Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (1972) is a piece that surprised me as when I initially became familiar with the concept and the work I dismissed it as another clever manipulation of maths and music used to “generate” output in a formulaic fashion like a lot of the serial pieces. It’s wasn’t until I’d listened to it in its entirety that I came to enjoy the experience and listen rather than just hear.
I can appreciate Reich’s desire to just use instruments available to the body, the hands, as this strips the music right back and leaves no distractions and no excuses. The instrument can’t be hard to tune, or unavailable, or expensive; they’re there for everybody.
Reich explicitly states in the performance notes that the two musicians (or two groups which play each of the two parts) should stand close to one-another so as to present the aural illusion of a single point or sound-source. This is extended to amplified performances where he states that if two microphones are used (one for each performer/part) that they should be mixed to mono, removing stereo separation. I feel that he has missed a trick here. As the listener is drawn further into the piece (by around the 24th bar) it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the two parts due to the fixed tempo and pattern. It’s as if the two parts line up to fill all of the available spaces in the bar. If this were to happen we would simply hear a unison clap on each of the 6/4 (12/8) beats. Although I’m loath to criticise Mr Reich, it would be nice to hear a performance with a separation so that we could hear a definite movement in the music. Maybe I’ll have a go at recording it myself.
Although it was a successful and rewarding piece that broke new ground and made people think, I believe his earlier “Piano Phase” composition made more sense from a purely musical point of view.