How I Wrote... Clapping Music - Steve Reich

It's as simple as a rhythmic duet for two musicians - or is it? Steve Reich explains the motivation behind his deceptively challenging flamenco-inspired canon, Clapping Music.

Composer: Steve Reich

Piece: Clapping Music

Date written: 1972

In a sentence or less, how would you describe the music to someone who's never heard it before?
Short, sweet, and to the point.

How did the idea for the piece come about?
It's hilarious actually, myself and my ensemble were performing a concert in Brussels back in the early 70s, and the promoter asked if we'd like to go out and hear some flamenco. And we all looked at each other and thought "Are we in Spain? No we're in Brussels… but sure, why not!" So we ended up in this little nightclub restaurant and got some drinks, and some women came out with guitars: it was terrible. They started singing: worse. All of a sudden they started clapping. Every one of us - the percussionists at least - snapped around and watched the clapping women like a hawk.

Did you have a musical 'EUREKA!' moment where everything fell into place, or did the piece gradually shift and change over time?
We went out into the foggy Belgian night and started clapping at each other, and a lightbulb just went on in my head - what if there's a power failure in a gig, what if everything goes off? And that was it: "This is it, EUREKA!", I got the inspiration to write Clapping music.

Is there a musical moment in the piece you're most proud of?
I'm most of proud of the fact that it's absolutely strict canon, and on the other hand everybody from Richard Taruskin the musicologist to David Bowie can really get off on it, so everybody seems to get the idea and enjoy it. It's only a four or five minute piece - some people might have a particular moment they enjoy in the piece, and that's their privilege, but I wouldn't single one out myself.

What's been your favourite performance of the music?
I can't begin to count every performance, and I'm always the performer. I've heard it on YouTube a couple of times. It requires very little rehearsal and I can come in at the last minute by myself, and it's very easy to work it out with a couple of rehearsals.

If you could hear anyone admit they're a huge fan of the piece, who would it be?
Most recently, David Bowie, said he's a fan, he's remixed Hello Steve Reich using clapping music as the inspiration as part of his new album. We've been mutual admirers for years now and I'm glad he can take a modest little piece like Clapping Music and make it a part of his musical life.

If you had to compose it again, what would you change?
Nothing! It's perfect! Not every piece I write is perfect, but this one, it's perfect.

Where was the premiere and how did you feel hearing the piece for the first time?
It must have been around 1972. 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.