Reich's style of composition has influenced many other composers and musical groups, John Adams, the progressive rock band King Crimson, and the art-pop and electronic musician Brian Eno. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of "a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history", and the Village Voice's Kyle Gann has said Reich "may [...] be considered, by general acclamation, America's greatest living composer. On January 25, 2007, Reich was named the 2007 recipient of the Polar Music Prize, together with Sonny Rollins.
For a year following graduation he studied composition privately with Hall Overton before he enrolled at Juilliard to work with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti (1958 to 1961). Subsequently he attended Mills College in Oakland where he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud (1961–63) and earned a master's degree in composition, where Reich composed Melodica for melodica and tape, which appeared in 1986 on the three-LP release Music from Mills.
Reich worked with the california Tape Music Center along with Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and Terry Riley (he was involved with the premiere of Riley's "In C" and suggested the use of the eighth note pulse which is now standard in performance of the piece).
Reich was influenced by fellow minimalist Terry Riley, whose work In C combines simple musical patterns, offset in time, to create a slowly shifting, cohesive whole. Reich adopted this approach to compose his first major work, It's Gonna Rain. Written in 1965, It's Gonna Rain used recordings of a sermon about the end of the world given by a black Pentecostal street-preacher known as Brother Walter. Reich built on his early tape work, transferring the sermon to multiple tape loops played in and out of phase, with segments of the sermon cut and rearranged.
The 13-minute Come Out (1966) uses similarly manipulated recordings of a single spoken line given by an injured survivor of a race riot. The survivor, who had been beaten, punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police about his beating. The spoken line includes the phrase "to let the bruise blood come out to show them." Reich rerecorded the fragment "come out to show them" on two channels, which are initially played in unison. They quickly slip out of sync; gradually the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, looped continuously, then eight, and continues splitting until the actual words are unintelligible, leaving the listener with only the speech's rhythmic and tonal patterns.
A similar, lesser known example of process music is Pendulum Music (1968), which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so. Pendulum Music has never been recorded by Reich himself, but was introduced to rock audiences by Sonic Youth in the late 1990s.
Reich's first attempt at translating this phasing technique from recorded tape to live performance was the 1967 Piano Phase, for two pianos. In Piano Phase the performers repeat a rapid twelve-note melodic figure, initially in unison. As one player keeps tempo with robotic precision, the other speeds up very slightly until the two parts line up again, but one sixteenth note apart. The second player then resumes the previous tempo. This cycle of speeding up and then locking in continues throughout the piece; the cycle comes full circle three times, the second and third cycles using shorter versions of the initial figure. '
'Violin Phase, also written in 1967, is built on these same lines. Reich also tried to create the phasing effect in a piece "that would need no instrument beyond the human body". He found that the idea of phasing was inappropriate for the simple ways he was experimenting to make sound. Instead, he composed Clapping Music (1972), in which the players do not phase in and out with each other, but instead one performer keeps one line of a 12-quaver-long phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later. Piano Phase and Violin Phase both premiered in a series of concerts given in New York art galleries.
The 1967 prototype piece Slow Motion Sound was never performed, but the idea it introduced of slowing down a recorded sound until many times its original length without changing pitch or timbre was applied to Four Organs (1970), which deals specifically with augmentation. The piece has maracas playing a fast eighth note pulse, while the four organs stress certain eighth notes using an 11th chord. This work therefore dealt with repetition and subtle rhythmic change. It is unique in the context of Reich's other pieces in being linear as opposed to cyclic like his earlier works— the superficially similar Phase Patterns, also for four organs but without maracas, is (as the name suggests) a phase piece similar to others composed during the period. Four Organs was performed as part of a Boston Symphony Orchestra program, and was Reich's first composition to be performed in a large traditional setting.
In 1971, Reich embarked on a five-week trip to study music in Ghana, during which he learned from the master drummer Gideon Alerwoyie. He also studied Balinese gamelan in Seattle. From his African experience, as well as A. M. Jones's Studies in African Music about the music of the Ewe people, Reich drew inspiration for his 90-minute piece Drumming, which he composed shortly after his return. Composed for a 9-piece percussion ensemble with female voices and piccolo, Drumming marked the beginning of a new stage in his career, for around this time he formed his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and increasingly concentrated on composition and performance with them. Steve Reich and Musicians, which was to be the sole ensemble to interpret his works for many years, still remains active with many of its original members.
After Drumming, Reich moved on from the "phase shifting" technique that he had pioneered, and began writing more elaborate pieces. He investigated other musical processes such as augmentation (the temporal lengthening of phrases and melodic fragments). It was during this period that he wrote works such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and Six Pianos (1973).
In 1974, Reich began writing what many would call his seminal work, Music for 18 Musicians. This piece involved many new ideas, although it also hearkened back to earlier pieces. It is based on a cycle of eleven chords introduced at the beginning (called "Pulses"), followed by a small section of music based around each chord ("Sections I-XI"), and finally a return to the original cycle ("Pulses"). This was Reich's first attempt at writing for larger ensembles. The increased number of performers resulted in more scope for psychoacoustic effects, which fascinated Reich, and he noted that he would like to "explore this idea further". Reich remarked that this one work contained more harmonic movement in the first five minutes than any other work he had written. Reich's recording of the work was the first release in ECM Records' "New Series".
Reich explored these ideas further in his frequently recorded pieces Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) and Octet (1979). In these two works, Reich experimented with "the human breath as the measure of musical duration … the chords played by the trumpets are written to take one comfortable breath to perform" (liner notes for Music for a Large Ensemble). Human voices are part of the musical palette in Music for a Large Ensemble but the wordless vocal parts simply form part of the texture (as they do in Drumming). With Octet and his first orchestral piece Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (also 1979), Reich's music showed the influence of Biblical cantillation, which he had studied in Israel since the summer of 1977. After this, the human voice singing a text would play an increasingly important role in Reich's music. In the late 1970s Reich published a book, Writings About Music, containing essays on his philosophy, aesthetics, and musical projects written between 1963 and 1974. An updated collection, Writings On Music (1965–2000), was published in 2002.
Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, uses recorded speech, as in his earlier works, but this time as a melodic rather than a rhythmic element. In Different Trains Reich compares and contrasts his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939-1941 with the very different trains being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule. The Kronos Quartet recording of Different Trains was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 1990.
As well as pieces using sampling techniques, like Three Tales and City Life (1994), Reich also returned to composing purely instrumental works for the concert hall, starting with Triple Quartet (1998) written for the Kronos Quartet that can either be performed by string quartet and tape, three string quartets or 36-piece string orchestra. According to Reich, the piece is influenced by Bartók's and Alfred Schnittke's string quartets. This series continued with Dance Patterns (2002), Cello Counterpoint (2003), and sequence of works centered around Variations: You Are (Variations) (2004), a work which looks back to the vocal writing of works like Tehillim or The Desert Music, Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings (2005, for the London Sinfonietta) and Daniel Variations (2006).
In an interview with The Guardian, Reich stated that he continues to follow this direction with a yet unnamed piece commissioned by eighth blackbird, an American ensemble consisting of the instrumental quintet (flute, clarinet, violin or viola, cello and piano) of Schoenberg's piece Pierrot Lunaire (1912) plus percussion. Reich thinks that it will again be with tape, and he also states that he is thinking about Stravinsky's Agon (1957) as a model for the instrumental writing.
A melodic line from his 1987 work Electric Counterpoint was used by The Orb in their 1991 hit Little Fluffy Clouds. This connection has been honored in a 1999 album by DJs and electronic musicians, Reich Remixed, released on Nonesuch Records. Reich's Come Out and It's Gonna Rain are cited as early examples of how minimalist music evolved in tandem with advances in technology, and have served as templates for the application of loops and delay in contemporary electronic dance music. An additional parallel between Reich's work and that of electronic dance music artists is an emphasis on a minimum of form (as opposed to a minimum of material) in which sonic elements such as timbre and texture are used to 'amass' sound in a vertical direction.
Massification has evolved into a movement of electronic dance music in which extreme densities are created with a relatively limited number of sonic elements. This evolution echoes similar developments in Reich's work, as he and other minimalist composers moved from simplicity to more complex combinations of pulses and polyrhythms. Electronic dance music practitioners have also adopted the "rhythm as melody" aesthetic that Reich embraced after studying West African drumming in Ghana and encountering the "chiming" timbres produced by Indonesian gamelan orchestras.
John Adams commented, "He didn't reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride. He has also influenced visual artists such as Bruce Nauman, and has expressed admiration of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's work set to his pieces.
Reich often cites Pérotin, J.S. Bach, Debussy and Stravinsky as composers he admires, whose tradition he wished as a young composer to become part of. Jazz is a major part of the formation of Reich's musical style, and two of the earliest influences on his work were vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Alfred Deller, whose emphasis on the artistic capabilities of the voice alone with little vibrato or other alteration was an inspiration to his earliest works. John Coltrane's style, which Reich has described as "playing a lot of notes to very few harmonies", also had an impact; of particular interest was the album Africa/Brass, which "was basically a half-an-hour in F." Reich's influence from jazz includes its roots, also, from the West African music he studied in his readings and visit to Ghana. Other important influences are Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis, and visual artist friends such as Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra. Reich recently contributed the introduction to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (The MIT Press, 2008) edited by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky.