Original Creators: Experimental Composer Steve Reich
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Steve Reich.
Some say that music is constantly recycling itself, that in the history of music recording it has become so self-referential that innovation suffers irreparably. To refute those faithless few, we call upon an example of ongoing ingenuity in music, an experimentalist who breaks the mold of any sounds preceding him. Steve Reich, composer and pioneer of the minimal aesthetic has, to date, never made anything that can be labeled as ordinary.
Reich began studying music as a child, and at age 14 he explored Stravinsky and Bach while simultaneously venturing through the world of bebop, studying the drums, and playing jazz. Some years later, he enrolled at the celebrated Juilliard School in New York, where he met future collaborator Philip Glass. It was also at Juilliard that Reich got to know Arnold Schöenberg’s twelve-tone technique, a tonal organization that greatly influenced Reich’s way of thinking about and listening to music.
It’s Gonna Rain, 1965
The first in his series of experiments was It’s Gonna Rain, a minimalist musical composition considered a great touchpoint in Reich’s career. This provocative 18 minute piece is composed of a looped voice sample cut from a speech in which preacher Brother Walter rails about the end of the world.
This seminal work, like so many innovations in sound, is the result of a fortunate mistake. Reich’s idea was to use two tape recorders to align the same recording at the same rate, but thanks to the less than reliable technology of the time, one of the recordings fell out of sync, creating new patterns. This accidental looping non-technique ended up being the basis for Reich’s future creations, such as 1966’s Come Out, and has also strongly influenced the work of musicians like Phillip Glass and Brian Eno.
Hear part of It’s Gonna Rain below:
Around this time, Reich coined the term “Process Music” in regards to minimalism, referring to the format of his compositions involving phasing—the same piece played on two different instruments simultaneously—and the use of phrases and loops. Reich defines “Process Music” in his 1968 manifesto “Music as a Gradual Process”. That year, Reich composed Pendulum Music, a piece involving microphones swinging over speakers, creating phasing feedback tones. Reich himself never recorded that piece, which was introduced to the public in the late 90s by Sonic Youth. Listen below (count to three and prepare your ears):
Music For 18 Musicians, 1974-1976
Reich gained global notoriety in the 70s thanks to one of his most significant compositions, Music for 18 Musicians. At that point in his career, he had come in contact with African music in Ghana, which led him to incorporate several new instruments into his repertoire. After returning from Africa, Reich created Drumming, a 90-minute piece composed for a set of percussion instruments, female vocals, and a single piccolo, later expanded with the creation of Music for 18 Musicians.
Reich’s grand composition is based around a cycle of harmonic augmentation in which each musician starts their sequence at different points and at varying volumes. Each participant leaves the technique and process behind and instead prioritizes the pulse—music that had no relation to melody, but rather repeats phrases or notes, limited only by the musician’s stamina. This piece was first performed on April 26, 1976 in New York City.
Check out the full piece below:
Different Trains, 1988
In the 80s, Reich became more in touch with his Jewish heritage, and his compositions began to take a somewhat darker tone. 1988’s Different Trains is a piece for string quartet and digital tape, and examines Reich’s perception of the Holocaust through his experience in the US during World War II. Being more melodically focused, this work broke from much of his previous work. The Kronos Quartet performance of Different Trains won Reich a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Here’s a sample of it:
In the 90s, Reich started working with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. The couple further explored the origin of religious conflicts with the 1993 work <a href=“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cave_(opera)” target"_blank">The Cave, a sort of musical documentary. In addition to audiovisual production, Reich continued composing pieces for orchestra and occasionally performed live.
Reich’s minimalism connected him to later generations of ambient music such as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Global Communication, Boards of Canada, and many other prominent 90s artists. Entering the 2000s, Reich continued influencing electronic music, having an effect on the emerging glitch scene and subsequently dubstep, having also impacted the work of British producer Burial.