Steve Reich has followed a line of impressive consistency through more than four decades, developing the pulsed iterations of US Minimalism into music of ever greater intricacy and range without loss of excitement. A philosophy major at Cornell (1953–7), he then studied composition at the Juilliard School (1958–61) and with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College, in the San Francisco Bay Area (1962–3). Remaining there for two more years to work at the Tape Music Center, he returned to New York, which has been his home ever since.
He quickly established his own studio and began giving performances in downtown galleries. His music at this point was based on repetitions in two or more lines drifting apart, an idea that sprang from the effect of loops being played on two tape recorders that gradually got out of phase: hence his use of the word ‘phasing’ for processes of this kind. An essential feature, at first, was that the process should be frankly presented; besides phasing it might be a matter of steadily adding notes to a repeating figure, or taking them away, as in Four Organs (1970).That year he visited Ghana to study drumming, and returned to found his own ensemble based on tuned percussion instruments, Steve Reich and Musicians, with whom he immediately began touring internationally. A little later he studied the percussion-ensemble music of Bali – not in situ this time, but on the USA’s west coast.
Meanwhile his group grew in size. and his music in richness of colour and harmony – a long-range process in itself that began with the classic Drumming (1970–1) and culminated in Music for 18 Musicians (1974–6). The spectacular success of that work, in concert and on record, encouraged him to publish his music, which hitherto he had confined to his own group. He also began to receive orchestral commissions, all the while increasing the subtlety of sound and design within his personal style of repeating modal figures that gain rhythmic vitality from metric ambiguity (generally about the grouping of 12 beats in threes or fours).
In 1976–7 he turned to his own Jewish heritage in studying traditional chanting, a departure that gave rise to Tehillim for women’s voices and small orchestra (1981), setting verses from the psalms. In some works, notably Different Trains for string quartet and electronics (1988), he also brought back a technique from his first tape pieces, of using fragments of recorded speech, now as melodic formulae to be imitated by instruments.
He went on to work with video recordings (by his wife Beryl Korot) in combination with recorded and live music in his two biggest pieces: The Cave (1990–93), a skein of Israeli, Palestinian and US responses to biblical myth, and Three Tales (1998–2002), about the limits and losses of modern technology.
Profile © Paul Griffiths