Artist and Musician Biographies


In this video, The Yale Percussion Group plays Sextet

In 1936, Steve Reich was born in New York City, the offspring of musical parents. Reich, along with Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and Philip Glass, is considered to be one of the pioneers of minimalist music. Surprisingly, he never got past the intermediate stage in his childhood lessons in piano and drums. Given his great gift for composing music, one might think that he had extensive training in the playing of musical instruments.

Reich did not originally go into music as his field of study, instead, he graduated from Cornell University with a B.A. in philosophy in 1957. Music did reenter his life in a more serious way at this point when he went on to take classes the Juilliard School of Music. While at Juilliard, Reich studied with the famous jazz organizer, Hall Overton and also took music composition classes. In 1961, he left the east coast behind and ventured out to California, more specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area. Here he entered Mills College and acquired his master's degree in music in 1963.

Reich's first recognition as a composer, although admittedly to a very small avant-garde audience, came as early as the mid-1960's with "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), and "Come Out" (1966). These ground breaking minimal compositions employing manipulated audio tapes and voice not only shocked the world of contemporary classical music but set the stage for the further development of the minimal aesthetic in both music and art.

During his study at Mills College, Reich established a strong interest in the cultural music of Asia and Africa. This interest in non-western music prompted his journey to Africa in 1970 where he studied with the drum master Gideon Alorwoye at the University of Ghana at Accra. The result of this endeavor produced Reich's first mainstream success in America with "Drumming", later that same year. Ironically, Reich chose to go to Africa just as his work was beginning to gain credibility in the United States, but his trip away from the U.S. would result in true success upon his return.

By the time Reich had traveled in Africa and produced "Drumming", minimalism in music had taken a rather strong hold in the States. Reich began to enjoy many commissions for himself and the musicians who accompanied him. The group that Reich performed with, officially formed in 1966, was known as Steve Reich and Musicians. This group of musicians was loosely defined and would sometimes contain anywhere from three to forty members at a time. Steve Reich and Musicians had an extensive touring schedule that would see them perform with a variety of orchestras, individuals and performance groups.

Reich once again turned to non-western music for inspiration in 1973 and 1974 when he studied with I Nyoman Sumandi on the subject of Balinese music. These studies were conducted over the course of two summers, one at The University of Washington at Seattle and the other at Berkeley, California. Later in 1974, he also published "Writings About Music", a compilation of his ideas, essays, program notes and excerpts, which caught the eye of those in the academic circle. During this same time, Reich plunged himself into another cultural study in Hebrew cantillation in New York.

Reich's work developed out of an extremely minimalist approach, such as 1972's 'Clapping Music", which is exactly what one might think it was.

1976 saw Reich begin to branch into more orchestra-related work with compositions like "Music For Eighteen Musicians". This composition, recorded in 1978 for pianos, clarinets, voices, violin, cello, marimbas, maracas, and xylophones, has received a great deal of critical attention and is considered by some to be Reich's masterpiece. It involves a systemic and building use of improvisation with an emphasis on an almost hypnotic repetition, with chords seemingly changing one note at a time.

The 1980's finally saw the recording of a substantial amount of Reich's work onto albums. A notable piece is 1988's "Different Trains" that explores the theme of the Holocaust through the music of a live string quartet, prerecorded material from a string quartet and bits of voice.

Perhaps based on his study of philosophy, Reich has incorporated the idea of the process of composition and the resulting played music being one in the same thing, throughout his career. He strives to make evident the process he endured while creating his compositions. Processes he encounters, such as his method of using tape music can be heard in the end result. Some of his techniques include playing identical recorded music simultaneously and letting the listener hear as the music becomes slightly out of alignment and then realigns. This practice in particular shows the process Reich went through in using two different recording machines that play back at slightly different speeds. This interest in process is similar to the interest a number of visual artists have had in process art.

Reich composed pieces that employed this time delay tape method, "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), and "Come Out" (1966), but he went further and incorporated it into composition for voice and instrument. Evidence of Reich's thorough exploration of process can be seen today in his recent endeavor, "The Cave" that showcases live musicians and taped voices that are on videotape as opposed to audio.

Page author: N.G.