Steve Reich: Phases, Patterns and Tapes

Steve Reich (Credit: Wonge Bergmann)
Steve Reich was born in New York on October 1936 and is one of the pioneering composers of American minimalist music along with La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. His work has influenced many composers, artists and music producers. His music often features a steady pulse and the repetition of a relatively small amount of melodic material. Some of his works have been remixed by electronic musicians.

After having studied music and composition, Reich worked with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a group founded in 1962 to study and perform with tape music, with Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros among others. Reich was also involved with the premiere of Riley's work In C, and suggested the use of the eighth note pulse, which is now standard in performances of this piece.

Reich used tape loops to create phasing patterns. His early composition It's Gonna Rain (1965) used a fragment of a sermon by a street preacher with multiple tape loops moving out of phase with one another. Come out (1966) used a spoken phrase on two channels initially played in unison, going out of sync, then splitting into four voices, then eight, until the words become unintelligible, remaining just the rhythmic and tonal patterns.

In 1967 Steve Reich translated this technique from recorded tape to performance with Piano Phase, a work for two pianos with only six pitches, repeating two melodic phrases, initially in unison, then at a slightly different speed to slowly shift out of phase with each other, until the two parts line up again, but one sixteenth note apart. The second player then resumes the previous tempo. This cycle of speeding up and then locking in continues throughout the piece several times. Violin Phase, also written in 1967, was built on a similar way, but here Reich introduced what he called resulting patterns: the interlocking of several shifted parts, all playing the same pattern, creates new patterns, taking the listener to an aural experience where he decides what he wants to hear each moment.

Pendulum Music was composed in 1968 and revised in 1973. This piece is the result of the process of three or more microphones swinging back and forth as pendulums, suspended above the speakers by a cable. Feedback tones are created by a microphone nearing a speaker, and different lengths of cable swing at different speeds, producing phasing feedback tones.

Four Organs (1970) was made for four electronic organs and maraca, as a process of augmentation of an eleventh chord which increases in duration from an eighth note at the beginning to 200 beats at the end. First some notes are sustained after the chord, then some notes anticipate, until all the tones sound almost in sequence.

Drumming (1970-71), for percussion ensemble with female voices and piccolo, was composed by Reich after a visit to Ghana where he learned from the master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie. This work combines the phasing technique with rhythmic reductions (substituting beats for rests) and rhythmic constructions (substituting rests for beats), and resulting patterns can also be heard as a result of the combination of the phased patterns.

Clapping Music (1972) was written for two performers, one clapping a basic rhythm, a 12 eighth-note long phrase, all the time, and the other clapping the same pattern but shifting by one eight note every 12 bars, until both players are back in unison after 144 bars.

In Six Pianos (1973), we can find different melodic phrases played in unison with the same rhythmic pattern, then some phrases are shifted two beats out of phase, and different patterns slowly fade in and out throughout the piece. Some years later Reich composed a variation for marimbas, Six Marimbas (1986).

Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) returns to the augmentation process of repeated chord cadences of organ and voices singing vowel sounds, over a pattern of marimbas and glockenspiels.

Increasing the number of instruments and performers led to harmonically richer pieces in Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) and Octet (1979). These works often show the augmentation of harmonies and melodies of larger ensembles over a pulsing note, growing in acoustic effects and harmonic movement. Octet was later rescored as Eight Lines (1983), adding a string quartet to make the performance easier.

Tehillim ("Psalms", 1981), scored for voices, strings, winds and percussion, contrasts with his previous works, using formal counterpoint and functional harmony.

Other relevant works from these years include Desert Music (1983) for orchestra and chorus, Sextet (1984) for 4 percussionists and 2 keyboardists, and Electric Counterpoint (1987) for electric guitar and tape. The first recording of Electric Counterpoint was performed by Pat Metheny, and later it has been played by Radiohead.

Reich made use of recorded speech again in the award-winning piece Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, and later in City Life (1994), which uses digital samplers among the orchestral instruments, playing recorded speech and sounds from the streets of New York, like car horns, door slams, air brakes, car alarms and others. These works transfer intonation from recorded speech to instrumental melody, with speech samples often doubled with instruments. Different Trains was originally performed by Kronos Quartet.

Reich made two musical collaborations with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, making the music for her video operas The Cave (1993) and Three Tales (2002).

Reich's music has gradually evolved through the years from the early minimalist approach to more melodic developments, suitable for wider audiences. Latest popular works include You Are - Variations (2004), for voices and ensemble, and Double Sextet (2007), scored for two sextets of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano, where the two pianos interlock and create the effect of constant eighth-note chords. This piece won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

The piece 2x5 (2008) is similar to Sextet, but for rock instruments. It is scored for five musicians and pre-recorded tape, or two identical rock quintets: 2 drum sets, 2 pianos, 4 electric guitars and 2 bass guitars.

Radio Rewrite (2012) was inspired by two Radiohead songs, "Jigsaw Falling into Place" and "Everything in Its Right Place". It is scored for clarinet, flute, two violins, viola, cello, two vibraphones, two pianos and electric bass guitar.

The music of Steve Reich has inspired works by Bj√∂rk, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield and Talking Heads among others, and many have remixed his work. Reich published a book about his philosophy and aesthetics in music, "Writings About Music" (1974), later updated and re-edited as "Writings On Music" (2002).

More information on Steve Reich can be found on his official website:

If you liked this article you may wish to read my series on minimalist music: American minimalist musicEuropean music connected with minimalism and Precursors of minimalist music.

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