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This article originally appeared in EST #3, and also appears in slightly different form in Roger Sutherland's book, New Perspectives in Music.

Steve Reich

by Roger Sutherland

"Systems Music" is a term which has been used to describe the work of composers who concern themselves with sound continuums which evolve gradually, often over very long periods of time. The most well-known of these composers are Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young. The most striking feature of their work is repetitiveness or stasis. Their works contain little or no variation of pitch, tempo, dynamics or timbre. Certainly, their work exhibits virtually none of the characteristic concerns of traditional Western music, such as harmonic movement, key modulation or thematic development.

The listener is invited, not to follow a complex musical "argument", but to concentrate upon a slowly changing sound and focus with microscopic awareness on different aspects of it. For such listeners such intense concentration has produced pyschological states comparable to drug-induced euphoria or meditative trance. However, Young is probably the only composer for whom such effects are of primary importance. Significantly, he is also the only composer whose music is entirely devoid of rhythmic pulse, consisting mostly of combinations of drones. Reich, by contrast, has explored the different ways in which a rhythmic figure can move out of phase with itself, while Glass has used rhythmic figures which increase or decrease in length as the piece progresses. Common to all three is the fact that their music avoids any sense of climax, development or directionality. Their pieces are either cyclical in form or static. A typical Reich piece will commence with two or more musicians playing a rhythmic pattern in unison. Gradually, they move out of phase with each other - initially by, say, a quarter note - and secondary rhythms are generated by the way in which the off-parallel rhythms intermesh. The process is continued until the players are again in unison - a cyclical rather than a developmental form. Alternatively, a piece may involve a process of expansion which is theoretically limitless, as is the case with Reich's Four Organs where a single chord is gradually stretched out to a duration of several minutes.

Systems composers appear to have worked largely outside the mainstreams of both European and American music, drawing inspiration instead from various ethnic musical forms - Ghanian and Balinese music in Reich's case, Japanese Gagaku in the case of Young. Many other influences can be discerned. Such non-Western musical forms, as Young has observed (1), involve stasis in contrast to climax or directionality. But systems music also relates to some aspects of contemporary Western music. Young has cited the "unchanging chord" in Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, as well as Webern's technique of repeating the same pitches in different octave placements (2); equally he acknowledges the influence of Machaut and plainchant. Glass, on the other hand, studied with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, and acknowledges the influences of Bach and Indian music.

Of the three it is perhaps Reich whose music most decisively repudiates the Western classical tradition. Works such as Drumming relate more to African tradition than to either Varese or Cage. Nevertheless, Reich's music developed very much as a reaction to European serialism as well as American indeterminacy. In his critique of these systems Reich makes similar observations to those made by composers like Xenakis (3) and Pousseur (4). Xenakis had observed that in serial music there is a discrepancy between method and auditory result; for while the compositional method is highly mathematical, the outward impression is one of randomness. Pousseur likewise observed that

"where the most abstract constructions have been employed ... one has the impression of finding oneself in the presence of the consequences of an aleatory free play".
Reich extends this criticism to indeterminate music as well. He argues that in both cases one cannot hear the process by which the music was constructed. In the case of serialism one cannot follow the permutations of the twelve note series - the retrogrades and inversions destroy any recognisable melodic content. Similarly, in Cage's music one cannot hear the chance operations which determine the choice and disposition of notes. He writes:
"The process of using the I Ching or observing the imperfections in manuscript paper cannot be heard when listening to music composed that way. The compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection." (5)

In Music as a Gradual Process (1968) Reich advocates the use of compositional processes which are clearly audible to the listener. He argues that in order to facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process must happen extremely gradually, like the movement of the minute hand on a watch or the slow trickling of sand through an hour glass. The first type of gradual process which Reich explored was that of moving a rhythmic pattern out of phase with itself. This idea developed out of Reich's experiments with tape music. In 1965 he recorded the voice of a black preacher in San Francisco. Afterwards in the studio, he selected a short phrase and ran two tape loops of it on supposedly identical tape machines. Because of minute differences between the two machines the phrase was heard marginally out of synchronisation with itself. He then began to control this discrepancy by delaying one spool with his thumb, but to such an infinitesimal degree that pitch was not affected. Out of these experiments came two tape pieces: It's Gonna Rain (using the preacher's voice) and Come Out (1966) in which the single phrase "Come out to show them" is recorded on two channels, first in unison, and then with channel two beginning to move ahead. As the phrase begins to shift a gradually increasing reverberation is heard which slowly passes into a sort of canon or round. Eventually the two voices divide into four and then eight. Gradually, the intelligibility of the voices is destroyed - one hears only a constantly changing polyphony of rhythmic elements.

Reich's first attempt to apply the phasing process within an instrumental context was Piano Phase (1967). Here a twelve note even semiquaver melody consisting of five different modal pitches is set up in unison with itself on two pianos. The lead player gradually speeds up until he has moved one sixteenth ahead. The dotted lines in the score indicate the movement of the second pianist and the consequent shift of phase relation between himself and the first pianist.

The process is continued, with the second pianist gradually becoming an eighth [3], a dotted eigth [4], a quarter [5] and so on ahead of the first until he finally passes through a cycle of twelve relations and comes back into unison at [1] again. By this simple mechanical method Reich discovered a completely new way of playing, thus allowing one to become totally absorbed in listening while one played (6). In a 1969 performance of the work by Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski Piano Phase was adapted for piano and synthesiser. Here the subtle timbral differences between the two instruments helped to emphasise the shifting interplay between the two off-parallel rhythms. As the synthesiser moved ahead of the piano a substratum of elusive sub-melodies and secondary rhythms was generated - a psychoacoustic impression which was both mesmerising and mildly disquieting, rather like the after-images which appear on the surface of abstract paintings which deploy the overlapping of strong colours.

The other type of gradual process employed by Reich involves the progressive augmentation of note values. This idea too developed out of a tape piece - in this case one which was never realised. The piece was entitled Slow Motion Music (1967) and the score reads: "Gradually slow down a recorded sound without altering its pitch or timbre".

This was an extension of the idea originally explored by delaying the tape spool for It's Gonna Rain. The idea was to take a tape loop, possibly of speech, and gradually slow it down to enormous length so that its harmonic and timbral qualities were expanded for a more detailed appreciation. The piece was conceived as the auditory equivalent of a slow motion film which enables one to observe details that would normally pass unnoticed.

While other composers were attracted to electronic music by its technical possibilities, Reich found the medium deficient. The idea behind slow motion music could not be realised by electronic means since, if a tape loop is slowed down by more than a fractional degree the harmonic and timbral qualities of the recorded sound will inevitably be altered. The idea could, however, be realised using live instruments. Four Organs (1970) was the first piece in which Reich explored this possibility. Prior to composing this piece Reich had built an electronic musical device with the aid of an engineer friend. This device, the Phase Shifting Pulse Gate, could gradually alter the phase positions between a number of continously pulsing tones. If all tones were in phase a repeating chord would be heard. If the tones were slightly out of phase, a repeating rippling broken chord would be heard, and if moved further out of phase, a repeating melodic pattern would result. There was also a control on the device to shorten or lengthen the duration of each pulse. Reich eventually abandoned this device because of its precision, which he felt was stiff and unmusical. He felt that in any music which depends upon a regular pulse it is actually the tiny variations in that pulse created by human beings which gives vitality to the music. He writes:

"Since I was becoming disenchanted with electronic devices, largely because of their mechanical sounding rhythms and pitches and the lack of bodily involvement in making music with them, I began to think instead of simply holding down individual notes longer and longer on an organ. Instead of the digitial clock to count ... I began to think of a musician playing a steady pulse with maracas which the organist could then count together from." (7)

Thus in Four Organs a single chord - a dominant 11th - is gradually stretched out so that was originally a vertical consonance. A maraca player lays down a steady time grid of even eighth notes throughout, thus enabling the four organists to synchronise while counting beats. The process of stretching the chord is achieved by the addition of beats, so that the chordal unit gets progressively longer. Within each chordal repetition, single notes - the chord itself is spread over three octaves among the four players - are isolated and held for longer durations. Thus what lasted a single beat in a thirteen beat bar at the beginning of the piece has by the end evolved into a chord which is held for something over 200 beats. The structural process here is completely transparent - nothing is hidden. This does not mean, however, that the music lacks an element of mystery. Reich argues:

"Even when all the cards are on the table there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all. These mysteries are the unintended psychoacoustic by-products of the intended process. These might include submelodies heard within a repeating melodic pattern, irregularities in performance, harmonics, difference tones, etc". (8)

Although the subject of the piece is the analysis of a single chord it could be regarded as an examination of the timbre of the organ itself. Some listeners may find that after a certain number of chordal repetitions the constituent pitches themselves appear to dissolve in a haze of shifting timbres and disembodied harmonics.

After Piano Phase Reich had continued his exploitation of phasing processes in Phase Patterns for four electric organs and Violin Phase for four violins (both 1967), the second of which brought him to a realisation of "the many different melodic patterns resulting from the combination of two or more identical instruments playing the same repeating pattern one or more beats out of phase with each other" (9). Drumming (1970-1) represents the final expansion and refinement of the phasing process in Reich's work, as well as the first use of four new techniques: that of gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a repeating rhythmic cycle; the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain unaltered; the simultaneous combination of instruments of a different timbre, and the use of the human voice to become part of the musical ensemble by imitating the exact sound of the instruments. The work commences with two drummers constructing the basic rhythmic pattern of the entire piece (it lasts one hour and a half) from a single drum beat, played in a cycle of twelve beats with rests on all the other beats. Gradually, additional drum beats are substituted for the rests, one at a time, until the pattern is fully established, The reduction process is simply the reverse, where rests are substituted for beats, one at a time, until only a single beat remains. There is, then, only one basic rhythmic pattern for the entire piece:

This pattern undergoes change of phase position, pitch and timbre, but all of the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece.

The transistions between the four sections are enacted by the new instruments doubling the exact pattern of the instruments already playing. At the end of the drum section three drummers play the same rhythmic pattern out of phase with one another. Three marimbas enter softly, doubling the same pattern. The drummers gradually fade out so that the rhythmic pattern is maintained with a gradual change of timbre. Similarly at the end of the marimba section three marimbas are doubled by three glockenspiels in their lowest range so that the process of maintaining the melodic and rhythmic pattern while altering the timbre is repeated. The sections are not demarcated by changes in key. Reich's aim in Drumming is to demonstrate that it is possible to maintain the same key for some considerable time if instead there are significant rhythmic developments as well as timbral changes to supply variety.

Much of the interest of the piece, however, lies in the realm of "unintended psychoacoustic by-products of the intended process". These include comple cross-rhythms which result from the hocket-like combination of a number of very simple rhythmic patterns. These rhythms continually shift and change as the phase positions alter. Other psychoacoustic impressions may be perceptible to the attentive listener. For example, the continual repetition may cause the listener to lose all sense of rhythm and melody, hearing the colour of the drum sounds in a more abstract and disembodied way. Similarly the glockenspiel part may progressively blur all sense of definite pitch so that one hears only high, dissonant harmonics or, on a lower plateau, the constant drone caused by the rattle of wooden mallets on metal keys. Like the transient illusions of Op art, these psychoacoustic impressions vary continually. The astute listener will hear the music polyphonically - constantly shifting attention between the superimposed musical layers and their interpenetrations.

However, Reich's primary concern is not the investigation of such impressions. His aim is to make the structural processes of the music audible and to devise audible processes which will simultaneously determine the note to note procedure and the overall form. This is not the case with serialism since although it does predetermine the note to note procedure (ie the twelve notes must be kept in the same order throughout) the order of permutations - and hence the overall structure - are not. Reich's aim is to eliminate any room for compositional manoeuvre once the initial parameters have been set up. He writes:

"Musical processes can give one a direct control with the impersonal and also a kind of complete control ... by this I mean: by running this material through that process I completely control all that results but I also accept all that results without changes." (9)

Like Cage, Reich seems to be concerned with transcending his own personal taste to achieve a kind of objectivity. If changes or embellishments are made during rehearsal they are collaborative, involving all the musicians in Reich's ensemble. During the rehearsal of Drumming the three vocalists, including Reich himself, selected certain unintended patterns which resulted from the phase shifting of the basic rhythm and decided collectively on an order in which to vocalise them. For Reich there is no element of self-expression here - the players are merely drawing out the rhythms which are latent in the music.

Reich feels that it is important to distinguish his music from some currently popular modal forms of music, such as Indian classical and drug-oriented rock and roll. These musical forms may make us aware of minute sound details because in being modal (constant key centre, hypnotically droning and repetitious) they naturally focus on these details rather than on key modulation, counterpoint or other peculiarly Western devices. He stresses, however, that these idioms are more or less strict frameworks for improvisation - they are not processes. The distinctive feature of a musical process is that it simultaneously determines the note to note procedure and the overall form. "One can't improvise in a musical process", Reich argues. "The two concepts are mutually exclusive".

Reich's later works, however, are less strictly predetermined and show a greater flexibility of compositional approach. In Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974-6) he abandons simple phasing processes in favour of the more elaborate techniques of Drumming and the processes of rhythmic augmentation first used in Four Organs. His most recent works are less minimalist in approach, showing a greater variety of rhythmical change than the earlier pieces and a stronger sense of harmonic movement. In Tehillim (1981), which is based on Hebrew psalms, and The Desert Music (1983), based on poems by William Carlos Williams, Reich makes a limited use of key modulation and gives far greater independence and expressiveness to the vocal parts.

While Reich's earlier music involves a decisive rejection of the Western classical tradition, his later work shows an increasing tendency to accomodate aspects of that tradition, often in combination with Eastern and Afro-Asian stylistic elements. In Music for Eighteen Musicians chords lasting initially twenty seconds are expanded for entire five minute section "rather as a single note for the cantus firmus of 12th century organum might be stretched out as a harmonic centre by Perotin" (10). As well as Perotin, Reich feels an increasing affinity with Debussy, whose non-functional harmony seems very close to his own, especially in terms of harmonic ambiguity. He has also likened his use of a chordal suspension technique in Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards (1979) to Bartok's Second Piano Concerto. Other later works, such as Tehillim show a strong feeling for tonality. It's last movement "affirms the key of D major as the basic tonal centre of the work after considerable harmonic ambiguity earlier" (11). On the other hand, Sextet (1985) exploits ambiguities of rhythm and metre which are more reminiscent of African music. One feels, in listening to Reich's more recent work, the sense of a dialectic between Eastern and Western styles and between ancient and modern traditions. In this respect Reich seems to have given an entirely new interpretation to Stockhausen's idealistic vision of "a unified world music", one which combines elements of the music "of all lands and races" (12).

By and (C) Roger Sutherland.


  1. Richard Kostelanetz: "Interview with La Monte Young", included in Young & Zazeela: "Selected Writings", Munich, 1969.
  2. Young, 1969.
  3. Iannis Xenakis: "The Crisis in Serial Music", Gravesaner Blatter, Switzerland, No.1, 1965.
  4. Henri Pousseur: "The Question of Order in the New Music", Perspectives in New Music, Vol.1, 1966.
  5. Reich: "Music as a Gradual Process", included in "Writings About Music", Universal Edition, London, 1974.
  6. Reich, 1974.
  7. From the LP of Four Organs.
  8. Reich, 1974.
  9. Reich, 1974.
  10. From the LP of Music for Eighteen Musicians (ECM 1129).
  11. From the LP of Variations (Phi. 421 214-1).
  12. Karl H. Worner: "Stockhausen: His Life and Work", Faber, 1963.

Brief Biography of Steve Reich

Reich was born in New York in 1936. He graduated from Cornell University with honours in Philosophy in 1957 and studied composition at the Juillard School of Music from 1958 to 1961. He then attended Mills College in California where he studied with Milhaud and Berio, receiving his M.A. in music in 1963. In 1970 he studied drumming with a master drummer of the Ewe tribe at the Institute of African Studies in Ghana. During 1973 and 1974 he studied Balinese Gamelan Music at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley, California.