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Steve Reich: Electronic Music Pioneer

As a fan of electronic music, the first time hearing Steve Reich was certainly something of a revelation. It was as if I had found that missing code or text that made everything sort of fall in to place, at least in regards to my fondness for electronic music in its various forms.

Kraftwerk are rightly lauded as the predecessors and pioneers of what we now refer to as electronic or “dance” (I hate this stupid fucking title so I’ll not use it after this) music. However, it’s composers like Steve Reich that are often overlooked in this conversation, at least by a large number of electronic obsessed punters.

This is not to say that musicians that make electronica themselves ignore them. Dan Snaith of Caribou fame included Music for 18 Musicians by Reich as one of his favourite pieces of music of all time and Orbital sampled ‘Electric Counterpoint’ in their seminal track ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’.

Aphex Twin created an entire live piece based on Reich’s “process music” concept and a record was released in 1999 called Reich Remixed featuring a number of electronic artists reworking Reich compositions.

The influence amongst producers and musicians is obvious, but what may be less clear is why this mid to late 20th century minimalist composer had such a profound effect on these artists and electronic and rave music generally.

Tape Loops as Primitive Sampling and the Creation of New Sonic Landscapes

If there is any one method that was absolutely vital to the explosion of electronic and rave music in the 1980s, it was the use of sampling and looping passages of music or speech from a source not originally created by the producer to form part (or in some cases all) of a composition.

This is what Steve Reich was doing in the mid 1960s, albeit in a much different way than would come 20 years later. Reich didn’t have the luxury of a sampler at his fingertips after all (though he would utilise samplers later in his career on pieces like Different Trains).

Reich’s seminal compositions ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (1965) and ‘Come Out’ (1966) reveal just how ahead of his time Reich was as a composer. Whilst not the first person to use tape loops (see musique concreteKarlheinz Stockhausen etc.), Reich was certainly the first to use them in the way that he did.

By looping two identical recordings over the top of each other and manipulating them, Reich was able to create rhythm and melody out of the most basic source material; recordings of human speech. As the loops continue to play and build on top of each other, new sonic landscapes are created as they move in and out of phase with one another. Reich referred to this as “phasing” and it represents the beginning of what is now generally referred to as ambient music. Reich explains the genesis of ‘Its Gonna Rain’ in this short video:

It can’t be overstated just how influential this style of composition was to the development of electronic and rave music. Brian Eno recognised Reich’s tape loops pieces for what they were and realised their importance quite early on.

Perhaps the best current exemplar of this style is The Field whose entire output is based on the exact same process that Reich was using in the mid-1960s. ‘From Here We Go Sublime’, the closing track from the album of the same name shows The Field in full on Reich mode. Utilising the Flamingos immortal ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, the piece is drenched in reverb and cut into multiple phrases that echo and collide into one another to create an entirely new piece of music. It’s a beautifully modern update on what Reich had been doing 40 years prior.

The Pulse: Non-Stop Motion

Steve Reich started his career as a percussionist and used rhythmic elements as the central component of many of his early compositions (see Drumming which again utilises his ‘Phase’ concept).

Not content with the learnings he’d made whilst studying in New York at Julliard, Reich spent a combined four years living in Ghana and Bali after becoming enamoured with the music he heard from those regions. This music was entirely driven by percussion and Reich brought those elements back to the US to create perhaps his most stunning composition.

Music for 18 Musicians (originally performed in 1976, released in 1978) is Reich working at the height of his powers and, apart from DrummingSix Marimbas and Clapping Music, perhaps best shows the emphasis he places on percussion and percussive elements in his music.

The 50 minute long piece is driven by ‘The Pulse’, that percussive element that continues from the first chord right to the last. Different sections propel the Pulse; marimbas, pianos, voice and xylophone. This ensures that there is a tight rhythm kept throughout, enabling each of the melodic elements to work within the context of that constant driving rhythmic force.

If there is any unifying element that defines so much electronic music, it is that feeling of non-stop motion. The stereotype of electronic music is that it is always driven by the ‘oon tss, oon tss’ (sound it out) classic house rhythm. This view is actually true of a lot of electronic music, and it doesn’t matter the rhythmic pattern in place, whether it’s house, hardcore, dubstep, jungle or any other genre you might care to mention.

The one unifying factor behind it all is the weight that percussive rhythmic elements play in the construction, driving force and power of the music. Much of this can be directly traced to Reich’s pioneering composition in the classical world, as is evidenced by the electronic producers mentioned at the start of the piece.

Steve Reich sits right at the top of the pile of truly innovative and great 20th century musicians; he changed the landscape of modern music after all (alongside his fellow minimalists like Philip Glass and Terry Riley). In doing so, he influenced and unknowingly helped to create a new musical movement. His experiments with primitive sampling methods ushered in new ways of thinking about sound and created new sonic landscapes. The Pulse formed the backbone of nearly all electronic music that came after it. Reich is a pioneer in near every sense of the word.

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