Steve Reich met Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood in Poland in 2011. He was impressed by his classical work and when he got home, looked up Radiohead’s music online. He spent an hour on YouTube listening to songs by the Oxford band until he fixed on two – ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ – which he would use as material for ‘Radio Rewrite’, his latest album. Fellow composer Nico Muhly has described ‘Radiohead Rewrite’ as “a quintessential Reich work of the 21st century.” I spoke to the pioneering composer about Radiohead, Aphex Twin, his ‘Rite Of Spring’ moment and Glastonbury debut.
NME: When you listed to Radiohead for the first time what did you hear that inspired you to write ‘Radio Rewrite’?
Steve Reich: When I went to their website, I was struck first by the lack of theatre in the videos. It was just guys in t-shirts and headphones, playing their instruments. Their body language and their facial expressions were totally wrapped up in what they were doing. That’s my kind of guy. There’s no ridiculous computer graphics and people flying through the air doing who knows what.
Musically, who can say what attracts you to a particular song? A lot of people are attracted to ‘Everything In Its Right Place’. You could say, in a joking way, it’s three-chord rock but it’s not three chords anybody’s ever used before. It also has a little turn of melodic phrase – [sings] ‘everything’, ‘5-1-5’ – and I’m sure Thom wasn’t thinking about this but you could really say that phrase is everything. The cadence from G to C is in a sense the root of all western harmony; things get much more complicated starting out at that point. That interval is found in music around the world. I’m sure it was inadvertent and unconscious but it is very striking.
‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ has that beautiful harmonic base and I really liked the chords that are being used. Sometimes it is pretty obvious to hear in ‘Radio Rewrite’, if you’ve got an ear for that kind of thing, and other times it’s cloudy and harder to follow. It was very helpful because getting a harmonic structure for any piece of mine is the first thing I do, so to have it ready made, hey, thank you very much!
NME: The 1973 performance of your piece ‘Four Organs’ at New York’s Carnegie Hall caused a riot and parallels have long since been drawn between the performance and ‘The Rite Of Spring’ riot. What was it like?
Reich: ‘Four Organs’ had been played well before the 1973 concert, in New York and Boston. But Carnegie Hall was quite another thing. We started to play – it’s about a 20 minute piece – and you could begin to hear sounds coming in from the audience and they just got louder and louder. Then there was this huge outburst, this avalanche, and there were bravos too. I was white as a sheet, I just looked at the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and he looked at me and said “This is history!”
I think Michael knew this was going to happen because the programme was Liszt and Mozart and it was Sunday afternoon and it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription concert which attracts a very conservative crowd and it was back in 1973 so the dice were loaded.
I actually became a composer because I heard ‘The Rite of Spring’. It turned me on so powerfully when I was 14 that I said, “That’s the most wonderful thing in the world! I gotta do that too.”
NME: ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ was performed at Glastonbury festival this summer on the Pyramid Stage (alongside Jonny Greenwood). It was an incredible experience: everyone was dancing and raving and it was midday and it was raining and there were all these artists on the line-up for the rest of the few days who had obviously been influenced by your work.
Reich: I’m very, very glad to hear that. I strive for the ideal of music working in any context. If you have any kind of reaction even remotely like that it makes me feel very good, so thank you very much!
NME: You must have offers to work with people all the time. Would you ever work with someone like Bjork or Radiohead or anyone in the rockier world?
Reich: I go into the studio, I sweat it out. Sometimes it becomes easier, sometimes it becomes very difficult and no, I don’t think of working with people in that sense. I like to hear what Bryce (Dessner of The National) is up to, I like to hear what Nico (Muhly) is up to, I wanna hear what Jonny Greenwood’s up to, I wanna stay in touch with them. There’s a real energy there.
NME: You worked with Aphex Twin a few years ago. What was that like?
Reich: I’d heard of Aphex Twin but I’d never heard a note of his music until I met him in Poland in 2011. To me he was Richard James and I found him a very bright, interesting and intelligent man. We talked a lot about soundwaves and his rework of my piece ‘Pendulum Music’. He created a 14-microphone version of the work embedded in these mirrored balls and it was quite a thing. He was able to control the feedback of the microphones because of his great dexterity and wonderful ears. He was also able to tune the feedback and keep it melodically interesting, and that’s quite a feat. I had a good time working with him. We had ideas bouncing off each other. He was a very bright and a very serious guy. I was really impressed by him.
I went back and listened to two of his works after I met him and again was impressed by the variety of the work. Some of it sounded spooky, some of it not at all. He’s obviously a very strong individual. I can’t compare him to any composer and I don’t think of him in terms of anyone I’ve ever heard before. The little I’ve heard of DJs who remix my music, or just DJs in general, he is nothing like at all. He’s definitely his own man and an extremely strong musical personality.
This is a guy who is the real deal. He was really interesting and a pleasure to meet, and I hope that we have the chance to work together again.
NME: Do older influences like Bach and Stravinsky still inform your work or do you pull inspiration from the present day?
Reich: It depends on what I’m working on. I liked the idea with ‘Radio Rewrite’ of the bases of the piece already being pre-prepared. I usually figure out the harmonies and instruments first. There’s a piece you haven’t heard yet called Quartet which changes key every few bars. It’s really knotty and when I was done I thought ‘I just need something simpler, some relief.’ So I’m back to the white note C-C notes you find in ‘Music For 18 Musicians’.
NME: Would you ever write an autobiography?
Reich: No, none of your business. I make a big distinction between public and private. I don’t have any Facebook, I don’t have any Twitter I don’t have any LinkedIn and I never will. I’m really not part of that.