Watch an Animated Score for Steve Reich’s Minimalist Piece “Clapping Music“–and Try Your Hardest to Follow Along

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steve Reich is Call­ing: A Min­i­mal­ist Ring­tone for the iPhone

Hear Steve Reich’s Min­i­mal­ist Com­po­si­tions in a 28-Hour Playlist: A Jour­ney Through His Influ­en­tial Record­ings

Watch Ani­mat­ed Scores to Music by Radio­head, Talk­ing Heads, LCD Soundsys­tem, Photek & Oth­er Elec­tron­ic/­Post-Punk/A­vant-Garde Musi­cians

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 and/or watch his films here.

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