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Music Essays
electronic music pioneers part 1 electronic music pioneers part 2
steve reich - minimalist a short history of the american composer

Different Trains
different trains - part one introduction and the use of music technology
different trains - part two thematic development
different trains - part three thematic development and continuity
different trains - part four dynamics and conclusions
different trains - table 1 tables 1.a. to 1.c
different trains - table 2 tables 2.a. to 2.g



the minimalism of steve reich



Reich's Musical Education

Reich was born in New York in 1936. At school he took to percussion, and in his undergraduate days at Cornell University (studying philosophy) received some part-time tuition in composition. His post-graduate days were spent first with Hall Overton, and then at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, between the years 1957-1961. Perhaps the most notable influence on his developing style came with the instruction of Luciano Berio (between ?1961 and 1963 at Mills College, California). It is at this point that Reich seems to have become dissatisfied with the serialism and indeterminacy of his counterparts and instead sought to probe and revitalise tonality in composition. Berio is said to have advised Reich,

"If you want to write tonal music, why don't you write tonal music?"

(Potter, K. Steve Reich , The Musical Times {Sevenoaks, Jan 1986})

Steve Reich


Steve Reich performing clapping music
performing Clapping Music, 2006. (photo by Ian Oliver, souce: Wikipedia)


Early Works by Reich

The father of "minimalism" (the reduction of music to a fixed pulse with lucid harmonic and melodic repetition) La Monte Young, had an important impact on the composers in New York with his arrival in 1960 with pieces such as "Composition 1960 #7", consisting of just one two-note chord. Reich, under the influence of Young, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, began experimenting in an aspect of minimalism, "phasing" (the gradual change of pulse of one repeated motif against another - Reich writes about this in "Writings About Music" {Halifax, Canada, 1974}, p.50). Early experiments in "phasing" included the tape pieces "It's Gonna Rain" (1965) and "Come Out" (1966). Such works reveal Reich's social awareness; "Come out" concerns the retrial of a black youth. These pieces form a watershed, for process music was to dominate his work for the years up to 1972. He developed the "Phase Shifting Pulse Gate", an electronic device designed to enable ensembles to gradually alter individual tempo whilst remaining synchronized with each other. This was used in "Pulse Music" (1969) although Reich regards the device as unsuccessful (again in "Writings about Music", p.25), preferring to develop human phasing (for example, "Four Organs", 1970).


Reich and Rhythm

Reich's love of rhythm was fuelled in 1970 by research with the master drummer of the Ewe Tribe in Ghana. Such investigation led him to conclude that African rhythmic structure ought to be included in Western music,
"It's not just a question of importing exotic sounds and textures".

(Bowen, M. Different Strains, The Guardian {London, October 1988}, p.32)
"Drumming" (1971) was one result of his time spent in Africa. Several other key works were to follow, such as "Clapping Music" and "Music for Pieces of Wood" (1973). However, it would seem that this work signals an end to pure minimalism (in using sparse resources) for Reich was now to turn to larger scale projects, from now on it was to be minimalism magnified.


Minimalism Magnified

Music for 18 Musicians” in 1976 utilises expanded timbre resources and harmonic flexibility, revolving around eleven chords which steadily fade in and out of audibility. Repetition was further curtailed with "Tehillim" (1981), a word setting of four Hebrew psalms which included elaborate development of melody. And in 1983, "The Desert Music", engaging over a 100 performers, lasting some 50 minutes and employing complex chromatic harmonic cycles exemplifies minimalism that had come of age. Reich continued to write for chamber groups in this period, alongside more extensive assignments. In 1993, for the first time Reich moved into the theatre with a music/video production in entitled "The Cave" (scored for percussion, strings and voices) - a work not dissimilar in style to the new opera of one of his contemporaries, Philip Glass.


Reich and Speech Sampling

"Different Trains" (1988), a work in three movements, is a synthesis of live and pre-recorded strings, speech samples (which form the basis of the motifs in the work) and samples of steam engine whistles. It won a grammy award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Reich also invistigated speech and noise sampling with the work "City Life" (1995), composed of recordings of everyday city street noises such as car horns and alarms, and speech fragments. As in "Different Trains", Reich takes the intonations from the speech and turns these into melodies, which are performed by the live ensemble. In 2002, Reich again explored this technique with the three act video opera "Three Tales". Here the subject is technology itself - act one concerns the Hindenburg disaster, the second act is about nuclear experiments at the Bikini Atoll, and the final act concerns genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.


Recent Works

Since "Three Tales", Reich has focused on writing smaller scale instrumental works, such as the three pieces in variation form: "You Are (Variations)" (2004), "Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings" (2005) and "Daniel Variations" (2006).

In 2009, Reich was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "Double Sextet" (2007), a piece for an instrumental quintet (flute, clarinet, viola or violin, cello and piano), percussion and tape. The work can either be performed with two live ensembles, or with six musicians playing alongside a recording of themselves on tape. Reich has been fascinated by this idea for a long time, employing the technique in "Different Trains" and also as far back as 1967 in the work "Violin Phase".

Commenting on the Pulitzer award, Tim Page (professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California) observes:

"It's about time the first generation of minimalist composers were honoured because they changed American music. It could be argued they changed world music...he (Reich) helped teach the world to listen to music in a new way."


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