Steve Reich on Radio Rewrite and musical Minimalism

Steve Reich's new work is based on Radiohead's Jigsaw Falling Into Place and Everything in Its Right Place. Picture: BBC
Steve Reich's new work is based on Radiohead's Jigsaw Falling Into Place and Everything in Its Right Place. Picture: BBC
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Composer Steve Reich, whose Radio Rewrite gets its Scottish premiere on Saturday, thinks that if he hadn’t been around to ‘clear up the mess’ of serialism, someone else would have done it

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. It’s what gives musical Minimalism its universal appeal: that extraordinary ability to cut across boundaries; to strip melody and harmony down to its underpants and dress it up again in simple multi­layered patterns; to appeal simultaneously to the high and low ground of cultural taste.

It may have started in the 1960s as a reactionary movement within the classical music world, but its addictive influence was to bring us punk, techno, ambient and all the rest, as well as that pugilistic hybrid mix so successfully assembled by the likes of Steve Martland and his band. It has even been suggested that Minimalism was music’s single most important idea of the 20th century.

Ask Steve Reich what he was thinking when he – along with Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Philip Glass – turned their backs on the prevailing esoteric wind of serialism and atonality to conceive Minimalism’s firstborn, and his answer is simply this. “The old style was exhausted; it was time to do something new.”

Reich is in Glasgow this weekend, where his latest work, Radio Rewrite – based on two songs by Radiohead – will be performed by the London Sinfonietta on Saturday, following performances earlier this week in London, Birmingham and Brighton. It’s part of Minimal, a weekend focus on the composer, which on Sunday also features Scots percussionist Colin Currie in a performance of Reich’s popular hit, Drumming. So what better opportunity to find out, from the horse’s mouth, what makes minimalism tick?

What on earth allowed it to happen in the first place? After all, Reich had been at Mills College in California studying with Luciano Berio, a composer soaked in the dogmatic legacy of Schoenbergian serialism. “Because Berio was Italian, he wasn’t as doctrinaire as those grounded in the German tradition,” says Reich.

Yet Reich was more naturally drawn to those who felt a time for radical change was in the air. That meant turning his back on what he’d been taught at Mills, and earlier at the Juilliard School in New York. “New styles don’t come until the old ones are ready to die,” he says. “Something in the air was telling us we were witnessing the death of German Romanticism.”

“There was the difficulty in Wagner’s music of telling what key you’re in. Then Schoenberg declared that ‘harmony is dead’, a belief picked up by his pupils Berg and Webern, then by Boulez and Stockhausen,” argues Reich, calling it the “Mannerist” period. “These were great composers at the end of a thing that was dying. Audiences didn’t want to hear Schoenberg, who said himself that ‘there isn’t a postman alive who can whistle my tunes’. Folk were doing what their teachers were doing. No-one wanted to listen.”

Reich was for none of that. “I felt I couldn’t spell out my life doing what my academic cohorts were doing. If I had never been born, someone else would have said, ‘This is a mess, let’s clear it up.’ It’s like at the beginning of opera, where folk wanted somebody simple to relate to. Or that moment where Bach did such a fantastic job bringing the vertical and horizontal together, exhausting the possibilities of the old Baroque style. That opportunity falls into your lap if you’re born at the right time.”

Reich was born in 1936, so by the time he was witnessing “the mess” he was approaching 30. “I went to school in the 50s. I loved Bach; I loved bebop. I listened to John Coltrane, Fats Domino and Bill Haley,” he recalls. In turn, he became fascinated by the harmonic stasis he had witnessed in Coltrane’s Africa Brass – “16 minutes of extraordinary melodic invention over a chord of E!” – or performances by the emerging Ravi Shankar.

He was there with Terry Riley when the latter’s iconic In C was first performed in 1964. “We had a very good exchange, and it was me who suggested the pulse [a metronomic repeated note running throughout In C that was not in Riley’s original concept].”

But is it true to conclude that, along with Glass, such a coming together of like minds represented the birth of a movement? “I wouldn’t go so far as calling it a movement. Each of us went our own way. Idiosyncrasies of people are such that they will do what is in the air. Like hey, the whistle’s been blown, and something has to be done.” But neither was it a revolution. “Minimalism was about bringing back something that was lost in music. It was a restoration job, reactionary perhaps, but not a revolution.”

The very term Minimalism, or any attempt at genre classification, is a point of conjecture for the 76-year-old composer.

“Are you ready to go to Paris?” he asks me, throwing a curveball. “And have you packed your shovel?” I appear bemused. “Well, we’re leaving for Paris to visit the grave of Claude Debussy. When we get there, lift up the lid of his coffin, tap him on the shoulder and ask, ‘Excusez-moi, êtes-vous un Impressioniste? ‘Non,’ he’ll say, and go back to sleep.” I get the point. “Composers are not looking to be put into a box. They are more interested in what their next piece will be.”

Radio Rewrite is Reich’s current next piece. “I met Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood a couple of years ago at a festival in Krakow, where he was playing my Electric Counterpoint. We got talking and I thought, ‘I’ve got to check these guys out.’” Reich took two of the band’s songs – Jigsaw Falling Into Place and Everything in Its Right Place – both of which had interesting harmonic movements which the composer describes as “three chord rock” – and turned them into a seven-movement ensemble piece. “If you’re asking, ‘Are you going to hear Radiohead?’ the answer’s maybe, now and again.” More likely, you’ll just sense the atmosphere of the songs, he adds, for by switching the order of the chords Reich was able to work more freely with the material to create something far more original than mere transcription. Minimal effort is not in his vocabulary.

• Steve Reich is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for Minimal, a weekend (9-10 March) featuring his music, including the Scottish premiere of Radio Rewrite. For details of all events and performers, including percussionist Colin Currie and NYOS Futures, visit