Clapping Music by Steve Reich

Way back in 1976, when my music student friends and I took our seats in Huddersfield Town Hall to hear the American composer Steve Reich and his band, we’d never heard of him. “Steve Reich. Who’s he?” we asked. Little did we know that he was to become one of the most internationally famous and influential composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Steve Reich and another band member stood before us and immediately began clapping a rhythm over and over. Then one seemed to go out of time with the other. It kept changing a bit and getting more and more out of sync. I was fascinated by it. The piece: Clapping Music changed my view of music forever.

Steve Reich (on the right) and Wolfram Winkel performing Clapping Music in Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 2016.

It’s so simple and so difficult at the same time. One person jumps forward one quaver (eighth note) after a set number of bars, and jumps again and again after the same number of bars until eventually the two are clapping in sync again. In the following clip, the pattern (for the hands on the right) changes every 8 bars and is indicated by dots. Here, the hands viewed on left side, stay the same all the way through. Try it!

I came back to thinking about my first Reich concert, during a Covid lockdown, when I watched a live stream performance of his music and a conversation between Steve Reich and his cousin, the artist Amy Sillman. She asked him about the influences on his early works.

Reich explained how he came to write Clapping Music. He recounted how, on a European tour with his band, they had gone to hear some flamenco musicians, while they were (no, not in Spain) in Brussels. It was not the flamenco guitar and vocals that had impressed him but the hand-clapping or palmas. He suddenly saw the potential to create music that could be played spontaneously, anywhere – no instruments needed. For percussionists, with their array of kit, this seemed an attractive idea.

Here’s an example:

Flamenco artists performing palmas, a style of virtuoso rhythmic clapping that sparked an idea that would lead to Reich’s Clapping Music.

The initial inspiration may have come from flamenco but the rhythm that forms the basis for Clapping Music shows the influence of an entirely different culture: Ewe drumming from Ghana. Reich had come across a book “Studies in African Music” by A.M.Jones who had transcribed some of the rhythms of Ewe drumming into Western notation.

“It was like looking at a blueprint for something completely unknown. Here was a music with repeating patterns … which were superimposed so that the downbeats did not coincide.” (Writings on Music: 1965 – 2000, Steve Reich. Oxford. 2002).

In 1970, Reich went to study Ewe music in Ghana with master drummer, Gideon Alorwoyie. It confirmed for Reich his desire to write music that he could perform with his own percussion ensemble, with new ways of composition, which he had already begun to explore.

The repeated phrase of Clapping Music is similar to a bell pattern found in Ewe music which you can hear in the following clip.

In Ewe music, the bell pattern repeats throughout whilst the layered drum parts create complicated poly-rhythms, as the musicians play in different metres simultaneously.

Reich’s piece is very straightforward until the second player starts to shift one quaver forward. It’s a development of a “phasing” technique he had devised, where one part gradually shifts ahead of the other but here the shift is sudden. The resulting complexity is extraordinary. In fact, a few of the comments about the Steve Reich clip, mention the look of concentration on both musicians’ faces and the fact that they use notation. If you’ve tried it you’ll know why. Yep, it is tricky. 

Hearing Clapping Music (and the rest of that Reich concert) for the first time made a huge impression on me because it was so unexpected and nothing like the Western classical music I had been learning and loved so much. It was new and intriguing. I was already open to listening to the new music we were exposed to, at what was to become the home of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but unlike some of the works I had heard, I could relate to this immediately. And this was a composer I would continue to follow. I have listened to Steve Reich’s music ever since. And I’ll continue to practise Clapping Music till I’ve cracked it.

Sirocco – Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective

In that innocent time before the pandemic, I was at my dream concert. A brilliantly inventive cellist, Abel Selaocoe was playing music by another brilliantly inventive cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima.

It was October 2019 and I had arrived at the venue after a wander down memory lane in my childhood home town, Manchester. Nothing could have jolted me out of my nostalgia more quickly than the music that opened this performance of ‘Sirocco’ at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima is exciting enough with its simultaneous vocals and ferocious rhythmic double stops but Abel’s interpretation, singing in Zulu, playing cello chords and moving seamlessly into a low-pitched throat-singing, is astonishing and yet it sounds as if it has always been a part of the piece. It’s received with rapturous applause from this friendly Manchester audience for Selaocoe, a graduate of RNCM. You can feel the wealth of support and appreciation from fellow alumni, staff and students. He tells us throughout the concert how grateful he is for the freedom to be creative that this college gave him: “I studied here, forever, they wouldn’t let me leave” he says!

How to follow the Sollima? With a piece by Lawes originally written for viols in the 1600s. It’s performed by three upper string players of Manchester Collective (Rakhi Singh, Simmy Singh and Ruth Gibson) who join Abel to make a string quartet. It is played with such exquisite and raw beauty, I have tears in my eyes already. 

Then – can this get any better? Well yes, with an improvised African song from Selaocoe, with the superb playing of Alan Keary on bass guitar and Sidiki Dembéli on djembe and calabash. Together they form the band ‘Chesaba’. Their range of sounds is impressive as is their immaculate synchronicity. In collaboration with Manchester Collective they still have several African numbers up their sleeve, including a sublime arrangement of a song from the Ivory Coast. Shaka is sung by Sidiki, who begins with a gentle melody on the kamale ngoni (a West African harp) before an explosion of virtuoso djembe playing.

Initially, I had wondered how a programme that juxtaposes African songs, Danish folk melodies and music by Lawes, Purcell, Haydn, Stravinsky and Sollima would work. Abel Selaocoe guides us through the connections:

“Whatever the style or wherever the music is from, it is the rhythm that is the key that binds it”

Abel delves further into the links between the music in his programme by telling us a bit about growing up in his township in apartheid South Africa. He tells us how colonialism affected South African music, when missionaries taught their hymns and brought harmony to local vocal music. Abel and the Manchester Collective demonstrate the musical connection by pairing a Haydn quartet movement with a South African song, Ibuyile. This programming makes complete sense now: after an initial shiver of guilt at the thought of the British colonial past, I realise that Abel has absorbed these two worlds and is rewarding us with the result and a greater understanding of colliding cultures.

Enough of the history lesson and time to join in some of the rhythms, get up and dance: it has been difficult to keep still during the last few numbers.

Abel tells us he discovered a rhythm. Where? On the internet!  He went to Sidiki to see if he knew it. Of course, he’s been playing it all his life! The rhythm and the name of the piece: Takamba from Mali.

For the last number, we need no persuading to dance along, singing and clapping with these delightful and brilliant musicians.

Playing to his ‘home crowd’ is obviously quite special for Abel, and he is keen to show his appreciation of his experience studying at RNCM, and to express his thanks in particular to his cello teacher, Hannah Roberts, who had encouraged him to explore his roots and find his musical identity.

And his advice for budding students is to be creative:

“Go wild whilst you can, before you have to pay the bills!”

It’s worth a try if this is the result!

From RNCM Manchester, Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective with Sorocco.

Abel Selaocoe – Cello; Rakhi Singh – Violin; Simmy Singh – Violin; Ruth Gibson – Viola; Alan Keary – Electric Bass; Sidiki Dembélé – Calabash, Djembe and Kamale Ngoni.

‘Sirocco’ was created by Abel Selaocoe, Chesaba and Manchester Collective. Recorded and mixed by Jamie Birkett. Filmed at RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music) in October 2019.


They are back with a new tour ‘The Oracle‘ happening now:

31 March – Birkenhead – Future Yard
1 April – Saffron Walden – Saffron Hall
7 April – Nottingham – Lakeside Arts
8 April – Leeds – Howard Assembly Room
15 April – Manchester – Bridgewater Hall
20 April – York – Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall
22 April – Bristol – St George’s Bristol
24 April – London – Southbank Centre
1 May – Online – Free Broadcast

Music and Ukraine

In four shocking weeks, scenes of devastation from the war in Ukraine have become the norm of our daily news. I check each morning, in the vain hope that it will somehow have stopped.

Amongst the terror and heartbreak, an occasional glimmer of beauty amongst the rubble comes to light. It seems that the power of music cannot be destroyed. The happiness on this child’s face shines out as she sings Let it go from ‘Frozen’. No wonder it has now been viewed millions of times around the world.

The news that this little girl, Amelia Anisovich, whose singing brought joy to those people sheltering with her in Kyiv, is not only safe in Poland but sang the Ukrainian national anthem in front of a stadium of thousands, was one heart-warming story.

Since the start of the war, I’ve watched Ukrainians singing their national anthem, on tv and social media: from the spontaneous response of a man being interviewed for a news report to the members of the Ukrainian parliament meeting in the first week of the invasion. It appears that the threat to their existence has strengthened feelings of Ukrainian identity and singing the anthem is symbolic of their resilient spirit of resistance.

The threat to their lives has led millions to flee but for those who have stayed, there is little comfort except perhaps from music. I can’t imagine that any musician expects to perform in a bomb shelter but here is violinist, Vera Lytovchenko doing just that.

It was very difficult to play and think about something that wasn’t war. But I decided I must do something. We have become a family in this cellar and when I played they cried. They forget about the war for some moments and think about something else.

Lytovchenko, Guardian News, 7 March 2022.

In solidarity with Ukrainians, violinists from around the world joined another violinist, Illia Bondarenko who is playing here from a bunker in Kyiv.

Musical statements of resistance have sprung up even in ruined cities. Here, cellist Denys Karachevtsev plays Bach amongst the destroyed buildings of Kharkiv with the aim of fundraising for humanitarian aid.

Around the world, musicians from many genres have organised concerts to raise funds for Ukraine and to show their fellow feeling through music. Here’s Endpin Project Cello Choir playing the Ukrainian national anthem (with fundraising links when opened in You Tube).

We can express a depth of feeling through music that is sometimes difficult to put into words. This final clip offers a heartfelt message of hope for the Ukrainian people, in words and music, from Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.