Music Diary Songs of Note: Steve Reich Turns 75!

Composer Steve Reich, along with Terry Riley and Philip Glass, form the core driving force in the modern classical music genre of ‘minimalism’. In the music the harmonic structure and density are sparse and relatively simple, with shifting elements and slow thematic development. Much of the action in minimalism is with the slowly evolving polyrhythms, which are deceptively straightforward but in reality menacingly complex and intriguing.

This week marks Steve Reich’s 75th birthday, so I wanted to share a few memorable video clips.

The sheet music at the top is for his 1972 piece ‘Clapping Music’, an intriguing study in human rhythm. Here is video of a live performance:

It is interesting to note that with Clapping, as with many of his works, the timing isn’t fixed as it depends on the musicians to decide exactly when to shift from one phase to the next. Here is the description of the music:

Clapping Music (1972) was Steve Reich’s attempt to write a piece of music requiring nothing but the human body — two performers that hand-clap. His first attempt at translating phase technique from recorded tape loop to live performance was his 1967 Piano Phase for two pianos (which I performed on marimbas with Thad Anderson on my Master’s recital at UT in 2005). 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. Although Reich’s original intent was for Clapping Music to be a phase piece, he found that the idea of phasing was not appropriate for the simple ways in which to experiment with sound using the human body. Instead, he employed a shifting technique — still cyclic, like phasing. Reich states that the piece is “to have one performer remain fixed, repeating the same basic pattern throughout, while the second moves abruptly, after a number of repeats, from unison to one beat ahead, and so on, until he is back in unison with the first performer.” Clapping Music is intended for performance in a large space where the echoes and reverberations of the clapping create “a surrounding sensation of a series of variations of two different patterns with their downbeats coinciding.”

One of his most popular and iconic works – and one of my very favorite pieces of modern classical music – is ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, which features an amazing array of accessible yet complex structures which are hypnotic as they evolve over time and space. Here is the ‘trailer’ for a CD from one particular recording of the piece:

Also from YouTube, a user created a clever parody version of Reich’s early ‘Its Gonna Rain’ using Ollie from Family Guy:

That is a funny take on what is an amazing piece of electronic music that was extremely influential:

The source material of It’s Gonna Rain consists entirely of a tape recording made in 1964 at San Francisco’s Union Square.[1] In the recording, an African-American Pentecostal preacher, Brother Walter, rails about the end of the world,[2] while accompanying background noises, including the sound of a pigeon taking flight, are heard. The piece opens with the story of Noah, and the phrase “It’s Gonna Rain” is repeated and eventually looped throughout the piece.

For the recording, Reich used two normal Wollensak tape recorders with the same recording, originally attempting to align the phrase with itself at the halfway point (180 degrees). However, due to the imprecise technology in 1965, the two recordings fell out of synch, with one tape gradually falling ahead or behind the other due to minute differences in the machines and playback speed. Reich decided to exploit what is known as phase shifting, where all possible recursive harmonies are explored before the two loops eventually get back in sync before the end of the piece.

Here is the original, which is very challenging to listen to all the way through (my family hates it), but is amazing in what it manages to do in terms of sound, rhythm, and tonality using a single short clip:

If you manage that you can check out the second part here.

My favorite work of his it Different Trains, a 1988 piece that won him a Grammy award. Here is the description:

During the war years, Reich made train journeys between New York and Los Angeles to visit his parents, who had separated. Years later, he pondered the fact that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the United States at that time, he might have been travelling in Holocaust trains.

Steve Reich’s earlier work had frequently used tape, looped and played back at different speeds. However, Different Trains was a novel experiment, using recorded speech as a source for melodies. This followed Scott Johnson’s John Somebody of 1978, an early attempt to construct directed melodic motion by harmonising recorded speech.

In Different Trains, after each melody in the piece is introduced, usually by a single instrument (viola for women and cello for men[1]), a recording of the spoken phrase from which the melody derives is played. The melody is then developed for a while, with the instruments playing along with the recording of the phrase or part of the phrase. The music for the strings makes extensive use of paradiddles rhythms, with alternating pitches instead of alternating drum sticking. In addition to speech, the piece includes recordings of train sounds, as well as of sirens and warning bells, and prerecorded multiple lines by the string quartet, thus effectively creating four quartets out of one.

While my favorite is the album version featuring the Kronos Quartet, this version shows the musicians in a room filled with Holocaust images:

Finally, last year I reviewed Reich’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Double Sextet/2×5’

Here’s wishing Steve Reich a happy 75th birthday and thank you for more than four and a half decades of amazing music …so far!

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!