How Steve Reich Inspired Radiohead—And Vice Versa

11/13/2013 12:02 PM |

young steve reich tape machines recording equipment

Modern listeners tend to think of classical and popular music as distinct entities only rarely in conversation. Classical is, stereotypically, the refuge of high art, unsullied by market demands and pop’s obsession with novelty. An insatiable thirst for new animates pop. Classical, in contrast, displays a fealty to the past that at once makes it seem musty and out of touch, but also the steward of a purer, more distinguished tradition. Radio Rewrite, a new piece by Steve Reich inspired by Radiohead that will receive its New York premiere this weekend, represents a dialogue between the two traditions. “The idea that classical is separate from popular music is absurd, sophomoric, and ignorant,” Reich said. “Bartók is full of Hungarian folk music, so much that you can’t separate the folk melodies from him. It’s in his blood. Gershwin, our greatest composer, used both. When I was in school, John Cage slammed the window shut [on this exchange]. My generation opened it back up. It was not a revolt, but a restoration.”

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Few have done more to muddle the distinction in music between man and machine than Reich. In the 60s, the minimalist composer pioneered as a compositional tool the use of tape loops: short samples of speech, repeated endlessly until they reveal strange inner melodies, a process that, Reich explains, “makes the abstract very real, and intensifies the meaning of the phrase.” This innovation lead directly to modern sampling, which became the core of hip-hop and electronic music.

In the 70s, he found a way to mimic the hypnotic effect of tape loops using live musicians; cellos and violins sketch shards of melody roughly the length of a human breath, creating melodic movement by imitating the inflections of the spoken word. Though he uses no electronic instruments, his compositions use musicians in such a way that you can’t be sure who or what is making the sounds you hear. Tapes manipulate the human voice, and humans simulate the sounds of those manipulations.

You can hear Reich’s influence throughout popular music, especially Radiohead’s Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). These records represented a break with the three-guitar, alt-rock approach on which the band had built its reputation. There’s little melodic development; a steady, almost robotic rhythmic pulse permeates the albums. Affectless voices captured in loops hover over the songs. They’re lonely albums that perfectly conjure the alienation of a human lost in a technological labyrinth. Paradoxically, their emotional heft comes from the eerie lack of emotion—which is very much in keeping with the tradition Reich and fellow minimalists established in the 60s.

At a 2011 festival in Krakow, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performed Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s hazy, chiming composition for solo guitar, originally performed by Pat Metheny. The piece requires extensive backing tracks, which Greenwood—who was classically trained in viola at Oxford—had prepared himself. Reich was in the audience and impressed with the performance.  

“I had heard the There Will Be Blood soundtrack,” Reich said on the phone from his home in Pound Ridge, Westchester. “But I realized I had never actually heard Radiohead, though I had heard of them. I went to their website and listened to their music, and there were two pieces—’Everything in its Right Place’ and ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’—that really stood out to me.” Reich went about writing a piece that loosely channeled Radiohead’s work, incorporating “whatever melodic fragments I found useful.” His own music has been extensively sampled and remixed, but this was first time Reich himself had worked with the material of a rock group. Written for cello, viola, clarinet, flute, two violins, two vibraphones, two pianos and an electric bass, Radio Rewrite alternates between fast passages that echo “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” (from 2007’s In Rainbows) and slow sections that use pieces of Kid A’s “Everything in its Right Place.” “When you hear it, you’ll get a whiff of Radiohead,” he said, “but 90 percent of the time you won’t.”

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