Like Philip Glass, John Adams, and Terry Riley, Steve Reich belongs to a group of composers known as “minimalists,” who write music based largely on patterns of repetition. Minimalism came into prominence when many American composers tired of what they considered the over-rigorous, emotionally bankrupt style of music that was held up as an example when they were students. As a descriptive label, “minimalism” can be ineffectual—since each minimalist composer has his own distinct voice—but the movement has become a prominent and important musical style.
Reich was born in New York City in 1936, and grew up playing the piano. But in his early teens his interest switched to percussion. In 1982 he told a Newsweek reporter: “I had heard [jazz alto saxophonist] Charlie Parker and was suddenly off on this great music. Around then, I also heard the Brandenburg concertos [by Baroque composer J. S. Bach] and [Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet]The Rite of Spring for the first time, and that made an indelible impression on me.” As a result, he began studying percussion when he was 14 with Roland Kohloff, the principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic.
When Reich entered Cornell University in 1953, it was as a philosophy major. While at Cornell he was introduced to many types of music by the musicologist William Austin, and by the time he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1957, Reich had decided to become a composer. For the next six years he studied composition privately, first with Hall Overton in New York City and then at New York City’s Juilliard School of Music with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma; he later attended Mills College in California, where he studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio and received a master’s degree in composition in 1963.
It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out are among Reich’s first pieces and were composed in 1965 for electronic tape, with the same recorded material played on two tape recorders but slightly out of synchronization. Reich then began to experiment with this process, which became known as “phasing,” in works for acoustic instruments, such as Piano Phase and Violin Phase, both written in 1967. The purpose of phasing was to create a musical process: “I do not mean the process of composition,” Reich said in his book Writings About Music, “but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes…. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music…. What
For the Record…
Born October 3, 1936, in New York, NY; son of Leonard Reich (an attorney) and Joyce Carroll (a singer and lyricist); married Beryl Korot (a video artist and professional weaver); children: Ezra; (previous marriage) another son. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1957; private composition study with Hall Overton in New York City, 1957-58, with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma at Juilliard School of Music, 1958-61, and with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College, where he received an M.A., 1963. Studied African drumming at Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana, summer, 1970, and Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang in Seattle, WA, summer, 1973, and Berkeley, CA, summer, 1974. Studied Hebrew cantillation in New York City and Jerusalem, Israel.
Composer. New School for Social Research, New York City, member of composition faculty, 1969-71. Founder, 1966, and director of Steve Reich and Musicians. Author of Writings About Music, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1974 and 1976; Rockefeller Foundation grants, 1975, 1979, and 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; Koussevitzky Foundation award, 1981.
Addresses: Home —New York City. Manager —Lynn Garon Management, 1199 Park Ave., New York, NY 10028.
I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.”
The composer founded the group Steve Reich and Musicians in 1966 for the purpose of performing his music, which called for various combinations of instrumentalists and vocalists. The group, which started out with three performers but has included as many as 40, began touring internationally, and Reich’s music became increasingly prominent in new music concerts around the world.
In 1970 Reich, who had always been interested in non-Western music, went to the University of Ghana in Africa to study African drumming. Reviewers have noted that as a result, his music exhibited more richness and complexity, qualities said to be present in 1971’s Drumming. The 90-minute composition was Reich’s first widely known work, boosting him into fame in the United States and Europe. It remains one of his most popular pieces. Reich also studied the music of the gamelan, or Indonesian percussion orchestra, in the early 1970s, and his musical style continued to develop in pieces such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), Music for 18 Musicians (1976), and Octet 1979).
In 1981 Reich composed a work for orchestra and voices, Tehillim, the first of his pieces with a written text: the 19th Psalm from the Hebrew Bible (“Tehillim” is Hebrew for “psalms” or “praises”). Reich had studied Hebrew cantillation, which is the art of the cantor—a synagogue official who sings or chants liturgical music and leads the congregation in prayer—and had rediscovered his Jewish roots during this period. Tehillim is considered one of Reich’s most extraordinary works, and its performance in 1982 by the New York Philharmonic is often credited for bringing minimalist music into the established orchestral repertoire.
Reich’s next major piece, The Desert Music, was written in 1983 for chorus and orchestra, with a text by American poet William Carlos Williams. It was considered a milestone work because it incorporated many of Reich’s earlier techniques while being distinctly new. As K. Robert Schwartz wrote of Desert Music in Musical America, “Reich has miraculously remained faithful to his original aesthetic: steady pulse, tonal center, clarity of process, and repetition all remain essential facets of The Desert Music. Despite its tremendous advances in orchestral technique, in expressive range, in harmonic and melodic language, and in text setting, The Desert Music still possesses a satisfying integrity with Reich’s larger body of work. Linked together by pulsing chordal cycles reminiscent of Music for 18 Musicians, partaking of the rhythmic construction first introduced in Drumming and the densely layered canons typical of Tehillim, The Desert Music retains organic ties with Reich’s past while introducing new avenues for the future.”
In the late 1980s Reich returned to composing for smaller performing forces. The culmination of his work during the decade was Different Trains, which uses five prerecorded voice tracks: Virginia, the woman who took care of Reich when he was a child; Lawrence Davis, a former Pullman porter; and the voices of three concentration camp survivors. The voice tracks are synchronized with train whistles and up to four recorded string quartets. Reich thought of Different Trains as a way to come to terms with his Jewish heritage and his identity. In an article in the New York Times he said, “I did this piece because, as a Jew, had I lived in Europe, I would not be here. It tries to present as faithfully as possible the era in which I survived, and in which [many European Jews] perished…. I hope that The Desert Music will have a future, but I don’t know that I was born to do that kind of work for the rest of my life. Whereas I feel that I was born to do Different Trains, and that if I hadn’t done it, no one else would have.”
Reich is often considered the most thoughtful and interesting of the minimalists, and his music, in combination with that of colleagues Glass and Adams, has opened the doors for a new listening audience. In a Musical America article Reich said, “When American music was basically aping European serial music [in the fifties and early sixties], the audience was very limited. As American music has again become as natural an utterance for us as it was for [American composer Aaron] Copland in the thirties, then we’re in a situation where normalcy has been regained. And the audience is reacting to that reality.”
Come Out (composed in 1965)/Piano Phase (composed c. 1967)/it’s Gonna Rain (composed in 1965)/Clapping Music, Elektra/Nonesuch.
Drumming (composed in 1971)/Six Pianos/Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (composed in 1973), Deutsche Grammophon.
Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, Philips.
Music for 18 Musicians (composed in 1976), ECM.
Tehillim (composed in 1981), ECM.
The Desert Music (composed in 1983), Nonesuch.
Different Trains (composed in the late 1980s), Elektra/Nonesuch.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.
Reich, Steve, Writings About Music, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974.
Grammophone, June 1991.
High Fidelity/Musical America, January 1986.
Musical America, January 1990.
Newsweek, March 29, 1982.
New York Times, November 8, 1987; May 28, 1989.
The American composer Steve Reich (born 1936) was the creator of "phase" and "pulse" music. A leading composer of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s, Reich continued to expand his compositional resources to achieve striking expressiveness in his vocal pieces in the 1980s. His music, although very complex, was completely accessible.
One of the foremost composers of minimalism, Steve Reich was the creator of "phase" and "pulse" music, both of which rely on the gradual alteration of repetitive rhythmic patterns to create subtle changes in musical texture. Concerned with the manipulation of aural perception, he directed the listener to focus on one of the many rhythmic patterns occurring concurrently in his music by reinforcing one pattern through changes in dynamics and timbre. Although he was responsible for the invention of the "phase-shifting pulse gate," a device used to aid performers in measuring minute rhythmic changes, Reich avoided the use of electronic instruments in performance. Most of his pieces feature large percussion ensembles with the addition of standard concert string and wind instruments and voice. His later works required orchestras and large vocal ensembles.
Born in New York City on October 3, 1936, Reich spent most of his youth shuttling between the East and West coasts. His parents separated when he was very young, and although he spent most of his time with his father, an attorney in New York, Reich's interest in music may be attributed to the influence of his mother, a singer/songwriter who appeared in several musicals during the 1950s. He studied piano until the age of 14, when the influence of jazz compelled him to take up percussion with Roland Kohloff, the principal tympanist of the New York Philharmonic.
Reich's composition career began after his graduation in 1957 from Cornell University, where he received a degree with distinction in philosophy. During 1957 and 1958 he studied composition with Hall Overton, before entering the Julliard School of Music, where he received instruction from William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti until 1961. He received an M.A. in 1963 from Mills College, where he studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.
Creating "Phase" Music
Reich's first experiments with repetitive sounds occurred in 1965 and 1966 with the manipulation of taped voices. His method of rigging the tape recorders with tape loops that doubled back on one another resulted in the gradual dissection and reconstruction of the sounds called "phasing." Reich drew his material from voices that he found in the environment—It's Gonna Rain, which used a phrase from a Pentecostal minister delivering a sermon on Noah's flood, and Come Out, the text of which was derived from the testimony of a young African-American man injured in a public disturbance. Further experiments with phasing through live performance with the addition of taped sound proved unsatisfying, and the composer began to search for other musical materials.
Reich's interest in African music dated back to 1962, when he discovered A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music. With the aid of a travel grant from the Institute for International Education he studied drumming in Accra, Ghana, in 1970. He also acquired an interest in Balinese Gamalan and studied with Balinese masters in Seattle, Washington, and Berkeley, California, during the summers of 1973 and 1974. But Reich never felt comfortable using non-Western instruments or scales in his music. He retained Western tonality and musical instruments in all his works; he also did not consciously borrow the concepts of cyclic rhythms and ensemble playing found in non-Western cultures, for these were present in his music from the start. His acquaintance with non-Western music simply confirmed the validity of his musical intuition.
In 1966 the composer organized a performing group which later became known as the Steve Reich Ensemble. It was created out of necessity, for no existing ensemble was either capable of or interested in performing his early works. Reich composed Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Phase Patterns, and Four Organs between 1962 and 1970. These works, which explored the controversial "phasing" technique, provoked strong public reaction. A 1973 performance of Four Organs at Carnegie Hall divided the audience into two warring factions so vocal that the performers had to count out loud to keep their places in the music. Nevertheless, public acceptance grew steadily throughout the 1970s. The Steve Reich Ensemble, which at times numbered 18 or more musicians, performed over 300 tours across the United States, Canada, and Europe after 1971.
Drumming (1971) was the last and largest work which employed "phasing" techniques. One and one-half hours of music was divided into four parts, which were performed without pause. Each section used a different arrangement of instruments: section one featured four pairs of tuned bongo drums and male voice; the second used three marimbas and female voices; the third employed three glockenspiels, whistling, and piccolo; and the fourth used the entire ensemble of instruments and voices. However, the sections were unified by one rhythmic pattern which occured continuously throughout the piece. Reich systematically explored phasing by moving identical instruments playing the same pattern out of synchronization. He also introduced several new techniques: the gradual change of timbre while pitch and rhythm remained constant, the gradual substitution of rests for beats (or beats for rests) within the constant regular rhythmic pattern, and the imitation of the exact sounds of the instruments by the human voice.
Changing to "Pulse Music"
Several minor works followed Drumming. These included Clapping Music (1972), a work for two performers who clap their hands, and Six Pianos (1973), composed for performance in a retail piano store. Reich's next major work, Music for 18 Musicians, was composed in 1976. One critic cited it as one of the ten most important works to have emerged during the 1970s. Based on a cycle of 11 chords, the rhythmic patterns revolved around two underlying beats carried by the voices and the mallet instruments. Changes from chord to chord were triggered internally by the performers. In this way each member of the ensemble exercised a certain measure of control over the musical composition during performance.
Music for 18 Musicians was an excellent example of "pulse" music. All of the instruments or voices played or sang pulsing notes within each chord. At first only briefly introduced, the chords later returned to pulse for five or more minutes as the foundation for small musical pieces.
Reich's reliance on melody and harmony as well as rhythm in his later works indicated a move away from minimalism, which usually suppressed one or more of these. Indeed, Tehillim (1982), his successful vocal work, represented a significant change in his compositional style. A broad melodic structure supplanted the short repetitive patterns which characterized his earlier works. The four solo voices conveyed the five Jewish psalm texts in whole, much in contrast to his earlier works, which used voices only as a sonorous addition to the ensemble. Furthermore, the psalm texts clearly prescribed the musical direction. The final "hallelujah," for example, was exhilirating.
Desert Music (1984) was a later work in the solo vocal and orchestral idiom. Scored for 27 voices and an 88-piece orchestra, it was by far his most ambitious work to that point. Reich derived the text from the poems of William Carlos Williams. Although it was a somber commentary on nuclear war, Reich was still able to instill the music with joy, excitement, and humor.
Aside from his concert pieces, Reich collaborated with several choreographers, including Elliot Feld, Alvin Ailey, and Laura Dean. Jerome Robbins set his Eight Lines to dance for the New York City Ballet on 1985. Up to this point, Reich had avoided composing for the theater.
Music of Human Speech
The transformation of human speech into music shaped his work in the late 1980s and 1990s. For Different Trains (1988) he recorded the voices of Holocaust survivors, transcribed the most melodious phrases into musical motation, and developed the entire musical structure from this. In performance the taped voices stored in a sampling keyboard which enabled them to be precisely integrated with the live musicians.
Reich collaborated with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, to create The Cave (1993), a two-and-a -half hour multimedia opera for ensemble, voices, tape, and video. The cave in the title refered to the Cave of Machpelah, the traditional burial place of the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs, and so sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Taped voices and video footage of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans were combined with graphics, songs and chants of Biblical and Koranic texts and the music of a 13 member ensemble. As K. Robert Schwarz wrote in Opera News (October 1993), "Reich and Korot have painstakingly constructed a unique hybrid - not quite music video, not quite docu-drama, not quite opera, but owing sonething to them all. [Audiences] may be glimpsing the face of music theater in the twenty-first century."
Steve Reich was the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Museum. He received commissions from Radio Frankfurt, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Ensemble Intecontemporain of Paris. His recordings can be found on CBS-Odyssey, Columbia Masterworks, Deutsche Grammaphon, ECM, Angel Records, and Elektra Nonesuch.
The reader is encouraged to consult Steve Reich's Writings on Music edited by K. Koenig (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1974). Although not particularly well-written, this collection of essays provided insight into his compositional development as a journey of discovery rather than decision. Two interviews, one by M. Nyman in Musical Times 62 (1971), and one by E. Wasserman in Art Forum (May 1972), addressed his popular success in the 1970s. An article in the German periodical Melos/Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 1 (1975) examined his innovations in musical form and structure. Articles also appeared in the New York Art Journal 17 (1980) and Virtuoso (June 1981). A more detailed biographical essay can be found in David Ewen's American Composers (1982). □
REICH, STEVE (1936– ), U.S. composer and performer. Reich was born in New York and began studying drumming with Roland Kohloff at the age of 14. At Cornell University (1953–57) he devoted himself mainly to philosophy but also attended lectures of William Austin in music history. After returning to New York he began his composition studies, first privately with Hall Overton (1957–58) and later at the Juilliard School with Bergsma and Persichetti (1958–61). He received his master's degree under Berio (Mills College, California).
In the middle of the 1960s the idea of "phasing" captured his imagination; he composed some pieces where identical sound elements move out of synchrony with each other, i.e., in and out of phase (It's Gonna Rain, for tape, 1965, Piano Phase, 2 pianos, 1967, etc.). In this way, Reich became one of the founders of minimalism, or repetitive music. This music demanded a new type of reception, characterized by Reich as follows: "Some critics […] thought I was intending to create some kind of 'hypnotic' or 'trance' music. […] But I actually prefer the music to be heard by somebody who's totally wide awake, hearing more than he or she usually does, rather than by someone who's just spaced-out and receiving a lot of ephemeral impressions."
In the late 1960s Reich began giving concerts in New York galleries, where other minimalists (musicians, film artists, and visual artists) were also active. At the same time he and his own ensemble began making records of his music. He studied drumming with teachers from Africa and Asia, and often included percussion in his scores (Music for 18 Musicians, 1974–76; Eight Lines, 1979). Music for 18 Musicians became a new stage in his composition technique: within a context of many constantly recycling musical figures, each of them gradually changes.
In 1976–77 Reich devoted his time to Hebrew, Torah, and cantillation studies, visited Israel, and heard singers from Eastern Sephardi communities. Following this experience, he composed Tehillim for choir and instrumental ensemble (1981). His next opus, The Desert Music (1982–84) for choir and orchestra on the lines from William Carlos Williams, refer to the possible destruction of the planet. K.R. Schwarz characterized the opening of the finale as "[…] a solitary human running across a vast desolate plain – a desert at once intimidating and exhilarating."
In his most famous piece, Different Trains, 1988, Reich combines his childhood recollections of frequent train journeys between New York and California and his divorced parents with the memory of the different trains taking Jewish children to the death camps. Reich used recordings of train sounds and spoken testimonies of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and Holocaust survivors, to be played as short melodies by live and recorded string quartets. The New York Times hailed Different Trains as an "astonishing work of such originality that breakthrough seems the only possible description … possesses an absolutely harrowing emotional impact." The Cave, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's theater piece (1990–93), was also highly appreciated by the critics. The title is metaphoric: The Cave is about the cave at Hebron that is by tradition the burial place of Abraham and Sarah. Exploring the biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, the 18-musician production consists of edited documentary video footage timed with live and sampled music. After The Cave, Reich and his wife, the video maker Beryl Korot, continued their collaboration in Three Tales, a full-evening music-theater piece on the topic of technology and its consequences. Noted choreographers often interpreted Reich's music, including Laura Dean, who commissioned Sextet (1984). The ballet, entitled Impact, earned Steve Reich and Laura Dean a Bessie Award in 1986. In 1994 Reich was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
ng2; E. Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (1993); R. Kostelanetz (ed.), Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism (1996, incl. writings by Glass); K.R. Schwarz, Minimalists (1996); K. Potter: Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass (2000).
[Yulia Kreinin (2nd ed.)]