Steve Reich’s Clapping Music


I picked up an anthology of Twentieth-Century Music the other day, an inside was the short score to Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”. I’ve been a fond of Reich’s music and recordings since my college days, and I first heard the piece on one of those ancient relics called a cd:


Clapping Music is a so called minimalist work for two percussionists centered upon one repeating 6/4 (or 12/8) rhythm. Performer one repeats the rhythm throughout and is the anchor of sorts. Performer two doubles the rhythm at first, and then at prescribed lengths, plays the repeating rhythm from a different starting point. In this case it’s displacing the rhythm by an 8th note for each variation.

It’s a fascinating study of how a simple rhythmic motif layered upon itself in different ways can produce a variety of different interlocking grooves. The interesting thing is that as a listener, you are not ‘forced’ into recognizing some abstract 20th century compositional process or intention. It actually sounds like music. This particular approach to composition is something Brian Eno called ‘systems’ and he himself was inspired by Steve Reich. One of Eno’s most famous works “Music For Airports” was created in a similar way but with looping sustained vocal and piano notes that overlapped each other. But that’s a story for another day.

In revisiting this piece, and having a drummer’s mind set, I thought about how one drummer could play both parts (left hand = player one, right hand = player two). It would be a good challenge, so I fired up google to see if anyone else had thought of this, and low and behold the lovely Evelyn Glennie had. She is so lovely and talented:

Soon I was reminded of a YouTube video I saw once where someone had created a version of clapping music with a repeated scene of Angie Dickinson slapping Lee Marvin. It really should be called Slapping Music. What’s interesting to note is that because the audio of the slapping version is looping layers of the same short audio recording, it becomes similar to Steve Reich’s famous tape loop recordings like “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out”:

Two of my favorite things: Great rhythms and things that make you think.

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