PRINT May 1972

An Interview with Composer Steve Reich

WILL YOU DESCRIBE SOME of your early work with tape recorders and the idea of “phasing” as a form of musical composition?

The process of phasing was discovered in 1965 by accident. I had recorded a tape in Union Square in San Francisco, of a black preacher, preaching about the Flood. I was very impressed with the song quality of his speech, it was something that hovered between music and speech. By making tape loops out of his voice (which was something I was working with a great deal then, and which many other people were also doing), the pitch became everything, and what he was saying gradually, gradually, became unimportant.

He was the source of the phrase and the piece “It’s Gonna Rain”?

Yes, I had two tape recorders with two loops of him saying “it’s gonna rain.” Both loops were exactly the same length, and I ran them on two machines at the same speed. I thought I was going to make a certain relationship between two identities, so I had to line them up. In the process of trying to do that, I noticed that when I didn’t touch them, the imperfections in the loops and the small differences in the motor speeds caused a slight change of phase to happen. I let them go and they began gradually to separate; when I heard that, I realized that this was a solution to what a composer thinks of as a problem of musical structure: how to begin someplace and go somewhere else. This struck me as a way of going through a number of different relationships with the same thing, without ever having any transition. It would be a seamless, continuous process. Of course I was interested in the sound of his voice; you could do a thousand pieces of which only one was of any musical value.

But the mathematics of it, so to speak, offered a new system. The first part of this piece was the loop lined up against itself, gradually going from unison, completely out of phase, and back into unison. I began to see that what was interesting was the slowness and the continuity. This first piece was a literal embodiment of that phasing process, which came out of watching two tape recorders. Now the experience of that is, first of all, impersonal, since you’re watching something going on outside your control. Another aspect is its mathematical precision; it’s not a process left up to chance, in any sense of the word; it couldn’t be more determined. It’s a very austere and completely pure working out of this process.

What else have you done related to electronics or mechanical devices?

I moved back to New York in 1966 and did two more tape pieces (one of which was Come Out, recorded in 1967, and probably the best known piece I’ve ever done—the other is Melodica and remains unknown). I never had interest in electronically generated sound as such. The only reason that I ever got into working with tape recorders was that it offered the possibility of working with speech.

So you’ve never done anything, strictly speaking, with electronic sounds?

The only thing I ever did that used electronic sound was with a box that I built before the 1969 concert at the Whitney Museum during their “Anti-Illusion” show. Its name was the Phase Shifting Pulse Gate, and the idea behind it was not electronically generated sound. The pulse gate was a device that was completely passive; it made no sound of its own. It was a rhythmic device, a series of electronic gates. When they opened, any sound that was put into them would come out. That might be my voice, or an amplified instrument, or an oscillator which is what I used at the Whitney. An oscillator makes a continuous variable frequency, and it’s the basis of all electronically generated sound. I could have used something else, but it was expedient to use oscillators. I only worked with that box for a very short period of time; in fact I used it once and stopped.

Why did you abandon it?

It was a very complicated, interesting device and the roots of the rhythmic thought in it lie in Balinese music. But the box itself was an unhappy situation, because any machine used in performance, particularly when it’s making rhythmic pulses, has a kind of perfection that is musically unsatisfactory. What’s interesting in a regular beat is, in fact, micro-variations of this beat which would only show up on electronic measurement. Electronically generated sound is perfect and holds a steady pattern. So a certain rich ness that we love in music is missing. In music that is absolutely metronomic in beat—the way my music is—it is actually a tiny little variation that’s causing the richness. Machines don’t have it, and that’s one of the things that drove me away from it; as well as the human situation of having to be dependent on an engineer, or in performing by twisting dials, as opposed to using my arms and body to actively produce the music.

What was Four Log Drums that I remember in performance at the Whitney?

It was part of working with the pulse gate device. Four players played log drums with earphones on their heads. These log drums were built in New York but are variations on what Africans play when they hollow out a log, make a slit in it, and beat on the side with sticks. One of the reasons I used this instrument was as a reversal of starting with an enormously complicated device, then signaling through headphones into human beings who finally hit a piece of wood. Even in 1969, when I was deeply into this, I felt a need to set up that kind of paradoxical situation. The headphones clued the players’ arms as to what to do. It was total control, and I must say it was an unsatisfactory musical situation. The performers were very unhappy about it.

They were being “computer“ programmed, like robots.

Exactly. It was an extreme form of mechanized control, which I would never do again. The final paradox was that the players couldn’t play together unless they had their earphones a little bit off their ears, so they could hear and play off of each other musically. They needed the signals mathematically, but they couldn’t play the piece right without each other. The musical ideas were interesting but twisting dials was unsatisfactory. The sound of the pulse gate itself was that of a plastic box with digital parts in it: a perfect metronomic machine, instead of a musical instrument. But the ideas underlying that box had to do with Balinese music.

How have you been affected or inspired by Balinese music?

In Balinese music there is a basic rhythmic structure that excites me. It involves creating a continuous pulse by the interlocking of two independent and separate parts, which have rests or silences in between. The interlocking of simple separate parts to produce a flowing continuity is a distinctly Balinese feature which appears in their gamelan music, at a very, very high speed. This is ensemble virtuosity of a totally different sort than African music (which also interests me) in which you have two different rhythms conflicting and overlaying each other. I had done a number of pieces where a repeating pattern was played against itself (as in the phase compositions). I then began to think about the phase position of individual tones within a repeating melody, how these repeating single tones interlock to form a repeating melodic pattern. These complex phase shifts of individual repeating tones required a machine and, therefore, the Phase Shifting Pulse Gate.

The box had another facet to it; not only could you shift the rhythmic position of any one pulse, but you could also elongate its duration. I didn’t use that control during the Whitney concert, since the machine was a prototype, and I had barely finished it before the performance. About a month later, I had the idea of a piece of music where the tones would be pulsing all together, but instead, of moving gradually out of phase, the individual tones in a chord would gradually grow longer and longer. The piece called Four Organs was a development out of the ideas inherent in that machine.

I attended performances of that piece at the Guggenheim and at N.Y.U. this year. I remember walking out of the Guggenheim auditorium and my ears were ringing with those extended chords for about three hours afterwards. That piece had a relentless impact, sound-wise, but a memorable one.

You speak of Balinese and African music as an influence, although the actual effects on these early pieces are not readily apparent. In your essay “Music as a Gradual Process“1 you say that “all music turns out to be ethnic music.” What do you mean by that?

If you work with electronic equipment, such as two tape recorders going in and out of phase with each other, or volume controls that gradually adjust, they may suggest musical concepts like that of “fade-out” (which is peculiar to music that happened after recording was invented); this happened with Americans and Europeans who were working with electronic equipment. Their civilization and culture, dealing with artifacts like electronic equipment, suggested certain musical practices. So that’s what I mean by all music is ethnic music; it grows out of where you live. Therefore, for people to do electronic music, particularly in the ’60s when the novelty and delight in electronic toys was at its peak,was a natural expression of Western humanity, as natural as organic foods. It just happened to be electronics which were giving people that excitement. When people say that ethnic music has to do with drums, they’re simply looking at another culture from a distance. And someone who looks at this culture from a distance would see that electronics are peculiar to this way of life which manifests itself in its music. And now, as our culture is shifting away from electronics, towards concerns about keeping the world unpolluted, perhaps it is stepping back from technology and that’s also reflected in the music; it’s apparent in Drumming. I wasn’t thinking about those things as causology, but I was aware of it because I am alive now, and of course my mind and body will mirror these things.


You’ve discussed the problem of compositional processes and the actual sounding music having no audible connection—

I was talking about John Cage and the serial composers.

You said that the use of hidden structural devices never appealed to you—would that go for electronic equipment too? Or do you mean it strictly compositionally?

I mean it compositionally. In serial music you can’t hear the serial structure, it’s extremely hidden and complex. All you hear is something that sounds rather chaotic, even though it’s totally worked out.

So you didn’t like the fact that there was a discrepancy between the written music and what was actually audible?

That music as such never appealed to me sensuously. Perhaps it appeals to a certain kind of mentality that delights in hidden structure. I would say that I am precisely the reverse of this kind of mentality, and that I want something to be totally observable, absolutely out in the open—except that even though it’s within the grasp of everyone listening, and is totally perceivable, it’s still impossible to hear it all at once. Not because there’s anything hidden—

But because of the time span?

No, because although the actual number of patterns being played in my music is limited, when they mix simultaneously in your ear there are an infinite number of them you can select to concentrate on.

Why are you so opposed to the idea of improvisation? Why does your music depend on controlled structure?

Well, there are different kinds of control. I’m not that good an improvisor and I never was, so that’s undoubtedly part of it. Consequently, I’m also not interested in solo music, because I’m not a virtuoso type of performer. I’m interested in the virtuosity being the arrangement of people within an ensemble where the parts are all exactly equal and extremely simple. But by their arrangement, what is produced is something really phenomenal. The virtuosity is in their ensemble relationship to each other. This is something I feel very committed to both on physical and mental grounds. In some program notes recently I wrote this, so let me repeat some of it to you now:

“A performance for us is a situation where all the musicians, including myself, try to set aside our individual thoughts and feelings of the moment, and try to focus our minds and bodies clearly on the realization of one continuous musical process. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it. By voluntarily giving up the freedom to do whatever momentarily comes to mind, we are, as a result, free of all that momentarily comes to mind. The extreme limits used here then have nothing to do with totalitarian political controls imposed from without, but are closely related to yogic controls of the breath and the mind.”

So this method and attitude about performing requires that you find people who are willing to take on such a discipline?

Well, yes; now you get down to more particular details. My music is written out, but it’s only written out after the fact for other people; meaning that when I teach my musicians how to play it, we do it by rote. If the musical material that we’re learning is a repeated pattern, as in the phase pieces, it takes no more than thirty seconds or so to learn the notes of the pattern, then maybe a couple of minutes of practicing the figure rhythmically, and you’ve learned the musical material in the piece. Now, what are you going to do with that musical material? The score says that you begin with another musician playing the same thing, and one of you stays put, and the second very gradually increases his tempo so as to slowly move one eighth note ahead of the first player. As a musician, you know what this means, but you don’t have to read music to do it, as a matter of fact, what is there to read but a bunch of dotted lines? So you learn the musical material and throw the score away, because it has no value anymore, it would only be a distraction. What you have to do to play the piece is to focus on it and listen to what’s happening; then very carefully perform this musical process.

Is there an analogy for that process in any other music that you’ve heard elsewhere in the world?

Well, in terms of complete control on the one hand, and not being read from a score on the other hand, I can’t think of anything else. That aspect of it, as far as I know, is unique. That’s what I mean by “music as a gradual process.” Everything is worked out, there’s no improvisation at all, but the psychology of playing, what really happens when you play it, is total involvement with the sound. Total sensuous-intellectual involvement.

How is it then, that during the performance of Drumming, some of the performers do use scores?

The only performers who use scores are those who sing and are using their voices to imitate the patterns that result from the combination of eight tuned drums, or three marimbas, or three glockenspiels. During months of rehearsals, the singers and I decided cooperatively which patterns they would sing. I would make up tape loops of the various relationships among the three marimbas, for instance, and then we would listen. The girls would start singing something they heard, and if everybody liked it, we would write it down; or I would notate certain patterns beforehand, and they would either like them or not. So, over a period of three months we worked out an arrangement of patterns.

They were by-products?

Yes, they are by-products of what the marimbas are playing. The singers literally imitate the instruments. But since there are an infinite number of choices, it became the performer’s decision and I just became another participant in this selection process. The piece in performance is a realized version of something that was, in a sense, group composed, out of fixed material that I supplied; the players can get into the piece, as musicians, on a level of pure listening which they enjoy.

It’s very demanding music to play, too, isn’t it?

Yes, but musicians want that. You will find, if you get to know them, that they want music they love to play, or at least that they find musically interesting, and that challenges them. There’s a certain idea that’s been in the air, and it’s been in the air during the ’60s and it’s been in the dance world as well as in the music world and I think it’s a very injurious idea—I mean injurious in a human and artistic sense. It is that the only pleasure anybody who is a performer (be it dancer or musician) could get was to improvise, or in some way to express his or her momentary state of mind. If anybody gave them instructions or material to work with, this was immediately equated with political control or with negative action. And it meant that the performer was going to be unhappy about it. Cage has said that a composer is somebody who tells other people what to do, and that it’s not a good social situation.

But if you know musicians and dancers, you see that what gives them pleasure and joy as performers is doing something they love to do. And whether that is improvised or worked out is really not the main issue. The main issue is what’s happening musically; is this beautiful, is this sending chills up and down my spine, or isn’t it?


What got you interested in African music and in going to to Africa to study?

When I was in my teens I played drums and, while studying philosophy at Cornell, I made a living playing in bands. Later, while I was studying composition, I sort of soft-pedaled the idea of being a drummer and went back to learning the keyboard. It wasn’t until about 1969 that I began to accept the fact that I loved drumming and had a rudimentary keyboard technique. So I put the two of them together, and started to drum on the keyboard, which was an absolutely new keyboard technique.

Finally, in 1970.1 went to Ghana but my interest began in 1962 when I learned of a book called Studies in African Music by the English scholar Rev. A. M. Jones, who spent thirty years in Rhodesia and later worked with a Ghanaian master drummer in London. He built a machine whereby metal pencils tapped on a metal plate cause a black mark to be made on a moving strip of white graph paper. Working with the Ghanaian drummer he was thus able to make accurate graphic records of the drum patterns played, and transferred these to musical notation. It made it possible to look at African music as a structure, as mathematics, as form. So here was new information of a technical and structural sort.

I went to Africa to learn African musical structures by playing them. While I was in Ghana, I heard what Ghanaians call “hat-syiat-sya” songs accompanied by four iron bells. These bell quartets struck me as quite unique and beautiful and I ended up bringing back two “gong-gongs” and two “atokes.” I then taught three other members of my group to play the patterns I had learned and notated with my teacher in Ghana. I could have composed a piece of my own for them that would have been my “African style” composition, but we played some true African music instead.

As a kind of training?

Well, as a delight in playing some new music on beautiful instruments that no one had ever heard or played here before. The impetus to get African music out of my system, the desire to play it, was satisfied by playing it instead of concocting some African style musical fantasy. I feel this is a much better situation musically than trying to distort those instruments. When I pick up African bells they’re telling me that they play a certain kind of music—that they have a certain history; and if I want to bend them to my musical purpose, I feel that I’m not entitled to do that, and I’d be committing some kind of evil by doing so.

Like using the sitar for rock music?

Yes. I tend to look at that sort of thing as a very uninteresting form of musical activity. When I play these tuned drums, they’re my drums, they belong to me in every sense of the word. I bought them here in New York, considered their possibilities in terms of tuning range and types of sticks, and I feel free to deal with them on my own terms. The same thing with the glockenspiels which ended up being my bells as opposed to those African bells.

What can non-Western music teach a Western musician?

New rhythmic structure. What’s interesting is when non-Western influence is there in the thinking, but not in the sound.

Rhythmic structure seems to be the most important part of music for you.

Yes, it is. If I can continue to get thoughts about new ways to put music together in time, I’m not worried about what notes or instruments to use. I know they will all take care of themselves as long as I can figure out how to start and keep on moving ahead in some new way. Rhythmic structure gives a piece its real character. Two pieces may sound different, although their note relationships are quite similar. For instance, in my pieces Phase Patterns and Four Organs, both are scored for four electric organs, and both use very similar note relationships forming dominant chords with the tonic in them; yet, since Phase Patterns uses short note values drummed on the keyboard, and Four Organs deals with sustaining tones gradually longer and longer, the two pieces sound completely different. In your ear rhythmic structure takes precedence over pitch and timbre. So, going back to the question of foreign rhythmic structures, I don’t know what I might do with African poly-rhythms since I haven’t used them at all yet. But I do know that this rhythmic information leaves me free of all sound. The structure of African music, its poly-rhythms, could be applied to any sound in the world. Working with non-Western rhythmic structure leaves you free to use any sound that’s natural to you, that you grew up with.

It’s on a much subtler level than imitating the sound.


Are you still studying African music in any way?

Not really. While I was in Africa, I stopped composing totally, even in my head. I didn’t have any ideas. I was overwhelmed by their music, like being in front of a tidal wave, and there I was, just me, with several thousand years and a whole continent’s music washing over me. I became submerged. I began to think, my god, what is all this leading to; what could one do, following this experience? The answer was to either become a musicologist, or a performer of African music, or worse, to write “African compositions” back in New York. So, in a sense,I have no desire to continue my studies at this time; I’ve learned a bit of what I wanted to learn from African music, which is its structure, and I guess that’s it for now.


You have been friendly with other artists who work with film, sculpture, geometric structures, Conceptual art,—people like Michael Snow, Bruce Nauman, William Wiley, Richard Serra, and Sol LeWitt. What do you consider your relationship to them to be?

In the summer of 1968, I began thinking about what I had done musically, primarily about the phase pieces. I began to see them as processes, as opposed to compositions. I saw that my methods did not involve moving from one note to the next, in terms of each note in a piece representing the composer’s taste working itself out bit by bit. My music was more of an impersonal process. John Cage discovered that he could take his intentions out of a piece of music and open up a field for many interesting things to happen, and in that sense I agree with him. But where he was willing to keep his musical sensibility out of his own music, I was not. What I wanted to do was to come up with a piece of music that I loved intensely, that was completely personal, exactly what I wanted in every detail, but that was arrived at by an impersonal means. I compose the material, decide the process it’s going to be run through—but once these initial choices have been made, it runs by itself.

Do you associate this with Richard Serra or Michael Snow’s thinking?

The analogy I saw with Serra’s sculpture, his propped lead sheets and pole pieces (that were, among other things, demonstrations of physical facts about the nature of lead), was that his works and mine are both more about materials and process than they are about psychology. In Snow’s films there is usually some continuous process at work, either a repetitive or continuous camera movement, which inexorably goes along its way, often with very slow changes. What I learned from Michael Snow that I hadn’t thought of, was about the gradations of symmetry which, in musical terms, would be the difference between the pulses of a metronome, the pulses of the human heart, and waves landing on the shore.

You have also mentioned Sol LeWitt.

There is some relationship between my music and any Minimal art. What is close with Sol is the spirit in which he will set up an idea and work it through rigorously. He has concentrated on a very direct and complete working out of a given concept. He has also said that “there are many side-effects that the artist cannot imagine—these can be used as ideas for new pieces.”2

Now that’s what happens in Drumming, with the resultant patterns. I know precisely what the marimbas, drums, and glockenspiels are doing, I know the notes and rhythms involved; but the number of resultant patterns set up by the relationship between them all, is more than I could spend my lifetime trying to figure out. And that’s what makes the piece interesting; there’s more in it than I put in. That’s the joy of working with processes. If you follow your personal taste, you get your taste back. But if you follow a musical process you get your taste, plus a few surprises that may educate you to make some other music.


What is your interest or association with dance?

Right now I’m working with the choreographer and dancer, Laura Dean, forming a company of musicians and dancers. In technique and spirit, she is the first dancer I’ve seen who is doing things that I feel are naturally close to what I am doing musically. She did a series of solos where the same dance was repeated three times: first, in silence; then with a little bell on one leg, which you couldn’t see; and finally, with two musicians shaking maracas. The dance itself was made of repetitive movements and turns. Everything was completely worked out and the dance was repeated literally each time. The effect was to see something that obviously had some connection with yoga, with non-Western dance, but which was actually something completely new, certainly in New York in 1971. No collage, no improvisation, and a certain formal, ritual quality to it.

I’ve been interested in dance for a long time and have found nothing else in the dance world that has interested me, with few exceptions. Most of recent dance in New York is predicated on the idea of movement as dance, looking at everyday movement as if it were dance. But now, what we are trying to develop instead, is a return to the very roots of music and dance, which are founded primarily on a regular pulse, dancing in time to music.

Emily Wasserman



1. Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process,” Anti-Illusion: Procedures, Materials (catalogue and exhibition assembled by Marcia Tucker and James Monte of the Whitney Museum of American Art), New York, 1969.

2. Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” in Haags Gemente Museum, July–August, 1970, p. 60.