Steve Reich is on the phone from his studio in downtown Manhattan. He’s taken some time to talk about Reich Remixed, a compilation album on Nonesuch Records. Nonesuch celebrated Reich’s tenure with the label in 1997 with a boxed set, Works (1965 – 1995), but this 1999 celebration of his extensive oeuvre has a very different intended audience. Names like Coldcut and Howie B, among the nine remix contributors, certainly might attract pop-music aficionados to unfamiliar territory.
The question that remains: Just how unfamiliar? Reich’s twin themes of percussive propulsion and sampling-based composition are tailor-made for adoption by electronic musicians. His brand of minimalism, along with that of composers Philip Glass and Terry Riley, is a key precursor to ambient music. In fact, many of the names assembled by Nonesuch (Andrea Parker, Tranquility Bass and Ken Ishii among them) routinely list him as a major influence. And, as he is the first to point out, Reich Remixed isn’t the first time his music has graced the dance floor.
Steve Reich: This all began about two years ago, when I was in Japan. A man named Hiro Nakashima, who is one of the people who works for Nonesuch in Japan, said that he thought there should be a remix album, of my music, and I said, Why do you say that? He said he knew a lot of these DJs and they would really like to do it. So I said, It’s fine with me. I wasn’t going to say no, and took a “wait and see” attitude. So he then contacted David Bither, here in New York, who runs Nonesuch International here, and David started contacting a woman by the name of Amy Coffee, who works in the UK with a lot of this kind of music and who was interested in my music as well, and between [the three of them] the people who you see on the CD, and other people who … didn’t get onto the CD, got interested in making remixes of various pieces. Slowly the whole thing built, and here it is.
I must admit, before we go too much further, I basically knew very little about this. I knew very little about remix[ing] in general. I had heard the word — I had heard a few things. What happened, I guess, five or six or seven years ago in London, somebody was interviewing me for a pop magazine, and said, “You know the Orb,” and I said, “No, what’s the Orb?” and he said, “You know ‘Fluffy Little Clouds,'” and I said, “No, I don’t know ‘Fluffy Clouds,'” and so he said he had to get me the CD. So he got me the CD and I thought, Oh, so this is what’s going on.
Marc Weidenbaum: That was the song on which the Orb sampled your work.
Reich: That was the Orb track that put them on the map, and it had a 30-second chunk of [my composition] “Electric Counterpoint” in it.
Weidenbaum: Have you seen the commercials?
Weidenbaum: It’s the background music for a Volkswagen Beetle commercial
Reich: Well, I’ll inform Nonesuch of that. In any case, I became aware of both the phenomena and the interest in my music from people who probably weren’t born when I did “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” [early sample-based music recorded in the mid-1960s]. And, you know, it was kind of nice. There’s a kind of poetic justice there. By which I mean this: when I was 14 I used to go down to Birdland, which was the reigning jazz club of the 1950s and early ’60s, and see Miles Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, who really turned me on, and later I went to hear John Coltrane, both here in New York and when I was a student out in San Francisco, as often as I possibly could. Cut to 1973 and I’m in London and my ensemble is giving a concert there, and at the end of the concert a man comes up and says, “Hello, I’m Brian Eno.”
Weidenbaum: And he was wearing white face makeup —
Reich: Well, he had just long hair and lipstick. It was [the] Roxy Music [era]. And later, in 1976, David Bowie was in Berlin when we did the German premiere of “Music for 18 [Musicians],” and he came again to the Bottom Line [in Manhattan] when we played a music promotional concert for that record in ’78. And so that was the first movement — return from the pop side toward me, after I had done what I’d done when I was a student. And the years pass, and now here’s another generation, completely different and younger from Bowie and Eno, who are coming at it from an entirely different way. And, you know, it’s very nice to see that my music is of interest to those people and it can be useful. Because it’s very nice to be liked by the public in general, but it’s even nicer to find admirers in the music community, on either side of the tracks.
Weidenbaum: The association is such a natural, you do ask yourself why wasn’t it done a few years ago?
Reich: It was, in fact, brewing. There were other signs as well. This is a way of organizing something that was happening quite spontaneously.
Weidenbaum: Do you see yourself as a part of this kind of music? How aware are you of current pop music, or what’s going on in classical music in general — to what extent do you keep yourself cloistered and working?
Reich: Well, a little bit of both. I am aware of what is going on in what I would call new music, partly because I go to concerts in New York, not that frequently but fairly frequently, but also people send me things, and also because I travel around and people say, “Have you heard so and so?” I’ll play with Ensemble Moderne in Germany, and there’s a pianist there who every few months will send me something and say, “You’ve got to hear this.” I am very interested in Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, the Bang on a Can Group, Mikel Rouse, who did this incredible piece, “Dennis Cleveland,” which we’re going to hear a lot more about I am sure. I was interested in Glen Branca a few years back and I still am. That’s my backyard, so to speak, and there are people who probably would say they have gotten something from my music in this normal type of influence within your own field. It was more surprising to find it had such an influence — to answer the other question, what I know about the remix world is really very little.
Weidenbaum: You’ve checked out some things?
Reich: I suspect that in the course of probably meeting some of these people, and journalists — if you have the ability to do it, send me some CDs, get me educated here, after the fact.
Weidenbaum: Do you have children?
Reich: Yeah, I do, but my son, Ezra, is 20 years old and he was first — basically, he got into the Grateful Dead; he’s a guitar player. Then he got into bluegrass and turned me on to Bill Monroe. I never even knew that [music]. So, he went a very different direction.
Weidenbaum: It was recently reported that David Mamet had turned down a women’s theater group that wanted to perform his monologues. He said that they can do whatever they want with the setting of the plays, but the men’s parts are for men and the women’s are for women —
Reich: First of all, a lot of things happened before I was even aware of it, so consequently, no one sent me a copy of “Little Fluffy Clouds” and said, “Is this alright with you.” Because at the time they were relatively unknown, we didn’t take any legal steps either, when we had that option. This is a field of musical appropriation that depends on the quantity of the music that is used. The little I have heard of the use of my music, I think it’s just fine. And I’m interested to see how people will take off on it. There’s a tradition in music of people stealing from other composers, quoting and otherwise. I don’t know if you saw “Hindenburg,” the piece that’s the first act of three tales we presented at BAM in the fall. The third scene is called “Nibelungen Zeppelin,” which is a stealing of the [he sings the “Ride of the Valkyries” theme] thing in Wagner and putting it into the [mix]. The video artist uses actual shots of the construction of the Hindenburg and incredible cut outs of that while I’m literally taking the Wagner and turning it into a Steve Reich repetition-and-phase piece. It will probably come out with a new piece I am writing for Kronos right now in the not too distant future, and I hope it will be all in DVD so you can see. I live in a world where — and the whole quote postmodern [un-quote] thing. I’m not a part of that but it’s something I am very aware of, taking very literal quotes of all types of music and doing whatever they’re doing to do with it. I think it’s more a question of “It ain’t that you’re doing it, it’s what you’re doing.” If you do it with any kind of interest, that’s interesting, and if you don’t it’s a big bore.
Weidenbaum: I suppose there’s a difference between what’s in the public domain, and what isn’t — this record is obviously done with everyone’s blessing. And I wonder if there’s a difference between orchestrating someone else’s composition, and taking an original recording and working it into your own.
Reich: For many of these people, they don’t see a difference between the written and recorded. I don’t think they have anything to do with notation. I think Howie B’s “Eight Lines” is a very sophisticated job. I wrote the whole piece in 5/8, and he kept it that way. Rare to find DJs or anyone else in the pop world who works in a meter like 5. I know he got hold of the 24 track. And I mentioned to David Bither that if people wanted to really isolate — we don’t record rock and roll style, with every instrument separated from every other instrument in a sound proof booth. We record in a room, so if you listen to a single track of a 24 track you’ll hear the other instruments in the background. So I told David Bither, look, if anyone wants to get into this and really just get one part, they can go to the score, copy it out in a notation program, and pour it into a sequencer and assign any MIDI sound they want to it. I have a feeling he particularly might have gotten into that.
Weidenbaum: How do you yourself compose?
Reich: I used to compose on the piano and with multi-tracked tape recorders, multi-track tape recorders. To hear the relationship between the lines I would simply overdub them. And between playing them at the piano and overdubbing them at the tape recorder, that’s how it was done. That’s up to 1986, at which point I got a Macintosh, which was an interim period, and then by now I’m working between the piano for certain things and the computer for everything else.
Weidenbaum: I wonder about composers coming to further blur the line between the tools they write on and the instruments they see as performance-ready, along the lines of what John Adams did on Hoodoo Zephyr.
Reich: Um, I’ve heard a couple tracks on John’s record, and I don’t think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
[We both laugh.]
Reich: I basically work in Finale, a notation program which is sitting on the screen right now. I have inside the computer a card, called Samplecell, whereby you can store whatever samples you want, and when the notation plays back instead of triggering an outside sample it triggers the ones inside, which is filled with basically musical-instrument samples. And then when I’m doing a piece like “The Cave,” or “Three Tales,” it’s filled with voices or whatever else, in addition to the musical instruments. It’s a mark-up, like an architect’s manqué of a building. For instance, when Kronos is going to learn this piece, I will send them the notation and a MIDI version of the piece, which is useful for them to get the overall feeling of the thing, the exact tempo and so forth.
Weidenbaum: I’m calling from Northern California, and I understood you have a history out here.
Reich: First I studied at Cornell, where mostly I studied philosophy, playing drums and sung music with William Austin, then went to Juilliard from 1959 through ’61, then I went to Mills College and was a graduate student when [Luciano] Berio was out there, ’63 to ’65, and actually my best friend, who was also studying out there at the time, was Phil Lesh, the bass player with the Grateful Dead — of course, at that time, was still Phil Lesh the composer who plays the trumpet. Things change.
Weidenbaum: This is before Pauline Oliveros’ time out there?
Reich: Pauline was out there, but before the Tape Music Center came to Mills, when it was in San Francisco and run by Ramon Sender and Mort Subotnick.
Weidenbaum: You’ve used samples in your own work, as in “Different Trains.”
Reich: The basic idea behind “Different Trains” is that the music would come out of the voice melody of the speakers, and there isn’t any fiddling [with those voices], nor in “The Cave,” any fiddling with the actual pitch or speed of the speakers. That changes in “Three Tales,” in “Hindenburg.” And there’s a tremendous — I mean, I have some slow-motion sound of the famous announcer who announces the crash of the Hindenburg, where I stretch his voice out to 12 times its original length. It really gets to what he’s talking about. In those pieces, in “Different Trains” and “The Cave,” the basic attitude is: what they speak is how I write. Every time a woman speaks, a viola will literally play what she says, and every time a man speaks, a cello will literally play what he plays — er, says. And all of the music will arise out of that melodic material. and it does. And that is quite a different way from the pop people.
Weidenbaum: It’s more along the lines of what Scott Johnson has been doing, with “John Somebody” and the more recent I.F. Stone recordings.
Reich: Scott has been doing that. “Different Trains” seems to have had some effect — I mean, Kronos is now an amplified band. And, I think this is a very fertile field. I think sampling in general — you know my piece “City Life”?
Weidenbaum: Yes, certainly.
Reich: I’m not quite clear how the Orb does perform. I’ve never seen these guys in person, so I’m not really sure how they — what, for example, goes on when you’re doing “Fluffy Clouds” [in front of a live audience].
Weidenbaum: Frighteningly little potentially, aside from mixing elements, and mixing in other records, though it can be a lot of fun. Coldcut, for example, might breaks its music into segments, and then have the samples trigger a video segment to complement it.
Reich: Sampling an audio and video sample at the same time? I saw that one coming.
Weidenbaum: “Different Trains” is one of the few major works of yours that isn’t treated on the remix album.
Reich: I specifically told them to keep that out of it. And “The Cave” as well
Reich: Just the subject matter. Some things are appropriate. Some things aren’t. [“Different Trains” includes numerous samples of voices of Holocaust survivors.]
Weidenbaum: There is an electronic musician named Chessie who does a lot of great work with train sounds, and he would no doubt do it tastefully.
Reich: I think trains are, as the history of jazz proves, a very musical machine. So, working with the trains alone … that isn’t the part of the piece I felt was inappropriate — it was the other things.
Weidenbaum: “Tehilim” was another favorite missing from the record. Did people steer away from your vocal pieces?
Reich: There was a mix of “The Desert Music,” though I think it’s going to appear in the U.K. [A remix of “The Desert Music” credited to freQ Nasty & B.L.I.M. appears as a bonus track on initial pressings of the Reich Remixed CD.] Now, “Tehilim,” was that on the block or not? I have a feeling it may not have been open for use.
Weidenbaum: The very first track on Reich Remixed, that opening sound, is going to be familiar to rock fans because it’s the sort of sound the Who borrowed from Terry Riley for some extent.
Reich: Justice here and justice there. The opening basically is imitating the pulsing section in “Music for 18 Musicians.” That’s what they’re doing. But the actual way they’re doing it is not having a bunch of people playing, so the effect of it is like it was in the original.
Weidenbaum: You mentioned Miles Davis — are you aware of this Miles Davis remix record, Panthalassa, by Bill Laswell?
Reich: You mean someone who remixed Miles? Because Miles is no longer with us.
Weidenbaum: Yeah, mixed up a lot of his early electric work, and then had DJs remix the remixes.
Reich: I think Miles would have loved that. He was always trying to keep up with whatever was going on. I haven’t heard it, but if you have an extra copy …
Weidenbaum: You had the box set come out — it is one way to announce your music to a new audience. A box sits on a shelf and says, it’s time to pay attention if you haven’t already.
Reich: The box is a wonderful thing, but you’ve got to bear in mind that the amount of boxes sold, compared to normal CDs, is a fraction, because it’s such an expensive item. It’s more for people who have been very into my music and want to have everything there is.
Weidenbaum: It’s well-priced, at less than 10 dollars per record.
Reich: Oh, yes it’s done very well, but compared with CDs, it’s a matter of fractions.
Weidenbaum: Can you explain more about your interest in DVD?
Reich: What I’m talking about is — did you see “The Cave”? What we’re doing now — “Three Tales” is now on one screen. “The Cave” was on five screens and to reduce it to a video is unintelligible gobbly gook, because each screen is postage-stamp size, and when there’s words on many of the screens you can’t read them and so forth. “Three Tales” is on one huge screen — or if it’s broadcast on TV, then on one small screen. And it is a video opera, and it is digital, and it is something to be seen and heard at the same time. Even more so than a conventional opera. I always felt that the shame that “The Cave” had to go out by itself — that is, without video — and it suffered for that. “Hindenburg” is just the first act of “Three Tales,” but it happened to be performed early so it will probably be recorded and go out with “Triple Quartet,” the piece for Kronos; then the normal way to record it was see the video and hear the music — because they’re absolutely glued together. DVD is a marvelously convenient phenomena that I think is bound for success here. At last something that everyone will have. Laser disc just never happened.
Weidenbaum: And VHS?
Reich: The VHS market is really a movie market, and even music videos didn’t do very well. Bob Hurwitz [executive at Nonesuch] was never very interested in doing this. It wouldn’t have mattered what it was because since “The Cave” isn’t viewable on one screen, unless Beryl Korot does a new version of the piece, which she might some time in the next millenium. But this piece is on a single screen and therefore is immediately capable of being broadcast, and that’s being discussed in Europe, and it’s immediately capable of being placed on whatever medium — VHS or DVD, or … and DVD is so much better, and it’s a product where you can play it just to hear the music. It could certainly go on VHS, but …
Weidenbaum: The DVD offers you more freedom.
Reich: I think this is more likely to get in the hands of the people who we want it to.
Weidenbaum: Another question about “Different Trains.” Could you talk about the process of hearing the human voice speak and your then writing music that comes out of its inherent rhythm and melody?
Reich: Well, what happened was, I had an idea — cut to 1987 and I had a commission from Betty Freeman to write a piece for the Kronos Quartet. The video artist Beryl Korot actually suggested to me: why don’t you use this sampling keyboard you’ve been talking about. And I said, “A ha,” and the light went on. So the first idea was, I’m going to use speaking voice and the instruments, instead of going back to “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out,” which were basically speech pieces which, because the voice was very pitched, if you repeated it over and over again and played it against itself it was almost as if it were music. Well, this time, let’s make it part of the musical ensemble, and let the music extend those vocal melodies, so that you really imbed a piece of speech in the musical background. But I didn’t know what the speech was, I had no idea what it was going to be. At first I thought it was going to be Béla BartÃ³k, because he’s a great favorite of mine and probably wrote the greatest string quartets since Beethoven. But for various reasons that didn’t work out. So, then I thought I was going to use the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and there were no recordings of him, and I thought, This is ridiculous, let’s think of something closer to home here. And for whatever reason these early train trips that happened to me as a kid popped into my head, and when I started thinking about them — I said, when was that; that was 1938, ’39, ’40, ’41. And I thought, what was going on then — well, what’s going on then is the beginning of World War II and the beginning of taking Jews to concentration camps. And I began thinking, if I had been in Brussels or in Dusseldorf instead of New York, I would have been going to Poland and I wouldn’t be writing any music now. That was basically the genesis of the piece. Then I had to get the recordings. The recordings of the first movement [in “Different Trains”] I made myself, of Virginia, my nurse, my governess when I was a child, who was with me on these trips going back and forth between my mother and my father, and I just recorded her on my Sony Walkman Pro, and the same thing with Lawrence Davis, who was a retired Pullman porter down in Washington, D.C., who I got to know. Then I had to go to Yale, there’s an archive of Holocaust survivors, and I listened to lots and lots of stuff, and copied some of it, which was — out of all of these amazing stories, some were told with a very musical voice. And then I brought this stuff home and every time I caught a sentence or a phrase that caught my ear because of what was said and the way it was said [he half sings the phrase “From Chicago”], I immediately recorded it into a sampling keyboard I was working with in those days. So, after, I dunno, a couple of weeks of doing this I had, like, a stack of floppy discs, and each time I had one of these phrases I would go to my music notebook and play it over and over again on the sampling keyboard, and play the piano against the sampler until I could ascertain what the notes were in the speaker.
Weidenbaum: And then you’d do variations on a given melodic fragment?
Reich: That’s putting it simply. Yes, basically. By the end of that time, I had all these fragments, I had to arrange them in an order that told a story or made sense, and also allowed me to make musical moves between keys and tempos. In addition, I also had recordings of actual train sounds — American trains sounds and European train sounds, which are quite different, especially when it comes to the whistles. And they again became part of the music — while the violas and cellos are doing the voices, the violins are actually doubling the sounds of the train whistles. So, it was a process of listening to the voices, writing down what they said, seeing what key that was in, seeing what harmonies would work with that, seeing what melodic material would work best against itself, and then seeing how each little voice could be turned into canons of itself and so on, as purely musical texture. And that’s how the piece grew.
Weidenbaum: Did you find that people tend to speak in a particular key?
Reich: No, they don’t. Sometimes, if they’re very glued into a subject matter, they stay put in something — like, when Mr. Davis was talking about “1939, 1940 and 1941” it was in the exact same tempo, I mean as measured by a computer — it was uncanny. Not the other things that he had to say. He was going down these dates and his remembrance of these periods, and he was worked up about it, and he was in kind of a bodily state, and that state was absolutely metronomically together. But that’s the exception, rather than the rule.
Weidenbaum: I was co-editing a magazine called Classical Pulse! at the time and K. Robert Schwarz did a story for us about that. But I have spoken with Scott Johnson about his I.F. Stone stuff, which really affected the way I heard voices. Did your work similarly affect you the way you yourself heard people speak?
Reich: Sometimes yes, but basically there are languages in the world, that we don’t speak, you and I, but in Africa for instance, where — they’re called tonal languages — if you don’t have the melody right, then you don’t have the meaning right. But even in English, American English, if someone was “no,” “No!,” or, “erm, no,” those are three different statements. We are used to living with what I would call “speech melody” hovering over everything we say — it’s happening right now, and it’s the emotional water [starts to laugh] in which our words swim.
Weidenbaum: According to his biographer, Samuel Johnson would always have these conversations in which he would discuss with people which word in a written sentence you should accent, or emphasize.
Reich: That’s very real, and contributes heavily, and always has, and in all periods of time and in all languages. The reason Dr. Johnson was doing that, Samuel Johnson was doing that, is because that’s lost on the printed page. The great writers supply it so you hear it in your mind’s ear, through the context or the accent of the character that they’ve established. There’s a lot of really great stuff like that in James Joyce, who does establish that.
Weidenbaum: Similarly, what’s cool about the contemporary realm of the electronic stuff is hearing the fax machine, the phone and everything sampled and recycled as music.
Reich: All this stuff is grist for the mill. The 20th century is loaded with people who wanted to bring in machine sounds, propellers, [Edgar] VarÃ¨se’s sirens, [John] Cage’s radio, and Pink Floyd’s the telephone and the cash register. That’s definitely, always been — Rossini has to conjure up storm music in “William Tell.” The glockenspiel was a big hit early on because composers always wanted to write for bells, and there was no practical way to do that. There’s been a desire to bring the world into the music, and we now have the sampling keyboard — a huge portal, it’s all there.
A much shorter version of the above conversation, about a quarter of the text, originally appeared in the March 5, 1999, issue of epulse, an online zine. The following feature article, derived from the interview, was originally published in Pulse! magazine, April 1999.Howie B, Coldcut, Andrea Parker and six other studio wizards make a formal case for electronic music’s debt to classical composer Steve Reich.
The British DJ duo Coldcut folds a lot of history into the opening seconds of Reich Remixed, the new compilation album for which Nonesuch Records commissioned nine highly established electronic acts to play “cut and paste” with the work of composer Steve Reich, a mainstay of the label. Coldcut’s track, which reworks Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” launches with a pulsing, flanging, wah-wah cascade of repetitive notes that, even in this rarefied context, immediately brings to mind nothing other than the Who’s classic-rock staple, “Baba O’Riley.”
Well, not nothing other than — see, the “Riley” in Who leader Pete Townshend’s song title was a tip of the hat, in its day, to composer Terry Riley, one of the originators of the classical school of contemporary composition familiarly known as minimalism. Minimalism, as in Philip Glass, John Adams, Riley and … Steve Reich, whose aficionados will recognize the Coldcut salvo as a cybernetic tweak on his familiar percussive motifs. Those hallucinogenic, waxing and waning cycles that Coldcut delights in revisiting were directly derived by Townshend from Riley’s scintillating late-’60s counterpoint, which was itself indebted to ritual Balinese music.
And Coldcut’s plain-stated gist makes an apt epigram for the entire Reich Remixed project: Pop and classical music have a long, intertwined history, from the fence-sitting Gershwins, to conductor Leonard Bernstein’s championing of the Beatles, to the rock operas of the Who and Ray Davies’ Kinks, to Brian Eno’s early work recording the compositions of Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman (Britain’s two foremost minimalists), to Philip Glass’ recent orchestrations of David Bowie’s classic ’70s albums Lodger and Low.
Asked for comment on the musicological interplay, Steve Reich says, simply, “Justice here and justice there,” before launching into an autobiographical sketch delineating his own place in a continuum that, upon reflection, appears to render the term “crossover” redundant.
“There’s a kind of poetic justice there,” he says, on the phone from his studio in Manhattan. “When I was 14, I used to go down to Birdland, the reigning jazz club of the 1950s and early ’60s, and see Miles Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, who really turned me on. And later I went to hear John Coltrane as often as I possibly could, both here in New York and when I was a student in San Francisco. Cut to 1973 and I’m in London with my ensemble, and at the end of the concert a man comes up and says, ‘Hello, I’m Brian Eno.’ And later, in 1976, David Bowie was in Berlin when we did the German premiere of ‘Music for 18,’ and he came again to the Bottom Line [in New York] and we played a music promotional concert for that record in 1978. That was the first return from the pop side toward me, after I had done what I’d done when I was a student.
“And the years pass,” he says, “and now here’s another generation, completely different and younger than Bowie and Eno, who are coming at it from an entirely different way. And, you know, it’s very nice to see that my music is of interest to those people and it can be useful. Because it’s very nice to be liked by the public in general, but it’s even nicer to find admirers in the music community, on either side of the tracks.”
If Works (1965 – 1995), the 10-CD commemorative boxed set that Nonesuch produced for Steve Reich in 1997, was the composer’s coming-out festivity, formally announcing his pre-eminence in 20th century music and displaying his collected oeuvre for consumption and discussion, then the Reich Remixed CD is the after-party. It gathers together nine of what Reich — who is a big self-conscious about not being entirely up to date on the trends in popular music since, say, John Coltrane — correctly describes as “another generation, completely different” of young music makers.
The collection ranges from the respectful (Howie B’s “Eight Lines” maintains the original’s off-kilter meter, to Reich’s pleasant surprise) through the thoroughly disassembled (DJ Spooky’s “City Life” seems to unfold the original and focus on its disparate elements one at a time; by far, it is the album’s least “danceable” cut, unless you happen to be choreographer Merce Cunningham).
“I don’t think they have anything to do with notation,” says Reich, attempting to extrapolate the working habits of his admirers, whose primary instruments are samplers and sequencers. “I think Howie B’s ‘Eight Lines’ is a very sophisticated job. I wrote the whole piece in 5/8, and he kept it that way. Rare to find DJs or anyone else in the pop world who works in a meter like 5.”
“It took me a long time to do it,” says Howie B, on the phone from Paris, where he is producing the next album by Les Negresses Vertes. “I concentrated totally on the arrangement, building up the different sections that he had originally recorded, and just using them in a different way — turn him on to different aspects. Most of my focus was on the arrangement, ’cause the beat doesn’t really change; the groove is the same; the only thing that changes is the actual musicality of it. I had to make that right, and it was a big challenge to me.”
Howie’s aspirations for his contribution may have been higher than the record company’s. He waited a long time for a copy of the original multitrack tapes to “Music for 18 Musicians.”
“They turned around and said, ‘Can’t you sample off the CD?’ and I went, ‘No, that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to touch on the sounds that were there.’ It’s not like doing a normal remix.”
Six more contributions are also adaptations of specific works: Coldcut’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” Andrea Parker’s “The Four Sections,” Mantronik’s “Drumming,” DJ Takemura’s “Proverb,” D-Note’s “Piano Phase” and Ken Ishii’s “Come Out.” And Tranquility Bass contributed a wide-ranging sample feast under the title “Megamix.”
Not all of Reich’s work was up for grabs. “Different Trains,” his lengthy, and technically accomplished, meditation on the Holocaust was off-limits, even though formally it is one of the most obvious points of intersection between his work and that of his young admirers. “Different Trains” is built to a great extent from samples of voices — his own governess, from childhood, as well as tapes of concentration-camp survivors — and of train sounds. “I think trains are, as the history of jazz proves,” says Reich, “a very musical machine. So, working with the trains alone … that isn’t the part of the piece I felt was inappropriate. It was the other things.”
Andrea Parker, who remixed “The Four Sections,” says she used to play “Different Trains” in her DJ sets. “Between Reload and Black Dog,” she says, on the phone from her studio in London, naming two musical acts. “I always will pick stuff with strings and piano,” she says of her attraction to “The Four Sections.” “I don’t write in 4/4, so it’s great for me. My song ‘Rocking Chair’ — people had trouble with it. Several made a remix, but it’s tough to get the gist, because it’s 3/4.”
This collection is far from a surprise; like many watershed musical events, it has its precedents and its own internal cultural logic. The recent context includes Aphex Twin’s remix of Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic and Philip Glass’ string arrangement for Aphex Twin’s song “Icct Hedral,” but the real source of inspiration is simply Reich’s own work. His m.o. was tailor-made for tribute by today’s electronic-pop musicians. His twin motivations have been regimented rhythmic percussion and the invocation of sampled material; if that isn’t a recipe for a techno hit, what is? His early compositions “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) are truly seminal works in sample-based composition, both building music from taped snippets of the human voice. One of the cornerstones of his lengthy “City Life” (1994) is a sample of a car screeching to a halt.
If anything, Reich Remixed is the culmination of electronica’s debt to his genius — again, to draw comparison with the Works box, very much a look back. His name has long been a common center-post to any highfalutin conversation among electronic musicians. Mention Reich to Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and he immediately begins singing the vocal motif from “Come Out.” Mention Reich to DJ David Holmes and his response is “Avant fuckin’ garde music,” meant entirely as a compliment.
And technically, Reich has already been prominently (if anonymously, and without his foreknowledge) tributed by electronica; several musicians have “quoted” his work in the recent past, most noticeably the Orb, whose 1990 single “Little Fluffy Clouds” sampled a lengthy swath of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint.” Today that song is featured prominently in a TV ad for the new Volkswagen Beetle. (Reich was unaware of the ad. “Well, I’ll inform Nonesuch of that,” he half-jokes.)
Clearly, Reich embraces sampling and musical appropriation. This is him describing a scene from Hindenburg, a “documentary video opera” collaboration with artist Beryl Korot that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year: “The third scene is called ‘Nibelungen Zeppelin,’ which is a stealing of the” — he sings the “Ride of the Valkyries” theme — “thing in Wagner. I’m literally taking the Wagner and turning it into a Steve Reich repetition-and-phase piece.” Elsewhere in the work, he says, “I have some slow-motion sound of the famous announcer who announces the crash of the Hindenburg, where I stretch his voice out to 12 times its original length; it really gets to what he’s talking about.”
Reich is hungry for more information on this new world of electronic pop music into which Remixed has opened a window, but he is also reflective of the electronic scene’s place in the music continuum. “The 20th century is loaded with people who wanted to bring in machine sounds,” he says. “VarÃ¨se’s sirens, Cage’s radio, and for Pink Floyd the telephone and the cash register; Rossini has to conjure up storm music in William Tell. The glockenspiel was a bit hit early on because composers always wanted to write for bells, and there was no practical way to do that. There’s been a desire to bring the world into the music, and we now have the sampling keyboard — a huge portal, it’s all there.”