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Steve Reich: 'Rock was pretty much off my radar – then along came Radiohead'

The composer credited with creating Minimalism tells Phil Johnson about discovering his own kind of music

"I grew up in the Forties with the hit parade, broadway shows and even Rhapsody in Blue. I took piano lessons like most middle-class kids but I never played or heard anything before Haydn or after Wagner. It wasn't until I was 14, in 1950, that music became the centre of my life. I heard The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and discovered an absolutely new world. Right after that, I heard the Fifth Brandenburg by J S Bach and then bebop with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and drummer Kenny Clarke. A good friend was a better pianist than I and he was studying jazz. We decided to start a band and we had to have a drummer – I said, "That's me", and I immediately began studying snare drum with Roland Kohloff – who later became tympanist with the New York Philharmonic.

"I would frequently go to Birdland in New York City, which was the place to hear bebop. From time to time I would hear some Bill Haley, Elvis or Fats Domino on the radio, but it just didn't get to me. My heart belonged to Stravinsky, Bach and bebop. Through high school and Cornell University I played drums with different jazz and dance bands. In 1957, when I graduated after studies in philosophy and music, I came back to New York City and began studying composition with Hall Overton who was a composer, jazz pianist and good friend of and arranger for Thelonius Monk. In 1958, I entered the Juilliard School of Music as a composition major and at night started going to hear John Coltrane live. By 1961 I wanted to leave New York and go West – specifically to the San Francisco Bay area to study with Luciano Berio at Mills College.

"In the period from 1961 to 1963 there was a strong new musical direction in the air: harmonic stasis. It was coming from all sorts of directions: in pop music there was the tune "Shotgun" by Junior Walker from Motown. The same bass line just kept going through the entire tune – no bridge, no B-section, just this unrelenting bass line. Even Dylan's first electric album included "Maggie's Farm", where most of the tune just stays on the one chord.

"Non-Western music was being played live by Ravi Shankar all across America, and the Nonesuch explorer recordings of West African and especially Balinese gamelan music were being listened to widely. All these musics were built on rhythmic complexity and timbral variety, but relatively constant harmonic stasis.

"In classical music, I was extremely interested in early music of the 12th century in Paris: [the composers] Pérotin and Léonin where the tenor line is incredibly slowed down and elongated so as to produce a kind of slow-motion harmony.

"The giant in all this harmonic stasis for me was John Coltrane in his Africa Brass album of 1961 where the title tune is 16 minutes – all on E! ... the low E of the double bass played by Jimmy Garrison. How did he make 16 minutes on one harmony riveting? Well, first by remarkable melodic invention and sometimes by almost screaming through his instrument, then by incredible rhythmic complexity played by Elvin Jones, and finally by timbral variety arranged by Eric Dolphy for French horns playing glissandos that sounded like charging elephants. The constant harmony just highlighted the melodic invention, rhythmic complexity and timbral variety. Sound like a lesson for my piece Drumming?

"At this same time I and many other people were playing with tape loops. Added to this I discovered a book of accurate scores of drumming from Ghana called Studies in African Music by A M Jones who worked with a Ghanaian master drummer to create the book. I saw repeating rhythmic patterns in what we would call sub-divisions of 12. Patterns in three, four, six and so on. As you can imagine, this began to interact with the tape loops I was making. Additionally, in 1964 during the original rehearsals of Terry Riley's In C, I learned a great deal as a composer and Riley got my pulse in his piece. It was a good exchange for us both. (It's too bad so few people have actually heard In C by Terry Riley without the pulse by Steve Reich. They are quite different pieces. Perform In C just as Riley wrote it and you'll see what I mean.) Eventually all these influences led to my early pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out.

"Outside of "Shotgun" and that one Dylan tune, I wasn't really listening much to rock. It wasn't until the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album that I began to realise something was really going on in the rock world, but it wasn't something that influenced me.

"Meanwhile, my own ensemble was touring all over by the mid-Seventies and I remember playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and after the concert a guy comes up with long hair and lipstick and says, "Hi, I'm Brian Eno". I thought to myself – poetic justice! I was listening to Miles Davis and Kenny Clarke when I was young and now Brian Eno is listening to me. In 1976, I wrote Music for 18 Musicians and David Bowie was at the German premiere in Berlin.

"Music for 18 Musicians was actually recorded in a pop studio in Paris in 1976 for Deutsche Grammophon. They held it "in the can" for two years and finally they heard [jazz and new music label] ECM was interested in releasing it. Bob Hurwitz, who has run Nonesuch Records for many years, was then the head of ECM in America and through his enthusiasm the record sold more than 100,000 in its first year. This changed my life in many ways and certainly made my music more known among jazz and pop musicians.

"As I said, I didn't really know much rock, but I always thought of my interest in jazz of the 1950s and Sixties as in the tradition of popular and folk sources being a basic part of Western concert music. In the Renaissance, from Machaut through Palestrina, composers felt obliged to use the popular folk song "L'homme armé" as the basis for their masses for the Catholic church. Later, Haydn used a drinking song in the London Symphony, No 104, Beethoven uses a folk song in the first movement of his Sixth Symphony, Bartok's music is completely intertwined with Serbo/Croatian folk music – not just in his folk song settings, but in his "abstract" string quartets. Stravinsky didn't admit it, but his early ballets are filled with Russian folk songs – much to the great man's credit! Charles Ives' music is filled with the hymns and popular songs of his time, Kurt Weill's masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera, is impossible to separate from Weimar Republic cabaret music. Is George Gershwin one of America's greatest song writers or concert composers? Well, both. The only time the window between the street and the concert hall was closed was when I went to music school during the Fifties and Sixties, due to the thinking of Schoenberg, and then Boulez and Stockhausen. It fell to my generation to open the window. We didn't create a revolution, we created a restoration to normalcy and now the window's wide open!

"Instead of thinking in terms of "classical" and "popular", why not think in more informative terms such as "notated" and "non-notated" music? I'm pleased that young DJs remix my music. They take what I have notated from a recording and then manipulate that audio without notation.

"Finally, Radio Rewrite happened. In September 2010, I was in Krakow for a festival of my music. One of the featured performers was Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who had prepared all the backing tracks for my piece Electric Counterpoint and then played electric guitar live against those tracks in concert. It was a great performance and we began talking. I found his background as a violist and his present active role as a composer extremely interesting when added to his major role in such an important and innovative rock group. When I returned home I made it a point to go online and listen to Radiohead, and the songs "Everything in its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling into Place" stuck in my mind.

"It was not my intention to make anything like "variations" on these songs, but rather to draw on their harmonies and sometimes melodic fragments and work them into my own piece. This is what I have done. As to whether you actually hear the original songs, the truth is – sometimes you hear them and sometimes you don't.

London Sinfonietta plays Reich's 'Radio Rewrite' in London (world premiere, Royal Festival Hall, Tue), Birmingham (Town Hall, Wed) and Glasgow (Royal Concert Hall, Sat)

Making of a minimalist

Steve Reich was born in New York City on 3 October 1936. A co-creator of the musical movement known as Minimalism, he has been called "one of a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history". His early tape pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) led to the incorporation of instruments (Violin Phase, Piano Phase, both 1967), and thence to the seminal Drumming (1970-71) and Music for 18 Musicians (1976). From 1981, Reich explored aspects of his Jewish heritage, evident in Daniel Variations (2006), which uses the words of the murdered American reporter Daniel Pearl.