The Sound of Four Hands Clapping: Steve Reich Performs “Clapping Music”

Composer Steve Reich with reel to reel tape recorders

Earlier this month composer Steve Reich turned 75. Over the past few decades Reich has gone from being a musical outsider to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 Double Sextet.

In the early days of his career, Reich drove a cab in San Francisco and worked as a part-time social worker in New York. “Phil Glass and I had a moving company for a short period of time,” Reich told Richard Kessler in a 1998 interview. “I did all kinds of odd jobs…. I started making a living as a performer in my own ensemble. I would never have thought that it was how I was going to survive financially. It was a complete wonder.”

In 1971 Reich embarked on a five-week trip to study music in Ghana. While in Africa, he studied with master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie. Reich wrote the 90-minute work Drumming shortly after his return, followed by the 1972 piece “Clapping Music.” It was around this time that he formed his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, which still includes many original members and remains active to this day.

Reich's score for "Clapping Music" (Click to enlarge)

Reich often cites Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Alfred Deller, Miles Davis, and the visual artists Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra as important influences on his own music. Never a believer in strict divisions between musical genres, Reich’s work has impacted the likes of Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, composer John Adams, Sufjan Stevens, DJ Spooky, and the rock band King Crimson. Reich described his own thoughts on musical influence in a 2000 interview with Jakob Buhre:

All musicians in the past, starting with the middle ages were interested in popular music. (…) Béla Bartók’s music is made entirely of sources from Hungarian folk music. And Igor Stravinsky, although he lied about it, used all kinds of Russian sources for his early ballets. Kurt Weill’s great masterpiece Dreigroschenoper is using the cabaret-style of the Weimar Republic and that’s why it is such a masterpiece. Only artificial division between popular and classical music happened unfortunately through the blindness of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers to create an artificial wall, which never existed before him. In my generation we tore the wall down and now we are back to the normal situation, for example if Brian Eno or David Bowie come to me, and if popular musicians remix my music like The Orb or DJ Spooky it is a good thing. This is a natural normal regular historical way.

In celebration of Reich’s birthday, here is an early video of Reich’s 1972 piece “Clapping Music.”

Reich, shown on the right, performs with percussionist and professor Russell Hartenberger. Hartenberger is a member of Nexus and has also been a member of Steve Reich and Musicians since 1971.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to start a Monday morning.

If you’d like to hear more of Steve Reich’s music, I highly recommend this box set, Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995. It has all of the essential Reich pieces and has provided me with countless hours of great music over the years.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:54+00:00 11.04.11|Greatest Hits, Sounds|2 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Jeffrey Gross October 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    One thing that’s interesting about this – or at least to a music geek like me – is that Reich largely misunderstands Bartok. It is true that Bartok (along w/ the oft forgotten Kodaly) was the first to go into the rural areas and rediscover the true Magyar folk music. Before that what people thought was “Hungarian” was actually gypsy, so that Brahms’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, wonderful as they are, aren’t based on real Hungarian tunes – they’re based on Roma music. But Bartok himself said, if I recall correctly, that his three greatest influences were Bach, Beethoven and Debussy. Of course, the Magyar melodic material is part of the very fabric of his music. But the three composers named are very much in evidence. Bach underlies the contrapuntal mastery. Beethoven the motivic unity and architectural rigor. But Debussy explains the composer’s sound-world, the use of color – in short, Bartok’s remarkable and unique tonal palette. Best example: the “night music” slow movements. Like the first 1/2 of this:


  2. michael reilly October 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    This reminds me of Sonny House.

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