Steve Reich: Clapping Music

performed by two people with four hands

(cover image by Tim Gouw)

Stephen Michael Reich was born on October 3, 1936 in New York City. His parents divorced within a year or so of his birth, so he divided his time between them, traversing the country and spending time in NY and California. He grew up with some musical training, piano lessons, etc., but it wasn’t until he was 14 years old, having heard much older and much newer music than he’d been exposed to previously that he began his studies in earnest.

He studied drums with the intention of playing jazz, and at first only minored in music, getting a degree in philosophy at Cornell. He eventually moved to Juilliard, where he studied with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (an American composer we won’t get around to in this series). After that, he found himself back in California, at Mills College, studying with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud. What a varied set of teachers and experiences, right?

There’s another composer we won’t talk about who arguably had a significant influence on Reich. While Reich and Glass are perhaps considered the most famous of the ‘minimalist’ school (despite how Glass may feel about that term), we can’t discuss that and not mention Terry Riley, specifically his piece In C.

Wikipedia cites Malcolm Ball in stating that “Reich’s early forays into composition involved experimentation with twelve-tone composition, but he found the rhythmic aspects of the number twelve more interesting than the pitch aspects.” As a result, he began experimenting with tape loops and repeated sections of speech or ambient sound, but one can see the relation between some of what Reich did/does to Riley’s In C. Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about that this time around. I just couldn’t fit it in; it’s more like a (loosely-sketched) piano concerto than a symphony or chamber work, but Reich’s very simple little piece here is thought provoking.

Is this classical music? That’s a tricky question.

First, let’s talk about what’s going on here.

You may have decided that minimalism isn’t your thing, but you may find in listening that, as with the music of Glass, which (spoiler alert) we shall soon discuss, music that earns that label, whether the composer wants it to to or not, actually typifies some very fundamental musical concepts, as does this piece.

Reich’s story is of watching flamenco performers (or something similar) at a restaurant in Europe after a show in 1972. They were apparently terrible, but once some clapping started, things got underway and Reich’s crew, mostly percussionists, joined in. It was only when they dispensed with all the instruments and equipment that things got lively, and he said that this idea then came to him, of just two people clapping, and what could be done with that.

From the (abbreviated) performance above, you can see that there is one rhythm, with four groups of notes and four rests, grouped 3-2-1-2. Including those four rests and the total number of claps, we have 12 beats to a ‘bar,’ you could say. At the beginning, both performers clap this rhythm in unison (8 times, I think), and after this first cycle, one of the two performers lags behind one beat, then another cycle (of 8 or more or less repetitions; I forget), then that person lags behind another beat, and another and another and another, until we have cycled through all possible iterations of the combination of this musical phrase with itself. At times, the rests coincide and the phrasing seems different. For some cycles, they don’t coincide and it sounds a bit chaotic. But try to ‘perform’ this piece yourself, if you’re not going to annoy someone around you, even by tapping with a finger on your knee or your palm, and just keeping the same 3-2-1-2 beat, unchanging, for the duration of the piece. It’s such a simple exercise, almost an etude, in some ways, but it elucidates for us how easy it is to create such significant differences with very small changes to such little musical material.

Is this classical music? What if it were done with two pianos, or percussion equipment? Well, he’s got pieces like this, too, but aside from this little piece as a thought experiment, or an experience of its own, it does remind me how crappy of a label is ‘Classical Music.’

It takes its name from one specific centuries-old era of music history, and yet is supposed to encompass something like half a millennium of music and history and culture from an enormous part of the Western (and sometimes even Eastern) world, across centuries, languages, cultures, both sacred and profane, from solo music, choral, chamber, pieces commissioned for parties and coronations and royal events, or else (in many cases by the same people) to be performed privately, among friends; down to our day, the limits of music are pushed even farther, with aleatoric music, electronic music (yes, it happened first in classical music! See Stockhausen, Babbitt, or Varese), and all the rest, and we still think there’s some kind of label that acts as an umbrella under which all this diversity can fit.

Well, there really isn’t, not one that can do justice to the great diversity and scope of the centuries of music that have been produced.

But then again, some people would probably prefer to remove ‘music’ from the title of this piece anyway and just call it ‘Clapping,’ but again… it very clearly exemplifies some very interesting musical characteristics. It doesn’t have violins or cellos or flutes or any “traditional” instruments for that matter, but it doesn’t need to. Take a few listens to the piece, and try to ‘perform’ it yourself. In case you’re interested, here’s the full piece:

And if you need something more classically ‘musical’, I’ll leave you with the piece and a brief visual explanation of it below, and see you tomorrow for more modern American music, so stay tuned. Thank you for reading.


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