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About Steve Reich
A highly influential avant-garde composer and one of the key founders of the minimalist school of music, composer Steve Reich has, since the 1960s, embraced a wide variety of musical styles and interests, forging from them a unique synthesis (as evidenced by his most important compositions from the period, Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Four Organs, and Drumming), which proved influential to generations of musicians and sound artists from across the spectrum. His approach has expanded considerably since then. It contains not only aspects of Western classical music, but the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western and American vernacular music, particularly jazz. He has written chamber pieces (Music for 18 Musicians), an oratorio of the Psalms (Tehillim), and orchestral and choral reflections on poet William Carlos Williams (The Desert Music, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and performed by 106 musicians). His Grammy-winning work Different Trains, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape based on the train rides of forcibly transported Jews to Nazi concentration camps, was commissioned and performed by Kronos Quartet and released in 1989 on the same disc as Electric Counterpoint, featuring guitarist Pat Metheny playing live over a multi-tracked tape of ten guitars and two electric basses. While Reich spent the early part of the 1990s participating in and supervising orchestral recordings of works from his catalog, he nonetheless issued several provocative recordings including his opera The Cave in 1993. His hypnotic work translated to a generation of DJs and producers, many of whom participated on Reich Remixed, featuring Howie B, Ken Ishii, Andrea Parker, and others. His three-movement Triple Quartet was commissioned and recorded by Kronos Quartet and released in 2001. In 2014, Reich, who continued to see recordings of his masterworks by different ensembles and orchestras, released Radio Rewrite, which took as its inspiration a series of Radiohead songs. On the same album, a re-recording of Electric Counterpoint featured Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood as soloist.
Steve Reich took piano lessons as a youngster, but his first big musical revelations came at 14, when he encountered the music of Bach and Stravinsky. He also had his first exposure to bebop, and immediately started learning drums and playing in a jazz band with friends. He played on weekends while studying at Cornell, which he entered at age 16 and where he received a degree in philosophy, specializing in the work of Wittgenstein. In 1957 he entered Juilliard, studying with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (and meeting fellow student Philip Glass). Here Reich first heard 12-tone music; he got a further dose of it during graduate studies at Mills College in Oakland, working with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud, and eventually earning his master's degree.
At about that time, Reich met Terry Riley, who was in the process of writing In C (1964). Reich played in its premiere, and In C's tonal approach and use of repeating patterns had a big influence on Reich's own music. In turn, Reich suggested the use of the eighth-note pulse, which is now standard in performance of the piece. Reich had been experimenting with tapes, creating loops of speech and layering them, allowing the layers to move in and out of sync with one another. His early works It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) led to similar experiments with live performers, the first of which was Piano Phase for two pianos (1967). Back in New York, Reich and Glass formed an ensemble to perform their music (1968-1971). Several of those players later formed Steve Reich and Musicians, who have toured the world many times over.
In 1970, Reich studied for several weeks at the University of Ghana. His encounter with Ghanaian music and dance inspired his ambitious work Drumming (1970). Encounters with Indonesian gamelan music in 1973-1974 in Seattle and Berkeley were equally significant, and broadened Reich's rhythmic and timbral palette. His most significant composition of the time was Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976), a large and colorful work that brought Reich worldwide recognition.
In the mid-'70s, Reich started taking Torah classes with his future wife, video artist Beryl Korot. He also studied traditional Jewish cantillation and incorporated it into his psalm settings, Tehillim (1981). Several chamber and orchestral works followed in the 1980s. For Different Trains (1988, a Grammy winner), Reich used a digital sampler to record speaking voices and derived the rhythmic and melodic ideas of the piece from those voices. Reich knew that Different Trains was going to lead to some kind of new documentary form incorporating both video and music. Collaborating with his wife for the first time, the two completed their theater work The Cave in 1993. They continued to explore the combination of music and video with Three Tales (1998-2002).
By the end of the 21st century's first decade, the lasting significance of Reich's music was being recognized worldwide. After 1998's new recording of Music for 18 Musicians won a Grammy, Reich received honorary doctorates and awards from Juilliard, Budapest's Franz Liszt Academy, and other schools; the 2007 Polar Music Prize; the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music (for Double Sextet); and, in 2012, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Music.
In 2016, as Reich celebrated his 80th birthday, he continued to debut new material -- Pulse, a composition for winds, strings, piano, and electric bass, premiered at New York's Carnegie Hall as part of a special birthday concert on November 1, 2016, while Runner, a dance piece for winds, percussion, pianos, and strings, was introduced by London's Royal Ballet less than two weeks later, on November 10. Nearly two years past his 80th birthday, Reich issued Pulse; Quartet on Nonesuch in February of 2018. The former composition, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, used an electric bass to nod at Giorgio Moroder via Daft Punk in tandem with a repetitive series of piano patterns playing directly at pastoral timbres performed by lithe strings and woodwinds to create a textural and sonic juxtaposition. Quartet, the latter work, was a jazz-inspired essay for two pianos and two vibraphones, written for and performed by Reich's favorite percussionists, the Colin Currie Group. ~ Chris Morrison
- New York, NY
- Oct 3, 1936
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