Week 9 – Steve Reich/Minimalism

Steve Reich is one of the pioneers of minimalist music.  Other pioneers of the genre include Philip Glass, La Monte Young and Terry Riley.  Minimalism was born out of the New York Downtown music scene during the 1960’s.  The following are common features of minimalist music:

  • Consonant harmony.
  • Steady Pulse.
  • Stasis or gradual transformation.
  • Reiteration of musical phrases, figures, motifs and cells.
  • Additional stylistic features include additive process and phase shifting.

Minimalist pieces that are based upon process techniques are often referred to as process music.  The style of Steve Reich relies heavily upon the phase shifting technique and is often referred to as phase music.  Minimalist Composer Tom Johnson describes minimalism as:

“The idea of minimalism is much larger than many people realize. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that use only a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses. It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time. It includes pieces made exclusively from recordings of rivers and streams. It includes pieces that move in endless circles. It includes pieces that set up an unmoving wall of saxophone sound. It includes pieces that take a very long time to move gradually from one kind of music to another kind. It includes pieces that permit all possible pitches, as long as they fall between C and D. It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute”.  (Tom Johnson, 1989).

Reich’s started life as a composer with investigations into twelve tone composition where, he experienced a greater interest in the rhythmic aspects than the melodic aspects. Reich’s early minimalist compositions were innovative involving the use of tape loops to create phasing patterns.  This can be heard on ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (1965) and ‘Come Out’ (1966).



In 1967 Reich attempted to translate the tape loops phasing technique into a live performance technique; the result was Piano Phase and later that same year Violin Phase.  In Piano Phase, two live pianists repeat twelve-note loop, initially in perfect sync.  However, as one player maintains even tempo the other speeds up slightly until the two parts are one sixteenth note apart, they lock in for a bit then phase shift some more and so on.  The method employed here which Reich favour in his earlier phase shifting compositions is that of the gradual phase shifting, later he preferred to phase shift in steps of say 16th notes or 8th notes.



Steve Reich composed perhaps his most seminal piece during 1974-1976, it was entitled ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and by now Reich was preferring the sound of the phase shifting in steps technique, which many people including myself feel is more rhythmically pleasing.



For this week’s composition, the phase shifting technique of Reich was investigated.  Taking influence from Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ this week’s piece is composed in 12/8 with a fast tempo.  The method of phase shifting in steps of 8th notes is investigated and the characteristic 8th note string lines further accentuate the ‘Reich’ sound.  The approach to composing was to first construct a 12/8 loop of notes which when phase shifted would produce aesthetically pleasing harmonic relationships.  Also, the minimalist technique of adding one note at a time was explored to give a sense of gradual change and dynamic range of some elements are experimented with.

Below is a link to this week’s composition:




  • Aidu, Peter (2007). Peter Aidu plays Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” with an absolutely unique technique. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKXy1FPTdvg – accessed 06/05/2014.
  • Anderson, Virginia. 2013. “Systems and Other Minimalism in Britain”. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, edited by Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll ap Siôn, 80–106. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-3549-5.
  • Johnson, Tom. 1989. The Voice of New Music: New York City 1972-1982 – A Collection of Articles Originally Published by the Village Voice. Eindhoven, Netherlands: Het Apollohuis. ISBN 90-71638-09-X.
  • Potter, Keith (2000). Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Music in the Twentieth Century series. Cambridge, UK; New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reich, Steve; Hillier, Paul (Editor) (April 1, 2002). Writings on Music, 1965–2000. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-19-511171-0.
  • Reich, Steve (1965). It’s Gonna Rain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vugqRAX7xQE#t=560 – accessed 06/05/2014.
  • Reich, Steve (1974). Writings About Music. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. p. 78. ISBN 0-919616-02-X.
  • Reich, Steve (2008). Music for 18 Musicians, Tokyo Opera City, Japan, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLckHHc25ww – accessed 06/05/2014.

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