Music for Pieces of Wood

Steve Reich

about 15 minutes

5 clave players


Reich was born in New York in 1936 and, while growing up, studied music with special focus on percussion. Among his composition teachers were Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. Intertwined with his traditional studies was a budding interest in the music of other cultures. Reich is one of several highly successful minimalist composers of his generation along with Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, and Frederic Rzewski.


This piece, Music for Pieces of Wood, is a fine example of how something of interest can be made with only basic elements. Pitch is involved in the tuning of the claves, but after the piece is launched, that parameter fades more to the background. To understand the piece, imagine listening to a kaleidoscope. A pattern is established, then it shifts as with the click of the kaleidoscope. There are 58 shifts of pattern within a general 10 minute time frame. Three general sections comprise the overall form. Each section employs an additive progession to build density and is linked to the neighboring section by the underlying quarter note laid down by the first clave player.


The composer provides the following note:

Music for Pieces of Wood grows out of the same roots as Clapping Music: a desire to make music with the simplest possible instruments. The claves, or cylindrical pieces of hard wood, used here were selected for their particular pitches (A, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, and D-sharp an octave above), and for their resonant timbre. This piece is one of the loudest I have ever composed, but uses no amplification whatsoever. The rhythmic structure is based entirely on the process of rhythmic “build-ups” or the substitution of beats for rests, and is in three sections of decreasing pattern length: 6/4, 4/4, 3/4. – Note by Steve Reich


Annotated by Laurent Warnier