That’s All It Does: Steve Reich and Balinese Gamelan

Author: Tenzer, Michael

Publication details: Rethinking Reich, edited by Sumanth Gopinath and Pwyll ap Siôn, 303-322. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.


Abstract: Though integral to his formation as a composer, Steve Reich’s studies of Balinese gamelan have been overlooked. In part this is because of a certain redundancy: features of Balinese overlap significantly with the West African music whose impact on Reich’s formative works of the 1970s has been amply demonstrated. These include predominance of percussion, repetitive cyclic structures, interlocking rhythms, systems of oral transmission, and the nonprofessional ethos of the performing ensemble’s interactive behaviors. But what of the features of the Balinese music Reich studied and did not assimilate? Among these are malleable tempo, extended and minimally repetitive cycles, and tonally hierarchic melodies rooted in Southeast Asian traditions of sung poetry. Their eschewal opens pathways for insight into Reich’s music, as well as his cultural subjectivity, in the process illuminating unsuspected aesthetic affinity between his detractors among “uptown” composition apologists of the time and traditional Balinese musicians.