Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich

Book cover photo - Carol Judson, Woodstock Chimes®; Image Design - Bonnie Sheckter
Book cover photo - Carol Judson, Woodstock Chimes®; Image Design - Bonnie Sheckter

Russell Hartenberger

[The following article is the Preface from my book, Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich, (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. xxi-xxvii.] 

As a percussionist, I spend much of my musical life in the world of rhythm and feel comfortable there. However, in 1970 and 1971, I encountered music that made me re-consider the ways I performed rhythms. I began studying West African drumming, Indian music, and Indonesian gamelan in the World Music program of Wesleyan University and was introduced to sophisticated rhythmic systems that did not use musical notation. At the same time, I began rehearsing Steve Reich’s Drumming, a composition that challenged my learning process and my performance skills and was taught to me by rote. These parallel experiences piqued my curiosity about the way I played rhythms: what was it about the rhythm in all these musical styles that was so engaging to perform; and, what could I learn from the study of these rhythms that would help in my performance of pulse-based music? 

Steve Reich established himself as an innovative composer in the artistic world of the Soho district of New York City in the late 1960s. With his tape compositions, It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), he developed a technique he called phasing in which two tape loops playing identical recordings of a voice gradually moved out of synchronization with each other, creating rhythmic canons. In 1967, he composed Violin Phase, a piece that employed the phasing technique but with a violinist playing melodic passages against identical pre-recorded lines, and Piano Phase, with two pianists performing acoustically and creating canons using the phasing technique. With the composition of Drumming, completed and premiered in 1971, Reich brought phasing to its pinnacle and, as it turned out, to its conclusion as a structural device.

Reich began composing Drumming in August of 1970, shortly after returning from a five-week stay in Ghana to study West African drumming. According to Reich, his visit to Ghana confirmed some of the ideas he had about composition prior to his trip. “First, the idea of phasing that I had before I went to Ghana was not something that the Africans do, and the rhythmic techniques used in African drumming are not what I do, but they are related to what I do. The important thing is that there is a tradition of rhythmic counterpoint in Africa.” He continued, “Second, percussion is the dominant voice in African music as opposed to the Western orchestra where strings are the dominant voice. So, the message to me was there’s a tradition for repeating percussion patterns, you’re not all by yourself; go, both in terms of the contrapuntal structure of the music and the instrumentation of the music. This is a solid, well-trodden path. There’s a past and that means there’s a future.”1

Drumming is a work for nine percussionists, two female singers, whistler, and piccolo player. It is in four sections: Part I, tuned bongo drums; Part II, marimbas and singers; Part III, glockenspiels, whistler, and piccolo; and Part IV, bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels, singers, and piccolo. The piece is played without pause and takes between fifty and eighty minutes to perform. It begins with a drummer playing a single attack on a bongo. The drummer is soon joined by a second drummer, and together in a technique Reich calls substituting beats for rests, they add bongo attacks until a rhythmic pattern on four pitches is fully constructed. Once the pattern is built-up, one drummer gradually phases by moving forward until his/her pattern is one beat ahead of the other drummer, creating a composite rhythm with an ambiguous feel. A third drummer then enters playing resultant patterns (sometimes called resulting patterns), “melodic patterns that result from the combination of two or more identical instruments playing the same repeating melodic pattern one or more beats out of phase with each other.”2 These elements of phasing, resultant patterns, changes of timbre, and the substitution of beats for rests (or the opposite technique of substituting rests for beats) are the only compositional devices used to create all four sections of Drumming. Reich’s exiguous use of structure, pitch, melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm made Drumming a pivotal work in the compositional genre known as “minimalism.”

All of the composers who are generally recognized as the central figures in minimalism, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, wrote works that influenced the direction of composition in Western classical music. Reich’s Drumming is one of these pieces and has the additional significance of contributing to the establishment of percussion as a dominant voice and the use of rhythm and repetition as primary structural components in composition. As a result, performers of Drumming, in particular the percussionists, developed new techniques and refined older ones in order to meet the requirements of this repetitive, pulse-based music. Drumming is a seminal composition for percussionists, however it also provides a template for the performance practice of all of Reich’s compositions as well as other pulse-based music. 

In this book, I examine Reich’s early compositions from the point of view of a performer and look at the ways a musician might think in order to play rhythms accurately and with a good sense of time. I discuss the kind of virtuosity that is required of performers of minimalist music and the ways it differs from more traditional performing expertise. Drumming, and other works of Reich, provided me with both the impetus and the framework for this book. With each of Reich’s compositions, I discovered new approaches to the use of rhythm in a Western music context that utilized structural concepts from non-Western music and that gave me a means by which I could begin to make sense of the rhythmic theory and performance techniques I learned in non-Western music. In conversations and formal interviews I had with Reich, we discussed his percussion training and his thoughts about rhythm in his music in relation to West African drumming, jazz drummer Kenny Clarke, rudimental snare drumming, Balinese gamelan, Indian music, and much more. He explained, among other things, how he used rhythm in his early compositions, the time feel he wants in his music, the kind of performer who seems to be drawn to his music, and the way perceptual and metrical ambiguity create interest in repetitive music. 

Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich is a reflection of my interests in Western and non-Western music, rhythmic theory, and minimalism, and will hopefully appeal to performers and scholars in these various areas. On the first page of the Boosey & Hawkes score to Drumming is the phrase, “for percussion ensemble.” Drumming features percussion instruments, and the non-percussionists – singers, whistler, and piccolo player – all imitate percussion sounds. This, and the fact that my primary relation to music is as a percussionist, focuses the book through a percussion lens. However, most of the relevant information has to do with rhythm in general and will be useful and of interest to non-percussionists. Western music has a sophisticated notation system that can depict complex rhythmic relationships, but performers of some non-Western music, e.g., West African, Indian, and Indonesian music, bypass notation and develop other ways to perceive and perform rhythms. By examining these approaches, Western musicians can begin to internalize rhythmic concepts and improve their skills in performing pulse-based music. Reich’s music provides a bridge between Western and non-Western rhythmic performance and a means to think about rhythm in a comprehensive way. 

I begin the book with a discussion of the rehearsals leading up to the premieres of Drumming in December of 1971, the early members of Steve Reich and Musicians who participated in those concerts, and the first tours of the ensemble to Europe. I then chronicle Reich’s compositional process by looking at the early sketches of Drumming in his personal notebooks. I examine the four parts of Drumming, dividing each into two sections: general information and performance practice. In the performance practice sections, I outline my approach to performance and include a description of how I interpret rhythmic phrasing in Drumming. In the “Acoustics of Drumming chapter, I describe some of the aural phenomena that are inherent in a performance of Drumming. I include an entire chapter on the process of phasing in which I explain the way I think when I phase and then examine phasing from a theoretical perspective. In the chapter titled, “Performance practice in Drumming,” I address general performance issues in minimalist music, including suggestions for developing the skills necessary to achieve the kind of virtuosity required in this and other pulse-based music. I then detail the rhythmic aspects and performance practice of Reich’s works that immediately followed the composition of Drumming, including Clapping Music, Music for Pieces of Wood, Six Pianos, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, and Music for 18 Musicians. Throughout the book, I include thoughts on rhythmic performance practice by other composers, performers, and writers who have had an influence on me, including Toru Takemitsu, John Cage, South Indian mrdangam vidwan, Trichy Sankaran, and Africanist scholar and performer, John Chernoff. From time to time, I interject pertinent comments on music by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher whose works Reich studied at Cornell University and whose words he used as text in his compositions, Proverb and You Are (Variations). 

Terminology having to do with rhythm and meter, including the word rhythm itself, is problematic. Perhaps John Cage was on to something when he said, “There’s virtually nothing to say about rhythm for there’s no time.”3 The great mrdangam player, Palghat Raghu, a master of rhythm in South Indian music, also questioned the need to say anything about it. When the younger mrdangam virtuoso and Karnatak4 music scholar, Trichy Sankaran, stopped by Raghu’s house and told Raghu he was on his way to deliver a lecture on rhythm at Madras Music Academy, Raghu declaimed, “Rhythm! What’s there to say?”5

In looking for a working definition of the two basic terms, rhythm and meter, I turned to Justin London, who wrote,

Rhythm involves patterns of duration that are phenomenally present in music … It is important to note that these “patterns of duration” are not based on the actual duration of each musical event … but on the interonset interval (“IOI”) between the attack-points of successive events. By contrast, meter involves our initial perception as well as a subsequent anticipation of a series of beats that we abstract from the rhythmic surface of the music as it unfolds in time.6 

I find London’s comparison appropriate in defining these terms in both a Western and non-Western musical context. Terms such as “the attack-points of successive events,” “perception,” and “anticipation” figure prominently in my analyses of rhythms in Reich’s music as well as my examination of the structure of West African bell ostinatos. However, performers use the words time, beat, pulse, feel, and other rhythmic references with an understanding among themselves what these expressions mean. Throughout this book, I use these terms the way they are generally understood by performing musicians. In my discussions with Reich, and in my examination of his own sketchbooks, I found that he also uses rhythmic terms in this way. 

Since 2008, Reich has been depositing his sketchbooks7, manuscripts, agendas, photographs, recordings, instruments, and correspondence in the Paul Sacher Stiftung (PSS) in Basel, Switzerland, and I have made several trips to the archive to examine these materials. Reading through Reich’s sketchbooks from 1969 through 1976, I found that he was very methodical in his notation, often writing out complete sketches for a compositional idea when one might think an abbreviated format would be enough to establish the process, and invariably including repeat signs with every measure or group of measures in which he wanted repetition. Of particular interest to me was Reich’s Sketchbook [3]8, which covers the period of his trip to Ghana, including his partial transcriptions of the African drumming pieces he was taught, and most importantly, his development of the rhythmic pattern for Drumming. In this sketchbook, Reich experiments with hand patterning to achieve rhythmic phrasing within a twelve-unit cycle, writes fragments of the basic Drumming rhythmic pattern indicating the implied cross-rhythms in the pattern, tries out different pitch combinations, considers what kind of drums to use, and begins the development of the marimba section of the piece. He even speculates on the number of people that will be required for Drumming and lists the names of possible performers.

Reich’s sketchbooks also provide interesting tidbits of information and read almost like a diary. He wrote notes to himself commenting on his own ideas and contemplating their validity. He often included references to particular holidays such as Lincoln’s birthday, Christmas, or New Year’s Day. Reich’s week-at-a-glance agendas list his activities in remarkable detail, especially since the datebooks themselves are small enough to fit in the pocket of a jacket. Even with narrow blocks of space for seven days over two pages, Reich was able to include concerts, meetings with friends (e.g., Phil Glass, Michael Snow, Phil Lesh, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman), phone calls, appointments, and other daily activities. In the front of his agenda from 1968, the first one registered in the Sacher archive, are two definitions from the 1966 edition of the Random House Dictionary: “Procession: ‘1. The act of moving along or proceeding in orderly succession or in a formal and ceremonious manner, as a line of people, animals, vehicles, etc.’ Process: ‘a continuous action, operation or series of changes taking place in a definite manner.’”9

In Reich’s well-known essay, “Music as a Gradual Process (1968),”10  he wrote that the process to which he is referring is not the process of composition, but “rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes.” He continued, “The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously.”11For me, Drumming represents several gradual processes. The process of learning Drumming was one that took place gradually over a period of nine months, and the performance process of Drumming can last an hour or more. The process of phasing is a very gradual one that takes a short amount of time but feels much longer. Reich’s compositional process took place over the better part of a year while my analysis of the rhythmic aspects of Drumming has taken much longer. An outgrowth of that analysis is the ongoing process of using Drumming as a means for discovering how to play music with accurate rhythms and a good sense of time. Along with this is the process of trying to establish a rhythmic pedagogy that is useful to Western music performers. Finally, the process of examining Drumming as a basis for an understanding of what makes a rhythm intriguing and what makes music rhythmically engaging to play has helped me develop my performance skills and my interpretation of pulse-based music. All of these processes have been gradual and are ongoing ones.

Throughout this book, I refer to Steve Reich by his last name, although I feel a bit awkward doing this since I have known him for over forty-five years and consider him a close, personal friend. In addition, the so-called minimalist school of composers is unusual in that all the main characters are generally known, at least to other musicians, by their first names: La Monte (Young), Terry (Riley), Steve (Reich), and Phil (Glass). I think this is not only because all of these musicians have become recognized in their lifetimes as significant composers in the history of Western music, but also because their music and their personalities relate to a wide audience that includes fans of popular music, rock, and jazz. However, for the purposes of this book, I will call the composer of Drumming, “Reich.” The pronunciation of his last name seems to be a matter of concern for a lot of new music connoisseurs. A few years ago I was walking down a street in Toronto when a young man stopped me and said, “I recognize you; you play with Steve Reich. Can you tell me how to pronounce his name?” It is pronounced as if it were spelled Reish: rye – sh

Footnotes

  1. Interview with Steve Reich (December 18, 2003); Steve Reich, “Thoughts on percussion and rhythm, in Russell Hartenberger (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Percussion (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. xxi-xxvii.
  2. Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 79.
  3. John Cage, “Rhythm, etc.” in Gyorgy Kepes (ed.), Module, Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm (New York: George Braziller, Inc. 1966), pp. 194-203.
  4. Karnatak is often spelled Carnatic.
  5. Interview with Trichy Sankaran (August 2, 2001).
  6. Justin London, Hearing in Time, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 4.
  7. Reich calls them notebooks, but in the Steve Reich Collection at the Paul Sacher Stiftung (PSS), they are classified as Skizzenbücher or sketchbooks.
  8. Sketchbook [3], February 14, 1970-April 29, 1971 (Steve Reich Collection, PSS, Basel). Reich wrote the beginning and ending dates of his entries on the front of each sketchbook, but he did not number them. I have numbered them chronologically starting with the first sketchbook in the PSS.
  9. Reich agenda, 1968 (Steve Reich Collection, PSS, Basel), p. [2]. Reich did not include page numbers in most of his sketchbooks or agendas; all references to page numbers I use are my own pagination beginning with the first page of each sketchbook or agenda.
  10. This essay was first published in the catalogue to the exhibition, Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, Marcia Tucker and James Monte (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969). It is included in Reich’s books, Writings about Music (The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974, pp. 9-11, and Writings on Music, pp. 34-36.
  11. Reich, Writings on Music, p. 34.