Steve Reich Radio Rewrite: Part Two: Steve Reich In The Afternoon

The second part of my Steve Reich odyssey takes place five days later in Glasgow. He is here for one of the Royal Concert Hall’s UNESCO Inspiring Encounters, but first there is time for a late addition to the programme. My Name Is… (1967) several members of the audience say “My name is” and their first name into a microphone.

Steve Reich at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Ensemble member Joby Burgess demonstrates how far technology has come since the work was conceived by immediately converting the sampled speech into a version of a piece that used to have to be meticulously pieced together from spliced tape. The names dissolve into a wormhole of repetition, words become noises, losing then regaining their sense.

Steve Reich warms to this theme and talks about how technology has caught up with his ideas. Dead pan, he talks confidently and assuredly about his own process. Clearly from a “classical” background, it’s interesting to hear a contemporary take on the art of composing from someone so clearly aware of his place in the musical lineage. Reich is a good talker, a harsh self-critic and disarmingly human for someone who takes their work so seriously.

He offers the invitation to the listener to get lost in the web of counterpoint. His phased work is all about patterns of rhythm, small variations make the sound ambiguous and the ear reassembles the patterns in different ways. There is some relationship to meditation, but he refuses to simplify his ideas to suit preconceived notions.

To a rock listener’s ear, it is a leap to contextualise this music without it being the soundtrack to a film. The grammar of performance is so different. Drumming, an epic piece involving tuned bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels, a piccolo and two female voices, is performed by The Colin Currie Group.

The resonance of the rhythms is such that I find my ringing ears have started to fill in the sound of instruments that aren’t actually being played. I swear I can hear horns. The intensity of the piece is a truly transformative experience in a way that rock performances have the potential to be, but so rarely are.

World famous composer, Steve Reich
Steve Reich in Glasgow. Image: Angela Catlin, thanks to Glasgow Life.

If you get the chance to see it, the BBC series The Sound And The Fury is a great introduction to 20th Century composers. I’m currently working my way (slowly) through Alex Ross’s epic history of 20th Century music, The Rest Is Noise, which I’d also heartily recommend.

Steve Reich Radio Rewrite: Part One: Everything In Its Reich Place

Last month I went down to London to hear the premiere of Steve Reich‘s Radiohead-inspired piece Radio Rewrite at The Royal Festival Hall.

Image: Angela Catlin
Steve Reich. Image: Angela Catlin

My crash course in the music of Steve Reich begins in London. My visit is to attend the premier of his new piece inspired by the music of Radiohead, performed by musicians of the London Sinfonietta.

We live in an age of musical convergence, and it seems only fitting that the man described as “the single most influential composer of the late 20th century” should bridge the gap between contemporary and popular music in such a way.
This is not the London Sinfonietta’s first association with Radiohead. They collaborated with Jonny Greenwood (along with Thom Yorke and the Nazareth Orchestra) for 2005’s Ether Festival and have often performed Greenwood’s pieces for orchestra, Popcorn Superhet Receiver and Smear.

It was a meeting with Greenwood that sparked Reich’s interested in Radiohead’s music. The guitarist performed the composer’s Electric Counterpoint at a festival in Poland. Impressed by Greenwood’s interpretation of his work, Reich found time to listen to Radiohead and was drawn to two songs in particular: Everything In Its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place.
It is fitting for me to be back at the Royal Festival Hall for this performance. This is the same stage on which I saw Radiohead perform material from Kid A at 2000’s Meltdown Festival, the first UK performance of those songs.

Kid A draws on electronic and minimalist musical influences and is regarded as a breakthrough for a band who transcend simple description as a “rock” act. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, after all this is the band that used Olivier Messiaen’s stark Quartet for the End of Time – written when the composer was held in a World War Two concentration camp – as intro music for their shows way back in 1995.

To my rock-trained ears Steve Reich’s precise, tightly notated works, performed in the rarefied atmosphere of the symphony hall, seem a little clinical. Clapping Music, using the technique of subtly shifting the phase of rhythm, is deceptively simple; Electric Counterpoint, here performed by Mats Bergstrom, is made up of shimmering guitar chords over a prepared backing; 2×5 plays with a rock band format while fitting into the Reich’s classical music lineage.

There are sounds that remind me of Tortoise and other “math rock” bands in 2×5 yet it is “chamber music for rock instruments” driven by bass and piano rather than drums. For Double Sextet, Reich mans the mixing desk in his distinctive baseball cap.

Radio Rewrite comes in the second half. I can catch the melodies more easily than the harmonic progressions, there are shadows of the Radiohead songs as it moves from slow to fast, from Everything In Its Right Place to Jigsaw and back. Threads of the songs remain but they’re hard to spot. These are not two songs I would have linked together, but certain chords ring out as similar to Reich’s other works, there are moments where you can identify Radiohead but as channelled through Steve Reich’s ears.

My experience of Everything In Its Right Place is as a visceral live concert closer. I’ve stood in a huge crowd numerous times and clapped the off-beats to Phil Selway’s drums and it’s astonishing how the same piece of music can inspire such utterly different reactions and interpretations.

Steve Reich talks briefly about the work at the end of the show, the structure of the song, the way it is dissonant while still having a tonic… I don’t have enough theoretical language to explain it but I understand what he means. It is EVERYTHING.