The American composer Steve Reich (born 1936) was the creator of "phase" and "pulse" music. A leading composer of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s, Reich continued to expand his compositional resources to achieve striking expressiveness in his vocal pieces in the 1980s. His music, although very complex, was completely accessible.
One of the foremost composers of minimalism, Steve Reich was the creator of "phase" and "pulse" music, both of which rely on the gradual alteration of repetitive rhythmic patterns to create subtle changes in musical texture. Concerned with the manipulation of aural perception, he directed the listener to focus on one of the many rhythmic patterns occurring concurrently in his music by reinforcing one pattern through changes in dynamics and timbre. Although he was responsible for the invention of the "phase-shifting pulse gate," a device used to aid performers in measuring minute rhythmic changes, Reich avoided the use of electronic instruments in performance. Most of his pieces feature large percussion ensembles with the addition of standard concert string and wind instruments and voice. His later works required orchestras and large vocal ensembles.
Born in New York City on October 3, 1936, Reich spent most of his youth shuttling between the East and West coasts. His parents separated when he was very young, and although he spent most of his time with his father, an attorney in New York, Reich's interest in music may be attributed to the influence of his mother, a singer/songwriter who appeared in several musicals during the 1950s. He studied piano until the age of 14, when the influence of jazz compelled him to take up percussion with Roland Kohloff, the principal tympanist of the New York Philharmonic.
Reich's composition career began after his graduation in 1957 from Cornell University, where he received a degree with distinction in philosophy. During 1957 and 1958 he studied composition with Hall Overton, before entering the Julliard School of Music, where he received instruction from William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti until 1961. He received an M.A. in 1963 from Mills College, where he studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.
Creating "Phase" Music
Reich's first experiments with repetitive sounds occurred in 1965 and 1966 with the manipulation of taped voices. His method of rigging the tape recorders with tape loops that doubled back on one another resulted in the gradual dissection and reconstruction of the sounds called "phasing." Reich drew his material from voices that he found in the environment—It's Gonna Rain, which used a phrase from a Pentecostal minister delivering a sermon on Noah's flood, and Come Out, the text of which was derived from the testimony of a young African-American man injured in a public disturbance. Further experiments with phasing through live performance with the addition of taped sound proved unsatisfying, and the composer began to search for other musical materials.
Reich's interest in African music dated back to 1962, when he discovered A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music. With the aid of a travel grant from the Institute for International Education he studied drumming in Accra, Ghana, in 1970. He also acquired an interest in Balinese Gamalan and studied with Balinese masters in Seattle, Washington, and Berkeley, California, during the summers of 1973 and 1974. But Reich never felt comfortable using non-Western instruments or scales in his music. He retained Western tonality and musical instruments in all his works; he also did not consciously borrow the concepts of cyclic rhythms and ensemble playing found in non-Western cultures, for these were present in his music from the start. His acquaintance with non-Western music simply confirmed the validity of his musical intuition.
In 1966 the composer organized a performing group which later became known as the Steve Reich Ensemble. It was created out of necessity, for no existing ensemble was either capable of or interested in performing his early works. Reich composed Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Phase Patterns, and Four Organs between 1962 and 1970. These works, which explored the controversial "phasing" technique, provoked strong public reaction. A 1973 performance of Four Organs at Carnegie Hall divided the audience into two warring factions so vocal that the performers had to count out loud to keep their places in the music. Nevertheless, public acceptance grew steadily throughout the 1970s. The Steve Reich Ensemble, which at times numbered 18 or more musicians, performed over 300 tours across the United States, Canada, and Europe after 1971.
Drumming (1971) was the last and largest work which employed "phasing" techniques. One and one-half hours of music was divided into four parts, which were performed without pause. Each section used a different arrangement of instruments: section one featured four pairs of tuned bongo drums and male voice; the second used three marimbas and female voices; the third employed three glockenspiels, whistling, and piccolo; and the fourth used the entire ensemble of instruments and voices. However, the sections were unified by one rhythmic pattern which occured continuously throughout the piece. Reich systematically explored phasing by moving identical instruments playing the same pattern out of synchronization. He also introduced several new techniques: the gradual change of timbre while pitch and rhythm remained constant, the gradual substitution of rests for beats (or beats for rests) within the constant regular rhythmic pattern, and the imitation of the exact sounds of the instruments by the human voice.
Changing to "Pulse Music"
Several minor works followed Drumming. These included Clapping Music (1972), a work for two performers who clap their hands, and Six Pianos (1973), composed for performance in a retail piano store. Reich's next major work, Music for 18 Musicians, was composed in 1976. One critic cited it as one of the ten most important works to have emerged during the 1970s. Based on a cycle of 11 chords, the rhythmic patterns revolved around two underlying beats carried by the voices and the mallet instruments. Changes from chord to chord were triggered internally by the performers. In this way each member of the ensemble exercised a certain measure of control over the musical composition during performance.
Music for 18 Musicians was an excellent example of "pulse" music. All of the instruments or voices played or sang pulsing notes within each chord. At first only briefly introduced, the chords later returned to pulse for five or more minutes as the foundation for small musical pieces.
Reich's reliance on melody and harmony as well as rhythm in his later works indicated a move away from minimalism, which usually suppressed one or more of these. Indeed, Tehillim (1982), his successful vocal work, represented a significant change in his compositional style. A broad melodic structure supplanted the short repetitive patterns which characterized his earlier works. The four solo voices conveyed the five Jewish psalm texts in whole, much in contrast to his earlier works, which used voices only as a sonorous addition to the ensemble. Furthermore, the psalm texts clearly prescribed the musical direction. The final "hallelujah," for example, was exhilirating.
Desert Music (1984) was a later work in the solo vocal and orchestral idiom. Scored for 27 voices and an 88-piece orchestra, it was by far his most ambitious work to that point. Reich derived the text from the poems of William Carlos Williams. Although it was a somber commentary on nuclear war, Reich was still able to instill the music with joy, excitement, and humor.
Aside from his concert pieces, Reich collaborated with several choreographers, including Elliot Feld, Alvin Ailey, and Laura Dean. Jerome Robbins set his Eight Lines to dance for the New York City Ballet on 1985. Up to this point, Reich had avoided composing for the theater.
Music of Human Speech
The transformation of human speech into music shaped his work in the late 1980s and 1990s. For Different Trains (1988) he recorded the voices of Holocaust survivors, transcribed the most melodious phrases into musical motation, and developed the entire musical structure from this. In performance the taped voices stored in a sampling keyboard which enabled them to be precisely integrated with the live musicians.
Reich collaborated with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, to create The Cave (1993), a two-and-a -half hour multimedia opera for ensemble, voices, tape, and video. The cave in the title refered to the Cave of Machpelah, the traditional burial place of the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs, and so sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Taped voices and video footage of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans were combined with graphics, songs and chants of Biblical and Koranic texts and the music of a 13 member ensemble. As K. Robert Schwarz wrote in Opera News (October 1993), "Reich and Korot have painstakingly constructed a unique hybrid - not quite music video, not quite docu-drama, not quite opera, but owing sonething to them all. [Audiences] may be glimpsing the face of music theater in the twenty-first century."
Steve Reich was the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Museum. He received commissions from Radio Frankfurt, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Ensemble Intecontemporain of Paris. His recordings can be found on CBS-Odyssey, Columbia Masterworks, Deutsche Grammaphon, ECM, Angel Records, and Elektra Nonesuch.
Further Reading on Steve Reich
The reader is encouraged to consult Steve Reich's Writings on Music edited by K. Koenig (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1974). Although not particularly well-written, this collection of essays provided insight into his compositional development as a journey of discovery rather than decision. Two interviews, one by M. Nyman in Musical Times 62 (1971), and one by E. Wasserman in Art Forum (May 1972), addressed his popular success in the 1970s. An article in the German periodical Melos/Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 1 (1975) examined his innovations in musical form and structure. Articles also appeared in the New York Art Journal 17 (1980) and Virtuoso (June 1981). A more detailed biographical essay can be found in David Ewen's American Composers (1982).