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Steve Reich
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Lizon

Minimal music pioneer Steve Reich turns 85

Rick Fulker
October 4, 2021

American minimal music pioneer Steve Reich is considered one of the world's foremost composers. Varied musical influences allowed him to compose outside the box.


Many music critics consider him America's foremost composer, but some go even further. The New Yorker dubbed him "the most original musical thinker of our time," and The New York Times ranks him as one of "the great composers of the century."

The winner of two Grammys (in 1988 for "Different Trains" and in 1998 for "Music for 18 Musicians"), Steve Reich has had an impact on the music world that extends far beyond the US.

Composing outside the box

Born in New York on October 3, 1936, Reich's first seminal music experiences came at age 14 when he heard works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky.

Active as a jazz percussionist, he took a degree in philosophy at New York's Cornell University before pursuing music studies at the Juilliard School and at a summer course at the University of Ghana in Accra. Studying there under a master drummer of the Ewe tribe, and delving later into Balinese gamelan music, Reich demonstrated an open attitude towards music cultures beyond the Occidental classical tradition.  

Reich - excerpt from Music for 18 Musicians

"Music for 18 musicians," "Piano Phrase," "Clapping Music," "Different Trains," "Drumming" and "Typing Music" are among Steve Reich's best-known creations, although his influence extends beyond the works themselves. Although he dislikes the label "minimal music," it was in effect his innovation in this stylistic genre — along with that of fellow composers Philip Glass, John Adams and Terry Riley — that introduced totally new sounds to concert halls in the 1960's.

In a stark departure from the 12-tone and atonal music predominant in the post-World War II years, it was music of simple, clear harmonies, rhythmic drive and austere melodies whose often hypnotic effect sometimes belied an underlying complexity.

Even though some observers have said that Reich changed the course of music history, the composer himself describes himself more modestly: "What I and other people did was not a revolution," he told DW at Bonn's Beethovenfest in 2011. "It was a restoration of harmony, of rhythm in a new way."


This previously published article has been updated for Steve Reich's 85th birthday.

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