Birthplace: New York City
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Minimalist composer, Different Trains
One of the more influential composers of the modern era and a key figure in the development of minimalism, Stephen Michael Reich was born to a musically-inclined couple in New York City during the unsettled years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. His parents separated when he was only a year old, resulting in a childhood divided between the city of his birth and his mother's new home in Los Angeles. Reich's musical training during these years was limited to basic lessons for piano until he began a study of drumming at the age of 14 with Roland Koloff, a local performer who would later become a timpanist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; this interest in the drums resulted from his recent exposure to jazz (a musical form of which he had previously been entirely unaware), and Reich subsequently kept active in various jazz bands throughout his high school years. During this period he also broadened his musical interests to include pre-nineteenth century musical forms and 20th century classical composition.
After high school Reich continued his music studies at Cornell University, but chose to pursue his degree in philosophy rather than music, concentrating in particular on the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. After completing his work at Cornell, his focus was once again returned to music: the next two years were spent in private study with composer Hall Overton, after which Reich enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music (where Overton was a faculty member) and continued his education under the guidance of William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti. A master's degree in music was then earned at Mills College in California, where he worked with modern composers Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud and developed an interest in Asian and African musical forms.
Reich's works during his time at Mills were created using the structural principles of serial composition, but with an emphasis on rhythmic rather than melodic content. This approach gradually evolved into a repetition-oriented approach that would later be referred to as minimalism. A significant influence on Reich's development of this style was fellow composer Terry Riley, who had been exploring his own repetitive techniques since 1960 as a result of the influence of minimalist pioneer La Monte Young. After leaving Mills, Reich applied the idea to tape music, creating the piece It's Gonna Rain (1965) by layering multiple looped excerpts of a Pentecostal preacher's apocalyptic sermon in a manner that would cause the loops to go in and out of phase with each other. The process was further explored in his next composition Come Out (1966), this time utilizing a phrase spoken by the victim of a police beating after a race riot.
While still on the West Coast, Reich sometimes performed with an ensemble organized by Riley; after returning to New York in 1966 he formed his own group with Art Murphy and Jon Gibson, and began to apply the phasing technique of his tape pieces to live performance. Works such Piano Phase and Violin Phase (both 1967) were the initial result. In 1970 Reich resumed his exploration of non-western music by spending five weeks at the Institute for African Studies (a resource of the University of Ghana), an experience that led to the creation of the percussion-based composition Drumming (1971) after his return. This work marked a shift towards larger ensembles and more complex structures -- a development that eventually culminated in his influential piece Music for 18 Musicians, created between 1974 and 1976.
Subsequent to his time in Africa, in the mid 70s Reich continued to expand his knowledge of different musical systems, studying two forms of Balinese Gamelan with I Nyoman Sumandi between 1973 and 1974, and learning techniques of traditional Hebrew chanting (or cantillation) between 1976 and 1977. Further works utilizing the concepts behind Music for 18 Musicians and structures derived from his Gamelan studies were created in the latter part of the 1970s: Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), Octet (1979) and Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979). With the arrival of the 80s Reich turned to his Jewish heritage for inspiration and created Tehillim (1981), a piece centered around the Hebrew texts of four different psalms. This was followed by a series of works that alternated between large scale productions for orchestra -- Desert Music (1984), The Four Sections (1987) -- and compositions involving single instruments and electronic tape: Vermont Counterpoint (for amplified flute, 1982), New York Counterpoint (for amplified clarinet, 1985), Electric Counterpoint (for electric guitar, 1987).
In 1988 the composer completed one of his best-known works, Different Trains. The methods used to construct this piece harkened back to his early tape works by its use of pre-recorded voice, but modified this technique by using the voices as a referent for melodic rather than rhythmic elements. Inspired in part by his own frequent cross-country train journeys throughout his childhood, the recordings selected for Different Trains explored the use of that form of transportation in the years surrounding World War II -- beginning with its use in the States, moving to its more nefarious application in Europe as a means to move the Jewish population to concentration camps, and then concluding with the post-war situation. The piece earned Reich a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition that same year.
Having established himself internationally as an important composer, in the 1990s Steve Reich found himself in a position to undertake elaborate multi-media projects. The first of these was the three-act opera The Cave, created in 1993 in collaboration with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot; the opera featured video projection on 5 enormous video screens and an 18 piece ensemble, as well as utilizing the voices of Americans, Palestinians and Israelis responding to questions concerning the Biblical story of Abraham. The two resumed their collaboration in 2002 for a second, similarly structured opera called Three Tales, which derived its content from stories about different scientific developments over the previous century. In the intervening years, Reich produced several small-scale pieces -- Duet (1993), Nagoya Marimbas (1994), Know What Is Above You (1999), among others -- and the large ensemble work City Life (1995) that integrated the use of sampling technology within a framework of conventional instrumentation. Reich continues to produce new works of varying scale in the 00s.
Father: Leonard Reich
Mother: June Carroll
Wife: Beryl Karot (artist, m. 1976, two sons)
University: BA, Cornell University (1957)
Conservatory: Juilliard School of Music
University: Mills College (1963)
Grammy 1990 for Different Trains
American Academy of Arts and Letters 1994
Author of books:
Writings About Music (1974, music theory)
Writings On Music (1965-2000) (2002, music theory)
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