Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Steve Reich (b. 1936) is one of America’s leading composers. He was trained as a drummer and quickly became interested in the music of Asia and Africa. He has also developed extensive interest in the traditions of Jewish music. During the late 1960’s, Reich experimented with combing composition and performance, integrating the traditions of notation and improvisation. Perhaps his most famous work is a piece called Drumming, first performed in 1971, which incorporates aspects of ritual into performance. Reich’s music has consistently focused on issues of rhythmic variation and repetition. Within a minimalists texture he has achieved a subtly of timbre and listening that projects as intensity of color, mood, and contemplation we might associate with the luminosity of certain minimalist painters and sculptors, including Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt. Reich is one of America’s genuine innovators and perhaps the greatest exponent of musical minimalism. But his minimalism, ironically, is truly one of surface. Depth and variation are apparent beneath the externals of his work.

“Music for Pieces of Wood” was written in 1973 and is designed for five players. It is written for claves, which are percussion instruments with particular pitches. There are two types used in this piece, the so-called standard and the “African” claves. The clave, which comes from Cuba (the word in Spanish means “key”), is made of two pieces of hardwood that the player beats. Audiences may be most familiar with the instrument in its use in the rhumba and other Latin-American dances. They have been used in orchestral works by Varese, Copland (in Connotations, among other works), and Berio. The Claves in this piece are designed to create a particular pitch differentiation. The composer specifies the physical arrangement of the players. While the notation is precise, the composer asks the players to repeat each bar “approximately” the number of times indicated, perhaps giving the performers a chance to vary not only the character but the duration of each performance.