Music is ultimately there to inspire, be borrowed, remixed, played and used by others (but not stolen, heaven forbid). Indeed, there are few more inspirational than minimalist pioneer Steve Reich: everyone from Brian Eno to post-rock’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor owe a debt to Reich, as do slightly later minimalists such as Michael Nyman and John Adams. Of course, Reich owes a debt to the pioneer of modern avant-garde music – if not the father of modern music – the great John Cage.
Radio Rewrite is something of a study on how music breeds music. Indeed, hearing someone playing your own music can be just as inspirational, as Reich found in 2010 after seeing Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood playing his 1987 composition, Electric Counterpoint. Electric Counterpoint is something of a challenge, with the guitarist pre-recording as many as 10 guitars and two bass parts before playing against them live.
Anyway, after Reich saw Greenwood, he decided to have a listen to Radiohead: “When I returned home I made it a point to go online… and two songs [Everything In Its Right Place from Kid A and Jigsaw Falling Into Place from In Rainbows] stuck in my head.”
From there, basis for Radio Rewrite came to be. However, Reich didn’t simply want to cover or remix those two tracks. Rather, it was a combination of being inspired by them and also borrowing something from them: “It was not my intention to make anything like ‘variations’ on these songs,” said Reich, “but rather to draw on their harmonies and sometimes melodic fragments and work them into my own piece.”
Before the Radio Rewrite tracks, it’s apt that the opening tracks are Greenwood performing Electric Counterpoint, since that’s where it all literally began as far as album’s concerned. Divided into three movements of fast/slow/fast, which is typical Reich, I. Fast is played precisely and meticulously although compared to the original released in 1989, there’s an occasional calypso sound coupled with spiky, well-honed sharpness that comes with practise and continued playing (after all, Greenwood has been touring this for a while). In fact, what strikes you is where you’ve heard Electric Counterpoint in recent albums: if you didn’t know, you’d think you were listening to Field Music, perhaps.
III. Fast seems familiar as well – probably all those nights at All Tomorrow’s Parties watching some math-rock band. Here, though, Greenwood brings a swagger to it, in turn almost making it transcend the mechanical nature of minimalist music. There’s some warmth here, a presence beyond repetition and shifting time signatures.
Piano Counterpoint, performed by Vicky Chow from post-minimalist classical ensemble Bang on a Can All Stars, is a reworked transcript of Reich’s Six Pianos from 1973 by the Grammy-nominated classical pianist Vincent Corver. Again, like Greenwood, Chow has been playing this live as well and, again, it involved some pre-recording, this time of four of the piano parts and moving the whole piece up an octave to allow Chow to play the other two parts.
To quote Reich, this gives “the piece an increased sparkle and intensity”, adding that “this arrangement can be heard as improving on the original”. It’s hard to disagree with Reich, with its higher tempo lending a fresher feel to the original version. Still, that’s the benefit of modern technology, allowing one person to do the job of six and make it polished. But is that necessarily a good thing? It somewhat takes away the skill and thrill of having six individual pianists playing in time together.
The first movement of Radio Rewrite, I. Fast – again, the Reich motif in place – very much borrows from Jigsaw Falling Into Place, principally the opening moments. Here, Reich takes Radiohead from the arena to Wigmore Hall; there’s a real chamber music sense to it, which makes it less intense and raw but arguably more intimate. II. Slow borrows from Everything In Its Right Place but brings more sinister tone through the deep, drawling strings and sparse piano, while III. Fast goes back to Jigsaw again, with sections from the final minute or so clearly audible and continuing the theme set during I. Fast.
The final two movements feel much more like individual Reich pieces the initial three movements, although now your mind is set to consider Radiohead you sometimes can’t help but make comparisons. IV. Slow, with its infrequent flashes of piano, somewhat links back to Pyramid Song, although the use of flute and woodwind give it a rather pleasant, upbeat perspective that is somewhat unminimalist.
Album and movement closer V. Fast is more Radioheadesque in its emotion through the heavy and deep piano and high-pitched strings, coupled with the unsurprisingly quicker pace. It’s here in particular that Reich succeeds in capturing the mood and essence of Radiohead and fulfilling what he set out to achieve. It rounds off what is an intriguing album that considers fundamental questions about how music is inspired, interpreted and created.