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Steve Reich

Steve Reich

Article from Sound On Sound, September 1991

Despite an outward contempt for technology, Steve Reich has exploited it to create some of the century's seminal works of modern music, and will rely on the latest in digital electronics for his current project. Mark J. Prendergast tries to make sense of it all.

"The metropolis is buzzing but the clouds overhead are passing calmly," said Steve Reich once about his music. This phrase could aptly be applied to his recent version of 'Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ', written in 1973 but freshly recorded for his most recent Nonesuch disc, The Four Sections. Here the fluttering of marimbas, glockenspiels and vibraphone is augmented by repeating cadences of female voice and electronic organ. In this luminous piece, many elements seem to buzz while the whole lulls one into the trance of African dance. Rather like being invited to a luxurious dinner and being delighted by how precisely everything is laid out, eating one's fill, and being amazed how your good host knew exactly how much food you required.

"It's a musical process happening so gradually that listening to it resembles watching the minute hand of a watch — you perceive it moving after you stay with it a little while," he says.

If the Four Sections disc presents that side of Reich, its title track reflects his coming to terms with orchestral music. Spurned on by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to write a concerto for orchestra, Reich came up with a piece which explored his field of timing variations (shifting the timing of two instruments or sets of instruments, playing the same notes, relative to one another) without falling back into traditionalism. The strings, percussion, wind and brass of the orchestra are pitted against each other while each movement is subdivided into four harmonic sections. The results are wonderfully listenable and, whether through accident or design, recall elements of Mahler and Debussy.

If this sounds straightforward, well, think again. Reich is one of the most important and innovative composers working in America today. He's also one of the most tetchy and irritable. On asking him about his relationship with Minimalism he quipped down the phone from his house in Vermont, "I learned something from Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, Phil Glass and John Adams learned something from me, the rest is journalism." OK — that neatly trivialises what has been the most important movement in serious American music ever.

More galling is his attitude to technology, given his huge influence on Brian Eno and Cabaret Voltaire in the UK through his tape loop experiments. "What is technology?" he shouts during the same conversation. If these were the responses of a dilettante then one would understand but, no, Reich is a 56 year old composer, up there with Philip Glass as one of the giants of modern music. In fact he used to work with Glass in the late '60s as both explored amplified and electronic music in travelling ensembles, something no American composers had done up to then. Says the amiable Glass "don't take what Steve says to heart, it's only a front."


Despite the headaches Reich gives journalists and musicians (Kronos Quartets' recording of 'Different Trains' in 1988 was not without its difficulties), his bloodless sleevenotes written as though everyone had a PhD in Music Theory, and his almost emotionless responses to public scrutiny, his oeuvre is genuinely exhilarating.

From his early works of the '60s on tape phasing, through the African inspired early '70s period culminating in the majestic 'Music For 18 Musicians', on to such orchestral work as the immense 'Desert Music' to criss-cross areas such as sampling ('Different Trains') and tape overdubbing ('Electric Counterpoint' with Pat Metheny) in the '80s; Reich's work has continually challenged the way we hear music. In truth his clearly innovative mind has dismantled the cemented bedrocks of Western classicism and re-built them note for note in the image of African, Balinese and Yemenite sounds.

Steve Reich was born in New York city of Jewish parentage in 1936. By the age of 14 he was interested in jazz and Stravinsky's 'Rite Of Spring' and thus took up the drums. "In my early years my parents were dead keen on Beethoven and Schubert so I learned a lot of piano. Up to the age of 14 I'd heard nothing before 1750 or after Wagner. It was then I heard be-bop jazz, Stravinsky, and The Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. This was a revelation, and so I decided to become a composer. All the music from Haydn to Wagner I just dismissed. My modern instincts were drawn to the sounds of contemporary music from Debussy, jazz, Africa, Bali, to Hebrew chant."

Though music was a passion, Reich's first scholarly achievement was a BA in Philosophy from Cornell University in 1957. Here he had specialised in Wittgenstein, a linguist interested in deconstructing language, and an obvious theoretical influence. Studying privately, Reich made it to the famous Juillard school where Philip Glass and Meredith Monk were contemporaries. By 1963 he had passed between the twin poles of Darius Milhaud's melodic French music and Luciano Berio's electronic researches to receive an MA at Oakland College. From there it was off to San Francisco tape music centre to develop his ideas even further.


"When I went to music school the music that was happening was either like Schoenberg, Berio, or Boulez, or like John Cage. Most of it had no rhythm or melodic organisation. I found all of this very unappealing. In fact I found it very difficult to write 12-tone music, I never transposed a row or retrograded a row. I just repeated it. In doing contemporary music that way I stole some harmony in through the back door."

The San Francisco years were crucial for Reich. Most importantly, he discovered that musique concrete could be made more interesting by using tape recorders to bring out the sonorities of everyday sounds. Simultaneously he met Terry Riley and got involved in the first performance of 'In C' in 1964. The latter nurtured his interest in rhythmic ideas based on endless repetition. Rather than go all out to break down structures, like John Cage, Reich was more interested in finding a workable everyday cohesion.

"My early work was done in contradiction to John Cage. I respected his role as a figure but unfortunately I saw many fine composers destroyed by his influence, though I respect some of the things he did with voice and folk idioms."

Moving to New York, Reich set up his own electronic music studio. There he made his first 'minimal' piece, 'It's Gonna Rain', 17 minutes of looped Pentecostal preacher, talking against itself, going in and out of phase. In that 1965 experiment the composer blueprinted what can still be heard today: the sonic possibilities of time delays and repeating patterns in pairs of identical sounds. It was this fairly rudimentary piece that gave Eno the idea for his Ambient music.

That was 1965. The following year he recorded another speech pattern, 'Come Out', from a black youth in a Harlem riot, which further pushed into new sound territory as words became musical notes. The same year he wrote 'Piano Phase', in which he looped a piano piece and attempted to play against it. And so on. Though much of this sounds harsh today, Reich was building ideas in sound. Outside this he had formed his own ensemble, Musicians, and played alongside Philip Glass in New York's East Village. There were also compositions like 1968's 'Pendulum Music', where microphones were swung over amps to create alternating feedback. When they stopped swinging, the piece was over.

To outsiders Reich was just another avant garde trickster who played with a machine called the 'phase shifting pulse gate', used to create alternating rhythms in his tape music. Seemingly in a cul-de-sac, Reich took the best option and went on a grant paid trip to Africa.

The year was 1970. Reich had engaged in his last collaboration with Philip Glass on 'Four Organs/Phase Patterns' for Shandar. He had been studying African music and was taken aback by its exponents' virtuosity on drums. "I found out from a book that it consisted of basic repeating patterns with the downbeat not coinciding, twelve metre and a completely different way of putting music together than we were used to. It reminded me of my own work, like 'Phase Patterns' was drumming on electric organs."

Reich studied with the master drummer of the Ewe tribe, but contracted malaria. "To be honest I didn't learn anything I didn't know beforehand, but I got a giant pat on the back. Percussion could be a dominant voice in the orchestra — percussion is as exciting and perhaps richer in sound than electronic instruments."


At the back of Reich's mind was the fact that Debussy had heard Javanese music at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 was able to incorporate it into his later work. He wanted people to be able to play the kind of music he had pioneered with tape recorders, and found in the Ghanaian 'hocket' an alternating pattern which suited him down to the ground. In 1971 Reich re-invented himself on 'Drumming', to this day considered one of the tour de forces of Minimalism. Utilising buildup and reduction, slight changes in timing, pitch and timbre Reich was able to produce a magical piece for bongos, marimbas, voices, glockenspiels, whistle and piccolo, which didn't use any change in rhythm or key. Mesmerising transitions seemed to pick you up and cast you in a sea of bright tinkling bells and shiny surfaces.

Reich had cracked it. Here was a repeating piece with no melody, yet which was full of colour, that one could listen to casually or scrutinise with a microscope and still be satisfied. One that could be played by any ensemble. Bang went the tape recorders.

In the early '70s Reich toured 'Drumming' with his Musicians. In 1972 he applied the ideas there to 'Clapping Music', " to get away for awhile from the physical weight of ensemble instruments." In 1973 he wrote the aforementioned 'Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ'. Its bright instrumentation and aural ability to change the listener's perceptions of time brought gushing reviews from American writers enraptured by its psychedelic properties. In reality, though, plenty of listeners were apt to "space out on a lot of ephemeral impressions," in Reich's words. He wanted people to give his work much "detailed listening". The exoticism of this piece came from a serious study of Balinese 'kotekan', or layered rhythms. On record 'Mallet Instruments' was packaged with 'Drumming' and 'Six Pianos' for a bumper Deutsche Grammophon release in 1973. Reich had finally broken into the serious music establishment.

From there it was off to Berkeley to study Indonesian Gamelan, in homage to Debussy. "There was a fork in the road around the turn of the century, this way to Wagner, this way to Debussy, and eventually the Minimalists and myself. After a time I became more consciously aware that the things I do, repeating the notes in the middle register while changing the base notes and harmony are right out of Debussy's 'L'Apres-Midi D'Un Faune'." Full of this experience Reich recorded his first ECM album, Music For 18 Musicians, written in 1974-76, and considered by many to be his most accessible work for the general music listener. A cycle of 11 chords over 11 sections, it was permeated with the percussive force of the Gamelan. In between that and the rhythmic cycles of Africa and Bali one could detect the strains of 12th century sacred chanting. Reich was ostensibly on the path to orchestration.


Two years later Reich wrote 'Music For A Large Ensemble', for an ensemble of 30 players which included wind, brass and strings. In order to transfer his beloved repeating cycles to larger settings he decided to use 'canons', orchestral motifs where one part of an ensemble imitates what another is doing. In 1979 came 'Octet', a piece which applied the canonic principle to Reich's more familiar musical framework of pianos and vibraphones.

"After the premier of 'Octet' a guy came up to me backstage, introduced himself as Brian Eno and told me how much he had enjoyed the concert. It was a good situation where pop musicians and classical musicians were basically rubbing elbows and were aware of each other."

On a roll, Reich went to Israel in 1979 to record Yemenite and Israeli biblical chants (also called Hebrew 'cantillation'). Simultaneously he had a commission from the San Francisco Symphony to write 'Variations For Winds, Strings and Keyboards'. In 1981 his third LP for ECM was released. Entitled Tehillim, it reflected his Hebrew studies and used excerpts from the Book of Psalms. An ensemble piece, he had re-scored it for an orchestra by 1983. Pushing further into traditional settings Reich wrote 'The Desert Music' in 1983. Based around the apocalyptic poetry of William Carlos Williams, this was a glorious, almost romantic-sounding symphonic creation consisting of five movements, utilising 89 musicians, a chorus of 27 voices, a random siren, and ideas contained in Buddhist chant. Of course, the usual African and Indonesian phrases could be heard amongst its repeating interlocking patterns, 12-beat phrases and chromatic and harmonic pulsing. The instrumental lead-up to the vocal section of the final movement is probably one of Reich's most delicious musical movements, as flitting strings and moody brass combine to affirm his stance as one of the supreme Minimalist composers of our age.

'The Desert Music' saw Reich move into a different phase. Its themes were bigger than music as Reich communicated the moral desert of technological society via the real deserts of New Mexico and California. In its vocal detail his concern was with "the constant flickering of attention between what words mean and how they sound." It demonstrated the merging of Reich's Musicians ensemble with a large orchestra, and utilised synthesizers and electric amplification to produce acoustic textures.

On to 1986 and Reich's 'Three Movements', another orchestral piece for the St. Louis Symphony. In contrast he records Sextet/Six Marimbas in New York's RCA studios for Nonesuch. 'Sextet' can be seen as a musing on some of the harmonic and cyclical ideas thrown up by earlier work. 'Six Marimbas' is a superior recording of the '1973 'Six Pianos'. Again Reich achieves a sense of wonderment and intoxication as one is carried away by the hypnotic tapping on the African instruments. In that recording Reich was committing himself to the statement he made in his 1970 paper "Some Optimistic Predictions About The Future Of New Music": "Non-Western music in general will serve as new structural models for Western musicians. They will not be new models of sound, which is just the old exoticism trip, but things that we will go out and learn how to play for real." To back this up he re-recorded 'Drumming' the following year.


Reich's contemporary work reflects three specific strands. The orchestral side, as evidenced by the 1986-1987 'Four Sections', recorded in CTS London in November 1988, and Reich's most up to date release. The experimental side was reflected by the magnum opus 'Different Trains', recorded with The Kronos Quartet in September 1988 in San Francisco. The third strand could be heard on the b-side of the 'Different Trains' album in 'Electric Counterpoint'. Here Reich wrote a piece for the overdubbed guitars of Pat Metheny, which followed on from such late '80s investigations as 'Vermont Counterpoint' and 'New York Counterpoint', where flute and clarinets were played against massed pre-recordings of the same instruments.

Though 'Different Trains' is a difficult listening experience it does show a reaffirmation of his dogged experimentalism. "I'm a hidebound realist at heart; I'm not concerned with poetic metaphor," he says. Asked to write for Kronos in 1985, Reich flailed around with notions of how to emulate Bartok. His wife, photographic artist Beryl Korot, suggested writing for a multiplicity of quartets on a sampler (Reich needs the sampler as he always works in pairs or more of instruments, in order to produce alternations and contrasts). Lost for a basis for the composition, he went back to Bartok but that proved a dead end.

Recalling a Jorge Louis Borges story about voyaging forth in search of gold and returning to find it underneath one's bed, Reich started to think about his childhood, about the 4-hour trips across America between New York and Los Angeles accompanied by his governess, a consequence of the divided custody of his divorced parents. This was during the years 1939-1942. He was a Jew travelling on trains in America, while in Europe Jews were travelling on trains to their deaths in concentration camps. Reich has the starting point for a new work.

Fired by this very personal vision, and taking stock from Stockhausen's 'Gesang Der Junglinge' (a speech composition) and his earlier tape works, he dived in. He went out and made digital recordings of his governess Virginia, and a retired train porter. He collected archive recordings of Holocaust survivors. He even found authentic train sounds from the '30s and '40s. He spent months sifting through these sounds to find sounds of accurate pitch, which were then written down in musical form. The strings were directed to imitate the sounds. Kronos made four different string quartet recordings which were then mixed with the train and speech sounds to create the 'Different Trains' recording. Considered a new form of documentary music in three movements, it won a 1990 American Grammy award for Best New Composition.

"My aim is to always write in a different way," he says, "to make drastic changes from large forms to small forms. 'Different Trains' is pivotal. It draws a line in the sand and connects all the work I've been trying to do for years. The piece to me is really an homage to those people — a memorial to those no longer around and to those living."


Pat Metheny's performance of 'Electric Counterpoint' is probably Reich's most rock'n'roll recording. Coming on the flip of the dense 'Different Trains' it provides a neat contrast. Ten guitars and two basses are prerecorded. Metheny then plays an 11th guitar live against the tape. The whole alternates, in the familiar African fashion of Reich's trance pieces, until the third movement when Metheny lets fly with some understated chords which have all the power of a blast from Jimmy Page.

It brings into question Reich's relationship with jazz and popular music. "I'm not into rock. I was raised in the '50s and '60s. I thought rock'n'roll music was a stupid music. To me Elvis was a clown. Fats Domino a clown. Not until the 1960s did I feel that rock became interesting. I must confess I didn't know about Chuck Berry until later. My influences can be traced more to Miles Davis and the modal jazz of John Coltrane. During the '60s I played the Bottom Line twice, but that's as I came to that world. I was pleased with 'Electric Counterpoint', I thought Pat Metheny lent a particular flavour to that piece."

Working from his family home in Vermont, New England, Reich now uses an acoustic piano, an Apple Macintosh, and samplers to write his music. The samplers are by Casio and Digidesign, the latter's Sample Cell being his current favourite. Despite this, he has a very ambivalent attitude to being viewed as some kind of technological maestro. "I don't use tape technology any more. If I'm in the studio I'm recording with my ensemble or an orchestra. I don't make tapes at home. If I'm playing live it is on stage." Which is strange since the Metheny piece is based on tape technology. Why the paradoxical stance?

"It's an aspect of what I've done. There are two tape pieces from the 1960s. During the 1970s I eschewed all electronics except microphones. Now basically I don't like synths, I try and avoid them. Samplers use real sound, the sound of somebody's voice let's say. They have split second timing and you can contribute to something with them in an instrumental way. Synthesizers I use as a marriage of convenience; they are there, so let's see what they can do. Handel did things in Dublin that were convenient for him at the time, like rounding up whatever musicians were there and got them to play his music! What is technology anyway? I've been working for over 20 years without it, working acoustically without even a tape machine. In the end I use nothing but mics."


Can this be taken with a pinch of salt? Who knows? Reich continually contradicts himself in interviews. In one you will find him extolling America's great Minimalist movement, while in another he decries it. There were times when he vowed that his music should be played by large ensembles, while recently he has played down his orchestral achievements. "The 'Four Sections' was my hail and farewell to the orchestra, to a kind of conventional music making, to the very conservative '80s."

He considers the neo-Romanticism of the '80s unfortunate, that his orchestral work fulfilled a challenge, but that in the end it's not worth it. Yet the recurring harmonic patterns and incredible range of 'The Four Sections' is surely a worthwhile achievement.

"I've always had a good relationship with ensembles but difficulties with orchestras. I like the Ensemble Inter Contemporain in Paris, the Schenberg Ensemble in Holland, the Ensemble Modern in Germany, the Group 180 Budapest and the London Sinfonietta. I've heard a reduced version of the BBC Singers play and sing my music like it was the most natural thing in the world. But most orchestras are elephants! Two British recordings of my work by the Piano Circus and London Chamber Orchestra are interesting. The latter did my 'Eight Lines' which was very good indeed. Yes 'The Four Sections' is superb. Michael Tilson Thomas is without doubt the best orchestral interpreter of my work, and a close associate since the 1960s."

Full of paradoxes, Reich is again knee-deep in technology for his next project, a $1 million music theatre piece entitled 'The Cave'. Following on from 'Different Trains', this concerns the Arab/Israeli conflict as mirrored by the story of the cave of Machpela in Hebron on the West Bank. Because it is the burial place of Abraham, who fathered two sons, one by a Jewish woman and one by an Arab, it has become a dual place of worship. Reich sees it as a source of The Koran and The Bible. Thus he has spent three years with his wife interviewing and filming people's responses to the religious significance of the site. The results, when ready, will provide an evening's entertainment as music scored from the pitches, rhythms and timbres of the speakers is performed by musicians and singers of his own ensemble to images depicted, out of time with one another, naturally, on 8/10 ft video monitors. Its operation will require split second synchronisation, digital triggering, lighting artists and so forth. And yet Reich will deny that these synthesised images, video samples and everything else really have anything to do with technology.

Maybe what Reich really means is that the sources of his music are organic. Whether they be a black preacher, African drummers, Indonesian percussionists, poetry, war reminiscences or political views, all his compositions look at the real world as the source. He's just not interested in trickery. His decision to use his wife's video resources was taken because her style was so different to the fast cut/edit so prevalent today. "The images are always absolutely riveted in focus. The timing between the channels is basically musical timing."

So there we go. The life and times of Steve Reich will no doubt go on raising hackles and confounding more expectations. Whatever his position he has made some of the brightest new music this century and is destined to go on doing just that. For the moment 'The Cave' absorbs all his attentions.

"Most opera whether new or old is leaden, old-fashioned and boring. There have been some changes in the style of voice, plus in the way Kurt Weill presented things, but too many accept the idea of the orchestra in the pit, and too many new operas are made for superficial reasons. 'The Cave' is principally dealing with the folk materials of our time. And to me folklore is technology. We live in an urban folklore which is samplers and drum machines not an acoustic guitar. 'The Cave', in its use of video, is basically very folk. It's folk music for now. I started it in late 1989, it will tour Paris, Vienna and other cities in Europe in 1993 and then over to the United States."


Four Organs/Phase Patterns (Shandar 1970).
Drumming/Music For Mallet Instruments/Six Pianos (Deutsche Grammophon 1973).
Music For 18 Musicians (ECM 1976).
Octet/Music For A Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ECM 1979).
The Desert Music (Elektra/Nonesuch 1985).
Sextet/Six Marimbas (Elektra/Nonesuch 1986).
Drumming (new version) (Elektra Nonesuch 1987).
Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint (Elektra/Nonesuch 1989).
The Four Sections/Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ (new version) (Elektra/Nonesuch 1990).

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Sep 1991


Steve Reich


Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Philip Glass

Terry Riley

Interview by Mark Prendergast

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