phase with another live piano player (Duckworth, Talking Music, 304-305).  Reich now wanted to work exclusively with live instruments, and his trip to Africa supported that wish.  This became the genesis for Drumming, one of Reich’s better-known works.  Drumming was composed and practiced in small parts, with changes in orchestration being inspired by happenings in rehearsal.  One instance of such change was the addition of voices.  Reich heard himself singing along with the drums in the opening movement, so he added a vocal part.  As marimbas rehearsed the second movement, Reich thought he heard female voices, and so those were added as well (Duckworth, Talking Music, 306).  The competed work was four movements long.  The first consists of four pairs of bongo drums and male voices, the second has three marimbas and female voices, the third movement has three glockenspiels combined with whistling and piccolo parts, and the final movement has all instruments performing together (Duckworth, 20/20, 112-113).  The instruments are not arranged haphazardly; they are arranged from lowest pitch to highest.  In each movement, there is a cycle of 12 beats built up one beat at a time.  Once the 12 beats are heard, one part phases out until all the patterns are one beat out of synchronicity.  The voices in each movement play their own unique part.  The phasing in the instruments creates resultant patterns, or sub-melodies.  Resultant patterns occur due to the instrument-phasing creating new variations on rhythm and melody.  The vocal parts highlight these changes by fading in and out as they occur.  Once the cycle is completed, the piece moves on to the next movement.  The piece was first performed in December of 1971 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  The performers amazingly played entirely from memory, and when it was over, Steve Reich and his performers received a standing ovation from the audience (Duckworth, 113-114).


Music for 18 Musicians:

            Through Drumming, Steve Reich learned that his interest as a composer led to working with acoustic instruments.  Indeed, the only electronics found in Drumming were the microphones arranged to enhance and better balance the higher-pitched instruments (Duckworth, Talking Music, 308).  With that piece behind him, Reich began composing what many consider his landmark piece:  Music for 18 Musicians.  While maintaining some of the compositional techniques used in Drumming, this new piece added several new elements and more carefully refined the old.  The most striking addition was the use of wind instruments in addition to percussion and voices.  Clarinets and bass clarinets were added, along with string instruments such as violins and violas.  What the addition of wind instruments accomplished was a partnership with male and female voices to create a “breath pulse.”  This pulse was developed by voices and winds sustaining long tones until the point where they needed a breath.  The places where breaths occurred created a different pulse than the rhythmic one used by the percussion and string instruments, which need no breath (Potter, 232-233).  Furthermore, the wind and vocal performers crescendo and decrescendo throughout the piece, making their presence known at some points and merely felt at others.  The relationship between the rhythmic and breath pulses created an entirely new feel for the piece which was not present in Drumming.  Reich described this relationship as, “the combination of one breath after another gradually washing up like waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments” (Potter, 233).  The end result is a more expressive quality than Reich’s previous works, with the expression aided by the dynamic changes and warm timbres of the wind instruments.  

            As for the composition itself, the piece is based on an 11 chord cycle.  Each chord in the cycle consists of stacked fourths and fifths, and is divided into treble and bass levels.  The work begins with the entire cycle performed twice, and then each chord is held one at a time for about four to six minutes each.  While the chord is held, a “small piece” is performed using the notes from the chord.  At the end of the piece, the entire cycle is played twice again (Potter, 232).  The harmonics underneath the notes in the melody change constantly, so that major, minor, Dorian, and other modes are heard one after the other, assuring that no harmonic reigns supreme.  The bass line, so often used to establish key signature and mode, instead acts as another color in the composer’s palate.  The piece, then, is based on changing harmonic rhythms, with the chord changes reinforcing the repetition in the melodic pattern (Duckworth, Talking Music, 310-311).

            Music for 18 Musicians premiered April of 1976 in New York City’s Town Hall.  After the premiere, he spent two years touring with the piece, and did not compose another major work until 1978’s Music for a Large Ensemble, which used elements of several previous pieces, including Music for 18 Musicians (Potter, 246).  Many consider Music for 18 Musicians Reich’s most significant work, primarily due to the harmonic movement and lushness unheard in Reich’s music up to that point (Duckworth, Talking Music, 292, 309).  The piece still stands as a landmark piece of the minimalist movement, and is one of Reich’s most popular works.



Come Out

One of Reich's two major experiments with tape phasing, this piece consists of a recording by a member of the Harlem 6, who spoke of having to pinch bruises given to him by abusive policemen.  The young man would not be allowed to escape the abuse unless he was bleeding, in which case he would be transported to the hospital.  The excerpt picks up as the tapes are noticeably phasing away from each other.



This selection from the first movement consists of bongo drums playing intricate rhythms that gradually shift over  time.  These slight changes eventually provide wholly different rhythms, which are eventually augmented by male voices.


Music for 18 Musicians 

This piece takes the minimalist rhythmic ideas from Drumming and adds a lush, textured harmonic sound, based on an 11 chord cycle.   In this short segment, the sudden staccato entrance of the clarinets adds variety to the repetition heard in the other instruments and voices.