Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Clapping Music

Steve Reich (b. 1936)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission

© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019

Steve Reich is known as a minimalist, and certainly Clapping Music is one of his most minimal pieces—requiring no instruments, just two people with a good sense of rhythm. Even the material is about as bare-bones as you can get—just a single bar with eight notes, repeated. The first performer holds steady the entire time, while the second performer shifts a note back every 13th repetition, creating a new overlapping pattern. Eventually it cycles around and the piece ends in unison, back in sync.

The principle here is common in Reich’s work: musical elements are put through some process that produces more extended stretches of music, almost mechanically. Reich explained in his 1968 essay, Music as a Gradual Process:

I do not mean the process of composition, but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes. The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note details and the overall form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.) I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

As for the why of the piece, Reich shares his view:

While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from heand sheand youand meoutwards towards it.

Reich was born in New York in 1936 and traveled as a child between New York and California where his divorced parents lived. He studied philosophy at Cornell University and then music at Juilliard and Mills College, where he grew interested in electronic music, especially involving prerecorded tapes. Ghanaian drumming was another major influence, revolutionizing his sense of rhythm and pulse. He wrote Clapping Music in 1972, he later recalled, after hearing women clapping in a performance of flamenco music in a Belgian bar. More recently, the piece has been adapted as an iOS app for anyone to try their hand at (Steve Reich’s Clapping Music: An Addictive Rhythm Game by Amphio Limited).

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer