The 2007 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the American composer and musician Steve Reich. The award recognises his unique ability to use repeats, canon technique and minimal variation of patterns to develop an entire universe of evocative music, endowed with immediate tonal beauty. Inspired by different musical traditions, Steve Reich has transferred questions of faith, society and philosophy into a hypnotic sounding music that has inspired musicians and composers of all genres.

There's just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history and Steve Reich is one of them.

The Guardian
Chapter: An impressive education

An impressive education

Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936. He grew up in NYC and in California and before taking on musical studies he graduated in philosophy at the Cornell University in 1957. Back then he got exposed both to classics as Bach and Stravinsky, and to bebop. He started to play jazz in a band at an early age. His impressive musical education would then take him to several schools, and countries. He moved to NYC and studied at the Juilliard School 1958-1961 and took a Master of Arts from Mills College in Oakland, US, 1963 where he worked with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.

Balme Library, University of Ghana, Legon Collection Koopman (Postcards of Libraries)

In the summer of 1970 he studied drumming at The Institute for African Studies, University of Ghana in Accra. In 1973 and 1974 he studied varieties of Indonesian Gamelan at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California. From 1976 to 1977 he studied the traditional forms of cantillation (chanting) of the Hebrew scriptures in New York and Jerusalem.

Darius Milhaud, French composer and one of Bacharachs early teachers. Motto taught to his students:
Darius Milhaud, 1926 - French composer member of "Les Six", a modernist group who reacted to impressionism in music and worked with new rhythm patterns and new use of tones. (Photo: Public Domain)
Luciano Berio, Italian composer who developped an Italian movement of serialism and early electronic music in the 1940s-1960s (Photo: Public Domain)
Drumming, 1970-1971, much influenced by Steve Reichs studies in Ghana.

Minimalism: A reductive style or school of modern music utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.
Peter Aidu, Piano phase for 2 pianos, one performer version, 2005. (Photo: Peter Aidu via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

The label minimalism 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.”

Sol LeWitt exhibition in Metz, France. LeWitt is regarded as a founder of both Minimal and Conceptual art. Source: Bava Alcide57/Wikimedia Commons

Although not appreciated by Reich himself, the term of minimalism is the most well-known term for the movement he represents together with Philip Glass, John Coolidge Adams, Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno…Reich often himself cites Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Alfred Deller, Miles Davis, and the visual artists Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra as important influences on his own music.

Philip Glass. Photo: Pasquale Salerno/Wikimedia Commons
Influences and minimalism
Terry Riley, "the father of minimalism", 1985 (Photo: Brian McMillen/Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Loops & repetitions

Loops & repetitions

In the mid-sixties, Reich started to compose a number of pieces using tape-loops, inspired by Terry Riley’s tonal approaches and repetitive patterns. Reich’s whole work would from then be characterized by loops, repetitions and canons. He used simple, audible processes to explore these musical concepts, for example rhythm changes, rhythm superpositions, splitting up voices, superposing instruments and so on. He often used his concepts on drums, vibraphone, marimba, piano and vocals without lyrics.

Reedition of Steve Reichs early works gathered on one album © Nonesuch Records
Steve Reich 1960s

Reich also worked at an early stage with repetitive patterns for voice recordings, like in It’s Gonna Rain, 1965 and Come out, 1966 where the recorded words by the end become almost unintelligible and creating a completely new sound. Reich composed Come out for a benefit for the trial of six black youths arrested during the riots for a murder for which only one of them was responsible.

An incident at 133rd Street and Seventh Avenue during the Harlem riot of 1964. Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun/Wikimedia Commons
Six Marimbas, performance by London Sinfonietta during WARP Project 2. (Photo: bram/Wikimedia Commons)

Reich’s use of several similar instruments is of particular importance in his compositions, constantly working on the same patterns but mostly changing the rhythm and the order of appearance of the instuments instead of variating the melody patterns. As the name suggests Six pianos (1973) uses six baby grands, and was written and rehearsed in a piano shop on Manhattan. He also composed a variation for marimbas, called Six Marimbas, in 1986.

Chapter: Clapping Hands

Clapping Hands

Steve Reich (right) and collaborator performing Clapping Music, 2006 – Photo: Ian Oliver/Wikimedia Commons

His “most minimalistic” 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.

Solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie performing Clapping music
Javanese gamelan instruments at the University of Wisconsin, 2002 (Photo: University of Wisconsin/Bern Jordan/all rights reservec)
Chapter: Gamelan Music

Gamelan music

Reich’s encounter with Indonesian Gamelan music in the beginning of the 70’s was significant to his musical development, and broadened his rhythmic and timbral palette.

Set up for Music For 18 Musicians, Ensemble Modern, Köln, 2009. By Tobias Steinhoff/Flickr

Gamelan is a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia, featuring a variety of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together and not being interchangeable, which makes every Gamelan unique. Music For 18 Musicians (1976), a large and colorful work, was directly inspired by the gamelan influence and Reich’s most significant composition of the time.

© ECM Records
A traditional Gamelan ensemble late 19th century, photo by H. Salzwedel (Photo: Tropenmuseum)
Chapter: Steve Reich and musicians

Steve Reich and musicians

Steve Reich’s breakthrough in Europe came with the group Steve Reich and Musicians – sometimes credited as the Steve Reich Ensemble – at a time when atonal post-war music dominated contemporary art music on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1971, Steve Reich and Musicians have frequently toured the world, and have the distinction of performing to sold-out houses at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line Cabaret.

Steve Reich Ensemble performing Different trains. Liz Lim-Dutton, violin, Todd Reynolds, violin, Jeanne LeBlanc, cello, Scott Rawls, Viola, Russ Hartenburger at the back. Photo by Todd Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

The ensemble has premiered many of Reich’s works and has performed his works more than any other. The ensemble received a Grammy Award in 1999.

Chapter: Different trains

Different trains

Steve Reich’s 1988 piece, Different Trains, marked a new compositional method, rooted in It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments. The New York Times hailed Different Trains as “a work of such astonishing originality that breakthrough seems the only possible description….possesses an absolutely harrowing emotional impact.”

Different trains recorded by the Kronos Quartet © Nonesuch Records

It stemmed from the memory of his childhood’s long rail-road journeys in the USA and of the adult reflection that if Reich had been a child in Europe in the 1940s his fate might have been different: “As a Jew, I would have had to ride on very different trains.” In 1990, Reich received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Different Trains as recorded by the Kronos Quartet on the Nonesuch label. The album also contained Electric Counterpoint performed by Pat Metheny. Reich made two versions of the piece: one for electric guitar and tape, and the other for an ensemble of guitars.

Pat Metheny, Barcelona 2008. Metheny recorded Electric Counterpoint the piece by use of extensive overdubbing in the recording studio. Guitarists wishing to perform the piece may use Metheny’s pre-recorded ensemble part or opt to record their own, adding the 13th guitar part in live performance. Source: badosa/Wikimedia Commons
Steve Reich on the composing of Different Trains

After Different trains, the video operas The Cave and Three Tales broaden the musical perspective even more, and reflects Reich’s interest in society, modern issues and politics. They were written together with video performance artist Beryl Korot (also married to Reich), and mix music and video performances into a reflection on religion, The Cave (1993) and on modern technology Three Tales (2002).

Kismet the AI robot who also played a small role in the Steve Reich opera Three Tales, as a symbol of the development of artificial intelligence, and also a voice of traditional ethics. By Chris Devers via Flickr

The operas brought video installation art into a theatrical context. Both works continue to be performed and have been installed, apart from live performances, at such venues as the Whitney Museum, the Carnegie Museum, the Reina Sofia, the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, and ZKM.

WTC 9/11 – a reflection on the events in New York in September 2001. © Nonesuch Records
Part from The Cave at the Musica Festival in Strasbourg, France
Chapter: Choreographies


Several noted choreographers have created dances to Steve Reich’s music, including Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; Fase (1983) and Drumming (1998) among others.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Photo by Michiel Hendryckx/Wikimedia Commons
Chapter: The Polar Music Prize

Stockholm May 2007

Steve Reich received the prize together with legendary saxophone player Sonny Rollins. The two Laureates had the time to visit Stockholm before the ceremony, and a reception at the American Embassy of Sweden was held.

May 20, visit at the American Embassy. Steve Reich, Sonny Rollins, Ambassador Michael Wood with wife (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Laureates Reich and Rollins visiting the Stockholm City Hall (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)

The Ceremony

Polar Music Prize Award 2007
Marimba ensemble at the entrance of the Stockholm Concert hall. Photo © Polar Music Prize
Citation read by Dr Margaretha Åsberg, founder of the Modern Dance Theatre in Stockholm.
Kroumata performing "Drumming part 1", clip
Mats Bergström Electric Counterpoint, clip
Interview with Steve Reich for the Polar Music Prize
Laureates of 2007, Sonny Rollins and Steve Reich (Photo: Baldur Bragason, © Polar Music Prize)