Stephen Michael "Steve" Reich, born October 3, 1936, is an American composer who pioneered the style of minimalist music. His 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 simple, audible processes to explore musical concepts (for instance, "Pendulum Music" and "Four Organs"). These compositions, marked by their use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, have significantly influenced contemporary music, especially in the US. Reich's work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of historical themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage, notably the Grammy Award-winning Different Trains.
Reich was born in New York City to the Broadway lyricist June Sillman. 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. Reich studied drums with Roland Kohloff in order to play jazz. While attending Cornell University, he took some music courses, but he 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) (2006).
For a year following graduation, Reich studied composition privately with Hall Overton before he enrolled at Juilliard to work with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (1958–1961). Subsequently he attended Mills College in Oakland, California, where he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud (1961–1963) and earned a master's degree in composition. At Mills, Reich composed Melodica for melodica and tape, which appeared in 1986 on the three-LP release Music from Mills.
Reich worked with the California Tape Music Centre 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.
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 Plastic Haircut, Oh Dem Watermelons, and Thick Pucker, three films by Robert Nelson. The soundtrack of Plastic Haircut, composed in 1963, was a short tape collage, possibly Reich's first. The Watermelons soundtrack used two old Stephen Foster minstrel tunes as its basis, and used repeated phrasing together in a large five-part canon. The music for Thick Pucker arose from street recordings Reich made walking around San Francisco with Nelson, who filmed in black and white 16mm. This film no longer survives. A fourth film from 1965, about 25 minutes long and tentatively entitled "Thick Pucker II", was assembled by Nelson from outtakes of that shoot and more of the raw audio Reich had recorded. Nelson was not happy with the resulting film and never showed it.
Reich was influenced by fellow minimalist Terry Riley, whose 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, the piece 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 Daniel Hamm, one of the falsely accused Harlem Six, who was severely injured by police. 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’s 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, lesser known 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" has never been recorded by Reich himself, but was introduced to rock audiences 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. Piano Phase and Violin Phase both premiered in a series of concerts given in New York art galleries.
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 (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later.
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 Alorwoyie. Reich 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 nine-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 also hearkened back to earlier pieces. It is based on a cycle of eleven chords introduced at the beginning (called "Pulses"), followed by a small section of music based on each chord ("Sections I-XI"), and finally a return to the original cycle ("Pulses"). This was Reich's first attempt at writing for larger ensembles. The increased number of performers resulted in more scope for psychoacoustic 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 than any other work he had written. Steve Reich and Musicians made the premier recording of this work on ECM Records.
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". 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 the 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 1974 Reich published a book, Writings About Music (ISBN 0814773583), containing essays on his philosophy, aesthetics, and musical projects written between 1963 and 1974. An updated and much more extensive collection, Writings On Music (1965–2000) (ISBN 0195111710), was published in 2002.
Reich's work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of historical 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.
Pat Metheny "Electric Counterpoint III Fast" (1989)
25 seconds of "Electric Counterpoint III Fast" performed by Pat Metheny. Composed by Steve Reich. From "Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint" album.
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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. 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. The composition was described by Richard Taruskin as "the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust", and he credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century.
1990s to present
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, and Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. 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).
Invited by Walter Fink, he was the 12th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 2002.
In an interview with The Guardian, Reich stated that he continues to follow this direction with his piece Double Sextet (2007) 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 states that he was thinking about Stravinsky's Agon (1957) as a model for the instrumental writing.
Reich was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music, on April 20, 2009, for Double Sextet.
December 2010 NoneSuch and Indaba Music held a community remix contest where over 250 submissions were received, and Steve Reich and Christian Carey judged the finals. Reich spoke in a related BBC interview that once he composed a piece he would not alter it again himself "when it's done, it's done". On the other hand he acknowledged that "remixes" have an old tradition e.g. famous religious music pieces where melodies were further developed into new songs.
In May 2011, Steve Reich received an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory of Music.
Selected discography Steve Reich
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), Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (Innova), Ensemble Modern (RCA).
Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/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)
Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995. Various performers (Nonesuch).
Daniel Variations, with Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings. London Sinfonietta, Grant Gershon, Alan Pierson (Nonesuch)
Double Sextet/2x5, Eighth Blackbird and Bang on a Can (Nonesuch)
Piano Phase, transcribed for guitar, Alexandre Gérard (Catapult)
Phase to Face, a film documentary about Steve Reich by Eric Darmon & Franck Mallet (EuroArts) DVD