With the release of his large-scale ensemble work Drumming on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label in 1974, Steve Reich, once one of many promising American composers, shot to the head of the field. When he had his breakthrough in Europe, it was with the group Steve Reich and Musicians and at a time when atonal post-war music dominated contemporary art music on both sides of the Atlantic. Reich, however, stood for something completely different: “The pulse, and the concept of clear tonal center will re-emerge as basic sources of new music,” as he wrote in 1970.
When another label, ECM, released the hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, and launched it on the radio and in the shops as classical music, jazz and progressive rock, contemporary music gained a stylistic influence that stretched way beyond the confines of its own genre. Meanwhile, Reich’s colleague Philip Glass, was enjoying successes in opera and theatre. With that, Minimalism had finally had its breakthrough, and its influence has done nothing but grow ever since. There are now a great many composers with their roots in minimalism who are active in a wide range of genres: opera, dance, orchestral and sacred music, film, jazz, rock, mass spectaculars, computer games, and background music. Reich himself is one of the most discriminating composers, and releases work of only the highest quality.
A modern dictionary defines minimalism as “a genre of visual art and music that seeks to produce works that are liberated from the artist’s own subjectivity and that use as few modes of expression as possible.” Reich himself hates the label ‘minimalism’, just like the American artist Donald Judd, who was a painter and sculptor when the term was first coined. The label does give a clue as to the departure point of Reich’s music, but hardly as to its destination. Time and again he stresses how important it is to make music that allows listeners to follow every detail of the process. And performing and listening to gradual musical processes “makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me towards it.”
In the mid-sixties, Reich composed a number of pieces using tape-loops. He then realised the same concept on instruments, chiefly drums, the vibraphone, the marimba and the piano. His use of several similar instruments is of particular importance; as the name suggests Six pianos uses six baby grands, and was written and rehearsed in a piano shop on Manhattan. Textless voices are used to mimic the sounds of the instruments. This changed in the 1980s. Tehillim is three sung hymns from the Book of Psalms, revealing Reich’s fascination for Judaism and religion. In Different trains for string quartet and tape and the video operas The Cave and Three Tales from the past two decades, the perspective widens to reflect his interest in current affairs. In his early development, encounters with West African drum music and Balinese gamelan music were an important source of inspiration. However, he has never imitated or borrowed directly from ethnic music; instead, he became convinced that acoustic instruments were able to produce richer sounds than electronic ones and that percussion could form the instrumental bedrock of music.
His simplest piece needs no instruments. Entitled Clapping music, it is simply the sound of two people clapping their hands. The pattern is in 12/8 time, 8 beats interspersed with four pauses. The duo start in unison, and then while one keeps to the pattern the other moves one step at a time within the pattern until they are once again clapping in unison. It takes three or four minutes, and the process is straightforward and easy to grasp. However, this description indicates none of the pleasure and satisfaction that the performance gives the listener. “Obviously music should put all within listening range into a state of ecstasy” (1969).
Hans Gefors, 2007
Translation Neil Betteridge