The 2007 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the American composer and musician Steve Reich. The award recognises his unique ability to use repeats, canon technique and minimal variation of patterns to develop an entire universe of evocative music, endowed with immediate tonal beauty. Inspired by different musical traditions, Steve Reich has transferred questions of faith, society and philosophy into a hypnotic sounding music that has inspired musicians and composers of all genres.
There's just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history and Steve Reich is one of them.
An impressive education
Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936. He grew up in NYC and in California and before taking on musical studies he graduated in philosophy at the Cornell University in 1957. Back then he got exposed both to classics as Bach and Stravinsky, and to bebop. He started to play jazz in a band at an early age. His impressive musical education would then take him to several schools, and countries. He moved to NYC and studied at the Juilliard School 1958-1961 and took a Master of Arts from Mills College in Oakland, US, 1963 where he worked with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.
In the summer of 1970 he studied drumming at The Institute for African Studies, University of Ghana in Accra. In 1973 and 1974 he studied varieties of Indonesian Gamelan at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California. From 1976 to 1977 he studied the traditional forms of cantillation (chanting) of the Hebrew scriptures in New York and Jerusalem.
Minimalism: A reductive style or school of modern music utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.
The label minimalism does give a clue as to the departure point of Reich’s music, but hardly as to its destination. Time and again he stresses how important it is to make music that allows listeners to follow every detail of the process. And performing and listening to gradual musical processes “makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me towards it.”
Although not appreciated by Reich himself, the term of minimalism is the most well-known term for the movement he represents together with Philip Glass, John Coolidge Adams, Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno…Reich often himself cites Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Alfred Deller, Miles Davis, and the visual artists Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra as important influences on his own music.
Loops & repetitions
In the mid-sixties, Reich started to compose a number of pieces using tape-loops, inspired by Terry Riley’s tonal approaches and repetitive patterns. Reich’s whole work would from then be characterized by loops, repetitions and canons. He used simple, audible processes to explore these musical concepts, for example rhythm changes, rhythm superpositions, splitting up voices, superposing instruments and so on. He often used his concepts on drums, vibraphone, marimba, piano and vocals without lyrics.
Reich also worked at an early stage with repetitive patterns for voice recordings, like in It’s Gonna Rain, 1965 and Come out, 1966 where the recorded words by the end become almost unintelligible and creating a completely new sound. Reich composed Come out for a benefit for the trial of six black youths arrested during the riots for a murder for which only one of them was responsible.
Reich’s use of several similar instruments is of particular importance in his compositions, constantly working on the same patterns but mostly changing the rhythm and the order of appearance of the instuments instead of variating the melody patterns. As the name suggests Six pianos (1973) uses six baby grands, and was written and rehearsed in a piano shop on Manhattan. He also composed a variation for marimbas, called Six Marimbas, in 1986.
His “most minimalistic” piece needs no instruments. Entitled Clapping Music it is simply the sound of two people clapping their hands. The pattern is in 12/8 time, 8 beats interspersed with four pauses. The duo start in unison, and then while one keeps to the pattern the other moves one step at a time within the pattern until they are once again clapping in unison. It takes three or four minutes, and the process is straightforward and easy to grasp.
Reich’s encounter with Indonesian Gamelan music in the beginning of the 70’s was significant to his musical development, and broadened his rhythmic and timbral palette.
Gamelan is a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia, featuring a variety of instruments as a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together and not being interchangeable, which makes every Gamelan unique. Music For 18 Musicians (1976), a large and colorful work, was directly inspired by the gamelan influence and Reich’s most significant composition of the time.
Steve Reich and musicians
Steve Reich’s breakthrough in Europe came with the group Steve Reich and Musicians – sometimes credited as the Steve Reich Ensemble – at a time when atonal post-war music dominated contemporary art music on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1971, Steve Reich and Musicians have frequently toured the world, and have the distinction of performing to sold-out houses at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line Cabaret.
The ensemble has premiered many of Reich’s works and has performed his works more than any other. The ensemble received a Grammy Award in 1999.
Steve Reich’s 1988 piece, Different Trains, marked a new compositional method, rooted in It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments. The New York Times hailed Different Trains as “a work of such astonishing originality that breakthrough seems the only possible description….possesses an absolutely harrowing emotional impact.”
It stemmed from the memory of his childhood’s long rail-road journeys in the USA and of the adult reflection that if Reich had been a child in Europe in the 1940s his fate might have been different: “As a Jew, I would have had to ride on very different trains.” In 1990, Reich received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Different Trains as recorded by the Kronos Quartet on the Nonesuch label. The album also contained Electric Counterpoint performed by Pat Metheny. Reich made two versions of the piece: one for electric guitar and tape, and the other for an ensemble of guitars.
After Different trains, the video operas The Cave and Three Tales broaden the musical perspective even more, and reflects Reich’s interest in society, modern issues and politics. They were written together with video performance artist Beryl Korot (also married to Reich), and mix music and video performances into a reflection on religion, The Cave (1993) and on modern technology Three Tales (2002).
The operas brought video installation art into a theatrical context. Both works continue to be performed and have been installed, apart from live performances, at such venues as the Whitney Museum, the Carnegie Museum, the Reina Sofia, the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, and ZKM.
Several noted choreographers have created dances to Steve Reich’s music, including Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; Fase (1983) and Drumming (1998) among others.
Stockholm May 2007
Steve Reich received the prize together with legendary saxophone player Sonny Rollins. The two Laureates had the time to visit Stockholm before the ceremony, and a reception at the American Embassy of Sweden was held.