Steve Reich’s exploration of technology through music

Dom Aversano

Photo by Peter Aidu

New York composer Steve Reich did not just participate in the creation of a new style of classical music, he helped establish a new kind of composer. Previously, the word composer evoked an archetype of a quill-wielding child prodigy who had composed several symphonies before adulthood — finding perhaps its purest embodiment in the example of Amadeus Mozart — whereas Reich represented a composer who gradually and determinedly developed their talent in a more relatable manner. At the same age that Mozart was on his deathbed composing his Requiem, Reich was struggling to establish himself in New York, driving taxis to make ends meet.

A key source of Reich’s inspiration was atypical of the classical music tradition, in which composers tended to draw inspiration from nature, religion, romantic love, classical literature, and other art forms; by contrast, Reich’s career was ignited by ideas he derived from electronic machines.

In what is now musical folklore, the young composer set up two tape recorders in his home studio with identical recordings of the Pentecostal preacher Brother Walter proclaiming ‘It’s gonna rain’. Reich pressed play on both machines and to his astonishment found the loops were perfectly synchronised. That initial synchronisation then began to drift as one machine played slightly faster than the other, causing the loops to gradually move out of time, thereby giving rise to a panoply of fascinating acoustic and melodic effects that would be impossible to anticipate or imagine without the use of a machine. The experiment formed the basis for Reich’s famous composition It’s Gonna Rain and established the technique of phasing (I have written a short guide to Reich’s three forms of phasing beneath this article).

While most composers would have considered this a curious home experiment and moved on, Reich, ever the visionary, sensed something deeper that formed the basis for an intense period of musical experimentation lasting almost a decade. In a video explaining the creation of the composition, It’s Gonna Rain, he describes the statistical improbability of the two tape loops having been aligned.

And miraculously, you could say by chance, you could say by divine gift, I would say the latter, but you know I’m not going to argue about that, the sound was exactly in the centre of my head. They were exactly lined up.

To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time in classical music that someone attributed intense or divine musical inspiration to an interaction with an electronic machine. How one interprets the claim of divinity is irrelevant, the significant point is it demonstrates the influence of machines on modern music not simply as a tool, but as a fountain of ideas and profound inspiration.

In a 1970 interview with fellow composer Michael Nyman, Reich described his attitude and approach to the influence of machines on music.

People imitating machines was always considered a sickly trip; I don’t feel that way at all, emotionally (…) the kind of attention that kind of mechanical playing asks for is something we could do with more of, and the “human expressive quality” that is assumed to be innately human is what we could do with less of now.

While phasing became Reich’s signature technique, his philosophy was summed up in a short and fragmentary essay called Music as a Gradual Process. It contained insights into how he perceived his music as a deterministic process, revealed slowly and wholly to the listener.

I don’t know any secrets of structure that you can’t hear. We all listen to the process together since it’s quite audible, and one of the reasons it’s quite audible is because it’s happening extremely gradually.

Despite the clear influence of technology on Reich’s work, there also exists an intense criticism of technology that clearly distinguishes his thinking from any kind of technological utopianism. For instance, Reich has consistently been dismissive of electronic sounds and made the following prediction in 1970.

Electronic music as such will gradually die and be absorbed into the ongoing music of people singing and playing instruments.

His disinterest in electronic sounds remains to this day, and with the exception of the early work Pulse Music (1969), he has never used electronically synthesised sounds. However, this should not be confused with a sweeping rejection of modern technology or a purist attitude towards traditional instruments. Far from it.

Reich was an early adopter of audio samplers, using them to inset short snippets of speech and sounds into his music from the 1980s onwards. A clear demonstration of this can be found in his celebrated work Different Trains (1988). The composition documents the long train journeys Reich took between New York and Los Angeles from 1938 to 1941 when travelling between his divorced parents. He then harrowingly juxtaposed this with the train journeys happening at the same time in Europe, where Jews were being transported to death camps.

For the composition, Reich recorded samples of his governess who accompanied him on these journeys, a retired pullman porter who worked on the same train line, and three holocaust survivors. He transcribed their natural voice melodies and used them to derive melodic material for the string quartet that accompanies the sampled voices. This technique employs technology to draw attention to minute details of the human voice, that are easily missed without this fragmentary and repetitive treatment. As with Reich’s early composition, It’s Gonna Rain, it is a use of technology that emphasises and magnifies the humanity in music, rather than seeking to replace it.

Having trains act as a source of musical and thematic inspiration demonstrates, once again, Reich’s willingness to be inspired by machines, though he was by no means alone in this specific regard. There is a rich 20th-century musical tradition of compositions inspired by trains, including works such as jazz composer Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train, Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos’s The Little Train of the Caipira, and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Stilleben.

Reich’s interrogation of technology finally reaches its zenith in his large-scale work Three Tales — an audio-film collaboration with visual artist Beryl Korot. It examines three technologically significant moments of the 20th century: The Hindenburg disaster, the atom bomb testing at Bikini, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. In Reich’s words, they concern ‘the physical, ethical, and religious nature of the expanding technological environment.’ As with Different Trains, Reich recorded audio samples of speech to help compose the music, this time using the voices of scientists and technologists such as Richard Dawkins, Jaron Lanier, and Marvin Minsky.

These later works have an ominous, somewhat apocalyptic feel, hinting at the possibility of a dehumanised and violent future, yet while maintaining a sense of the beauty and affection humanity contains. Throughout his career, Reich has used technology as both a source of inspiration and a tool for creation in a complicated relationship that is irreducible to sweeping terms like optimistic or pessimistic. Instead, Reich uses music to reflect upon some of the fundamental questions of our age, challenging us to ask ourselves what it means to be human in a hi-tech world.


A short guide to three phasing techniques Reich uses

There are three phasing techniques that I detect in Steve Reich’s early music which I will briefly outline.

First is a continuous form of phasing. A clear demonstration of this is in the composition It’s Gonna Rain (1965). With this phasing technique, the phase relationship between the two voices is not measurable in normal musical terms (e.g., ‘16th notes apart’ etc) but exists in a state of continuous change making it difficult to measure at any moment. An additional example of this technique can be heard in the composition Pendulum Music.

The second is a discrete form of phasing. A clear demonstration of this is the composition Clapping Music (1972). With this phasing technique, musicians jump from one exact phase position to another without any intermediary steps, making the move discrete rather than gradual. Since the piece is in a time cycle of 12 there are the same number of possible permutations, each of which is explored in the composition, thereby completing the full phase cycle.

The third is a combination of continuous and discrete phasing. A clear demonstration of this is Piano Phase (1967). With this phasing technique, musicians shift gradually from one position to another, settling in the new position for some time. In Piano Phase one musician plays slightly faster than the other until they reach their new phase position which they settle into for some time before making another gradual shift to another phase position. An additional example of this technique can be heard in the composition Drumming.

Music Hackspace is running an online workshop Making Generative Phase Music with Max/MSP Wednesday January 17th 17:00 GMT 

Dom Aversano is a British-American composer, percussionist, and writer. You can discover more of his work in his Substack publication, Liner Notes.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x