Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich is a leading pioneer of Minimalism. Though he creates such detailed work that could place him among the elite composers of his time, he expressed his struggles as an artist. One of his major works, which he believes to be one of his best, was Music for 18 Musicians. This piece was a landmark for Steve Reich because of its simplistic instrumentation, structure and colors produced. Many non-musicians as well as musicians enjoy listening to Music for 18 Musicians because the timbres produced are pleasant to take in.


Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936 but he was raised in both there and in California. His educational background includes studying at Cornell University, where he graduated with honors in Philosophy in 1957. He then went on to Julliard School of Music where he studied with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti for three years. He then left Julliard in search of his own compositional voice. In 1963, he graduated with a MA in Music from Mills College where his teachers included Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. From there, Steve Reich ventured out to broaden his musical understanding. He studied African drumming at the Institute for African studies at the Univeristy of Ghana in Accra. He then studied Balinese and Gamelan music at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California, and picked up on chanting and studied it thoroughly through a school in New York. He moved to San Francisco and planted himself in with the city life there. He was fascinated with the city and all its sounds. He began recording all the different sounds he heard in his daily environment. In school he had composed a lot of 12-tone serial music, which was what was being stressed in the universities at the time. He did not like this technique, so instead of inverting it or using its retrograde, Reich admitted to just repeating the original set over and over. When studying with Italian serialist Luciano Berio, he was given liberating advice. Berio told him, if he wanted to write tonal music, then do so.[i]


In 1966, Steve Reich formed his own ensemble, who, to this day, continue to perform and tour. This original group started as three members and has grown to eighteen over the years. They still perform for large venues and sold out crowds. Though he is a well-known composer of the twentieth century, Steve’s output is a little under 40 pieces.


Steve has had several years of formal training but he feels that he is no more talented musically than the person next to him. He does not have perfect pitch and could not begin to know what he composed without hearing it or playing it, so his ensemble often spends time perfecting Steve’s pieces. He has always been an advocate of staying involved with the performance of his pieces.


Steve Reich believed that classical music had become too complicated and unenjoyable for the listener. His compositions were reduced to musical simplicity but still had fundamental principles. Some of his other works were It’s Gonna Rain, City Life and Nagoya Marimbas. Steve’s instrumentation for his different pieces included a variety of percussion instruments, voices, piano, orchestral instruments, electronic phasing, tape and other variety of sounds.


As a composer, Steve Reich is what one calls a minimalist. His music is performed through out the world and encompasses many aspects of Western classical music, especially jazz. Steve Reich along with composers such as John Adams and John Cage paved a new path with their minimalist compositions. Critics scrambled to define minimalism, but found it rather hard to pin point. According to its definition, minimalism represents a new way of listening to music. “A very slight change in rhythm, texture, or harmony became the main events in a piece.”[ii] The main goal of minimalist pieces was to focus on the process itself because there was a lack of motion towards a musical goal. “The changing rhythmic patterns emerging from the slowly shifting process sustain interest in the pieces.”[iii] The most important characteristic of minimal music is its simplicity.


Music for 18 Musicians took two years to write and ten years to record. For Steve, creating this work of art