Music Steve Reich
Ryan Ebright
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0301


Steve Reich (b. 1936) is an American composer who, alongside Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, is considered an originator of musical minimalism. His compositions consist primarily of instrumental pieces for various ensembles, ranging from solo instruments with prerecorded tape to pieces for full orchestra. The most frequent configurations make prominent use of melodic percussion instruments, attesting to his training as a percussionist. Reich engaged periodically with disparate musical traditions throughout his early career—technological experimentalism in the 1960s, African drumming and Hebrew cantillation in the 1970s—and has since forged a compositional idiom distinguished by its attention to pattern and pulsation. Born and raised primarily in New York City, Reich studied philosophy at Cornell University and music at Juilliard before moving across the country in 1961 to study at Mills College with Luciano Berio. Moving within the Bay Area’s experimental art scenes, Reich discovered the process of phasing when working with tape loops, leading to his first acknowledged pieces: It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). After relocating to downtown New York in 1965, Reich translated this phasing process into instrumental music, resulting in works such as Piano Phase and Violin Phase (both 1967), as well as his influential manifesto, “Music as a Gradual Process.” In the early 1970s, Reich’s palette expanded to encompass new timbres and processes of pattern and repetition. The large-scale Drumming (1970–1971) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974–1976)—both conceived for his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians—are exemplars of his mature minimalist style and helped establish his reputation both within and outside of the classical music world. By the early 1980s, Reich’s music began a process of legitimation within academia and performance institutions: Tehillim (1981) and The Desert Music (1983), for instance, were composed for major orchestras. Both reveal a rekindled interest in voice, text, and speech which found new expression in Different Trains (1988), a string quartet which utilized speech fragments of Holocaust survivor testimonies as generative melodic and harmonic material. Reich continued to explore this technique in large-scale documentary music video theater works (The Cave [1990–93] and Three Tales [2000–03]), as well as chamber works such as City Life (1995) and WTC 9/11 (2010). By the end of the millennium, Reich was widely regarded as America’s foremost living composer; his Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Double Sextet (2007) seemed a belated affirmation of this perspective.

General Overviews and Biographies

Griffiths 2001 and Schwarz 1996 offer the most accessible entries into Reich and his music. Potter 2000 provides the most detailed account of the composer’s career up through the mid-1970s, effectively balancing biographical content with musical description and analysis; this is a foundational source. Schwarz 1981–1982 functions similarly, though on a somewhat smaller scale. Hoek 2002, though slightly outdated, surveys the terrain of Reich studies up through the end of the 20th century, while Gopinath and ap Siôn 2019 best represents the current state of this subfield. Nearly all of these overviews, however, fail to account for Reich’s career and music after 2000. Some information on the music of these years can be gleaned from Celia Casey’s work in Gopinath and ap Siôn 2019 and Jedlicka 2018 (cited under Other Perspectives on Orchestral and Ensemble Music), as well as Darmon and Mallet 2011 (cited under Multimedia), and various Interviews after 2000.

  • Gopinath, Sumanth, and Pwyll ap Siôn, eds. Rethinking Reich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    A turning point in Reich scholarship that brings together several critical essays with roots in archival materials held at the Steve Reich Collection at the Paul Sacher Foundation (cited under Writings, Scores, and Archival Material). This indispensable resource contains fourteen chapters arranged into four large sections: “Political, Aesthetic, and Analytical Concerns”; “Repetition, Speech, and Identity”; “Reich Revisited: Sketch Studies”; and “Beyond the West: Africa and Asia.”

  • Griffiths, Paul. “Steve Reich.” In Grove Music Online. 20 January 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.23091

    A concise overview of Reich’s career and music arranged into three sections: “To Drumming” (Youth–1971); “Orchestras and other ensembles, 1972–1987;” and “Speech melody” (1988–2001). Emphasizes Reich’s ever-evolving compositional techniques. Includes partial list of works; last updated in 2003. Accessible online by subscription.

  • Hoek, D. J. Steve Reich: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

    A somewhat outdated but nevertheless useful resource that includes a brief biography, list of works with premiere information, an extensive discography, and a lengthy annotated bibliography organized into writings by Reich, interviews, history and commentary, analysis, and performance reviews.

  • Potter, Keith. Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    The third chapter of this book offers a richly detailed examination of Reich’s life and music up through Music for 18 Musicians in 1976, after which, Potter argues, Reich moved compositionally toward a rapprochement with the aims, intentions, and performance forces of Western classical music. Includes useful analyses of Reich’s major early works, as well as descriptions of lesser-known early works.

  • Schwarz, K. Robert. “Steve Reich: Music as a Gradual Process.” Part I: Perspectives of New Music 20.1–2 (Autumn, 1981–Summer, 1982): 225–286, 375–392.

    Published in two parts in consecutive volumes, Schwarz’s article marks one of the earliest sustained scholarly engagements with Reich’s music and aesthetics, and laid the groundwork for much subsequent critical inquiry. Whereas the first part functions primarily as an extended introduction to Reich’s music, aesthetics, and influences, the longer second part offers descriptive analyses of several post-1968 pieces, including Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, and Tehillim.

  • Schwarz, K. Robert. Minimalists. London: Phaidon, 1996.

    As with the book’s sections on Philip Glass, Schwarz divides his discussion of Reich’s career into “minimalist” and “maximalist” phases: essentially, pre- and post-Drumming. This overview of Reich’s life and music up through The Cave eschews close musical analysis, concentrating instead on charting Reich’s aesthetic trajectory.

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