He's got the city taped

Sampling and computer sequencing may be massive on the dancefloors, but Steve Reich, 59-year-old New Yorker and classical composer, remains the undisputed father of it all. By John Potter
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After religious strife, urban conflict: in 1993, Steve Reich's major piece of "documentary music video theatre", The Cave,explored the shared heritage of Jews and Muslims; his recently completed City Life - premiered this March in Metz and to be performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow - draws on the sounds of the composer's native New York, including street speech, and integrates them into a substantial concert work for 17 players.

For a composer so adept at the abstract play of pitches and rhythms, Reich can be surprisingly programmatic in his choice of materials. Yet his early, pre-minimalist tape music was much concerned with everyday sounds, as well as vernacular American speech: crowd noises from an LP called The Greatest Moments in Sports in his score for Robert Nelson's film Plastic Haircut; conversations taped in the taxi cab he drove for a living, plus, as the composer puts it, "slamming doors, meters being thrown, grunts and groans, people hitting their head", in Livelihood.

Towards the end of 1964, Reich took his tape recorder down to Union Square in San Francisco, and recorded a young black Pentecostal preacher called Brother Walter. The sermon was fire-and-brimstone stuff, based on the Biblical story of Noah's Ark. In attempting to create another collage piece with this material, Reich hit on the idea of phasing snippets of the sermon against themselves in a kind of rigorous, slowly unravelling canon. The result, It's Gonna Rain, established both the technical and the aesthetic basis of his mature style.

In the 1970s - when he began to develop other kinds of counterpoint and became increasingly concerned with harmony, melody and a richer timbral palette - Reich did, it's true, seem to lose interest in such "extramusical" materials. By the 1980s, he had even made his peace with more conventional notions of "word setting": first in Hebrew with Tehillim (1980-81) and then in English with The Desert Music (1982-3).

But then came Different Trains. Composed in 1988, the work contrasts this Jewish composer's childhood experiences of rather romantic train journeys between New York and Los Angeles with the "very different trains" he might have been taking at the same time if he had been in Europe. Extracts from interviews made with the composer's former governess, a retired Pullman porter and several survivors of the Nazi Holocaust form the piece's basic material. These are combined not only with some train sounds of the period but, much more importantly, with four string quartets - one live, three on tape. "Documentary material" had finally been integrated into instrumental counterpoint, underpinned by the shifting harmonies of the ambiguous tonality Reich had, by then, made all his own.

The Cave, completed in 1993 in collaboration with the composer's wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, incorporates video footage sequences timed with live and sampled music. Computer-generated video stills and speech material from interviews were likewise gathered on trips to the Middle East, New York City and Austin, Texas. Reich's search for a radical form of music-theatre that would transcend the limitations of conventional opera had, after many years, borne fruit. But where was he to go from here with purely concert works?

City Life - completed this February to a tripartite commission from Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta - extends these "documentary" techniques by using prerecorded sounds played live in performance on two sampling keyboards. In Different Trains and The Cave, the live instruments were tied to the tempo and rhythmic inflections of the tape part. In City Life they regain, Reich says, "the usual small flexibility of tempo that is a hallmark of live performance". "Non-musical" and "musical" sounds meet and mesh on equal ground. Clarinets imitate boat horns (or is it the other way round?), door slams are married to bass drums. As with the other recent pieces, speech patterns help generate the pitch material, but the use of "live" sampling helps blur the distinctions between "documentary" and "instrumental". Not for nothing is Reich an important influence on sound artists working in the popular music field with samplers and computer sequencing. It's Gonna Rain and its sequel Come Out (1966) have taken on new relevance in the 1990s.

Elements of an urban soundscape, some recorded across the street from the composer's New York apartment, form the starting-point for City Life: car horns, air brakes, fire and police sirens as well as street talk. Originally, Reich intended to include the actual taxi horns that George Gershwin used in An American in Paris and even a tape of the voice of Gershwin himself; but, like the idea of using the voices of Bela Bartok and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Different Trains, these were abandoned. "Check it out", insists the first of the work's five movements over and over again, the phrase's rhythm and pitch contour established purely instrumentally before the words themselves are heard; soon it's tumbling over itself in typically Reichian canons, triggered off by a door slam. Car horns and tyre skids blare and screech. Yet the movement opens and closes with an ensemble chorale, and a repeated chord sequence on woodwinds and sampler keyboard is later prominent too.

A heartbeat and the constant thud of a pile-driver determine the speeds - first slow, then accelerating - of the second and fourth movements respectively. The finale takes off from radio messages picked up and recorded by Reich at the time of the World Trade Center firebomb explosion two years ago: "Heavy smoke; stand by, stand by... Guns, knives or weapons on ya'? Be careful, where you go..."

At City Life's centre is a movement driven more defiantly by speech patterns than the others. "It's been a honeymoon!" cry both samplers, though the tone is aggressive and the source is a protest rally, The initial rhythm turns out to be the same as the West-African gong-gong pattern Reich learnt years back while studying African drumming; the treatment is rigorous and hard-edged, stacking up interlocking canons based on the sampled speech / bell pattern against sustained string chords. Words overlap and blur, rather as they do in the early tape pieces. An American street scene with Afro-Jewish (or is it Afro-Arab?) overtones, created with means more minimally mean than Reich has used in a long while.

What does it all signify? Well, a city slicker's celebration it certainly isn't. The first movement might be quite light-hearted, but the fourth "has to do with death, certainly", Reich says. Besides, the composer is increasingly depressed by the noise and pollution of the urban jungle and plans to escape more permanently to his country home in Vermont.

When he was in Britain two years ago, he toured rural Wales and considered writing a sequel to City Life called - perhaps unwisely to British ears - Country Life. Instead, the piece he's currently writing for the Prom on 7 September is called Proverbs: settings for six voices, two pianos and percussion of proverbs both Biblical and worldwide. It won't use the sampling techniques that have obsessed him for the past seven years, so perhaps a new phase is now opening up in the Reich canon. After all, necessity is the mother of invention - with this composer even more than most.

n 'City Life' is on tour: 10 May 8pm RFH2, London SW1 (0171-928 8800); 11 May, 7.30pm, Civic Theatre, Leeds (0113-247 6962); 12 May, 7.30pm, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (0121-236 3889); 17 May, Leicester Phoenix (0116-255 4854); 18 May, St David's Hall, Cardiff (01222 371236); 19 May, Salisbury Festival (01722 323 883); 21 May, Forum, Bath (01225 463362)