• February 5, 2008
  • Pioneers of electronic music #2: Steve Reich

  • Published by Beatportal

    Steve Reich (b. New York City, NY 1936) is one of four universally recognised pioneers of the musical minimalist movement. Developing in America from the mid-1960s, minimalism paved the way for a wide spectrum of musical activity, including house, techno and electro. Enormously influential on a generation of musicians and producers, Reich’s beautifully repetitive compositions continue to sell CDs and concert tickets by the bucketload.


    Musical minimalism refers to the extreme reduction of sound-activity, consisting of mainly tonal material with a limited number of pitches, submitted to repetitive and disciplined procedures. This musical style has often been described as the American reaction against the serial models of modernism offered by European composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

    Compared to today’s easily digestible dance singles, Reich’s works appear extremely drawn out, some running up to an hour in length. His pioneering minimalist contemporaries La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass often indulged in performances that ran for many hours, often overnight.

    The music of Steve Reich

    Reich’s music relies heavily on repetition and realises his concept of “music as a gradual process”. The young, taxi-driving Reich experimented with tape loops, and in 1965 discovered what became known as phase shifting; working with a single fragment of sound and submitting it to a process whereby it gradually moves out of phase with itself. An example of this can be heard in the tape piece ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (1965), where Reich uses excerpts taken from an impassioned sermon by the preacher Brother Walter. He employed similar phasing principles in another tape piece ‘Come Out’, composed the following year.

    Following his successful studio experiments, Reich applied phase shifting to instrumental music for the hugely influential 1967 coupling of ‘Violin Phase’ and ‘Piano Phase’.Reich continued through this tremendously creative patch with ‘Pendulum Music’ (1968), another process piece that featured four microphones swinging over speakers, thus creating a slowly developing wall of feedback.

    Legendary rock band Sonic Youth performed this piece in 1999 and the recording is available on the excellent ‘OHM’ compilation, released on Ellipsis Arts (2000). However, it was not until 1976 that Reich took his musical discoveries to a new level with the enigmatic masterwork ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians’, a snippet of which is available on his MySpace page. Notable Reich compositions since the 1970s include the 1988 string quartet ‘Different Trains’ and ambitious opera ‘The Cave’ (1993), written in collaboration with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot.


    The minimalist phasing techniques employed by Reich have crossed over to the wider world of experimental electronic music. An obvious example is the relatively recent phenomenon of the minimal scene, which itself was preceded by the stripped down sound of acid house and Detroit techno. The list of musicians directly influenced by Reich is almost endless, but well-known examples include Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Brian Eno, Rebelski and The Orb, who sampled ‘Electric Counterpoint’ (1987) for their classic 90s single Little Fluffy Clouds. Many electronic producers paid homage to the composer on the 1999 Nonesuch album ‘Reich Remixed’, featuring contributions from Howie B and Ken Ishii.

    Reich’s music has since received the remix treatment from Four Tet amongst others, as part of the ‘Reich Remixed 2006’ collection, a fitting tribute to one of the most influential composers working today. For more information, check out the following sites…

    Steve Reich offical website: http://www.stevereich.com/

    Steve Reich Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Reich

    Steve Reich MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/stevereichmusic

    Music for18 Musicians on YouTube: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=CHVMVDhC-UA&feature=related

    ‘The South Bank Show’ – British TV documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_pR1sHHeQU&feature=related