History of Drumming


Russell Hartenberger

[Note: Some of the information in this article was previously published in my book, Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2016).]

Steve 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.”

Early Rehearsals

 Steve Reich lived in a loft at 423 Broadway, just north of Canal Street in the Soho district of lower Manhattan, when he began composing Drumming in 1970. The loft was near Little Italy and Chinatown and was just a few blocks north of the nearly completed World Trade Center. The area housed an active underground art scene with artists’ lofts, art galleries, performance spaces, and macrobiotic restaurants. Reich’s loft was at the top of a steep flight of stairs and was a large, rectangular open space with a few windows facing Broadway, a kitchen off to the side, and a separate bedroom at the front. At the rear was a slightly raised area with a couch that I eventually used as a bed when I began sleeping over after long evening rehearsals rather than driving late at night back to my home in Middletown, CT. A bookshelf made of bricks and boards held instruments that Reich brought back from his trip to Ghana the summer before: gankoguis, the double-iron bells, sometimes called gong-gongs, that provide the timeline ostinato in much Ewe dance drumming; atokes, canoe-shaped iron bells from the Akan region; and an axatse, a gourd rattle covered by a netting of beads. On the lower level of the bookshelf was the two-volume set, Studies in African Music, by A. M. Jones, that was influential in Reich’s study of Ghanaian music. 

Hanging on the wall above the bookshelf was a framed drawing by minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, a semi-geometric sketch of lines dissolving into irregularity in the lower right-hand corner. Reich later told me that LeWitt considered this drawing to be a mistake and, in fact, called it Mistake Drawing. Against one of the painted white walls was a long wooden beam with ten holes drilled in it that I first thought was left over from some construction. I soon discovered it was a work of art by minimalist sculptor, Richard Serra, titled Candle Rack that Reich acquired in a trade with Serra for the score to Pendulum Music. Reich eventually sold Candle Rack but still owns Mistake Drawing and recently had it re-framed. 

In the center of the main floor of the loft was a worn, patterned carpet in muted earth tones, and on the carpet were four pairs of bongos on stands positioned in the center of the space. Next to the bongos was a row of three small 3.0-octave marimbas lined up end to end. Three AKG microphones were set up behind the bongos, another next to the bongos, and one more positioned over each marimba. On a table against the side wall was a more substantial bookshelf that held a Dynaco amplifier and pre-amp and a Revox G-36 reel-to-reel tape recorder that was used to record all the rehearsals. On the shelves beneath the audio equipment were rows of reel-to-reel tapes and a few LP records. In the corners of the loft were large Altec Lansing Duplex 604 loudspeakers in wooden enclosures.

Steve Reich’s loft at 423 Broadway in New York City where Drumming was composed and rehearsed.
Steve Reich’s loft at 423 Broadway in New York City where Drumming was composed and rehearsed.
Photo taken on September 23, 2016 by Bonnie Sheckter.

The musicians who formed the group that first rehearsed the bongo section of Drumming were pianists Arthur Murphy and Steve Chambers, and Jon Gibson, a wind player. As the full structure of Drumming began to develop, Reich realized he needed percussionists in his ensemble. Through a serendipitous meeting with Reich in early 1971, I was the first of those percussionists to join his ensemble.

I was a graduate student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT studying West African drumming at the time, and began looking into the possibility of traveling to Ghana in the summer of 1971 to learn more about the music. I happened to mention this to Richard Teitelbaum, a fellow graduate student and a composer from New York City. Teitelbaum was well acquainted with the underground new music scene in New York City and knew that Reich had been to Ghana to study West African drumming in the summer of 1970. He also knew that Reich was in the early stages of composing and rehearsing a piece for percussion, and that he was looking for percussionists to play in his ensemble. Teitelbaum suggested that he introduce Reich and me so we could discuss Ghana and Reich’s new composition.

African drumming class at Wesleyan University; seated, left to right: Russell Hartenberger, Abraham Adzenyah; standing: Ben Baldwin. Photo: Bill Van Saun.
African drumming class at Wesleyan University; seated, left to right: Russell Hartenberger, Abraham Adzenyah; standing: Ben Baldwin.
Photo: Bill Van Saun.

We met in New York where Reich told me about his experiences in Ghana: visas; inoculations; malaria; the Ghana National Dance Ensemble; graduate student chalets; and the difficulties of trying to study music in West Africa. He also told me about the piece he was writing called Drumming and invited me to come to a rehearsal at his loft the following week. I attended the rehearsal and was intrigued by the music. I had played in ensembles of percussion instruments before and even in chamber ensembles with percussion, voice, and other instruments, but this music was different. There was not a large set-up of percussion instruments, just a few drums sitting in the middle of the room with three marimbas along the side. The instruments were not meant to produce coloristic effects as is often the case in chamber or orchestral settings but were used to convey the essence of the music. As a result, the rhythms that were played attracted me in much the same way I was drawn to Ghanaian drumming.  I agreed to attend rehearsals and became the first percussionist, other than Reich himself, to play in Steve Reich and Musicians. Another professional percussionist, Jim Preiss, joined the ensemble shortly thereafter, and he brought in several of his students to fill out the nine percussionists that are required to perform Drumming.

All the musicians learned Drumming as Steve Reich composed it. At our weekly rehearsals, Reich would demonstrate the pattern that he wanted each person to play. We would then imitate it and repeat it until we memorized it, then connect it to the material we had learned the previous week. None of the percussionists ever saw any musical notation. When he began composing the marimba section of the piece, Reich recorded each marimba section then met separately with the singers, Jay Clayton, Joan La Barbara, and Judy Sherman, to select resultant patterns. Jon Gibson and Reich worked out the resultant patterns for piccolo in the glockenspiel section, and the singers again helped decide on their patterns in the final part of the piece. The gradual process that Reich describes in his compositional style was also the way we learned Drumming. According to the notes in Reich’s personal diaries, which are now in the Paul Sacher Stiftung (PSS) in Basel, there were sixty-seven rehearsals, including individual vocal rehearsals, by the time Drumming was premiered in December of 1971.

The Process of Composing Drumming

Steve Reich composed Drumming using only one rhythmic pattern throughout the entire piece. This rhythm is heard in canonic relationships by way of the process of phasing, and fragments of the basic pattern are played, whistled, or sung throughout the composition, yet no musician plays or sings any other rhythm in Drumming. Reich states in his “Notes by the Composer” in the score to Drumming, “This pattern undergoes changes of pitch, phase position, and timbre, but all the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece.” The example of the Drumming rhythm that Reich wrote to accompany this statement is a seemingly simple pattern of eighth notes in a twelve-unit grouping.

When I asked Reich how he conceived of this rhythm that could sustain a composition for so long, he explained that he came up with the Drumming pattern tapping his fingers while on the telephone.

Drummers are inveterate finger tappers, a habit that for some people is a sign of anxiety, but one that can be a source of tension release for us. I often find myself tapping on a tabletop without paying attention to the rhythm. Consequently, I can easily identify with Reich finger tapping while on the telephone and then realizing his mindless drumming was, in fact, an intriguing rhythmic pattern. Although, when I began comparing his remembrances of finger tapping with his sketchbook entries, I found that the Drumming pattern was the result of a moment of realization combined with an extensive period of jotting down rhythmic patterns and analyzing them.

In examining his sketchbooks at the Paul Sacher Stiftung (PSS), I saw that Reich spent time working out the details of the Drumming pattern even to the point of indicating the cross-rhythms that are implicit in the pattern. I was curious about the correlation between the entries in Reich’s sketchbooks with his remembrance of tapping out the Drumming pattern in a kind of “aha moment” while talking on the phone, so I asked Reich if the Drumming pattern was an intuitive decision, and he said, “Yeah, I didn’t give conscious thought to any of that.” 

Since 2008, Reich has been depositing his sketchbooks, manuscripts, agendas, photographs, recordings, instruments, and correspondence in PSS and I have made several trips to the archive to examine these materials. Of particular interest to me was Reich’s Sketchbook [3] 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. 

Russell Hartenberger, Matthias Kassel (Curator of the Steve Reich collection), Felix Meyer (Director of PSS), Tina Kilvio Tüscher (Archivist) at the entrance to Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Switzerland
Russell Hartenberger, Matthias Kassel (Curator of the Steve Reich collection), Felix Meyer (Director of PSS), Tina Kilvio Tüscher (Archivist) at the entrance to Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Switzerland.
Photo by Bonnie Sheckter.

Reich’s first entry in his Sketchbook [3] after returning from Ghana is dated 8/19/70. The entry is a series of simple eighth-note, eighth-rest combinations in 3/8 meter that he describes as a “skipping rhythm.” In his next few entries, Reich begins to develop these simple eighth-note rhythms in various ways. In one example, he wrote various combinations of eighth-notes and quarter-notes in meters of three, six, nine, and twelve. In another entry, he looked at the possibilities for metric modulation in the development of the Drumming pattern. On occasion Reich creates patterns using “L” and “R” to designate left and right hand rather than writing standard musical notation. Since he is left-handed, he always began these early sketchbook entries with an “L” indicating the patterns started with the left hand. As Reich explained in describing his development of the Drumming pattern, the effect created by this manipulation of hand distribution created counter-rhythms when the appropriate notes were used

In this entry from Sketchbook [3] Reich seems to be thinking about a phrase of twelve units divided into different groupings using only left/right hand designations.

     12 = 6+6       =   ||:  LRLRLR RLRLRL    :||
12 = 3+3+6   = ||:  LLL RRR LRLRLR   :||
12 = 3+3+3+3 =   LLL RRR LLR LRR  

Percussionists can shape phrases using the change in sound and feel produced by left/right hand patterning, and for Reich, hand patterning was an important consideration in his development of the Drumming rhythmic pattern. Reich’s interest in hand patterning began when he was a teenager studying percussion with Roland Kohloff. In a discussion of his early percussion training, Reich said he was fascinated by the patterns in the book, Stick Control for the Snare Drummer, by George Lawrence Stone. “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.”3

Stick Control for the Snare Drummer (G. L. Stone, 2009), p. 5.
Stick Control for the Snare Drummer (G. L. Stone, 2009), p. 5.

The entries in Reich’s Sketchbook [3] entry for 10/31/70, show the Drumming rhythm clearly for the first time. At the top of this Sketchbook page (shown below), Reich notated two somewhat random lines of eighth notes. This appears to be his way of writing hand patterning using music notation instead of left/right indications. The notes with stems down represent notes played with the left hand and the notes with stems up represent notes played with the right hand. 

Next are alternating hand patterning with both hands striking on the eighth notes that delineate a two-against-three cross-rhythm. Immediately following, in two more entries on the same page, Reich notated two versions of the basic pattern for Drumming; these examples show the Drumming rhythm clearly for the first time in Reich’s sketchbook. Also on that page are the Drumming pattern on pitches and an examination of the cross-rhythms implicit in the pattern. The cross-rhythms create some of the counter rhythms that Reich mentioned and are a result of his use of hand patterning to provide rhythmic interest. The manuscript page also includes notation of the Drumming pattern with solfege syllables. The pitches are not the ones he eventually chooses to use, but the double-stops are another indication of inherent cross rhythms in the pattern. According to Reich, he chose G# as the lowest pitch in the Drumming pattern because that was the lowest he could tune his bongos and still get a clear pitch. 

From this point, he began to work out pitches, cross-rhythms, hand patterning, and other details of the final pattern. For a more detailed description of the development of the Drumming pattern as well as information about Reich’s compositions from Drumming through Music for 18 Musicians, see my book, Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich.

Reich Sketchbook
First examples of Drumming notation in Steve Reich’s sketchbook, Sketchbook [3] February 14, 1970 - April 29, 1971, (Steve Reich Collection, PSS, Basel) (10/31/70), p. [31].

By November 1970, Reich had worked out the Drumming pattern and was ready to play it on instruments. He tried out timbales and congas before deciding on bongo drums. He purchased four pairs of bongos at Manny’s Musical Instrument Store on 48th street in New York City. On November 17, Reich got together with Arthur Murphy to try out the Drumming pattern, but the first official rehearsal for Drumming was held in Reich’s loft on December 3, 1970 with Reich, Murphy, Jon Gibson, and Steve Chambers all playing bongos. This group of musicians learned a version of the bongo section well enough to play it on a European tour from March 7-16 that was a combination of Reich’s ensemble and the Philip Glass group.

As rehearsals progressed, Reich would occasionally invite guests to attend rehearsals to hear the piece that was in progress. On April 1, a German TV crew filmed a portion of a rehearsal and a clip from that recording can be seen on the “Drumming in Magic Time” documentary video on the DRUMMINGat50 website. 

The first rehearsal of the marimba section of Drumming was on April 15. This was followed by another open rehearsal of the first two parts of the piece on May 20. The first rehearsal of the glockenspiel section was June 3, and the first complete rehearsal of Drumming took place in Reich’s loft on August 26. In preparation for the premieres, the Reich ensemble performed the bongo section and the glockenspiel section of Drumming at the Loeb Student Centre at NYU on November 14. The premieres of Drumming were on December 3 at the Museum of Modern Art, December 11 at the small hall in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and at Town Hall on December 16. 

Program for Town Hall premiere of Drumming
Program for Town Hall premiere of Drumming, December 16, 1971, (Steve Reich Collection PSS, Basel).

The Town Hall concert was recorded, and a double LP of the performance was released by John Gibson on Multiples label. Each movement of Drumming is on one side of disc. Accompanying each LP package was a copy of Reich’s hand-written manuscript score of Drumming. According to Reich, “Only after the entire piece was completed did I make an ink manuscript which in many ways was difficult to read, ambiguous as to interpretation and in some cases, mistaken as to note values in the voices and piccolo parts. For 40 years, this manuscript has circulated, and an increasing number of unfortunate performances have been the result.”4

In 2011, Reich asked composer Marc Mellits, who created the score for Music for 18 Musicians, to help him realize the Drumming score. The result is the version of Drumming in the Boosey & Hawkes printed edition. There are significant differences in the version of Drumming that was premiered in 1971 and the 2011 printed version. Some of these differences are in the choreography of the players, the order of note entries, and resultant patterns. In the 1971 version of Drumming, Steve Reich sang resultant patterns in the bongo section of the piece. Reich has since eliminated that element from the piece. The version of Drumming in the video performed by Nexus and Sō Percussion is as close as possible to the 1971 version. The choreography is similar to the original version and the resultant patterns are the exact ones that were selected by Jim Preiss and Steve Reich and performed by Preiss for many years with Steve Reich and Musicians. In the “Drumming in Magic Time” video, I am shown teaching the original 1971 version of Drumming.

Cover of manuscript score to Drumming, (Steve Reich Collection, PSS, Basel).
Cover of manuscript score to Drumming, (Steve Reich Collection, PSS, Basel).

The Reich ensemble began touring with Drumming soon after the premieres in New York City. In January/February of 1972, the ensemble toured France, Belgium, Germany, and England. In order to save money, Reich brought only five instrumentalists and three singers on the tour. Composers Gavin Bryars, Cornelius Cardew, Chris Hobbs, and Michael Nyman were brought into the group to play the extra parts in Drumming. A second tour of Europe took place in the summer of 1972 that combined Steve Reich and Musicians with the dance troupe, Laura Dean and Dancers. In addition to Drumming, the ensemble performed Four Organs, Pendulum Music, and Phase Patterns

Four Organs
Four Organs performed in Europe on 1972 tour.
From L to R: Steve Reich, Arthur Murphy, Jon Gibson, Steve Chambers, Russell Hartenberger Photo: Judy Sherman.

When rehearsals resumed in New York in the fall of 1972, Reich revamped the ensemble, bringing in the musicians who would form the foundation of Steve Reich and Musicians for the next several decades. With the addition of Bob Becker and Glen Velez in 1972, followed by Tim Ferchen, Gary Schall and David Van Tieghem, then Garry Kvistad in 1980 and Thad Wheeler in 1989, percussionists became the nucleus of the ensemble and established the sound and technique now associated with Reich’s music.

The first performance of Drumming by musicians who were not entirely from Steve Reich and Musicians was a concert I organized in Toronto on February 28, 1976. The performers were members of Nexus and free-lance Toronto musicians. Soon after this performance, Nexus began performing the bongo section of Drumming on our travels throughout North America, Europe, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. 

Other groups learned Drumming from Reich ensemble members or by attending concerts and listening to the recordings made by Steve Reich and Musicians and Nexus. The Dutch group, Slagwerk den Haag, learned the piece from Bob Becker. Zoltán Rácz and the members of the Amadinda Percussion Group from Budapest attended many performances of Drumming in Europe by Nexus and Steve Reich and Musicians. They eventually learned the piece and began performing it throughout Europe. In 1997, Nexus and Kroumata performed Drumming together at a concert in Toronto. 

In the fifty years since the premieres of Drumming in 1971, members of Nexus have taught the piece by rote to many student ensembles. Other groups learned the piece using Reich’s manuscript score which circulated for many years until the Boosey & Hawkes score was published. Now, musicians who want to perform Drumming have access to scores, recordings by Steve Reich and Musicians and other ensembles, percussionists who learned the music from Reich ensemble members, and from Reich himself. The two videos on this DRUMMINGat50 website add another layer of documentation that are available to musicians for reference.

© 2020 Russell Hartenberger

  1. Steve Reich, “Thoughts on percussion and rhythm,” in Russell Hartenberger (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Percussion (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 175.
  2. Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965 - 2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 79.
  3. Interview with Steve Reich, 2003.
  4. Steve Reich, Drumming, “About this edition,” (Hendon Music, a Boosey & Hawkes company, 2011).