Steve Reich Channels Radiohead

Slate's Culture Blog
March 6 2013 5:07 PM

Steve Reich Channels Radiohead

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Thom Yorke of Radiohead.

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images.

While in attendance at a Krakow festival of his music in 2010, the American composer Steve Reich happened to hear a young guitarist playing Reich’s 1987 piece “Electric Counterpoint.” Like many Reich works from that period, it asks for a musician (or group) to play against their own pre-recorded version of the same piece. (No matter how perfect the live replication is of the taped performance, there’s a bit of “phasing” between the two iterations, which creates the tension Reich is after.)

The musician that Reich heard in Krakow, both live and on tape, was Radiohead guitarist (and sometime classical composer) Jonny Greenwood. Their subsequent meeting was well timed, since, a year prior, Reich had written a piece, “2x5,” which he thought Radiohead might be able to play, before discovering the band members didn’t all read classical notation as easily as Greenwood. (The piece later came out on a Nonesuch CD, along with the Pulitzer-prize winning “Double Sextet,” in 2010. Both pieces are fantastic.)

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Newly inspired by his meeting with Greenwood, though, Reich composed a piece called “Radio Rewrite,” which had its world premiere on last night at a concert given by the London Sinfonietta under conductor Brad Lubman at the Royal Festival Hall in London. A 20-minute, five-movement work played without pause, it is derived in part from Reich’s appreciation for two different Radiohead songs: “Everything in Its Right Place,” from Kid A, and “Jigsaw Falling into Place” from In Rainbows.

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, the performance will remain free to hear online for the next few days. After that, you’ll have to wait for the studio version that’s sure to come out within the next year or two. The performance of “Radio Rewrite” begins at the five-minute mark of the broadcast, but you may also want to listen to the introduction, in which Reich sings a bit of “Everything,” as a way of articulating the progression that he jokingly notes “is everything in Western music.”

As for “Jigsaw,” there is one motif in the first, third, and final movements that Radiohead fans may particularly appreciate. Listen first to Thom Yorke’s way of singing the line “the beat goes round and round”; that will prepare you for hearing the riff at various points in “Radio Rewrite.”

Reich has taken many liberties, of course, as befits a composer and innovator of his stature. And there’s a rhythmic complexity to “Radio Rewrite” that goes beyond what you’ll hear on either original track. The premiere performance of the work may not be for the ages—there’s a bit of what you might call unintentional phasing at the beginning of the final movement—but it’s great to hear, fresh from Reich’s pen (he finished it last August), instead of on the record industry’s timetable.

And BBC Radio 3 also deserves a round of applause. As they did with a recent, hour-plus broadcast of a performance by one of Anthony Braxton’s new ensembles, they continue to demonstrate a public-spirited attentiveness to groundbreaking American artists not always evident on our own airwaves. (Later this season on PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center, Kristin Chenoweth and Josh Groban each get a full program. Sorry John Adams. Better luck with your fresh, rapturously received oratorio from the perspective of Mary Magdalene some other time!) Until we get it together on this side of the pond, be sure to keep tuning in to the Beeb for the latest developments in American art music.

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