Stephen Michael Reich is an American composer who, along with La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, pioneered minimalism (a style based on repetitions and combinations of simple motifs and harmonies) in the mid to late 1960s.
As a child he received piano lessons and grew up listening to music written only from 1750 to 1900. At the age of 14 he began to study music in earnest, after hearing music from the Baroque period and earlier, as well as music of the 20th century. He even studied drums with Roland Kohloff in order to play jazz. He majored in philosophy and minored in music at Cornell University (1953-1957). For a year following graduation, Reich studied composition privately with Hall Overton before he enrolled at Juilliard to work with Williams Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (1958-1961). Subsequently he attended Mills College in Oakland, California, where he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud (1961–1963) and earned a master's degree in composition. In the period spent at Mills, Reich composed Melodica for melodica and tape, which appeared in 1986 on the 3-LP release Music for Milss. Reich also played keyboard instruments and percussion. By 1966, when he formed his own ensemble, he was already creating minimalist compositions.
Similar to the music of fellow minimalist Philip Glass, Reich's compositions rejected the characteristic complexity of mid-20th-century classical harmony and tonality in order to make large-scale works from minimal materials (a single chord, a brief musical motif, a spoken exclamation) which are repeated at length, with small variations introduced very slowly. Reich's early compositions involved experimentation with the twelve-tone composition technique, focusing more on the rhythmic aspects of the number 12, rather than pitch.
Early experiments with tape loops, documented in It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), allowed Reich to observe interlocking rhythmic patterns that he would later reproduce compositionally. These works led to similar experiments with live performers, the first of which was Piano Phase for 2 pianos (1967). Back in New York, Reich and Glass formed an ensemble to perform their music (1968-1971). Several of those players later formed Steve Reich and Musicians, which has toured the world many times over.
In 1970, Reich studied for several weeks at the University of Ghana. Influenced by the Ghanian culture, he composed his ambitious work Drumming (1970). Encounters with Indonesian gamelan music at Seattle and Berkeley (1973-1974), and Middle Eastern chanting in New York City and Jerusalem (1976-1977) were equally significant, and broadened Reich's rhythmic and timbral palette. His most significant composition of the time was Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976), a large and colorful work which brought Reich worldwide recognition. Reich explored these ideas further in his frequently recorded pieces Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) and Octet (1979).
In 1974 Reich published the book Writings About Music, containing essays on his philosophy, aesthetics, and musical projects written between 1963 and 1974. An updated and much more extensive collection, Writings On Music (1965–2000), was published in 2002.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Reich's work took on a darker character. Tehillim (1981) marked Reich’s first setting of a text—the Psalms, sung in Hebrew—and he followed it with The Desert Music (1984), a setting of a William Carlos Williams poem scored for 106 musicians. The first work is in four parts, and is scored for an ensemble of four women's voices (one high soprano, two lyric sopranos and one alto), piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, six percussion (playing small tuned tambourines without jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone and crotales), two electronic organs, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, with amplified voices, strings, and winds.
For Different Trains (1988), Reich integrate fragments of audio recordings pertaining to rail travel, including the reminiscences of Holocaust survivors, with a string quartet that mimicked both the rhythm of a train and the natural musicality of the voices on tape. This piece, performed by the Kronos Quartet, won a Grammy Award for best contemporary composition in 1989. Reich later collaborated with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, on two multimedia operas: The Cave (1993), which explores the shared religious heritage of Jews and Muslims, and Three Tales (2002), a reflection on 20th-century technology.
His composition Double Sextet (2007), arranged either for 12 musicians or for 6 playing against a recording of themselves, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music. In commemoration of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, Reich composed WTC 9/11: For Three String Quartets and Pre-recorded Voices (2010), incorporating recordings of emergency personnel and New York residents that had been made on the day of the tragedy. For his contribution to the development of music as a whole, he received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize in 2006.
By the end of the 21st century's first decade, the lasting significance of Reich's music was being recognized worldwide. After 1998's new recording of Music for 18 Musicians won a Grammy, Reich received honorary doctorates and awards from Juilliard, Budapest's Franz Liszt Academy and other schools; the 2007 Polar Music Prize; the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music (for Double Sextet); and, in 2012, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Music.
Reich's style of composition influenced many composers and groups. Writing in The Guardian, music critic Andrew Clements described Reich as one of "a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history". The American composer and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich "may...be considered, by general acclamation, America's greatest living composer".
Here you can find a list of compositions by Steve Reich.