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.

My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.


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