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.
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