Radio Rewrite: How Radiohead Caught Steve Reich's Ear and Vice Versa

Categories: The Upsetter

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Maybe you've heard about Radio Rewrite? It's the next orchestral piece by Steve Reich and is due to premiere in London next March. With Radio Rewrite, Reich hopes to remake two Radiohead songs. Which begs the perfectly fair question: what makes Reich any different from your housemate's shitty band?

For starters, there's Reich's admirers. If you've heard Steve Reich's name and not his music, it's probably because smarty-pants musicians like to drop it in interviews. But there's more to Reich than caché. He is the composer who gave American avant-garde music the literal pulse that defined its rhythm in the last quarter of the 20th Century. His masterpieces include It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Music for 18 Musicians (1976). I guess what I'm trying to say is: he's an avant-garde composer worth listening to -- really.

Today, Reich is 75. He wears a baseball cap and speaks a dialect that could be classified as New York brusque, as is evident in his recent comments to the UK Guardian in which he summed up the state of music -- today, yesterday, and always.

"Look," Reich said. "Most music throughout history is garbage. It could be Beethoven's contemporaries, it could be the current Top 40; you play in a garden, you get weeds."

Reich should know. He is without a doubt one of the most influential minds within music this past half-century. He's seen his own ideas travel handsomely and he's also seen them gather moss. His '70s concerts were attended by such art-rock stalwarts as Brian Eno and David Bowie. The impact of Reich's trademark "phasing" technique was laid bare on Eno and Bowie's collaborations, while the more theoretical underpinnings of Reich's "systems music" has informed Eno's entire career. And we all know what that career hath wrought.

In the world of "notational" music (this is the faux-egalitarian way of saying "classical" music, or more to the point: "not Foster the People"), Reich, along with collaborator Terry Riley and peers Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, gathered together the last recognizable summit of modernist energies, known as minimalism. Much of the reason no one today can tell what to make of music in the 21st Century is blamed on (or owed to) Reich and company. To grasp just what the minimalists meant to the 20th Century avant-garde's timeline, we only have to consider a prophetic statement Kurt Weill made in the 1920s, almost a half-century before the vespers of minimalism began to vibe through prestigious concert halls and Hollywood film soundtracks.

"Once musicians obtained everything they had imagined in their most daring dreams, they started again from scratch," Weill said, whilst stabbing an oboe player with a shard of glass, one assumes. Naturally.

Reich and the minimalists were the ones who eventually entered the decadent banquet hall of mid-20th Century dissonance -- post-Schoenberg, post-food fight. With their love of Eastern modalities and Western harmonies, they cleared the table, wiped the pudding from the wallpaper, Pine Sol'ed the chairs, and started again from scratch.

Since its '70s heyday, composers and listeners alike have been dealing with the fallout from the minimalists' triumph. So when word spread last winter that Reich's next piece was to use Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling into Place" for its points of departure, it seemed to legitimize the Oxfordshire five-piece as "the first great classical rock band," according to the Telegraph's Lucy Jones.

In Jones' column, she also turned the tables between Radio Rewrite's apparent givers and takers, writing of her obsession with "imagining how much of Reich's music directly inspired Radiohead." To my own ears, the influence seems apparent in the deliciously rich timbres the British band shares with the American composer.

These days, at the level of pure tone, even Justin Bieber's albums sound sumptuous. The entire world's sonic palate is now fairly refined. But I remember in 1997 when OK Computer came out and two-dimensional records like Garbage's "Only Happy When It Rains" were about the most alluring sound radio had to offer. In that claustrophobic climate of overly compressed grunge-pop -- mixed, it seemed, expressly for sweaty discount shoe stores and third-hand Saabs -- OK Computer was an opened vista.

The swirling intuition of Jonny Greenwood's Twombly-esque guitar runs on "Airbag," OK Computer's opening track, is what compelled me to dive deeper into Radiohead's songs than I did, say, Blur's or Pulp's. It was the depth of field audible in the album's sonics that hooked me (and frontman Thom Yorke's pissing and moaning that lost me again, I confess). The luminescence Radiohead were able to tease out of a Fender Rhodes and a Starcaster (not to mention their use of the terrifically archaic ondes Martenot -- okay, fine, let's mention it) still glows hot on a playlist next to, say, Reich's wonderfully bright Four Organs (1970). Trust me.

But describing timbre is a fool's errand. A much more direct route to understanding how Reich influenced Radiohead is to think structurally and look at the pop music that inspired Reich. To this end, one record is more instructive than all the rest.

"I remember hearing Junior Walker from Motown playing a tune called 'Shotgun,'" Reich told PBS's News Hour in 2008. "And the bass went, 'Bump, ba di da, ba dum dum. Di da, ba dum dum.' And you were waiting around for -- you know, where's the B part? There was none."

Throughout the '60s and '70s, Reich adopted the "eternal A" he heard in "Shotgun" over and over again in his own increasingly provocative and pleasurable works. Whether they learned it from Walker or Reich or New Order, on Kid A, Radiohead began exactly with this suspense-building move. The lineage they drew from is unmistakable.

"Everything in its Right Place," one of the songs Reich is presently reworking for Radio Rewrite, is written around one key. The lack of a structural release pushes the record's sense of foreboding beyond a threshold rock rarely approaches. A couple tracks later, "The National Anthem" uses the same technique but to a completely different end. Rather than encircle itself as "Everything in its Right Place" does, "The National Anthem" unfolds an insistent bass pattern to coax the listener to a meditative place. Not only is this what the minimalists often did in their compositions, it's what they set out to do.

Last week, in an interview with the Quietus, Reich estimated he's about three-quarters finished with his new work. Lots of things can happen between now and next spring. Reich could turn Radio Rewrite into a masterpiece, a disaster, or merely a nice listen -- something to tweet and reblog and "heart" and feel cool about knowing, until the next Beach House this-or-that is leaked.

We often forget this when we retell the stories of how we got where we are: nothing is preordained. Music is no different. Its history is not written in the stars but in the little, intimate cognitive space shared by the music maker and the listener. And sometimes that listener is Steve Reich.

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