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At 75, Seminal US Composer Still Inspires

US composer Steve Reich, who turns 75 this year, continues to inspire a new generation of musicians.
US composer Steve Reich, who turns 75 this year, continues to inspire a new generation of musicians.

Steve Reich's unique, minimalist style celebrated

American composer Steve Reich turned 75 this year. The so-called “minimalist” credits jazz, African drumming and Balinese gamelan as inspirations.

His music - from experimental tape loops to the Pulitzer prize-winning “Double Sextet” - has, in turn, inspired other composers.

In the early 1960s, when Reich was at the beginning of his career, the contemporary classical music scene was dominated by atonal music.

"It fell to my generation to basically say, 'Basta. Enough.' to music which you could not tap your foot to," Reich says, "to music to which you could not possibly walk out humming anything, and music which had no harmonic center."

Reich was studying composition at Mills College in California, a hotbed of avant-garde creativity. Experimenting with lengths of audio tape, he spliced them together to form a loop and put them on a tape player so they would continuously run over and over again.

Reich went to San Francisco’s Union Square and recorded a charismatic street preacher, whose sermon hovered between speech and song.

"As he said, 'It’s gonna rain,' a pigeon took off," Reich says. "So you had a pigeon drummer and this incredible voice and sort of low traffic in the background. Well, I thought, 'Oh, wouldn’t it be great if it were two loops, and they were going, ‘it’s gonna, it’s gonna, it’s gonna rain rain rain rain,’ and the pigeon would just be drumming away.”

According to Tim Page, professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California, Reich's work was the opposite of what was going on at the time.

"It was very repetitive, it was very quote-unquote tonal. And it had a very steady pulse," Page says. "So it was pretty much setting pretty much all the traditional modernisms that were in fashion in the 70s on their head. For a lot of us, hearing his music was literally a life-changer."

One of those whose life was changed after hearing compositions by Reich was fellow composer David Lang. He first heard "Its Gonna Rain" on an album he came across at the record store where he worked.

"I had never been prepared to hear anything like this," Lang recalls. "It didn’t have a melody; it didn’t have harmony - at least the way I had been prepared to understand it. It didn’t have a way of progressing. And I remember thinking, 'This is the coolest thing I ever heard in my life.' I was 17 years old."

Reich became influential, and not just for classical musicians. Rockers like Brian Eno and David Bowie, as well as hip-hop artists, all owe something to him.

Younger rock musicians - like guitarist Bryce Dessner with the band, The National - are also interested in Reich's music. "For a lot of musicians like myself, I think Steve Reich’s appeal is quite broad, and, in a way, just to open this big space for musicians to move in."

Dessner is also a classical guitarist and composer. He says The National enjoys a daily connection to Reich’s music. Drummer Brian Devendorf is obsessed with the composition “Clapping Music.”

"He plays it every night before the show. He'll play it for an hour to warm up, and it’s kind of fun. It's like this constant pattern looping through our heads before we go out on stage, is Steve Reich’s "Clapping Music" as played by Brian."

But it’s not just Reich’s past that intrigues fans.

"One of the things that’s really sort of extraordinary about Steve Reich is that he’s 75 and yet he’s still somebody to whom everybody looks with great interest to see what he’ll do next," says Page. "And that’s a rarity."

Reich himself is still looking forward, even after celebrating his 75th birthday.

"That young musicians around the world want to and actually do play my music very well and to go around and hear that, in reality, is the best present a composer could ask for."

Concerts and festivals celebrating the composer's 75th birthday continue through the year in North America, Europe and Australia.