Take a hula hoop and give it a good, hard twirl on the floor. Suddenly, an inanimate object is whirring with life: a flat empty circle is transformed into a fulsome 3-D sphere, its rotation producing complex, heretofore unseen visual patterns. And even as the hoop starts to wobble and its axis shifts, it retains its repetitive rhythm until coming to a dead stop. That’s what Steve Reich does with music – he spins something modest into something magical. Over the course of a storied five-decade career, the New York-bred composer has effectively made classical practical.
Sure, Reich’s music is regularly performed by ensembles in soft-seater concert halls around the world, and it’s earned him Grammys, Pulitzer Prizes and honorary doctorate degrees along the way. But Reich’s sensibilities are more in tune with the streets than elites – he uses easily perceptible processes to create increasingly complex compositions that hum, pulsate and pant in the clamorous rhythm of everyday urbanity. And just as his signature pieces are built upon repeated, overlapping motifs that gradually sync up, slip out and coalesce once again, they’ve also prefigured uncanny convergences with key pop-cultural movements over the years.
Even his earliest, most primitive works contain multitudes, and are staggering in their prescience. It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) use the most basic instrument of all – the human voice – to prove his most omniscient principle: that hearing the same sound over and over again allows you to hear something completely different in it every time. Each piece begins with an audio recording of a speech – the apocalyptic oration of a Pentecoastal preacher in the former, and the defiant words of Daniel Hamm, a wrongly accused member of the Harlem Six, in the latter. Using two tape recorders, Reich isolates a specific phrase in each (encapsulated in their titles), looping and layering the words until they no longer represent language, but beats in a rhythm. Fifty years on, the pieces have lost none of their mesmerizing power, partly because they foretold some of the major breakthroughs in late-20th century popular music: the heady, transcendental power of psychedelic rock; the mutating echo effects of dub reggae; the droning intensity of post-punk; the mechanized motion of industrial music; the sample-and-scratch ethos of hip-hop; the hypnotic pulse of techno. Furthermore, the politicalized undercurrent of Come Out – with its oblique indictment of police brutality – provided ’60s radicals with an early indication that protest music need not be the sole province of earnest folkies with peace stickers slapped on their guitars.
In essence, Reich’s evolution has mirrored the layered quality of those early tape-based works. Through the late ’60s and early ’70s, he applied their fundamental philosophy to classical instrumentation (1967’s Piano Phase and Violin Phase; 1971’s Drumming; 1973’s Six Pianos), and then used those compositions as the basis for the grandiose ensemble pieces he produced from the mid-’70s onward. But as Reich’s music turned more sophisticated, it also became more personal and human, with his ’80s masterworks taking thematic cues from his own life and family history. And increasingly, his influence spread far beyond the classical world – from the swelling orchestrations of Spiritualized and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, to the marimba odysseys of Tortoise, to the intertwined guitar lines of Sonic Youth, to the hip-hop abstractions of DJ Spooky and Coldcut, Reich became every bit a towering presence in ’90s alternative music as Kurt Cobain. And for proof of his ongoing crossover appeal, look no further than the biggest Canadian indie-rock group of the 21st century, Arcade Fire, whose cabal of classically trained string players – Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry, and Owen Pallett – bring a Reichian sensibility both to the band’s sky-scraping anthems and their own outré solo endeavours.
Reich’s exploratory ethos remains as active as ever; among his recent projects is 2014’s Radio Rewrite, featuring his orchestral twist on various Radiohead songs. But whenever a milestone birthday approaches, he allows himself a moment to take stock of his legacy. For his 70th birthday, in 2006, he released a career-spanning five-disc box set, Phases, on his long-time label Nonesuch Records. This year, for his 80th, he’s opting for a more compact retrospective treatment. On April 14, Reich teams up with acclaimed Toronto contemporary-music presenter Soundstreams for a special Massey Hall performance of three signature (but decidedly different) compositions, each of which represents a significant signpost in his prolific career. The self-explanatory Clapping Music (1972) is Reich at his most playful and participatory, a skin-slapping pocket symphony that’s spawned DIY YouTube animations and, as of last year, an interactive smartphone app. The mammoth, 14-part Music for 18 Musicians (1976) was Reich’s first large ensemble piece, a trance-inducing triumph of maximal minimalism that consolidated and expanded upon his prior usage of looping, phasing, and African rhythms. Tehilim (1981), by contrast, marked a break from the elliptic quality of his work up to that point, foregrounding female voice and – through its melodic extrapolations of four Psalms – Reich’s Jewish roots (an interest that would culminate in 1988’s Grammy-winning, Holocaust-themed opus Different Trains).
But even at its most elaborate and conceptual, Reich’s music retains an uncommon accessibility. Though forever associated with fellow boundary-pushing ’60s avant-gardists like Philip Glass, Lamonte Young, and Terry Riley, he’s always bristled at being labelled “experimental.” As he explained in a 2006 interview with Pitchfork, "I do my experiments at home, and you don't hear ‘em.” The ultimate effect of his work is not to overwhelm you with its intricacy, but engage you through its intimacy – it’s music that invites you in for a close-up view of its machinations, and shows you how the simplest ideas can yield extraordinary results. After all, as Reich proved with Clapping Music some 44 years ago, sometimes all the inspiration you need is right there in the palm of your hands.
Stuart Berman is a contributor to Pitchfork, a producer at CBC Radio’s q, author of books on Broken Social Scene and Danko Jones, and is a member of the “glacial garage” rock band Two Koreas.