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.