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[music, albums]

XX: 1974 Steve Reich - Drumming

Steve Reich - Drumming

The choice of Steve Reich's minimal drumming piece reflects my current state of over-saturation with conventional music. As with 1982's On Land I picked the most experimental release from the poll. The one which comes closest to sound and is furthest away from traditional harmonic and melodic music.

There are only beats here. 85 minutes split in four parts. First we have bongos, then we have marimbas, then glockenspiels and in the last part all three of them together. There is a natural rhythm vibe which is totally hypnotic. The slow gradual shifts of speed and metre keep the attention of the listener.

Steve Reich (born 1936) composed his longest work in 1971 shortly after his trip to Africa where he studied the drum patterns of the Ewe tribe from Ghana (Writings on Music, 1965-2000, page 55ff.). He especially concentrated on the Gahu dance, a very popular dance which is not restricted to a special time or place. The music and the dance to it have the same name and can't be separated.

This is a world music composition which covers Africa with the bongos, South America with the marimbas and East Asia with the glockenspiel emulating the gamelan. There is a progression from the hardest most physical beats by the bongos which often sound like patter of horses hooves to the wooden sounding marimbas and finally to the higher metallic sounds of the glockenspiel. Reich calls them timbres. A movement from the body to the spirit. Additionally Reich uses voices in the marimba part and whistling plus piccolo flutes in the glockenspiel part to imitate the drum sounds.

I think this is one of the rare occasions in music where a highly original idea (minimal evolution) is realised in a perfectly compelling way. Especially when I think of the minimal music I know which always was more fascinating in theory than in practice (see Phil Glass's symphonic overkill, Michael Nyman's sugary melodies or Brian Eno's dull(!?) tape echo-delay experiment Discreet Music). A reason why this succeeds could be that Reich only focusses on rhythm, a basic component of music. There is an accordance of minimal movement and use of minimal, monochromatic instruments.

The end of the composition comes as a shock. It is as if life ends. The heart beat of the universe stops. We are left with silence again. And I can maybe listen to some more normal music with tunes and stuff again.

Here is the overview of the series 40 years, 40 albums of which part XX was this post. I am half through. Ouff.


an interesting choice alex. i've been feeding myself weekly doses of reich for years and have been sated recently with the 10 cd "works" box set. i've also just recently received a bootleg from a 1982 MoMA concert which includes some parts of 'drumming' too - quite lovely all round.

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last updated: 2/23/21, 8:55 AM
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