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Steve Reich

Date of birth : 1936-10-03
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-01-16

Stephen Michael "Steve" Reich is an American composer who together with La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass is a pioneering composer of minimal music. His innovations include using tape loops to create phasing patterns (examples are his early compositions, "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out"), and the use of simple, audible processes to explore musical concepts (for instance, "Pendulum Music" and "Four Organs").

Like Philip Glass, John Adams, and Terry Riley, Steve Reich belongs to a group of composers known as "minimalists," who write music based largely on patterns of repetition. Minimalism came into prominence when many American composers tired of what they considered the over-rigorous, emotionally bankrupt style of music that was held up as an example when they were students. As a descriptive label, "minimalism" can be ineffectual--since each minimalist composer has his own distinct voice--but the movement has become a prominent and important musical style.

Reich was born in New York City in 1936, and grew up playing the piano. But in his early teens his interest switched to percussion. In 1982 he told a Newsweek reporter: "I had heard [jazz alto saxophonist] Charlie Parker and was suddenly off on this great music. Around then, I also heard the Brandenburg concertos [by Baroque composer J. S. Bach] and [Igor Stravinsky's 1913 ballet] The Rite of Spring for the first time, and that made an indelible impression on me." As a result, he began studying percussion when he was 14 with Roland Kohloff, the principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic.

When Reich entered Cornell University in 1953, it was as a philosophy major. While at Cornell he was introduced to many types of music by the musicologist William Austin, and by the time he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1957, Reich had decided to become a composer. For the next six years he studied composition privately, first with Hall Overton in New York City and then at New York City's Juilliard School of Music with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma; he later attended Mills College in California, where he studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio and received a master's degree in composition in 1963.

It's Gonna Rain and Come Out are among Reich's first pieces and were composed in 1965 for electronic tape, with the same recorded material played on two tape recorders but slightly out of synchronization. Reich then began to experiment with this process, which became known as "phasing," in works for acoustic instruments, such as Piano Phase and Violin Phase, both written in 1967. The purpose of phasing was to create a musical process: "I do not mean the process of composition," Reich said in his book Writings About Music, "but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes.... I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.... What I'm interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing."

The composer founded the group Steve Reich and Musicians in 1966 for the purpose of performing his music, which called for various combinations of instrumentalists and vocalists. The group, which started out with three performers but has included as many as 40, began touring internationally, and Reich's music became increasingly prominent in new music concerts around the world.

In 1970 Reich, who had always been interested in non-Western music, went to the University of Ghana in Africa to study African drumming. Reviewers have noted that as a result, his music exhibited more richness and complexity, qualities said to be present in 1971's Drumming. The 90-minute composition was Reich's first widely known work, boosting him into fame in the United States and Europe. It remains one of his most popular pieces. Reich also studied the music of the gamelan, or Indonesian percussion orchestra, in the early 1970s, and his musical style continued to develop in pieces such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), Music for 18 Musicians (1976), and Octet (1979).

In 1981 Reich composed a work for orchestra and voices, Tehillim, the first of his pieces with a written text: the 19th Psalm from the Hebrew Bible ("Tehillim" is Hebrew for "psalms" or "praises"). Reich had studied Hebrew cantillation, which is the art of the cantor--a synagogue official who sings or chants liturgical music and leads the congregation in prayer--and had rediscovered his Jewish roots during this period. Tehillim is considered one of Reich's most extraordinary works, and its performance in 1982 by the New York Philharmonic is often credited for bringing minimalist music into the established orchestral repertoire.

Reich's next major piece, The Desert Music, was written in 1983 for chorus and orchestra, with a text by American poet William Carlos Williams. It was considered a milestone work because it incorporated many of Reich's earlier techniques while being distinctly new. As K. Robert Schwartz wrote of Desert Music in Musical America, "Reich has miraculously remained faithful to his original aesthetic: steady pulse, tonal center, clarity of process, and repetition all remain essential facets of The Desert Music. Despite its tremendous advances in orchestral technique, in expressive range, in harmonic and melodic language, and in text setting, The Desert Music still possesses a satisfying integrity with Reich's larger body of work. Linked together by pulsing chordal cycles reminiscent of Music for 18 Musicians, partaking of the rhythmic construction first introduced in Drumming and the densely layered canons typical of Tehillim, The Desert Music retains organic ties with Reich's past while introducing new avenues for the future."

In the late 1980s Reich returned to composing for smaller performing forces. The culmination of his work during the decade was Different Trains, which uses five prerecorded voice tracks: Virginia, the woman who took care of Reich when he was a child; Lawrence Davis, a former Pullman porter; and the voices of three concentration camp survivors. The voice tracks are synchronized with train whistles and up to four recorded string quartets. Reich thought of Different Trains as a way to come to terms with his Jewish heritage and his identity. In an article in the New York Times he said, "I did this piece because, as a Jew, had I lived in Europe, I would not be here. It tries to present as faithfully as possible the era in which I survived, and in which [many European Jews] perished.... I hope that The Desert Music will have a future, but I don't know that I was born to do that kind of work for the rest of my life. Whereas I feel that I was born to do Different Trains, and that if I hadn't done it, no one else would have."

Reich is often considered the most thoughtful and interesting of the minimalists, and his music, in combination with that of colleagues Glass and Adams, has opened the doors for a new listening audience. In a Musical America article Reich said, "When American music was basically aping European serial music [in the fifties and early sixties], the audience was very limited. As American music has again become as natural an utterance for us as it was for [American composer Aaron] Copland in the thirties, then we're in a situation where normalcy has been regained. And the audience is reacting to that reality."

According to Reich, the piece is influenced by Bartók's and Alfred Schnittke's string quartets, and Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare.This series continued with Dance Patterns (2002), Cello Counterpoint (2003), and sequence of works centered around Variations: You Are (Variations) (2004) (a work which looks back to the vocal writing of works like Tehillim or The Desert Music), Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings (2005, for the London Sinfonietta) and Daniel Variations (2006).

Reich was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music, on April 20, 2009, for Double Sextet.December 2010 NoneSuch and Indaba Music held a community remix contest where over 250 submissions were received, and Steve Reich and Christian Carey judged the finals. Reich spoke in a related BBC interview that once he composed a piece he would not alter it again himself "when it's done, it's done". On the other hand he acknowledged that "remixes" have an old tradition e.g. famous religious music pieces where melodies were further developed into new songs.

Selective Works:
-Come Out (composed in 1965)/ Piano Phase (composed c. 1967)/ It's Gonna Rain (composed in 1965)/ Clapping Music Elektra/Nonesuch.
-Drumming (composed in 1971)/ Six Pianos / Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (composed in 1973), Deutsche Grammophon.
-Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards Philips.
-Music for 18 Musicians (composed in 1976), ECM.
-Tehillim (composed in 1981), ECM.
-The Desert Music (composed in 1983), Nonesuch.
-Different Trains (composed in the late 1980s), Elektra/ Nonesuch.


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