Steve (Michael) Reich


Born in New York, Reich studied piano and percussion, developing and eclectic taste encompassing Stravinsky, Bach and modern jazz. Supporting himself in adulthood by driving a taxi, he took private composition lessons until starting at Julliard in 1958. There he studied with Persichetti and Bergsma, graduating in 1961. Moving to California in 1963 he entered Mills College, where Milhaud and Berio were amongst his teachers. He returned to New York in 1965, and it was around this time that he wrote his first famed work, It’s Gonna Rain (1965), containing tape loops of the human voice which were to prove influential both within the classical sphere and, eventually, well outside it.

Reich formed an instrumental ensemble while in New York, called simply Steve Reich and Musicians. With them he developed a technique of "phased" rhythms, instrumental parts at different tempi which would drift in and out of time with each other. Previous composers had used similar techniques; Carter’s metric modulations are along the same lines, but Reich took the technique as the basis for the form of whole pieces. Instrumental parts would repeat with minute variations, slowly transforming the line and the way the different parts interacted, a process implied in titles like New York Counterpoint. In this way Reich was to become one of the fathers of minimalism.

In 1970 Reich travelled to Ghana, where he studied drumming with indigenous musicians. Drumming (1971) was the most obvious result of this period, and fortunately is sufficiently Reichian to avoid accusations of cultural piracy. In 1973 he began to study Gamelan, this time back in America. Endowments and grants granted him financial independence, and he was finally able to cease menial labour. Nowadays, Reich enjoys great popularity from academia and the general public alike. His exploration of rhythm means that dissonances unpalatable to the general public might distract from the main purpose of the works; hence he has proven more bankable than one might expect from a former avant-garde composer.

Unlike his most frequently cited contemporary, Philip Glass (another former taxi driver!), Reich’s music was, for a long time, purely abstract. Where Glass used hypnotic repitition to add a dreamlike quality to his frequently surreal stage works, Reich’s musical hypnotism is of a more comfortable nature, engaging and human. During the eighties, Reich began to composer works with a more literal meaning. Faced with the challenge of balancing slow metamorphosis and the variety of material needed for longer works, pieces such as Desert Music (1983) provide excellent solutions.


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