Steve Reich Biography

American classical composer
One of the first composers associated with minimalism, Reich paved a new road in musical experimentation, bridging the acoustic and electronic worlds and Western and non-Western music.

October 3, 1936; New York, New York
Also known as:
Stephen Michael Reich (full name)
Principal works
choral works: Tehillim, 1981, revised 1982 (for voices and ensemble); The Desert Music, 1984, revised 1986 (text by William Carlos Williams; for chorus and orchestra); The Cave, 1993 (with Beryl Korot; for four voices, ensemble, and video); Three Tales, 2002 (with Korot; for video projector, five voices, and ensemble); You Are, 2004 (for voices and chamber orchestra).

experimental works: Pitch Charts, 1963; The Plastic Haircut, 1963 (sound track; for tape); Livelihood, 1964 (for tape); It’s Gonna Rain, 1965 (for tape); Come Out, 1966 (for tape); Violin Phase, 1967 (for violin and tape); Vermont Counterpoint, 1982; New York Counterpoint, 1985; Electric Counterpoint, 1987; Different Trains, 1988 (for string quartet and tape).

orchestral works: Drumming, 1971 (for nine percussions and two female voices); Music for Eighteen Musicians, 1976; Octet, 1979 (revised as Eight Lines, 1983); Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, 1980.

piano works: Piano Phase, 1967 (for two pianos and two marimbas); Six Pianos, 1973 (revised as Six Marimbas, 1986).

The Life
Stephen Michael Reich (rik) was born in New York City to relatively wealthy parents Leonard and June (Carroll) Reich. June was a Broadway singer and lyricist noted for “Love Is a Simple Thing.” His parents divorced as Reich neared his first birthday, and for the next several years, he shuttled between his father’s apartment in Manhattan and his mother’s house in Los Angeles. The cross-country train rides, spent in the company of his governess Virginia Mitchell, would later inspire his Different Trains.

Reich began piano lessons at age seven, but he felt that he was being indoctrinated in “middleclass favorites” such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Richard Wagner, and his ultimate disinterest led him to quit lessons at age ten.

Reich found most of his musical inspiration in jazz and in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky. Intrigued by the rhythmic aspects he found in these, he began percussion lessons at age fourteen.

Reich entered Cornell University in 1953, where he majored in philosophy; his thesis focused on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. While at Cornell, Reich attended music history classes with musicologist William Austin, who shared musical interests with Reich. After graduating from Cornell, Reich studied at the Juilliard School with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti; among his classmates was fellow minimalist Philip Glass, though the two did not interact significantly.

Reich aborted a last-minute a plan to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy at Harvard University, choosing instead to move to California to further his study of composition. He nearly became a classmate of La Monte Young and Terry Riley at the University of California at Berkeley, but he ultimately chose to attend Mills College in Oakland to study with Luciano Berio and, for a short time, Darius Milhaud. Like many academics around the country, Berio espoused the twelve-tone system, and he used it as the basis for many lessons. The rebellious Reich decided to take a new approach to serialism by writing twelve-tone pieces without using the variations of inversions, retrogrades, and transpositions; this lack of alterations was an early indicator of the repetition to come in Reich’s future works.

In 1961 Reich married Joyce Barkett, and they had a child who died in infancy. They divorced in 1963. In 1976 Reich married Beryl Korot, a visual artist who specializes in multichannel video, and they had a son, Ezra, born in 1978.

The Music
Reich’s music is noted for, among other characteristics, explorations of gradual processes within music, primarily through the use of phasing techniques and, to a lesser degree, additive rhythms.

Like Riley, Reich worked for a time at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and he began his own experiments with tape loops, writing such works as Livelihood and scoring filmmaker Robert Nelson’s The Plastic Haircut (1963). Though fascinated by the options that tape presented, he still desired to offer live performances, and he believed that a composer should play in his ensemble.During his last months at Mills College, Reich formed an improvisational group, consisting of violin, cello, saxophone, piano, and himself on drums. Unfortunately, improvisation was not the group’s strong point, and Reich quickly realized that he had to offer them somethingmore controlled.Hewrote Pitch Charts, which specifies the pitches the performers are to use but not the rhythms. Reich’s ensemble continued to perform his music at San Francisco Mime Troupe shows. During one of these shows, in autumn of 1964, Riley was in the audience, and he got up and left, claiming Reich’s music was “too selfindulgent.” Aware that Riley had left the show before it ended, Reich went to Riley’s home the next day to confront him. In the course of the conversation, Riley showed Reich the score to In C, and Reich was instantly impressed, even offering Riley the use of his performing ensemble to help premiere the piece. Reich’s belief that a clear tonal center and consistent pulse could be used as the cornerstone for new music was reinforced, and he was also made aware of what could be done through the use of compositional loops. Especially interesting to Reich was the aspect of phasing, where members of the ensemble would begin together but slip out of sync as the piece progressed.

It’s Gonna Rain.
Wanting to combine the use of loops with electronic tape, Reich recorded a young black preacher in San Francisco, Brother Walter, making two identical loops of a portion of his speech. He played them back on separate machines, the two loops persistently repeating the same phrase but gradually falling out of phase. The resulting piece was It’s Gonna Rain, which ultimately encompassed eight layers of the same portion of the speech.

Piano Phase.
Invigorated by the techniques he discovered while writing It’s Gonna Rain and the similarly constructed Come Out, Reich extended the phasing possibilities of tape loops to live performance.

Piano Phase was the first of these endeavors.

Written for piano duet, the piece begins with both players in unison. At specified points, the second pianist gradually increases his tempo until he realigns rhythmically with the first pianist, though nowthe two are out of sync pitchwise. This phasing and realigning continues in a cyclical fashion until the two players have returned to a true unison. Out of this juxtaposition of identical lines comes what Reich has termed resulting patterns, hidden material that appears as a result of the phasing process.

Different listeners may identify different resulting patterns, giving pieces such as Piano Phase and Violin Phase a rather subjective quality.

Reich’s combined interest in percussion and non-Western music led him to spend several weeks studying African drumming at the University of Ghana in Accra. Drumming reflects the techniques Reich absorbed there, and it also represents a turning point in his musical style. It is the last piece to use phasing, and the first to explore differences of timbre within a work. Its score includes four pairs of tuned bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, two female voices, whistling, and piccolo. The voices perform textless material and are treated more as instruments, supplementing the tone color of the marimbas and glockenspiels.

In the late 1970’s, Reich felt a compulsion to reconnect with his Jewish heritage, and he began to study Hebrew, the Torah, and Hebraic cantillation. Fascinated by the melodic nature of Hebrew, Reich travelled to Israel to hear cantors steeped in the centuries-old tradition. Upon his return, he began settings of Psalms 18, 19, 34, and 150, collected under the title Tehillim. Completed and first performed in 1981, Tehillim builds on the increased instrumentation introduced in Drumming: clarinets, strings, mallet percussion, female voices, electric organ, and other percussive sounds called for in the scripture (tambourines without jingles, maracas, hand-clapping, and miniature cymbals).

Tehillim exhibits Reich’s interest in counterpoint, and it points toward his series of pieces using this technique: Vermont Counterpoint, New York Counterpoint, and Electric Counterpoint.

Different Trains.
Another outgrowth of his study of Judaism led Reich to reflect on his childhood train journeys during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. He recognized that train rides for European Jews during this same time had different results, and he was inspired to compose Different Trains, scored for string quartet and tape. The voices on the tapes include his governess, a retired train porter, and a handful of Holocaust survivors; and train noises, such as whistles, are also present. The three sections of the piece depict the different natures of rail travel: “America: Before the War”; “Europe: During the War”; and “America: After the War.” Musical Legacy
Reich’s music made its mark on his minimalist contemporaries, Riley, Young, and Glass, just as their music impacted Reich. Though the four had different approaches to the broad concept of minimalism, their paths crossed in such a way that they absorbed one another’s ideas. Reich’s transference of concepts initially associated with electronic media to live performance broadened the vocabulary of composers writing for traditional instruments, and it influenced the practice of sampling, where electronic and live media come together. Later performers, such as Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield, and David Bowie, have made use of techniques developed by Reich. In addition, Reich’s use of speech as melodic material (such as in Different Trains) has been used in some formby composers such as Scott Johnson and John Adams.

The incorporation of non-Western musics cannot be underestimated, and though Reich was not alone in this juxtaposition of cultures, scholars such as Keith Potter credit Reich as having more influence in this manner than his contemporaries.

Likely, this is because of Reich’s ability to blend non-Western techniques in such a way that the resulting product works within the Western aesthetic while expanding those aesthetic limits. ¶