Steve Reich’s Clapping Music is one of the simplest scores of modern classical music, and as you might soon find out, one of the most difficult to perform. Written in 1972 while on a European tour and after a night of mediocre flamenco, Clapping Music is for two players. One claps a steady rhythm (technically an African Bell Rhythm).
A second performer claps in unison in the same pattern for eight bars. At the end of the eighth bar, the second performer goes out of sync for one eighth note and after another eight bars, goes out of sync again. This continues until both players are back in unison. (The above video explains this technique visually).
For Reich it was a simpler evolution of “phase” compositions that he had been creating since 1965. The earlier example was “It’s Gonna Rain,” which used two tape loops of a Pentecostal street preacher’s rant going slowly out of sync with each other, revealing first an echo and then, as the two loops wind up 180 degrees out of sync, pure apocalyptic cacophony.
The sync issues were due to the vagaries of the analog machines themselves, but Reich moved on to recreating phase music with actual instruments. In 1967 he composed "Piano Phase," in which a simple melody is played by two musicians first in unison, and then slowly out of sync. Reich followed up with "Reed Phase" and "Violin Phase," the latter of which was set to dance by Anne Teresa of Keersmaeker.
Asked about performing "Clapping Music" live, Reich told ClassicFM:
It's a piece that I'm always standing up there doing, and it makes me nervous every time because you're very exposed, as it's just you and the other guy. If you make one little hesitation you can find yourself at a place in the piece where you have to figure out where you are to get things right. So it never ceases to be a challenge; it's easy on one level, but it's challenging on another.
If you’d like to have a go at Clapping Music, there is a free app from the London Sinfonietta and Touchpress that plays the steady loop while you try to go out of phase. (It tracks and rates your performance, with the hope you’ll perfect it.) I haven’t had a chance myself to try it out, but if you have, let us know in the comments.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.