Reflections on aspects of Steve Reich’s music, including influences, ergonomics, inherent rhythms, timbre, and timelines.
Near the end of a documentary about rhythm in African music, Listening To The Silence: African Cross-Rhythms, the musicologist John Collins makes a striking observation: in the 20th-century, African music was like a “perceptual time bomb” that went off inside Western music. So much of the music we hear today is indebted to the aesthetics, concepts, and vitality of African–especially West African–music making, which has shaped jazz, rock, pop, hip hop, and electronic musics. The next time you hear steady groove, syncopation, or polyrhythm, think about the influence of the African continent’s musics.
Steve Reich thoughtfully brought African musical aesthetics into a classical concert music context. He went to Ghana to study drumming and transcribe rhythms, explored the musicological work of A.M. Jones (Studies in African Music), and mixed African rhythmic concepts (polyrhythm, timeline, inherent rhythms) with Western orchestral instrumentation (bongos, marimbas, vibraphones, and glockenspiels). By finding influence in African musics and translating that into his own sound, Reich helped introduce the music’s powers to generations of musicians. Perhaps more importantly, he has shown how composers might pursue their own compositional curiosities by finding points of overlap and common ground between seemingly disparate musical traditions.
One mark of a composer’s influence is how often their sound is refracted in the work of other artists. Reich-like and Reichian sounds have appeared in countless TV ads, and they are regularly remixed, sampled, and re-arranged for alternate instrumentations. By these metrics, Reich’s music has been influential. Just as the composer found influence in Perotin, J.S. Bach, Bartok, jazz, and West African drumming, his distinctive pulsating and percussive sound world has in turn influenced many contemporary musicians. For example, in electronic music there is a practice of musical interrogation whereby producers revisit and engage with influential works, not by sampling them, but by reimagining them in a more substantial way. Producers study, manipulate, and re-cast older musics like found objects to generate new works through re-workings. Hear Reich’s influence on Bruise Blood: Reimagining Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ or Tim Hecker’s “Live Room”, which adapts Reich’s “Piano Phase” as a point of departure.
While violinists may not relish playing paradiddle bowing patterns, percussionists have always found Reich’s music ergonomically designed. It fits our hands, it takes drumming onto mallet instruments, and it flows.
Whenever I warm up on marimba by playing the core melo-rhythmic pattern for Reich’s Drumming, I think about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. There’s its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite pattern has the swinging feel of a 3 against 2 polyrhythm. There’s its truncated scale: four notes of g-sharp minor, but without the other three notes that would tell us more. And there’s the the four-note pattern bringing my left hand on an out-in-out motor pathway: from the g-sharp (out or away from me) up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then back down a semitone to the a-sharp (out and away again). While the right hand stays fixed on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses an in-out path that flows effortlessly. Playing the pattern feels like a piston firing, or like running.
Curious about how the pattern would sound and feel in different keys, I’ve tried transposing it downwards one semitone at a time onto eleven other starting point pitches. But none of these transpositions feel as natural, as inevitable, as playing the pattern on g-sharp. (Some of the transpositions—starting on b-natural, for instance—are seriously awkward.) Transposing Drumming illustrates how the best musical ideas are often one with our playing, and how composers are proposers of relationships between musicians and their instruments. Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on the key of Drumming? Did Drumming grow out of the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on the marimba rather than the tuned bongo drums that open the piece? Enchanting music retains a sense of mystery as to how it was created.
A composition whose parts sit well in the hands helps define a lexicon of movements that are possible on an instrument. If you write music for marimba, you understand the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated melodies on your sense of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Drumming sounds and feels good as ergonomic percussion music, it fits its instruments and fits our hands playing it, reminding us of the close connection between composing music and playing it.
If you grew up with popular music, you are used to verse-chorus-bridge structures that flit your attention from here to there, without asking you to spend time in one place. In contrast, all of Reich’s music stretches time by being a process working itself out over time. Like the magisterial sequences that I wait for in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Reich’s music ticks along like a finely calibrated watch, but that ticking is overlaid with ever-changing and suspended harmonic tensions. Following the music’s textures and tensions compels you to find calm in motion and pay attention to one note added, another taken away, one chord built up and morphing into another, one melodic pattern mirrored, doubled, foregrounded, then faded back into the rhythmic texture. It is often said that repetition is key to Reich’s music. But this repetition in fact a vehicle for constant changes happening in and to melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm.
Aspiring composers can take many cues from Reich, but among the most useful is to compose not one-off pieces, but series of pieces that expand a single idea into multiple contexts. Reich has written for reels of tape, pairs of hands, collections of claves, pairs of marimbas, quartets of pianos and vibraphones, solo string, wind, and guitar players with recorded counterpoint, as well as larger ensembles. If you have an idea, consider the ways you might repeat and expand on it.
In 1962, a few years before Reich’s tape music experiments, the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik wrote an article, “The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms in East and Central African Instrumental Music.” Kubik’s research described how in East African zither, harp, and xylophone musics the musicians play one thing while the listener hears something different. An enchanting “psycho-acoustic fact” of these musics, Kubik noted, is that we hear in them “a conflict of other rhythms, which are not played as such but arise in [our] imagination.” Kubik called these imaginary rhythms inherent rhythms, those “rhythm patterns which automatically emerge from the total musical complex, delighting the ears of both listeners and players, but which are not being played as such.”
Reich’s music is built upon the magic of inherent rhythms, and my favorite moments are when noticing these rhythms causes me to be disoriented and lose my place. Inherent rhythms create perceptual instabilities whereby I don’t know where I am rhythmically speaking: the downbeat becomes the upbeat, the 6-beat pulse goes from groups of twos to groups of threes and I lose my metrical bearings, floating along on polyrhythm currents. Reich calls this “magic time.”
Reich’s minimalism has nothing in common with the minimalism espoused by lifestyle gurus today, who urge us to purge from our lives of anything that doesn’t spark joy. Reich’s minimalism is more maximalist, a foregrounding of small things that make a profound difference. His music bring to mind Miyamoto Musashi’s maxim in The Book of Five Rings, “From one thing, know ten thousand things.” The inherent rhythms in Reich’s kinetic musical textures follow this principle, building a plethora of perceptions from a single idea.
While experimenting with field recordings in the 1960s, Reich experienced the sound of one reel to reel tape machine going out of sync with another, creating an echoing, trance effect. Think again about how he recognized this Composerly Moment: formalizing the drift of a technological accident into an aesthetic, a concept, and a counterpoint technique. That’s brilliant.
Reich formalized the tape drift of his tape machines as phasing. Thus did some of the machines’ unintended magic make their way into a lifetime of composing mostly acoustic music. In fact, phasing, which is the process of two parts moving out of sync and then returning together, animates many of Reich’s pieces. Whether by performers slowly speeding up their parts, or by rhythmically displaced unison canons, Reich’s counterpoint plays with the tension of musical parts moving towards togetherness, their lines tugging and pulling against one other to create a tensile time fabric. You can’t achieve such effects through quantization or strict repetition. Phasing humanizes repetition by giving it a subtly elastic and ever-shifting goal.
Four sets of bongos, six pianos, two marimbas and two vibraphones—Reich’s acoustic percussion timbre sets are at once old-fashioned, accessible, and timeless. (We have yet to replace acoustic musical instruments.) In TV ads for smartphones and pharmaceuticals I hear Reich-like, pointillistic marimba textures used by companies trying to define the products by sonic proxy. But Reich has never licensed his music, and in any case, his timbre sets require skilled performing musicians to bring them to life. His music has resisted being a commodity made of sound, instead pointing towards something else. As Lewis Hyde observes in The Gift: “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation.”
The timeline concept is African: a steady pulsation, usually played on an iron bell, that puts musical time into cyclical flow mode, marking the meter without defining it. In Reich’s music, someone is always the steady part, the rhythmic continuo keeping a timeline going—on tambourine, vibraphone, typewriter samples, or claves— against which the other musicians’ parts sync and interweave. The timeline concept is African, but Reich also heard it in jazz drummer Kenny Clarke’s ride cymbal and the gong time cycles of Balinese gamelan. Who needs rubato when you have timeline’s steady dynamism?
You need to listen to, watch, and trust the musicians you play with: she’s holding down the steady pulse timeline, his downbeat is your cue, and their left hands should match your right. In his 1951 essay “Making Music Together”, Alfred Schutz explored how social relationships are connected to musical process. Schutz offered the concept of “tuning-in” to describe the experience of playing music with others, where we share “the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together.” Reich’s pieces invite musicians to tune-in to this vivid present through shared pulse, interlocking rhythms, and close listening. No matter what instrument you play, when you play Reich’s music it becomes one of the best kinds of drumming.