By Graham K. Rogers
1977 saw a number of major record releases that made the summer of that year somewhat special. Among these were Hotel California, a famous album by the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello's, My Aim is True, Queen's News of the World and Rumours from Fleetwood Mac. I bought Rumours on vinyl, on casette tape and later picked up the CD. It retains the immediacy it had when I first heard it and is deservedly one of the best selling albums of all time.
One of the tracks written by Stevie Nicks is "I Don't Wanna Know" and about 54 seconds into the tune (and again at 1:52) is a series of 6 or 7 rapid handclaps by 2 (possibly 3) persons. This is repeated twice (and later in the tune). It is a difficult sound to reproduce with the slight difference in timing between some claps, but makes an important contribution to the rhythm and the feel of the tune. Another example is Flamenco music.
When used as an intelligent addition to the percussion in a piece of music, hand-clapping adds an unusual feel to the output. This is recognised by many serious musicians, among them Steve Reich: an American composer ranked with a number of other important contributors to music, such as Philip Glass. His minimalist approach has seen experimentation with hand-clapping and recently an iOS app was released bearing his name, called Steve Reich's Clapping Music.
The app is designed to improve a user's rhythm and does this with a game format which is both compelling and frustrating. The user taps on the screen to match the clapping output: the beats are shown in a large dot pattern above. Easy to listen to the app output. Easy enough to see. Not easy to match - nor to keep my own taps matching the app clap sounds.
By listening and practising, the user's own timing improves. To help, there are several Practice rhythms as well as clapping rhythms listed as Easy, Medium and Hard. Part of the difficulty is linked to the speed of the beats and the greater concentration needed to keep tapping along with the app.
As well as the tapping game accessed via the large Tap to Play button, the main screen links to About the Music, About the App and Research Project.
- About the Music explains the genesis of Steve Reich's interest in clapping as a systematic form of music (from 1971) and includes a link to a YouTube video of him explaining the ideas behind Clapping Music. Other sections here examine music patterns (including Pulsing, Ostinato, Additive note patterns and Counterpoint) with video examples. There is also information on Reich himself and his creative output.
- About the App explains the idea behind the app and how all of us can play Clapping Music this way. Other sections here have information about London Sinfonietta, Touchpress (the developer), Queen Mary University of London, who are using the app for research, Digital R&D fund for the Arts, and Credits.
- Research Project uses an external link in Safari to allow users to find out about (and sign up if they wish) for a research project into how we learn rhythm. While playing the app, a pop-up appeared asking if I was interested in this.
This free app scores quite highly on a number of levels: as a frustrating, yet rewarding game that helps users improve rhythm; as a source of information about an important modern composer and his methods; and as a way to assist in research. Using the app, and listening to Reich explain the origins of the piece, I also envisage a way Steve Reich's Clapping Music might be incorporated into teaching activities, especially when groups are involved.
What is not to like about this?
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.