Steve Reich

Biography

Steve Reich is an American composer known for his pioneering work in what has come to be known as the minimalist style. Beginning with tape loops and later turning to live instruments, his work is characterised by its clear compositional processes, magnified by repetition and gradual development.

Reich was born in New York City. He was exposed to music at an early age through his mother, a Broadway lyricist and singer. His parents separated when he was one year old and his mother moved to California, leading to frequent cross-country train trips for the young Reich. He studied piano as a child; at age 14 he first heard theRite of Spring, 5th Brandenburg Concerto, and bebop, which inspired Reich to take up jazz drumming, leading to a lifelong predilection for driving rhythms and percussive timbres.

Reich studied Philosophy at Cornell University, with a minor in music, before continuing his compositional studies at Julliard with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti. He then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, first completing a master’s degree at Oakland’s Mills College, where he studied with Luciano Berio (whoseOmaggio a Joyce, completed in the same period, was an inspiration for his first tape works) and Darius Milhaud, and later worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center alongside Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley. Another important influence at this time was his study of African music, where complex rhythmic patterns arise from performers accenting different notes within a sequence.

Reich’s first major composition, completed while working as a cab driver in San Francisco, wasIt’s Gonna Rain (1965). The two-movement work consists of a recording from San Francisco‘s Union Square of a street preacher named Brother Walter warning of the end of the world; which, immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed a distinct possibility. The original recording is chopped up into smaller phrases, words, and phonemes, which are then looped at slightly different speeds, creating startling phasing and stereo effects. Reich discovered the process of phasing tape loops by accident while trying to sync up two tape recorders that were running at slightly different speeds. A similar work using the same techniques, which was the first of the two to be released, wasCome Out (1966). Written for a benefit concert for the appeal of the Harlem Six, it uses an original recording of Daniel Hamm, one of the wrongfully accused.  Reich has said that, given the serious subject matter of the two clips, which are presented clearly at the beginning of each work/movement, he was reluctant to process the original voice recordings in any way, limiting himself only to the selection of clips and to repetition and rhythmic transformation.

Reich’s own experiments attempting to create the same rhythmic phasing effects playing live against a prerecorded tape led to the workPiano Phase (1967). The realisation that live performance of his music was possible turned his attention away from tape to instrumental music and also prompted the creation of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble in 1966. Reich travelled to Africa in 1970 to study music in Ghana, which led toDrumming (1971). In four sections, scored respectively for bongo drums, marimbas with women’s voices, glockenspiels with whistling and piccolo, and the fourth part for all performers together,Drumming is built upon a foundation of a single rhythmic cell. The timbre evolves as it gradually transitions from instrument to instrument, making up for the lack of harmonic development. This would be Reich’s last composition to use the characteristic phasing technique of his early works.

The next major composition, made possible by the creation of his ensemble, was Music for 18 Musicians (1976). This was Reich’s most harmonically oriented work up to this point, with the structure built on eleven basic chords. There are two types of rhythms juxtaposed in the piece: a regular pulse in the pianos and percussion and breath-like swells in the other instruments. The regular pulse remains on the same harmony for each section, while the other parts move more rapidly through the eleven chords, creating constantly shifting contexts for the repetitions.

1988 saw the completion of one of Reich’s most influential pieces - Different Trains. In the work, for string quartet and tape, Reich contrasts the cross-country train trips of his youth with the trips of Jewish children being taken to concentration camps during the Second World War. Voice recordings of Holocaust survivors his own age - a retired Pullman porter as well as Reich’s own governess - are paired with train recordings of the time. Three string quartets are recorded on tape, with the fourth then joining live. The string parts imitate the voice recordings, constantly changing meter and key to match the inflections of the speakers.

Three Tales (1998-2002) is what Reich calls a documentary digital video opera. In three movements the work explores the relationship between humanity and science through three iconic events spread over the 20th century: Hindenburg, Bikini, and Dolly. The music is scored for sixteen musicians (two sopranos, three tenors, string quartet, percussion and keyboards) who accompany the interviews and video footage compiled by Reich’s wife, video artist Beryl Korot.

Steve Reich was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for the composition Double Sextet (2007) and Grammy awards for Different Trains and Music for 18 Musicians. His compositional language and techniques have proven hugely influential, reaching into genres far removed from what is traditionally considered classical music. Much like other experimental music of the era, Reich’s music is concerned with the beauty and subtlety of musical process, but, uniquely inspired by machines and the modern world, his music has taken on a pulse and vitality all of its own. 

Main Header Photo: Wonge Bergmann Black and White Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. The work is for 13 electric guitars; all parts can be played live by 13 guitarists, or a single guitarist can perform the solo part, either with Pat Metheny’s recording of the other 12 or their own. The original recording was released together with the Kronos Quartet’s recording ofDifferent Trains. Electric Counterpointhas become a particularly important crossover link to popular music, with guitarists such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performing it.

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