The Beat Goes On: Steve Reich Is the Musical Visionary Whose Repetitive, Morphing Sound Gave Birth to Techno. but His Legacy Overshadows His New Work, Writes Mike Barnes

By Barnes, Mike | New Statesman (1996), October 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Beat Goes On: Steve Reich Is the Musical Visionary Whose Repetitive, Morphing Sound Gave Birth to Techno. but His Legacy Overshadows His New Work, Writes Mike Barnes


Barnes, Mike, New Statesman (1996)


The American composer Steve Reich turns 70 on 23 October and celebrations to mark the occasion are taking place worldwide, including a festival at the Barbican Centre in London and the release of a CD box set, Phases. Reich's standing is such that he has been dubbed America's--even the world's--greatest living composer. Lavish claims have been made about him having altered musical history. His signature style, which is essentially repetitive yet constantly morphing, has indeed been enormously influential. It has touched the modern classical composers Louis Andriessen and Michael Nyman; jazz and rock groups such as the Chicago Underground Duo and Tortoise; and electronic music from Nineties techno to experimental artists such as Alec Empire and Brian Eno.

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Reich's finest compositions are visionary: Drumming (1971) used acoustic sound sources--drums, tuned percussion, piccolo and voice--but it was an uncanny prediction of the structure and rhythmic relentlessness of techno forms. Other works still slip seamlessly into DJ sets and have been sampled by all and sundry, from The Orb to the Japanese ambient artist Susumu Yokota. Others have enthusiastically reworked Reich compositions--1999's Reich: Remixed has been followed by Reich: Remixed 2006 (released 4 September), which the composer helped in compiling. Remixing Reich, the 7 October show at the Barbican, will be an evening of live remixes by DJ Spooky and Coldcut.

Whether Reich continues to exert the kind of musical influence he did early on in his career, however, is another matter. Although it seems somewhat churlish to criticise a composer whose work is based on repetition for having a tendency to repeat himself, he has been so widely imitated that some of his latest compositions seem somewhat less than revolutionary.

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His greatest musical achievement is his 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians. This hour-long piece, ostensibly based on a single rhythmic pulse, develops as a series of cells within which the musicians play gradually augmented figures. Not an enticing proposition on paper, perhaps, but the combination of multiple pianos dancing around each other, strings, fluttering voices and shuddering bass clarinet is ineffably beautiful. This composition was a defining moment in Reich's career--and casts a long shadow over his subsequent work.

In contrast, The Cave (1993), an ambitious multimedia collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, is one of his few genuinely tedious musical statements. The Phases box set demonstrates how much variety there has been in his work over the past four decades: from Different Trains, a powerful synthesis of speech samples and string quartet, to Proverb (1995), a gorgeous small-scale piece for organ, vibraphone and voice whose only lyrics are a quotation from Wittgenstein ("How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life"). But although he is still busily composing, one can't imagine him making any grand valedictory statements like the Ninth Symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner or Mahler.

Perhaps this is in part because his music has been appropriated so extensively by younger artists. When I first interviewed Reich a decade ago, we talked about The Orb sampling his multiple-guitar piece Electric Counterpoint for their single "Little Fluffy Clouds". He joked that he'd told his lawyers not to sue them because they wouldn't have enough money. At the time, I wondered if this response was somewhat forced. But when I spoke to him again last year, he reiterated that he was genuinely flattered by the attention. He refused to differentiate between people actually sampling his recordings and the more general quoting of musical material that has gone on for centuries.

Reich's spirit of generosity will be an enduring legacy. His project as a young composer was to unite "the serious music and the trash out there in the street", as he describes it. …

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