About this work
Beginning with the early "tape loop" pieces of the late sixties such as It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), and continuing with later works like Nagoya Marimbas (1994), Steve Reich explored the possibility of taking a single musical idea -- a rhythmic pattern, an ostinato, even the sound of a spoken phrase -- and setting it slightly out of phase with itself in order to create new composite musical textures. Clapping Music takes this idea to an extreme: its performance forces, consisting only of two persons clapping, offer rhythm as the only variable musical element. In terms of orchestration, then, it is perhaps one of the most "minimal" works of the minimalist school.
The simple instrumentation of Clapping Music is matched by the rather simple musical materials of which it is composed -- essentially a single twelve-beat pattern repeated no fewer than 156 times. Reich sets in motion a single alteration, however, that creates an astonishing spectrum of rhythmic variety. The two performers begin clapping in unison, but soon the second performer skips a beat, essentially starting the figure one beat early. Thus the unison pattern is suddenly offset slightly from itself. After twelve repetitions, the second performer again skips a beat, and yet another rhythmic texture is created. This process is repeated a total of twelve times, until the second player has come full circle and once again falls into step with the first clapper.
This work also exploits the metric ambiguity afforded by its twelve-note pattern, which can be divided into three groups of four or four groups of three. Because the players avoid emphasizing any particular beats within the pattern, each rhythmic shift creates a myriad of textures that "fit into the ear" in a variety of ways. The end result is a surprisingly complex exploration of rhythm and meter created with the very simplest of musical means.