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11 May 2022

How Steve Reich’s Clapping Music rebooted classical

Fifty years ago the American composer perfected minimalism for the mainstream.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

In 1972, after a concert in Brussels, the American composer Steve Reich and his ensemble heard a flamenco duo in a local nightclub. “They were terrible,” he later recalled. “Then, all of a sudden, they started clapping at each other. My ensemble was mostly percussionists. We looked at each other and went, ‘Whey! What’s this?’ We listened to them creating these interlocking patterns, which they were improvising and is a part of flamenco. And then, as we went out, after several more drinks, we found ourselves improvising clapping patterns on the street.”

Since 1965 Reich had been experimenting with a compositional technique called phasing, where two or more instruments start in unison, cautiously slip apart from each other in tempo – creating an echo first, then a more complex mesh of sound – before coming back together. He’d discovered the technique by way of a musical accident, while looping tapes, and then applied it to different instruments (two pianos, two violins, four organs, a larger ensemble of drummers). Now he wondered whether phase shifting flamenco-style clapping might produce an interesting result. If successful, the ultimate DIY piece would be born: no instruments beyond two pairs of hands required, a quick rehearsal in a corridor before show-time – and it doesn’t matter if there’s a power cut mid-performance.

Using a traditional African bell rhythm in 12/8 time, Reich found he could only make the piece work if one clapper kept a steady line and the other shifted by one eighth note every 12 bars, rather than both performers phasing in and out with each other. Some 144 bars later – five minutes or so – the clappers are back in unison, a sonic circle complete. He named the work Clapping Music and later said, “It’s perfect! Not every piece I write is perfect, but this one, it’s perfect.” It allowed Reich to move on from what he called in a 1968 essay “music as a gradual process” and develop new ideas. But 50 years after its creation, it’s clear that Clapping Music is more than a significant work in a single composer’s career. It’s minimalist music at its most organic; a pinnacle of the aesthetic in its initial form.

Minimalism is notoriously hard to define. It often employs short repeating patterns that change gradually, creating a hypnotic effect – but that’s not true of all minimalist works. Reich credits the British composer Michael Nyman with adapting the term from the visual arts to music in 1968. But Reich winces at its use, as do minimalism’s other founding fathers, La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. They are all American and were all born within two years of each other. Their music can be wildly diverse, but combined it has a powerful effect. Classical composition was due a reset in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was minimalism that provided the deep clean needed for its survival.

Reich was born in New York in 1936. His mother was a lyricist and singer, his father a lawyer, offering him, he believes, both a musical and analytical sensibility. They divorced when he was one and his mother moved to Los Angeles, resulting in the young Stephen, as he was known then, spending hours on cross-country trains. The rhythmic sound of the train on those epic journeys, coupled with the time at which he was making them – during the Second World War – left a lasting impression, and inspired an important later work, Different Trains (1988).

As a teenager, Reich discovered Stravinsky and Bach, but also bebop jazz. He noticed how these new players sustained one or two harmonies for half an hour, and later how the bass-line in a Motown song, “Shotgun” by Junior Walker, never developed – it just repeated. He studied in New York first, at Cornell (philosophy and music) and Juilliard (composition), where he met Philip Glass, and then at Mills College in the San Francisco Bay Area under the tutelage of two titans of modern music, Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. It proved an electric time to be in California. Reich saw John Coltrane play more than 50 times and became part of a scene at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. There, he collaborated with Terry Riley and participated in the premiere of Riley’s landmark work, In C (1964). He married, divorced, and found himself back in New York just after he’d begun his adventures in phasing.

When the minimalists were starting out in the 1960s, the grand experiment of early 20th century classical music – atonality – had reached an endgame. Arnold Schoenberg’s method for composition – the 12-tone technique, or serialism, which he pioneered in the 1920s – was revolutionary, but tricky for listeners. In the hands and minds of its postwar practitioners – total serialism composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen – it became almost unfathomably intellectual, complex and brutal. Academics and their students in the conservatory had much to muse upon, but the music was box office poison. Something had to give.

In 2000 Reich said: “All musicians in the past, starting with the Middle Ages, were interested in popular music… Division between popular and classical music happened unfortunately, through the blindness of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers, to create an artificial wall, which never existed before him. In my generation, we tore the wall down and now we are back to the normal situation.”

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Minimalism’s embrace of popular forms, as well as non-Western traditions, helped it become a force for change. It achieved a rare coup – making avant-garde classical music palatable to a broad audience, as perhaps only Debussy and Stravinsky had managed before. There were teething problems – a performance of Reich’s Four Organs (1970) at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1973 was met with an avalanche of boos – but acceptance came fast. Brian Eno introduced himself to Reich at a concert the latter gave in London in 1974. Two years later, David Bowie was in the audience at the Berlin premiere of Music for 18 Musicians.

Minimalism has always had its critics. Michael Nyman, who has dabbled in minimalist composition himself, called Four Organs a “big prick tease” in a Time Out review, insofar as its harmony is elongated for 16 minutes and never provides a resolution. Harold C Schonberg of the New York Times wrote that minimalism was: “Modern music for people who did not like modern music,” adding, “It is wallpaper music.”

There’s some irony in that minimalists scoffed at the structural formality of previous movements in music and then created conventions for themselves. Reich realised this had happened with his phasing works leading up to Clapping Music, and moved on. The rich textures, free flow and warm glow of 1976’s Music for 18 Musicians was the next big breakthrough. In the 1980s, he investigated his Jewish heritage, beginning with Tehillim (1981), the first piece since his early tape works to incorporate speech.

Reich, now 85 and still composing, never left Clapping Music behind. It remains a staple of his concerts and it entered the digital world in 2015 in the form of an iPhone app. Anyone can try their hand at fiendishly difficult percussive phase-shifting. In 2013 James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem used Clapping Music in a remix of the David Bowie song “Love is Lost” from The Next Day, Bowie’s penultimate album. Poetic justice, Reich would call it. Another sonic circle completed for a composer who never hears music as genre and manages to make classical go pop.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer