Arts: It's only Reich'n'roll but I like it

DJs have been borrowing bits of Steve Reich for years. Now it's official: the barriers between `serious' music and mass culture have come down. By Robert Worby
The biggest-selling avant-garde artefact of all time must be the track "Revolution 9" from the Beatles' White Album. Within weeks of its release, hundreds of millions of people had heard it. The piece, composed from fragments of spliced audiotape, was the logical outcome of the experimental work in pop recording studios during the Sixties, and it presented to the mass market the idea of composing with tape recorders, utilising all kinds of sounds and not just notes.

The idea that any sound could be used to make music was not new. Pierre Schaeffer did it in Paris in 1948 and called it "musique concrete". He used wax discs to record everyday sounds, and manipulated them with turntables and a mixer - very similar to DJs of today.

Tape wasn't readily available until later and, when it did come along, it made things a lot easier: cut, splice, hack, chop. One second of life became a length of tape; time and space were fused into a modernist paradigm. The American composer John Cage commented: "One second, which we had always thought was a relatively short space of time, became 15 inches. It became something quite long that could be cut up."

Stockhausen, Berio and just about every composer since the Second World War had a go at hacking tape, producing works that were at the so-called "classical" end of the musical spectrum. Meanwhile, as the 1960s unfolded, groups like the Beatles and their producer George Martin were also using tape recorders, not just to record their songs but to create fantastic new sound worlds. Backwards guitar solos and strange aural landscapes became the norm.

The two cultures have continued in parallel, each acknowledging the other's existence, perhaps with a little hostility. The "classical" composers are labelled by the pop world as academic, stuffy and pretentious while the "pop" composers are taken seriously by media and cultural studies departments but not at all by the music departments. Now, more than 30 years after "Revolution 9", there are indications that the two cultures might be negotiating a merger.

Sonic Concrete was a recent three-day event at London's ICA hosted by Sonic Arts Network, the organisation that promotes the cutting edge of music technology. DJs and "classical" composers rubbed shoulders in a club-like atmosphere reminiscent of a 1960s happening. Spring Heel Jack and Scanner bombarded the room with a nine-turntable "history of 20th- century music", simultaneously spinning several recordings of Stravinsky, Messiaen and other major composers to produce a dense cacophony far outweighing anything an orchestra might produce.

Jonty Harrison, at the controls of the Beast multi-speaker sound system, managed to silence the perpetual audience chatter with Denis Smalley's "Pentes", a seminal electro-acoustic work made a quarter of a century ago. Pieces like this are usually performed in the hushed reverence of the concert hall; here the elegant sonic gestures sliced through a motionless dancefloor, enthralling attendant clubbers.

The ICA event was just a little too early for the new Steve Reich album released last week. Remixed is a collection of his classic pieces reworked by "the most innovative remixers and producers of the Nineties". Reich is definitely from the world of "classical" contemporary music; he was trained to write string quartets and symphonies but in the mid-Sixties he, too, was making music with tape recorders. By running identical tape loops simultaneously on two tape machines he discovered his famous "phasing" technique where one endlessly repeating musical figure slides ahead of another, producing fabulous complexity from relatively simple material.

Dissatisfied with the idea of making tape pieces for the rest of his life, he transferred his technique to conventional instruments and became one of the founders of minimal music. This sound world has similarities with some pop dance music and, as far back as the late Eighties, DJs were quick to sample snatches of Reich's work. He claims to have had little to do with this current album, insisting that the idea came from a group of proactive record company executives.

"I could have said `no', but I said `yes'. And gradually, through people in London, New York and Japan, tapes began to arrive from DJs. We sifted through material by committee and picked the best."

Reich is pleased that his music is useful to a new generation and sees this as a kind of poetic justice. He was influenced by the pop music of his time - which for him was the jazz of John Coltrane - and now pop music is influenced by minimalism.

Apparently, this two-way flow between popular and serious music was commonplace until just before the First World War, when along came Arnold Schoenberg, the ring-master of atonality - that branch of music that disposed of all things recognisably melodic.

Reich says: "When I went to music school in the Fifties, there was a wall between serious music and the street; a wall that, I would tend to say, had been erected by Schoenberg and his followers; a wall that did not exist prior to that time."

Reich maintains that his generation has taken down this wall and restored the possibilities of exchange between the two worlds. Nonetheless, there is no doubt where he is coming from. "Whenever I hear that a pop musician is writing a rock opera or an orchestral piece, I run for the hills," he says. He maintains that musical training and working with notes and notation is important. So what was he doing composing with tape recorders in 1965 and, more recently, using samplers with everyday sounds?

"Right now there's a lot of interest among musicians in bringing things from the world into their music. But it's also an old thing: the storm in Rossini's William Tell; the cannon in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture; and even the introduction of the glockenspiel was because composers wanted to use bells."

Reich is looking for commonplace sound that can be transcribed into musical notation and played like a conventional instrument; unlike the "musique concrete" brigade, he's still composing with notes rather than sound. DJs use any sonic material they feel is appropriate and those involved in the Remix project seem very enthusiastic about their given source.

Johnathan More from Coldcut said that they had keyed into a computer every note from the written score of Music for Eighteen Musicians and then distilled what would have been 40 minutes of music down to six, adding techno percussion and bass in the process.

It must have been a mammoth task, but when asked what remixing actually added to the original he wasn't sure, apart from a transformation into a familiar, popular, dance-floor sound.

The Coldcut approach produces an arrangement of the music rather than a new piece. Other DJs have sampled whole chunks and made them their own, exactly as The Orb did in the late 1980s, turning a section of "Electric Counterpoint" into the hook line of "Little Fluffy Clouds".

Whatever the methodology, the outcome for Reich's music seems fudged, and this particular merger of pop and classical seems uneasy; it's not really his music, it doesn't really sound like his, but his name appears on the album sleeve. He seems to be attracted to tracks that maintain something of the original.

"I would particularly like to give a credit to Howie B because he took "8 Lines" and kept it in 5/8 and then in 10/8, which is really amazing. So if you listen to it again, just start counting it out."

These irregular metres might well cause some minor discomfort on the dancefloor. Despite his formal training, Reich's early pieces sounded like nothing ever heard before: they were extreme, even dangerous, and on the rare occasions that his music was played on the radio, the switchboards were jammed with complaints. Now he is studied in university music departments the world over. His flirtation with popular music hasn't really produced anything new or engaging; Remixed sounds like regular pop dance music.

Reich's work doesn't need techno processing because his music has it already. Simply shifting it to the dancefloor has resulted in nothing that sounds as extraordinary and enthralling as "Revolution 9" did to the pop world more than 30 years ago.

`Reich: Remixed' is on Nonsuch Records. Sonic Arts Network can be found at http://www.sonicarts