ImprovNotes February 2014 Artist of the Month: Steve Reich

Stephen Michael Reich is one of America’s most influential and important living composers. Along with composers like Philip Glass and La Monte Young, Reich helped usher in minimal music in the mid to late 1960s. Many of his early experimentation was with twelve-tone composition, and he was particularly attracted to the rhythmic possibilities more so than the melodic aspects. His innovations are manifold, and include using tape loops to create phasing patterns (It’s Gonna Rain), as well as simple audible processes to explore larger themes, such as the historical themes from his Jewish heritage on the Grammy Award-winning Different Trains. His compositions are often marked by his use of repetition, as well as slow harmonic rhythms. In 2007 Reich was awarded the Polar Music Prize along with Sonny Rollins. He won the Polar Music Prize again in 2009 for his Double Sextet, which the citation described as “a major work that displays an ability to channel an initial burst of energy into a large-scale musical event, built with masterful control and consistently intriguing to the ear.”
Reich’s first major work It’s Gonna Rain (1965), influenced by fellow minimalist Terry Riley, uses a fragment from a black Pentecostal preacher about the end of the world, transferring the fragment “It’s Gonna Rain” to numerous tape loops which gradually move out of phase with one another. Such phasing and tape loop innovation is heard on many of Reich’s early works, culminating in some ways on Clapping Music (1972), which uses no instruments beyond the human body, and in which the players do not so much as phase in and out with one another, but shift by one quaver beat every 12 bars until they line up in unison 144 bars later. Reich’s compositions remained innovative and gradually expanded in scope for ensembles, perhaps influenced by his early forays with his improvising ensemble in San Francisco in 1963, which featured a few members of the Grateful Dead. Further, Reich was inspired by jazz, particularly the music of John Coltrane who showed him how much you could do with just a few chords with little harmony. For example, Reich described Coltrane’s Africa/Brass as “basically a half-an-hour in F.”

Reich’s trip to study music in Ghana in 1971 inspired his piece Drumming, which was composed for a nine-piece percussion ensemble that included female voices and piccolo. After Drumming, Reich continued to work on more elaborate compositions, including his seminal Music for 18 Musicians (1974), Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), and Octet (1979). Reich continues to remain an innovative and prolific composer, working with groups like The Kronos Quartet, and he has influenced a generation of musicians from Brian Eno to indie-rock artist Sufjan Stevens, as well as instrumental ensembles like Tortoise, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. One of the things about any artist who continues to grow is his or her ability to listen and move with the times, emphasized by Reich’s admiration for the band Radiohead, which led to his composition, Radio Rewrite.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of Reich’s layered and long career of creative music making. To read more—and in the artist’s own words—about Reich’s compositions, reflecting his changing ideas about music, check out his Writings on Music. For now, here are two of Reich’s pieces via YouTube: Proverb (1996) and Music for 18 Musicians (live in Japan, 2008)


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