Thoughts on Percussion and Rhythm

Steve Reich

[A compilation of the thoughts of Steve Reich on percussion and rhythm taken from interviews with Russell Hartenberger in 2003 and 2012 and revised with additional thoughts by Steve Reich in 2015. It was previously published in The Cambridge Companion to Percussion, Russell Hartenberger (ed.), (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 173-83.]

Early percussion training and influences

My interest in rhythm probably began when I was born in some gene in my body that you and I and a whole lot of other people share, and that people will probably find out about fairly soon. I took piano lessons when I was a kid – John Thompson simplified classics type thing – and it had very little impact on me. I heard what I call middle class favorites when I was young: Beethoven Fifth, Schubert Unfinished Symphony, Overture to Meistersinger, Broadway shows, Bing Crosby. I never heard any music before 1750 or any music after Wagner or any jazz until 1950 at the ago of 14 – it was a revelation. I had a friend who played me a recording of the Rite of Spring; I could not believe such a thing existed! It made an enormous impression and the seeds for me becoming a composer were planted that day. Later, that same friend played me a recording of the Bach Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. A bit later, through another friend, I heard recordings of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and the drummer Kenny Clarke, and this music absolutely grabbed my ear. The friend who played me the jazz records was a pianist with some jazz training. We wanted to start a band and I said, “I’m the drummer.” So I started studying with Roland Kohloff, who in those days was known as ‘Butch.’ It was Butch Kohloff who played all the Gene Krupa solos with glow-in-the-dark sticks at the local movie theater. Of course at the same time he was studying with Saul Goodman and eventually took Goodman’s place as timpanist with the New York Philharmonic. For my lessons, Kohloff gave me the Haskell Harr snare drum books, and the Stick Control book by George Lawrence Stone. He stressed the Stick Control exercises and I found them really interesting. Basically, the book is just continuous eighth notes while constantly changing the hand alternation. I don’t know why, but I thought “hmm, that’s interesting,” and it stuck in my head. I think that was one of the first things that pointed me in a direction that would really prove relevant later on in my compositions.

At the time I used to go down to Birdland – I had to sit where they didn’t serve drinks – and I remember seeing my idol, Kenny Clarke. The reason he was my idol was that he had this almost magical sense of time though he just played ride cymbal and a few kick drum (bass drum in those days) accents. What was magical about him was not his technique but the actual feeling of his playing the time, floating Miles Davis and the whole band on his ride cymbal. This was a unique quality, and I wanted to be like Kenny Clarke – but of course you always end up being yourself.

Max Roach was a much greater technician. He could play more stuff, and did play more stuff, and certainly was an inventive musician. But he never had the feeling of ‘magic time’ or whatever you want to call it, that Kenny Clarke had with this incredible ting ting-a-ting ting-a-ting on his ride cymbal. Of course it might have helped that he was playing with Percy Heath and Horace Silver, which seemed like the ultimate rhythm section to me. But it was that simplicity and the quality of him playing ride cymbal. Nobody could play it the way he did.

Time feel in music

That feeling of time and time sense is getting it ‘right’ which might show up on an oscilloscope as ‘slightly wrong.’ A lot of very good players lack that magic because they are very concentrated on being right. What I’m talking about happens in music in general when you know something so well that you’re not reading it, you’re playing it after a long period of time and it’s sunk into you. I think you have to get to a very high level of competence, even if it’s a little ting ting-a-ting. But it has to be an automatic, un-thought-about level, which means lots of rehearsals and performances have to happen before you get there. And then, some people have that quality of magic in their playing and others just don’t. Maybe if people put electrodes on their heads and all over their bodies they will find why some people have it and some don’t – but you know it when you hear it.

African music

I went to Ghana in 1970. At that time, the reigning musical aesthetic in the new music world was called ‘live electronics.’ Stockhausen was operating with banks of equipment in real time; that means he was in the concert hall twisting dials. John Cage was doing the same thing with David Tudor, making electronic pieces happen in front of an audience by manipulating this, that, and the other thing. I think it was Varèse who said something like, “percussion led to electronics.” This was the idea that non-pitched percussion led to the use of noise, and I kept thinking, “It’s going to come out the other end; the progression is going to keep on going – electronics will lead back to percussion.”

My trip to Ghana confirmed a number of things for me. 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, (and also in Bali). Secondly, 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.

African rhythm

In the Ewe pieces like Agbadza or Atsiagbekor, the ostinato pattern played on the gankogui double iron bell in a 12-beat cycle is compelling because it is so ambiguous; and it is especially ambiguous when the players get going. They stop playing the low bell, which is struck once per cycle and gives a downbeat to the rhythmic pattern, and they ring out on the high bell only. It’s like a ride cymbal. “Where’s one? I don’t know.” After a while, you don’t know. All you know is that the music is powerfully moving forward without a clear downbeat to weigh it down. Everybody talks about twelve-tone music, well twelve is really a magic number rhythmically. The basic ambiguity is whether it’s 1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3, 1 2 3, or 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4. It could be twos, it could be sixes, it could be fives and sevens. It divides up and lends itself to sub-division more than any other meter. That’s why it’s hard to know how to write it out – 3/2 equals 6/4 equals 12/8, because they are all possibly present.

Steve Reich, Pound Ridge, NY, September 13, 2015. Photo/Portrait: Bonnie Sheckter
Steve Reich, Pound Ridge, NY, September 13, 2015. Photo/Portrait: Bonnie Sheckter

Balinese music

Balinese music, which I studied in Seattle and Berkeley in 1973-74, is much simpler than African music rhythmically; it’s basically subdivisions. One person is playing sixteenths, another person is playing eighths, still another is playing quarters, and so on, and one person plays the big gong every sixty-four beats — and that’s great. I guess what interested me mostly were these interlocking patterns, the kotekkan, where one player plays against another player. This was certainly not how I used interlocking patterns. I did the same thing but canonically, with a pattern against itself. And it is different from African music; African drumming is basically the interlocking of different patterns. In kotekkan you get something where one person is filling in rests, or overlapping. It’s not what I do – it’s not canonic. Another thing that interested me about Balinese music is how the drummers in the Semar Pegulingan control the tempo as playing conductors. That definitely influenced me, along with the master drummer signaling changing patterns in West African music – hence the idea of the vibraphone in Music for 18 Musicians.

Indian music

I have always admired Indian music, but it’s basically a soloist with accompaniment. It’s fabulous, but I wasn’t much of a soloist. When Ransom Wilson and Richard Stoltzman approached me for solo pieces, instead I gave them Vermont Counterpoint and New York Counterpoint for multiple flutes or clarinets where they play one part and are in counterpoint with the live or pre-recorded others; and that’s worked out really well.

Rhythm in composition

At the beginning, basically my idea was that every change in my music was going to be rhythmic; there weren’t going to be any changes of pitch or timbre. But then I wrote Piano Phase, which has changes in the lengths of pattern, (first a twelve-note phrase, then an eight-note phrase and finally a four-note phrase) and changes of notes in each pattern. But clearly the piece really develops primarily though rhythmic means in the changing unison canons or phases. Violin Phase has only one pattern and one timbre, but introduced resulting patterns – patterns which result from the interlocking of two, three or four voice unison canons. In Four Organs the notes and timbre stay the same but the durations gradually grow to enormous lengths. After that came the idea of the build-ups in Drumming, of substituting beats for rests or rests for beats in a repeating pattern to gradually create or gradually change a repeating pattern. Drumming takes one single rhythmic pattern, puts that pattern in constantly shifting unison canons, and then changes the pitches and the timbre from tuned drums to marimbas to glockenspiels to all of them together. Drumming was the last of the phase pieces and the end of that way of thinking. Music for 18 Musicians, for the first time, uses a harmonic ground plan to structure the whole piece, and of course that changed everything. Nevertheless in the hour long Music for 18 Musicians, the meter stays in that basic 3/2 = 6/4 = 12/8. Finally, in Tehillim, for the first time, the text spontaneously suggested constantly changing meters.

Overall, these rhythmic means have become kind of a vocabulary. I’ll switch between 3/2 movements and constantly changing meter movements in many pieces like The Desert Music, Sextet, You Are (Variations), Double Sextet, Radio Rewrite, and others. Most importantly I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about organizing the pieces harmonically.

Garry Kvistad, Russell Hartenberger, Steve Reich, Bob Becker playing Drumming, Pt. I, Integral House, Toronto, April 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of Soundstreams Canada.
Garry Kvistad, Russell Hartenberger, Steve Reich, Bob Becker playing Drumming, Pt. I, Integral House, Toronto, April 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of Soundstreams Canada.

Drumming

When I was a student at Juilliard back around 1959, there was a drummer by the name of Bobby Thomas. We had these lunchtime concerts, and at one of these concerts he played a percussion piece in which he had stand-mounted bongos he played with sticks. I don’t remember what he played, but I remember the sticks on the bongos – WOW! So pitched, so loud, so clear! I thought, I’d like to do something like that, then I just completely forgot about it. Then more than ten years later, around 1970 I got the idea of doing Drumming with tuned drums, and started thinking about how I could do it with bongos, stand-mounted and played with sticks.

As for the origin of the Drumming rhythm, I knew the African bell pattern, so it might have been related to that. I remember being on the phone on speaker and drumming my fingers and it happened. It might have had something to do with the way the hands interlock in Piano Phase; I don’t remember working it out. I remember working out the notes as it goes along, for sure. But the rhythm itself, I think, was one of those things that just happened. The symmetry of it was very attractive, and also the fact that the right hand was so completely divorced rhythmically from the left hand. Therefore by using the appropriate notes in the right hand it would emerge, as it does, over and over again as a counter-rhythm.

When I was selecting the pitches for the bongos I wanted to make them as low as possible, but I began to realize that, just practically, on the lower drum of the bongos, if you went much lower than G# below middle C it was going to make a flabby drum sound and it wasn’t going to stay in tune. So it was a practical consideration about how deep can you make it and still count on a clear consistent pitch. As you know, bongos are usually tuned hard as a rock. So, with Drumming, the lowest note is the G# below middle C. It then came to me quickly that the other notes, A#, B and C# would be either G# Dorian, or finally, F# major. And once I established that tuning, then the range of the three-octave student marimbas was fine for the transition from bongos to marimbas. It also meant that the low point in the piece was going to be the bottom bongo, and that maintained itself.

I don’t even know exactly when the light bulb went on for the marimbas, except I thought the piece ought to continue and marimba was the obvious choice. When I was playing the marimbas I heard the voices, I hallucinated the voices. Which meant that playing repeating patterns on marimba continuously produced acoustic by products that sounded like women singing those notes. Soon I invited Joan La Barbara, Jay Clayton and Judith Sherman to try and sing and imitate those marimba melodies and it worked perfectly. As the piece grew it finally required nine players to fill in all the patterns going up to the top of the three marimbas. Then, I realized that what was interesting was removing the lower notes and becoming harmonically more ambiguous by ending up on the upper part of the instrument, and that was the end of the marimba section. I then started thinking, “how high can you go?” And that’s when I got the idea, “I might as well take this thing all the way up,” – and that meant glockenspiels. Once I had this clarity, then I had the confidence to book the concerts in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Town Hall.

I began to realize that the key to this piece was that one rhythmic pattern which changed notes and changed timbre. I clearly remember that when I got into the glockenspiel section I realized I was left with these three timbres, and I began thinking, “I’m going to have to write a finale, an old style Western finale. I’ve got all these instruments in front of me, and I invited all these people to dinner, and now I’ve got to serve dinner!” So at the end it was very much a realization of a particularly Western obligation to put together these ingredients that I had dealt with independently. And I think, in a way, that moving forward from Drumming is really the beginning of moving back towards more traditional Western thinking.

The musical material in Drumming is so easy that you can pick it up very quickly. When I auditioned people to play in Drumming, I would try phasing with them. I could tell right away if they would work out or not. Even to this day, I find with pianists or percussionists who do Piano Phase or Marimba Phase, if they can perform the gradual phasing, everything else will work out.

We Americans are very pragmatic people. I think that’s one of our great strengths as opposed to those interminable theoretical questions others get bogged down with. They think there’s something hidden in the music: a coded philosophical message; fate knocking on the door. But, there’s nothing hidden! What you hear is what you get. What you hear is the story, and that wordless story can be very deep.

Teaching Drumming by rote to members of my ensemble was the easiest way to get the music across rather than writing it out. The score came later, but first ding a ding ding, ding a ding ding. Then, as a very good player and a sensitive player, since playing the notes wasn’t a challenge, you got into the feel of it. Then we would try playing it as a duet in canon. I discuss this with a lot with people who ask about musicians in the ensemble and their backgrounds. I’m talking about you and Bob Becker in particular, but it holds for a lot of people in the group; a generation that more or less grew up at the same time. People like you and Bob had the qualifications, went to the right schools, achieved a very high level of excellence in Western percussion, and were ready to go into a major symphony orchestra. You could have had those jobs but chose instead to do advanced degrees in South and North Indian music and go in other directions.

Drumming and electronics

[This paragraph on electronics is from Steve Reich’s personal notebook housed at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, Switzerland, Sketchbook 4, (6/22/71), p. 33.]

Drumming is at the opposite extreme from electronics. (Unless you’re playing an electronic drum set!) There seems to be a question of how deeply one can react to the sound of a machine. I used to think that the sound was the sound and that was that, and in a sense I still feel that way. But more and more as time passes, I feel that there is a limit as to how seriously I can take sounds made only by a machine. They may be something glorious, but there is something dubious about that glory. It doesn’t have the emotional depth that instrumental sound has –and that may be why some formerly all electronic bands are reaching back to add acoustic instruments. But clearly, a drum is at the extreme end of the scale. It represents the most primitive of musical instruments. The next step is simply to tune the drum and make it out of wood and one has a marimba or xylophone or make it out of metal and one has a bell or vibraphone or glockenspiel.

Music for Pieces of Wood

In composing Music for Pieces of Wood, I used the rhythmic pattern in Clapping Music and the next most primitive instruments – just tuned pieces of wood – tuned claves. I was composing exclusively with ‘build ups’ or substituting beats for rests. One of my rules of thumb was to try to avoid putting in the downbeat until near the end of the build up, or actually at the end. That way the ambiguity would be heightened and then the next player would build up still another conflicting rhythm. Basically the way I was working then was by overdubbing on tape. (That way of working is still the case today but now with the computer; I now play back using MIDI.) The basic pattern would be recorded and then I would add the next clave. What I would try to determine is: “What is the rhythmic distance between the voices? Is it one eighth away, is it two eighths away?” Certain things would recur; for example, three eighths away was frequently an interesting place to end up. Once I had established that rhythmic distance I would decide on the most interesting note in the pattern to start the build up and then the next note and so on.

Six Pianos

Six Pianos began by just improvising at the piano and coming up with an alternating hand pattern. As I said, there was a long period of time when a lot of my pieces were in this all-purpose 3/2 = 6/4 = 12/8. And Six Pianos, spontaneously, because of the hand-alternation patterning that I came up with, was a 4/4 piece which I always thought was kind of a no-no. “Watch out, that’s the meter that’s going to really get bogged down.” Because of the fact that it really worked, I felt particularly good about Six Pianos. It worked well even though it was in 4/4.

Tehillim

Tehillim is a new rhythmic discovery. Tehillim opens up a new chapter rhythmically, and one that was totally unforeseen. Tehillim, is the Hebrew word for Psalms and means “Praises.” It comes from the same root, hey, lamed, lamed as Hallelujah. When I set the first text “hasha mayim…The heavens declare the glory of G-d,” I began to hear, as composers do, a melody in my head. This kind of association of music to words has probably been happening since people have been on the planet. When I said the opening line of Tehillim, a melody came to my mind, but at the same time came, 1 2, 1 2 3, 1 2, 1 2 3, 1 2, 1 2 3. And I said, “what’s that?” Well what that was, in terms of my personal background, was the Bulgarian rhythms in changing meters of Bartók, and the changing meters of Stravinsky. These are the two composers that I heard who used rapidly changing meters. If I hadn’t heard the music of Bartók and Stravinsky so many years earlier, I may not have heard those rhythms in my head. Nevertheless, for me it was a whole new rhythmic language and I assumed that it was the nature of Biblical Hebrew that was forcing me into this rhythmic feel. I thought, this is great, this is a whole different rhythmic approach. Instead of 3/2 = 6/4 = 12/8 there was a constantly shifting group of twos and threes that might work out to a phrase like 7/8, 5/8, 6/8, 2/4, 5/8. Every bar was a new meter. Unfortunately, since Tehillim was my first piece using this rhythmic language, I wrote some very long bars with many groups of twos and threes because I got involved in trying to notate it in the way the melody actually went. Musically right, but difficult for conductors and string players who have to sit there counting threes and twos, but for a percussionist it’s easy. The singers and woodwinds also seem to enjoy it since it spells out the melodic phrasing.

Speech rhythms

The use of speech rhythms in Different Trains was something new. Different Trains for the strings, on the one hand, goes back to my teen-age drum studies. The locomotive was represented by paradiddles which came right out of the simplest hand alternation pattern from way back in my first drumming books. But what was really new and interesting in Different Trains, of course, is the fact that the tempos are tied to speech samples. This produces music that constantly changes to an unrelated tempo, and this is something I had never done before. The way to solve that problem with live musicians was simply to have the pre-recorded quartets make the tempo changes while the live players paused and then joined in when the new tempo was established. Different Trains is for three string quartets, one of which is live and the other two are pre-recorded. The pre-recorded quartets make the sudden changes in tempo, then the live quartet hears the new tempo and joins in. 

In a still more difficult context, that is what happens in The Cave because there’s less time spent with each speech fragment and more frequent changes of tempo. The idea of imitating the speaking voice with musical instruments is a totally different kind of rhythmic usage for me. It surely came out of my earlier tape pieces, It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) where both pieces were made exclusively out of repeating loops of pre-recorded speech. The idea that tempo would change suddenly to an unrelated tempo is something that I never would have come up with if it hadn’t been for my interest in using the speech samples. I felt that because of the things the people in Different Trains and The Cave were talking about – the holocaust and religious convictions – I couldn’t just sit at my computer and change their tempos. I had to be the faithful scribe and go with them, because the speech is consciously an homage to them. I believe it really worked in those pieces. The Cave is a piece that definitely presaged a new kind of musical theater. I had been asked to do operas and I said, “thank you very much, but no.” Finally, here was a way to go, and it came out of the idea of following speech melody. I was working in audio tape, but then I thought, what if it was video tape and you could see the interviewees and live musicians sitting right next to them? So I approached the video artist Beryl Korot and she thought it might be interesting too. We made some tests, really liked them and for the next three years or so we were off on field trips to Israel, the West Bank, Austin, Texas, and then back to New York to record Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans of all sorts answering our constant questions: “Who for you is Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ismael and Isaac?”

In Three Tales, I said, “let’s put the music first. Now let’s set the tempo and make the voices fit the music because the subject matter here allows that.” Beryl wanted to use one screen instead of five because the technology had progressed so far allowing many images on one screen. Both decisions to keep the tempo constant and to use a single screen, made Three Tales much more practical to stage and to make a DVD possible – and that is exactly what happened.

Musical intuition

All my compositional decisions are finally based on musical intuition. In the early days I certainly had clear and firm ideas about making musical changes only through rhythm / duration, and Piano Phase and Four Organs are excellent examples of that. But in Piano Phase there are three different sections set off by changes of duration – and notes! What are the new notes? Well, here comes a harmonic/melodic decision. In Four Organs the pitches do not ever change in the E dominant 11th chord, but the tones get longer and longer in duration in this strict musical process. Now, which tones, when, and how much longer in each bar? Musical intuition takes over to work out the exact details of the musical process.

Nobody can have enough technique or enough education, and everybody composes at whatever level they are on. But musical intuition seems to me to be the real source, and that’s just something that people are born with, although it certainly can develop. That’s at the root of what I do; I don’t think I’m really aware of it. After a while I just understand, “Aha, that’s what I need to do.”

Compositional style

I believe, although some people may argue, that there’s a huge difference between pieces like Piano Phase and a piece like Tehillim, or between a piece like Clapping Music and a piece like Proverb, and so on. I have very often wanted to do something different because I get bored with what I’m doing, or a text will push me in some new direction, and I like that. I also realize that I may start working on a piece with pulsing pianos, and then, as a result of doing that, something new happens. Before beginning You Are (Variations) I told myself, “let’s just do something that’s a pleasure and easy to do and see where it goes.” As a result, it didn’t go where any of my earlier pieces went at all. It started out sounding like other pieces and suddenly there was a big change. So you might say, “there’s nothing new under the sun, but the combinations are endless.”