Steve Reich: Pioneering Minimalist Composer Who Transformed Modern Music

Introduction to Steve Reich

In the landscape of 20th-century classical music, few figures loom as large as Steve Reich. Born in 1936, this pioneering American composer revolutionized the world of music with his innovative approach to minimalism, incorporating influences ranging from jazz and African rhythms to Balinese gamelan. His mesmerizing, pulsing compositions have left an indelible mark on everything from avant-garde classical to electronic and rock music.

By Hans Peters via commons.wikimedia

Early Life and Musical Training

Steve Reich’s musical journey began at an early age. Born in New York City, he started piano lessons at age 4 and went on to study drums as a teenager. His early influences spanned classical music, jazz, and even the pop tunes he heard on the radio. Reich earned a degree in philosophy from Cornell University before diving headfirst into composition at The Juilliard School. There, he studied under influential teachers like Hall Overton and William Bergsma, honing

Experiments with Tape Loops and Phasing

In the mid-1960s, Steve Reich began experimenting with tape loops, creating pieces that would lay the groundwork for his signature phasing technique. Works like It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) featured snippets of recorded speech, looped and played back at slightly different speeds.

As the loops gradually moved out of sync, they created mesmerizing, constantly evolving patterns – a perceptible process that would become a hallmark of Reich’s style.Reich soon translated this phasing concept to live instruments in pieces like Piano Phase (1967) and Violin Phase (1967).

In these works, two or more musicians play the same melodic pattern, slowly shifting out of unison to create shimmering, kaleidoscopic textures. “I am interested in perceptible processes,” Reich explained. “I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.”

Non-Western Influences

In 1970, a transformative trip to Ghana opened Reich’s ears to the complexities of West African drumming. He studied with master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, immersing himself in the intricate polyrhythms of Ewe music.

The impact was profound, leading to Reich’s groundbreaking work Drumming (1971) – a sprawling, 90-minute percussion piece that weaves together African rhythms, phasing techniques, and masterful ensemble interplay.

Reich’s fascination with non-Western music continued throughout the 1970s. He became enamored with the shimmering tones of Balinese gamelan, an influence that seeped into works like Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and the monumental Music for 18 Musicians (1976). In Tehillim (1981), Reich turned to his Jewish heritage, setting Hebrew psalms to pulsing, interlocking instrumental patterns.

Masterworks of the 1970s and 80s

The mid-1970s saw Reich create perhaps his most iconic work: Music for 18 Musicians. Premiered in 1976, this hour-long masterpiece is built around a mesmerizing cycle of 11 chords, performed by an ensemble of pianos, marimbas, xylophones, clarinets, voices, strings, and percussion.

The music ebbs and flows in hypnotic waves, with individual instruments emerging and receding in a constantly shifting tapestry of sound. It remains one of the most celebrated and influential works of minimalism.

In 1988, Reich took a deeply personal turn with Different Trains, a searing reflection on the Holocaust. The piece juxtaposes recorded speech samples – including Reich’s own governess and a Pullman porter – with a live string quartet, creating a haunting meditation on memory, history, and the divergent fates of Jews in Europe and America during World War II.

Different Trains won Reich a Grammy Award in 1989, cementing his status as one of the world’s preeminent living composers.

Continuing Influence and Legacy

As Reich’s career progressed, his influence only grew. His ideas permeated the classical world, but also made a profound impact on popular music. Artists as diverse as Brian Eno, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Radiohead have cited Reich as a major inspiration, drawing on his signature interlocking patterns and hypnotic repetitions. Electronic and ambient musicians, from Aphex Twin to Four Tet to Tyondai Braxton, have built upon Reich’s legacy, crafting pulsing, minimalist soundscapes that owe a clear debt to his pioneering work.

In recent decades, Reich has continued to push his music in new directions. The Cave (1993) and Three Tales (2002), video operas created in collaboration with Reich’s wife, video artist Beryl Korot, explore topics ranging from the Biblical story of Abraham to the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Double Sextet (2007), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a vibrant, rock-inflected work that plays with the idea of a live ensemble “playing against” a recording of itself. And Radio Rewrite (2013) pays homage to the music of Radiohead, transforming songs like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” into vintage Reich.

As Reich celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016, his place in the classical music pantheon was undeniable. Major festivals and concerts around the globe paid tribute to his extraordinary body of work, affirming his status as one of the most significant and influential composers of our time. “There’s just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history,” wrote The Guardian in a glowing profile, “and Steve Reich is one of them.”

Conclusion

In a career spanning six decades, Steve Reich has left an indelible mark on the world of music. His pioneering work with phasing, non-Western rhythms, and perceptible musical processes has opened up new vistas for composers and listeners alike. From the pulsing energy of Drumming to the emotional depth of Different Trains, Reich’s music continues to captivate and inspire, a testament to the enduring power of his singular creative vision. As new generations of musicians and music lovers discover his work, there’s little doubt that Reich’s legacy will continue to resonate, illuminating new paths forward for music in the 21st century and beyond.

Discography

It’s Gonna Rain (1965)
Come Out (1966)
Piano Phase (1967)
Violin Phase (1967)
Drumming (1971)
Clapping Music (1972)
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)
Music for 18 Musicians (1976)
Octet (1979)
Tehillim (1981)
The Desert Music (1984)
Different Trains (1988)
The Cave (1993, with Beryl Korot)
City Life (1995)
Three Tales (2002, with Beryl Korot)
You Are (Variations) (2004)
Double Sextet (2007)
2×5 (2008)
WTC 9/11 (2010)
Radio Rewrite (2013)
Pulse (2015)