Hear Steve Reich’s Minimalist Compositions in a 28-Hour Playlist: A Journey Through His Influential Recordings

If you’re of a cer­tain vin­tage, you may at var­i­ous times have grooved to The Orb’s chill-out clas­sic “Lit­tle Fluffy Clouds,” the spaced-out sound­scapes of DJ Spooky, the avant-psych of Son­ic Youth, the locked grooves of Tor­toise, the bub­bling fugues of Björk, or the omi­nous rum­blings of postrock god­fa­thers God­speed You! Black Emper­or. And if so, you very like­ly know at least some of the work of min­i­mal­ist com­pos­er Steve Reich, which these artists either sam­pled or drew on for musi­cal inspi­ra­tion. Like many of his avant-garde col­leagues, Reich has “influ­enced gen­er­a­tions of pop, jazz and clas­si­cal musi­cians over the last half-cen­tu­ry,” writes Tom Ser­vice at The Guardian.

While many artists men­tion min­i­mal­ists like Ter­ry Riley, Philip Glass, or John Cage as sem­i­nal influ­ences, few of those com­posers have been as direct­ly woven into the fab­ric of mod­ern music through col­lab­o­ra­tion, sam­pling, and remix­ing as Reich. Ser­vice goes so far as to spec­u­late, “if you were to sub­tract Steve Reich from the total sum of today’s musi­cal cul­ture, I think you’d notice more of a dif­fer­ence than if you took away any oth­er sin­gle fig­ure.” That’s debatable—Reich’s influ­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture is oblique. But it does describe the degree to which his musi­cal inno­va­tions have per­me­at­ed exper­i­men­tal, indie, and elec­tron­ic music and “giv­en the con­tem­po­rary musi­cal world a license to groove” while still get­ting plen­ty heady and push­ing con­cep­tu­al bound­aries.

Reich’s use of phas­ing effects, drone notes, polyrhyth­mic pat­terns, and “process music” lend each of his com­po­si­tions a trance-like atmos­phere that might be most famil­iar from his 1976 piece “Music for 18 Musi­cians” (top). Here, the “per­cus­sion­ists, string play­ers, clar­inetists, singers and pianists” cre­ate “an ever-chang­ing, kalei­do­scop­ic sound­world” that expands and aug­ments all of Reich’s pre­vi­ous tech­niques for sculpt­ing in time. If the piece sounds famil­iar, though you’ve nev­er heard it before, that’s because of the thor­ough incor­po­ra­tion of Reich into so much mod­ern music, includ­ing per­haps sev­er­al dozen sounda­like film scores and Bri­an Eno’s pio­neer­ing first man­i­fes­ta­tions of what came to be called ambi­ent music.

Reich con­ceived of music as a “per­cep­ti­ble process,” writ­ing in 1968, “I want to be able to hear the process hap­pen­ing through­out the sound­ing music… a musi­cal process should hap­pen extreme­ly grad­u­al­ly.” Indeed, stu­dents of his music have found ways to take apart and dupli­cate those process­es in their own work, some­thing Reich, who has worked with remix artists and Radio­head, appre­ci­ates. (Just above, see Radio­head­’s John­ny Green­wood per­form a solo ver­sion of Reich’s Elec­tric Coun­ter­point in 2011.) Like many of the artists he appre­ci­ates and inspires, much of Reich’s work deals direct­ly with sociopo­lit­i­cal themes, as Ser­vice notes, includ­ing “the Holo­caust, Mid­dle East­ern his­to­ry and pol­i­tics, and con­tem­po­rary con­flict” like the behead­ing of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Daniel Pearl.

In the Spo­ti­fy playlist fur­ther up, you’ll find a broad sam­pling of per­for­mances of Reich’s less­er-known ear­ly work—like the 1965 tape loop piece “It’s Gonna Rain”—and more famous com­po­si­tions like The Cave, Dif­fer­ent Trains, Music for 18 Musi­cians, Elec­tric Coun­ter­point, Drum­ming, Clap­ping Music, and much more. Just as we can hear the musi­cal process­es devel­op­ing with­in each com­po­si­tion, we can hear the process of Reich’s devel­op­ment over the course of his career as he incor­po­rates influ­ences from Bach to Coltrane to the songs of Kid A. As a con­se­quence of both his groovi­ness and his appeal to mod­ernists of every decade, Reich, writes Ivan Hewett at The Tele­graph, is “both aching­ly hip and a grand old man”—and a seem­ing­ly end­less source of musi­cal inspi­ra­tion since the 1960s.

If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here. Below, you can see Reich talk­ing about his most influ­en­tial works in a CBC inter­view record­ed ear­li­er this year.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

Björk Presents Ground­break­ing Exper­i­men­tal Musi­cians on the BBC’s Mod­ern Min­i­mal­ists (1997)

The Avant-Garde Project: An Archive of Music by 200 Cut­ting-Edge Com­posers, Includ­ing Stravin­sky, Schoen­berg, Cage & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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