Steve Reich was born in New York City. His early musical studies were lessons on piano and percussion. He graduated with honors in philosophy from Cornell University in 1957 and subsequently studied composition at The Juilliard School in Manhattan and at Mills College in California. While on the West Coast, he developed an interest in electronic music, jazz, African drumming, and the Balinese gamelan, the percussion ensemble of Bali and other Indonesian islands. In 1966 he founded the New York – based ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, devoted exclusively to the performance of his own music. In the 1970s, he studied drumming with a master drummer of the Ewe tribe at the Institute of African Studies in Ghana, and Balinese gamelan music at the Center for World Music in Berkeley, California. More recently he has pursued an interest in traditional forms of cantillation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Reich first became known as a leading exponent of musical minimalism, a movement of the 1970s that grew out of a predilection for extreme simplification in painting and sculpture in the 1960s. Minimalism was to some extent a reaction against serialism and other complex and highly intellectual theories of composition. In developing compositional techniques and formulating an aesthetic for their new musical language, minimalist composers looked to popular music and non-Western cultures, in Reich’s case, to Africa and the islands of Indonesia. In his own words, “I studied Balinese and African music because I love them and also because I believe that non-Western music is presently the single most important source of new ideas for Western composers and musicians.” While in Ghana, he was introduced to a structural concept of the “timeline,” a basic rhythm over which other musicians play repeated rhythmic patterns, with the most complex performed by the group leader or master drummer. The essential organization is thus polyrhythmic, the simultaneous performance of independent repeated patterns resulting in a complex interplay of rhythmic layers.
The materials of minimalist composers are short melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic patterns. Reich’s musical materials may be originally composed, or samples from recorded speech and urban sounds. A taped phrase of a street vendor, for example, supplies the main musical idea of Check it out, one of the five movements of City Life.
Whether original or borrowed, patterns are repeated and gradually transformed over musical spans ranging from a few minutes to a half hour or more. Through a technique called phasing, a pattern gradually moves out of sync with itself, becoming its own counterpoint. The rate of change in minimalist music is slow, creating a hypnotic effect that reflects the influence of Eastern mysticism and practices of meditation embraced by Reich and other minimalist composers.