Learn from Legends: Steve Reich

January 3, 2019

Only few composers of the 20th century have made it into the big canon of composition. Common names are piano virtuosos like Philip Glass or film music makers like Ludovico Einaudi. Yet another name that ought to receive due praise is Steve Reich (b. 1936). This New York born composer reconfigured the concept of time in music in a way that lingers on in various (electronic) musics today. The sonic clouds that overlap and extend one another in his music cause a mesmerising effect upon both listener and musician.


     [ Steve Reich © Jeffrey Herman ]     


A famous musical parlour game designed by Reich is his Clapping Music (1972), which needs no more than at least two human bodies (or four hands) for its execution. The idea is simple: two players continuously clap the same one-measure rhythmic phrase, with one of the players adding a single beat after after eight measures. By then repeating the original pattern, one finds that the two patterns are not parallel anymore but compliment each other to create a new rhythmic phrase. The one player keeps adding the single beat after each eight measures, until the two clappers are back at the original rhythm. If it all sounds a lot more complicated than it really is, the video below should clear things up and get you going.


     [ Clapping Music - Steve Reich ] 


Reich then set out to fine-tune his idea on “phase shifting”: two patterns seem to conflict at first but in fact shift alongside each other to continuously form new patterns. Perhaps his best work in this regard is his Music for 18 Musicians (1976), in which 9 instruments (including the clarinet, marimba, and female voice) are doubled at different speeds. The effect is a cloud of music that seems nervous at first, but magical when you let loose of your inner need for strict rhythms. Highly recommended for studying or meditating!


     [ Music for 18 Musicians - Steve Reich & Ensemble @ Lowlands 2013 ] 


The musical masterpieces by Steve Reich do not only mess with the sense of time within these compositions but have also changed the course of (composed) music history. His play on time in music resonates in the works of bands like Tortoise and King Crimson, or producers like The Orb and Floating Points. Hence, it is about time we learn to listen differently and appreciate non-symmetrical rhythms.

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