Steve Reich – 10 of the best

The composer – one of the founders of minimalism – has been at the forefront of contemporary music for over 50 years. On the day he turns 80, here are 10 works mapping his remarkable creative career

Steve Reich celebrates his 80th birthday today. Together with Terry Riley and Philip Glass, he was one of the founders of minimalism in the 1960s, and he has been at the forefront of American music ever since. The succession of utterly distinctive works Reich has composed in the last half century includes some of the most remarkable music of our time, their influence continues to cross continents and almost all musical boundaries. Here are 10 highlights, mapping a remarkable creative career.

It’s Gonna Rain (1965)

Where it all began, when Reich was playing around with a tape loop of a revivalist preacher shouting “It’s gonna rain!”, playing it back simultaneously on two machines, one running slightly faster than the other. As the two tapes moved out of phase, and eventually back together again, he noticed the teasingly ambiguous range of rhythmic and tonal effects created. It became the basis of a tape piece, and phasing was born.

Piano Phase (1967)

After a series of tape pieces Reich made the crucial switch to working with live instruments, applying the phasing techniques he had perfected in the studio to sequences of pitches played on two pianos moving steadily in and out of sync, generating an ever-changing sequence of unexpected shapes and gestures along the way.

Drumming (1970-71)

In 1970 Reich won a scholarship to study west African drumming techniques in Ghana. On his return to the US he put what he had learnt into his most ambitious work to date. Drumming shows that the techniques of minimalism he’d been developing could be used as the basis of large-scale musical structures all derived from a single tiny rhythmic cell. The result is one of the enduring classics of pure minimalism.

Music for 18 Musicians (1976)

Not only Reich’s greatest achievement, but one of the landmarks of 20th-century music, Music for 18 Musicians is a richly exuberant and alluring ensemble piece, which gives the pulsing layers of his instrumental writing a genuinely expressive and harmonically meaningful large-scale architecture, and demonstrated that minimalism was so much more than an ephemeral musical fashion.

Tehillim (1981)

In his earlier works Reich used voices as more or less an instrumental tone colour, embedding them as another strand in his pulsing textures. But in the psalm settings of Tehillim, the first work in which Reich explored his Jewish heritage, a quartet of women’s voices takes centre stage for the first time, in music that derives its rhythms from the inflections of the Hebrew text, which is delivered without vibrato in a timeless way.

The Desert Music (1984)

Reich has composed relatively few pieces for full orchestra, generally preferring to work with smaller ensembles that can more easily achieve the high levels of precision his music demands. The Desert Music, though, is one of his grandest conceptions, using a chorus and a huge orchestra for settings of poems by William Carlos Williams that trace out a 45-minute arch form.

Different Trains (1988)

Both a memory of the train journeys across the US that Reich undertook as a child in the 1940s, and a reflection that had he grown up in Europe, as a Jew Reich’s train journeys would have been very different, Different Trains is perhaps the most personal of his works. It marked a return to the use of sampling, using train whistles and interviews with Holocaust survivors and US train workers as part of an electronic soundtrack that’s juxtaposed with string-quartet writing derived from the speech rhythms on tape.

Three Tales (2002)

Reich and his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, made their first foray into music theatre with The Cave in 1993, an exploration of the Old Testament story of Abraham combining interviews and documentary film with Reich’s music. Four years later they completed a far more ambitious video triptych – Hindenburg, Bikini and Dolly – examining the impact of technology on life in the 20th century.

Double Sextet (2007)

The piece that won Reich the 2009 Pulitzer prize for music, which may either by played by two identical groups of winds, strings, vibraphone and piano, or with one of the sextet pre-recorded on tape. The pairs of pianos and vibraphones provide the driving impulse and map out the tonal shifts of the music, while the other instruments pick out melodic shapes above them.

Radio Rewrite (2012)

Reich’s influence on successive generations of pop musicians has been profound, and in turn he has always been aware of that influence and appreciates it. Radio Rewrite repays that compliment by using a pair of songs by Radiohead, Jigsaw Falling Into Place, and Everything in its Right Place, as the basis for a five-movement work for an 11-piece ensemble.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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