steve reich’s “drumming”




Steve Reich’s Drumming asks for percussionists to play in synchrony, with some gradually accelerating as others remain steady.  Dr. Russell Hartenberger (NEXUS/University of Toronto)  premiered Drumming in 1971, and performed it hundreds of times in concert halls all around the world. Although he is aiming for smooth acceleration, he began wondering what really happens when phasing.  Does he  speed up smoothly, or does the transition proceed in fits and starts?  At some points he recalls feeling as if he is slowing down – but how can that be?

Hartenberger approached the lab to explore this issue, and working together we recorded him playing with and his NEXUS colleague Bob Becker.  Using bongos with customized triggers designed by Ray Dillard, they recorded phasing attempts to lend insight into the difference between theoretical and observed performances.  This project will be discussed in Hartenberger’s upcoming book.  Additionally, the rich data from this project offers a unique perspective on coordination amongst musicians.  This natural musical example complements traditional approaches exploring efforts to synchronize by examining how expert musicians intentionally desynchronize. 

This recording took place in McMaster’s innovative new LIVE Lab, a groundbreaking facility for interdisciplinary music cognition research.  A full analysis of this recording is forthcoming, but preliminary findings have been shared at the Society for Music Perception and Cognition and International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition.


Steve Reich Drumming performed by Dr. Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker 
Drumming Visualizer
A visualization of a project examining Steve Reich's Drumming.

Created by Kyle Gauder

About the visualizer

Use the toggle button to switch between visualizations of either the theoretical shift (according to Reich’s request) or the observed data from Hartenberger or Becker (simply press the flashing play button to begin).  In both the theoretical and observed performances the players start and end in alignment, however the progression to this alignment varies considerably.  The nominally steady part (Drummer 1) actually tracks back and forth with the moving part (Drummer 2).

The radar style plot on the left displays the relative position of individual notes within the current cycle.  As the parts transition, moments of alignment are highlighted by filling in the corresponding circles (you can adjust the alignment range to explore different visualizations).  Upon completing the sequence, Drummer 2 shifts counter clockwise one musical beat, indicating it has phased the desired amount.

The dot plot on the right traces the location of each note across the 67 cycles of the transition, plotted relative to the 6 beats in the measure.  With the complete history of the sequence, larger patterns of oscillation emerge, clarifying the complex interplay between the two parts when performing this challenging music.

The visualization starts in real time, but can be adjusted from .5-10 times the original tempo with the slider on the left hand side (at faster speeds we recommend toggling off the sound).  Click any two notes in the dot plot to see the timing distance between them- either in raw milliseconds or musical beats.

Here is a Lecture Recital highlighting the background of the research presented above.