Mojo OCTOBER 2006 - by Mark Espiner


Composer Steve Reich celebrates his 70th with concerts and by judging a Radio 1 remix contest.

When someone so musically far from me finds something of interest in my work, says Steve Reich, I think, Wow! This is great! Hailed by some as the greatest living composer and the man who practically invented creative sampling, he's referring to The Orb's use of his piece Electric Counterpoint for their 1990 chill-out anthem Little Fluffy Clouds. Declining to sue led to 1999's Reich Remixed album, where Coldcut, Mantronix, DJ Spooky et al remixed and reinterpreted his music.

Reich has been both influential and innovative and his work is more diverse then the 'minimalist" tag suggests: his first piece, It's Gonna Rain - featuring a ranting taped evangelical preacher - is proto hip hop; the repetitive beats of Music For 18 Musicians and the Kronos Quartet's performance of Different Trains have had a significant effect on the world of ambient music and sampling. Last month he even judged a Radio 1 remix competition, declaring San Francisco producer Ruoho Ruotosi's work on Music For 18 Musicians the winner.

Born in New York on October 3, 1936, to a lawyer father and singer-songwriter mother, Reich says, The musical genetics were in my mother's side of the family, but my father's analytical mind was as essential to who I became. He recounts how everything changed colour when, aged fourteen, he heard Stravinsky. After studying in New York and California, he started composing in earnest in 1965 and has written over forty major works, including Come Out (1966), Four Organs (1970), Tehillim (1981) and The Cave.

Reich cites jazz as the reason for his use of repetitive musical phrases and recalls how he'd visit the Birdland club in New York in the 1950s and '60s to hear John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Coltrane was ahead of us, he says - us being his contemporaries in '60s avant-garde music. 'Trane's riffing for thirty minutes or more in one key was an extreme influence.

Later, the recorded voice became central to Reich's work. In Different Trains he took Holocaust survivors' testimony and wove it into music. My tape pieces are an unusual hybrid form, he says, because they are not songs and they are not really vocal music. They use speech and speech becomes a melody in a way that is really new.

Soon to turn seventy but still creating, some of his early works were, like his hero Stravinsky's Rites Of Spring, booed at their Carnegie Hall premieres. Yet they are now performed as often as one hundred and fifty to two hundred times a year worldwide.

With the Radio 1 remix contest - results to be aired on electro show The Breezeblock this month - Reich is aware that he is inspiring a new breed of musician: the non-classical urban kind, as well as the contemporary-classical composer. And he's flattered. That's how it should be, says the man who has musicians including David Bowie, Brian Eno and Aphex Twin in his inspirational debt: You have one ear cocked out for the street, and the street has an ear cocked out for you.

Know Your Reichs: Three ways To Hear The Composer On CD.

Music For 18 Musicians
Landmark 1976 work that took two years to write, and which is breathtaking in its rhythmical precision and full of dense textures and luscious tones. Structured around eleven chords, pulsing notes, rhythms and harmonies collide.

Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint
Guitar supremo Pat Metheny creates an aural heaven on 1987's Electric Counterpoint, later swiped by The Orb. 1988's Different Trains sets Reich's experience travelling across the US by train against that of the Jews being transported to Nazi death camps.

Early Works
Collection of 1965-72 pieces in which the composer discovers phasing and blows the listener's mind. Come Out is an extraordinary piece of aesthetically treated sound made music from one voice and several tape loops; It's Gonna Rain does the same and suggests atomic apocalypse to boot.