Steve Reich ‘Piano Phase’: Simple Complexity

The idea for this blog came up today as I was trying to find the best music to listen to whilst trying to read for one of my MA modules. I recently have reignited my love for Steve Reich and I began listening to his work Piano Phase, which strangely got me very motivated to finish my reading. I then realised I have yet to write about Steve Reich so this is also a fantastic excuse to write about a composer I find overwhelmingly intriguing.

Steve Reich is a pioneer of a movement in contemporary music usually referred to as ‘minimalism.’ As the title suggests, minimalism is essentially art music that has minimal musical material. Reich, with other composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams, came through in the public sphere as prominent American minimalist composers. Usually with this branch of music there is a steady tempo or drone, constant harmony, and gradual progression. From this both ‘Phase Music’ and ‘Process Music’ came into fruition as full forms of music. Process Music is essentially when a work has strict rules as to how it is played (for instance Piano Phase) or it has extensive notes from the composer outlining how the work should be performed. Phase music differs slightly and is more about the addition of phases and the shifting of phases, which essentially can give you an echo effect in the music. The idea of Phase Music was made popular by Reich and his tape music. He began slowing and then speeding up the main motifs of the work to create a pattern which can then be overlapped, replicated and shadowed through the medium of other instruments, tapes or live recordings. Minimalism encompasses the simple, conventional theme and turns it into a very complex-sounding work which utilises repetition, tempo changes and conventional diatonic phrases.

Reich has had an incredibly successful career from playing a major part in the evolution of modern classical music. He has been acclaimed the “greatest living American composer living” which is a pretty big deal! He has influenced a wealth of different composers, performers and writes, including John Adams, Michael Hedges and Brian Eno. John Adams said this about Reich and his music:

“For him, pulsation and tonality were not just cultural artefacts. They were the lifeblood of the musical experience, natural laws. It was his triumph to find a way to embrace these fundamental principles and still create a music that felt genuine and new. He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride” (2010).

When Reich’s minimalism phase was at its height, he composed the work aptly named Piano Phase. Composed in 1967, the piece was originally written for two pianos (or piano and a tape). This piece is a landmark in Reich’s career as it was one of his first attempts at his phasing technique. Before Piano Phase, Reich composed works such as It’s Gonna Rain which use the phasing technique. However the major difference is that these earlier compositions used a tape, so they were not necessarily performed live. Piano Phase was written with the intention to apply this phasing technique into live performance. It took Reich quite some time to show and prove that a musician can phase live with serious and intense concentration. As Reich did not have two pianos at his disposal, he recorded the foundation part on tape, and then played around the main motif on a live piano to play mostly in sync with the tape, but also slightly out so that he could begin to literally construct this composition. Before ending with the two piano composition, Reich also made a similar composition called Four Pianos which was also premiered in 1967. However, the original two piano version proved to be more effective, so that is the more famous and pursued of the two compositions.

Piano Phase can last between 15-21 minutes and it is essentially two identical lines of music, which begin playing synchronously, but soon they slowly become out of phase with one another. They become out of sync by the slight speed increase of one piano. Although the piece sounds very repetitive throughout, you can dissect this piece into three main sections. The first begins with both pianists playing a rapid twelve-note melodic figure in unison. The notes played are E F# B C# D F E C# B F# D C#. The motif is based around this semiquaver cell and is grouped 4X3 to create the pulsating feel. Once one player begins to speed up the notes begin to clash as whilst the first pianist is playing an E, the second is playing an F# and so on. This then creates a sea of different rhythmic variations of the main melodic theme. In simple terms though, this piece is essentially three simple motifs, repeated at different speeds to create the musical illusion of there being some really complex variations of the motif. Of course, playing this live would require the utmost precision and concentration. This process is repeated until it has gone full cycle and the pianos are playing in perfect unison once more.

The second section can be identified by one of the pianists fading out, leaving the first playing the original twelve note melody alone. The motif is slowly changed into an eight-note motif, which is now grouped 2X4. There is a distinct feel for this new eight note motif once the second pianist returns, and thus the phasing process begins once more, fulfilling 8 cycles. At the end of this section (measure 26), one pianist fades out, leaving the eight-note melody playing.

The third and final section of Piano Phase is perhaps the most simple in terms of the fundamental motif. There is a change in meter to 4/8, where a melody built out of four notes is created. There are only 4 pitches here (A B D E), instead of 5-7 pitches. This final section sees the last phasing process happen before the pianos return in unison at the end of the piece. It is marked on the score ad libitum for how many times the cycle is played, and on the score it says between 8-60 times.

Piano Phase is a perfect example of music as a gradual process. Reich mentions the idea of change in the process via ‘by-products’ (the variations within the phases). The superimpositions form sub-melodies which are born from echo, resonance, tempo and the subjective perception of the listener. One of the main attractions to this piece is the rhythmic ambiguity of the piece in general, as it starts off simple, and yet it grows into this incredibly intricate piece of music. It is fascinating how these patterns occur in phasing, you may have noticed that the motif is played symmetrically in the first section, which results in identical patterns. This is due to the crossover in the process, which led to this pattern occurring. As you can imagine from how difficult this work is, it is not performed live that often. Although, since its premiere in 1967, it has been famously performed in 2004 and 2016. The performance in 2016 caused quite a stir due to it being disrupted in the first few minutes by some audience members who started clapping and shouting and thus putting the ensemble off track. 

Piano Phase has also been scored for two marimbas, which the idea of one being an octave below the other in performance. After the premiere of this work, Reich went on to compose works using the same compositional techniques such as Violin Phase (1967) and Drumming (1971). I am a massive lover of Steve Reich’s music and I find his thought processes incredibly intriguing. As aforementioned, I found this piece whilst looking for the perfect study music, and this has done a good job thus far. If you’re ever in need of some ‘concentration music’ I highly recommend the works of Steve Reich, they really keep you on your toes! I hope you have enjoyed this blog and of course the piece! Soon I shall post another delight for you all to savour!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording: