Innovations In Rhythm In Steve Reich’s Piano Phase And Philip Glass’ Opening

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Composers have been and are always experimenting with new elements and techniques to incorporate in their compositions, and a wide array of colours, tone, and feelings are realised through them. In the second half of the 20th century, genres and ‘movements’ of music such as ‘minimalism’, ‘postmodernism’, and ‘New Complexity’ have become increasingly popular, and rhythm, harmony, and technique were the key elements here. The inspiration behind the innovative usage of rhythm in Steve Reich’s Piano Phase and Philip Glass’ “Opening” in Glassworks will be further elaborated and discussed below.

Steve Reich was born in 1936, and his works have consistently evolved with his newfound techniques. As “one of the first masters of the repetitive music”, he came across the technique of ‘phasing’, where “two or more identical melodic and/or rhythmic patterns very gradually change in their rhythmic relationships to one another during the course of the work”. He first used it in 1965 with the usage of tape loops, but he wanted to take it to the next level, which is to apply the technique on instruments, and that led him to compose Piano Phase in 1967.

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The work begins by two pianists playing identical melodic/rhythmic patterns simultaneously. While one pianist plays the same pattern consistently throughout, the other pianist increases the tempo gradually until he or she is one sixteenth note ahead of the other pianist, as shown in bar 3 in Example 1. The process is repeated as the cycle of gradual phase shift happens, and finally ends when both pianists play in unison as it first started, marking the end of the whole process.

Example 1 Steve Reich, Piano Phase, mm. 1-3.

This is an example of ‘minimalism’; it is “a style of composition characterised by an intentionally simplified rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic vocabulary”. Reich uses only limited amount of pitches and that same pattern throughout, which brings more emphasis on the subtle phase shift process. This is unlike any traditional Western classical music where the mentioned elements are used in a complex way; here, it is evident that the process is apparent and that listeners play a huge role in noticing the little details.

Paul Miller stated that “listeners may choose to hear melodic or rhythmic patterns as a consequence of their own creative engagements with resultant patterns, and the piece which arises through such engagements has multiple and unpredictable manifestations”. Reich did not include time signature here, and along with ‘phasing’ and the unchanging rhythm, it creates meter ambiguity. Additionally, it starts off with a 12-note pattern, which could be categorised into numerous time signatures; this causes a lack of clarity on the downbeat, thus creating an ‘aural illusion’ for the listeners. The idea of meter ambiguity in this piece was also supported by Paul Epstein, which stated “in much of the music of pattern repetition, meter is largely a quantitative factor; one hears that a figure repeats after so many beats, but there is no functional downbeat – or several accents may compete for primacy”.

Everyone’s experiences in listening is highly subjective; some may focus on the melody, some on the rhythm, some on the harmony, and some yet on other musical elements. Personally, I was drawn to the first pianist whenever ‘phasing’ happens; I often listen for where the notes played by the second pianist fit into the first. Although both pianists play the same pattern throughout, it gave me an aural illusion of them not playing the same rhythm, and one of the causes might be the resonance of sound (echo).

Unlike the virtuosity required in traditional Western classical music, a different kind of virtuosity is needed here. Both pianists need to have an excellent sense of rhythmic independence, and great stamina both physically and mentally. An extensive amount of concentration is needed to master this work, along with communication within the ensemble itself; my friend and I are both classically trained pianists and we have tried this together. Our sense of rhythm is slightly above average, but it was still very confusing as we were both distracted and influenced by each other whenever ‘phasing’ happens. Thus, I agree that a different technique and virtuosity are needed to excel in this, and it does help and improve my sense of rhythm when I play other rhythmically challenging pieces as well.

Born in 1937, Philip Glass is another leading figure in ‘minimalism’. He started music lessons at the age of six, and he took harmony, analysis and composition lessons throughout his childhood. Unenthusiastic about the avant-garde establishment then, he was particularly interested in the “additive process and cyclic structures of Indian music”. Polyrhythm, specifically having triplet and duplet notes in unison is his trademark, and this is shown in Example 2: “Opening” in Glassworks, composed in 1981. Although polyrhythm was innovated much earlier, his usage of it is what makes it different.

Similar to Piano Phase, it is pulse-oriented. The rhythm in “Opening” is consistent throughout, but the downbeat is clear from the start, thus there is less meter ambiguity. The hemiola effect is created by the triplet-duplet pattern in both hands over the sustained notes in the bass, which gives rhythmic variety and sounds like it is in a time signature of 6/8 per measure. Another similarity between both pieces is the right hand figuration; although not exactly ‘phasing’, the pattern shifts one eighth note each beat, as it shifts one sixteenth note each bar in the right hand for the second pianist in Piano Phase as well.

Example 2 Philip Glass, “No.1 Opening for Piano,” mm. 1-3.

The inspiration behind this work is influenced by elements of the Fluxus movement – the figure ground. In contrast to traditional Western classical normalcy where clarity in the melody and harmony are shown, here, there is no emphasis on the melodic line; hence what is known as the ‘background’ is now the ‘foreground’. As per Piano Phase, listeners are required to listen actively to notice the subtle changes in the composition, making the process of listening the priority over the end product itself.

A great sense of rhythm and coordination between both hands are required to perform this piece; like Piano Phase, this work also requires a different kind of virtuosity as opposed to the kind used in traditional Western classical music. I have also tried playing this, and realised that it takes a great amount of brainpower to ensure the 3-against-2 pattern is played correctly, as the repertoire I am exposed to typically do not incorporate rhythms like this. Besides that, after mastering the rhythm, the next step is to ensure the balance of sound for both hands; the different rhythms must be heard clearly by the listeners. Overall, I think that minimalist music is challenging to play; sometimes I would get lost playing it because of its repetition and consistency, and ‘being in the present’ is more crucial than ever.

When I first heard Glass’ work, I found it very bizarre; it definitely is of an acquired taste. However, as I was more exposed to his compositions and this work later, I found out that it was soothing to hear the subtle changes in it. Glass stated that “Glassworks was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then,” and I could not agree more. Because of the consistency in the rhythm, it gives more clarity to the other elements in the music.

In conclusion, although both Reich and Glass are both categorised as ‘minimalist’ composers, they focus on different techniques and styles and are inspired by different sources in their compositions. As shown in the examples above, both composers have limited themselves to a single compositional technique – consistent rhythmic pattern. It is an example of a rejection of complexity, and it steers listeners to focus on the process of ‘phasing’ or the subtle harmony changes; after all, it is the little things that count. They too, prefer prolonged subtlety over complexities in all musical elements by showing the process in detail. Their compositions have influenced and are still influencing composers now; the idea of reducing musical materials and putting the spotlight on one element in the music have led to the birth of many modern compositions, making them “the two leading figures in the minimalist movement”.


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Music Scores

  1. Glass, Philip. “No.1 Opening for Piano.”
  2. Reich, Steve. Piano Phase. Amersham: Halstan & Co. Ltd.


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