PRINT March 1999


Steve Reich

NO FORM OF CLASSICAL MUSIC has exerted so enduring and pervasive an influence on pop culture as minimalism. Kellogg’s commercials and John Carpenter movie sound tracks, New Age schlock and abstract hip-hop all overtly cop such minimalist trademarks as repetitive keyboard vamps and hallucinatory vocal cut-ups. Indeed, from its inception in the early ’60s, musical minimalism actively blurred the boundaries between “high” and “mass” art, “classical” and “popular” music. Breaking with the confines of academic serialism and the decorum of the concert hall, the minimalists forged connections with the icons of art pop and found a new fan base in rock clubs. The raspy drones of La Monte Young’s “Eternal Music” provided the backdrop for the Velvet Underground’s late-’60s psychedelia. In the ’70s and ’80s, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and David Byrne developed a fascination with the music of Philip Glass that eventually led to direct collaborations. Now, at the fin de millénium, the cultural ties between minimalist composers and popular music have never been stronger, thanks largely to the influence of techno and its offshoots.

Despite the tag (never favored by its practitioners), “minimalism” contains a wealth of resources, allowing each generation to interpret it differently. Early minimalism allied itself with the earthy discourse of ’60s counterculture and drew on the traditional music of India, Indonesia, and West Africa; today, minimalism sounds at home among the denizens of the datascape attuned to the bun and crackle of cybernetic paraphernalia. In both cases, the essential impulse is the same. At once pre- and postmodern, minimalism seeks to replace the teleology of harmonic development with a music of ec-static repetition. Steve Reich, for example, was certainly inspired by Balinese gamelan and Ghanaian drumming; but, long before dub and hiphop, he also made pioneering use of tape effects and studio manipulations. Though composed for marimbas and bongos instead of samplers and sequencers, the kind of layered, modular repetition fostered by Reich and Glass is the stuff of which techno is made.

In fact, chunks of Reich and Glass have been sampled or quoted by UNKLE, μ-ziq, The Orb Underworld, and others. But the exchange has been reciprocal. Club culture has created new audiences for minimalism and can claim responsibility not only for the renewed interest in Glass, Reich, Young, and Terry Riley but for jump-starting the careers of such neglected composers as Tony Conrad and Arnold Dreyblatt. Recently, Glass and Reich have returned the favor. In 1997, the former collaborated on a track with techno-ambient auteur Aphex Twin; and, on the heels of its ten-CD Reich retrospective, Works: 1965–95, the Nonesuch label has just released a set of officially commissioned electronic mutations, Reich Remixed.

Not exactly cutting edge, the contributors are the usual suspects in remix projects such as this. Three of the best known, Coldcut, Howie B., and Ken Ishii, interpret the assignment in an obvious and uninspired way, covering Reich’s interlocking pianos and marimbas with a synthetic wash propped up by hackneyed beats. These tracks, like that of Tranquility Bass, come off as cloyingly “lite,” exacerbating a tendency already present in Reich’s music. But other tracks are edgier, offering more oblique renderings of their source material. Mantronik takes Reich’s longest and funkiest piece, “Drumming” (1987), and gives it an old-school electro workout. Full of clipped beats and vocodered shouts, Mantronik imagines Reich’s music blasting from a break dancer’s boom box circa 1982. Drum ‘n’ bass DJ Andrea Parker turns “The Four Sections” (1987) into an ominous skein of digital stutters overlayed by a hammered piano phrase and a haunting snippet of strings. Exploring the intersection of different rhythmic tempos much in the manner of Reich himself, D*Note sets the rapidly cycling arpeggios of the 1967 “Piano Phase” to a jittery high hat and a trudging breakbeat.

Two tracks stand out from the bunch, both for their sonic richness and thoughtful reconfigurations of the original pieces. A few chanted syllables from Reich’s recent “Proverb” form the basis for Nobukazu Takemura’s angelic remix. Digitally dicing, stretching, and contracting the utterance, Takemura recalls Reich’s most astonishing and daring piece, “Come Out” (1966), which submitted a slice of documentary testimony to phasing and repetition, gradually emptying it of meaning while foregrounding its sonic substance. DJ Spooky chooses a likely object, Reich’s 1995 “City Life,” and gives it a Fourth World improv arrangement wprthy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The track transforms a chamber orchestra into a warped duet for jazz bass and mbira and transplants Reich’s New York to a location somewhere between Accra and Calcutta.

Don’t expect this collection to spark any revelations among club kids—minimalism is already too fully absorbed into DJ culture for that. But it is significant from the other end, and might help to convince the minimalists’ classical colleagues that they have something to learn from the professors of breakbeat science and remixology.

Christoph Cox writes frequently on music.