Tales of the unexpected

He revolutionised 20th-century classical music and influenced pop artists from Bowie to The Orb. Now, Steve Reich has documented the century in a video opera
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Think of three modern composers who have changed the face of classical music in the 20th century, and the chances are Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich will spring to mind. But ask any producer of electronic music which classical composer has most influenced their work, and Steve Reich will probably be the leading contender.

When the album Reich Remixed was released in 1999, Reich was already well established as one of the godfathers of electronic music. His minimalist works had influenced The Orb, Underworld, the Aphex Twin and Tortoise, long before Coldcut tackled Music for 18 Musicians for the authorised remix album. In 1991 The Orb plundered Reich's seminal piece Electric Counterpoint, most notably Pat Metheny's guitar chords (and the voice of Rickie Lee Jones), for their hallucinatory anthem "Little Fluffy Clouds" - so much so that they had to come to an "amicable settlement" with their cherished mentor. His iconic status prompted The New York Times to say: "Few living composers have created a style so fiercely original, immediately recognisable and wholly accessible... it would be hard to think of any American music more important than this."

When reminded of this meet during his whistle-stop visit to London to promote his new digital opera CD/DVD Three Tales, Reich looks suitably bashful, his humble demeanour coming as a welcome surprise. "In 1974, we gave a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and this guy with long hair and lipstick came up and said: 'How are you doing? I'm Brian Eno.' I remember, in 1976, at the European premiere of Music for 18 Musicians, at the National Gallery in Berlin, that David Bowie was there.

"And then, much later, came The Orb, who liked my music so much, they used great chunks of it."

His eyes glint when discussing his influence on other musical icons. "Well, I guess I could feel very good that people who weren't born when 'It's Gonna Rain' [his seminal 1965 piece, which loops a preacher talking about the end of the world] found it interesting enough to steal or appropriate it into their own music," he smiles, his creased face lighting up under the obligatory baseball cap. "I want people to listen to what I do, and so when other musicians from a field I know nothing about want to use my music, it feels very, very nice."

For a man known for mixing looped tapes with minimalist key-modulations and trademark canons that embrace not only Western classical music, but structures, harmonics and rhythms of African and American vernacular music, it's not surprising to note that Reich has an open ear to many genres outside the classical sphere: "In my day, most rock'n'roll was so stupid. Up to The Beatles, I'm not interested. Chuck Berry was great, but apart from him, it was so much trash. But The Beatles really turned my head around, and I stayed loosely tuned in ever since."

Reich's main musical inspiration when he was a student, studying philosophy at Cornell University in the late Fifties, was jazz. "When I was a student, there was the Third Stream jazz movement, started by a guy called Gunther Schuller, who tried to have 12-tone licks, which was grotesque. I'm not a jazz musician, although I had a background as a jazz drummer. I just decided that I would do better as a composer.

"After that, I never gave it a second thought. I just did what I did, having been influenced especially by John Coltrane, who played all this music with very few harmonics - as a lot of my contemporaries were doing at the time. I also studied African drumming and Balinese gamelan." He studied Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California.

"Before I'd been to Africa," Reich continues, "I'd written a piano phase and violin phase, and drumming was on my mind. But when I'd done the phasing and the 12-beat pattern, it felt like someone patting me on the back and saying, 'Y'know, there's a long tradition of this.' Percussion can be more complex and more intense than electronic generated sound. In 1962, Stockhausen and Cage were using all these mountains of electronic equipment, but for me, going to Africa was a confirmation of things I had known before I went there." He studied drumming at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana in Accra.

The idea for Three Tales originated in the mid-Eighties, when Reich was approached by Frankfurt Opera and the Holland Festival to compose an operatic piece. "At first, I declined, because I don't like the operatic voice and I don't write for the orchestra any more," he explains. "But when I got off the phone, I started to think there must be something I could do."

Still, it was only after he had written his critically acclaimed piece about the Holocaust, Different Trains, in 1988, that the idea of using video imagery with live musicians and singers, came into fruition. "The principal co-commissioner of The Cave asked us if we [Reich and his video-artist wife, Beryl Korot] would like to write a piece about the 20th century," he explains, while sipping a cup of lemon tea. "The first thing that popped into my head was technology, because you can't avoid it on this planet. Also, I'd done taped pieces and used microphones before, and Beryl had been heavily involved in video art."

Reich and Korot's three tales of technological significance were taken from the beginning, middle, and end of the century. "The Hindenburg was a natural choice," Reich explains, "because it was the first time that cameras were present when something completely went up in smoke. An 800ft-long hydrogen gasbag with giant Swastikas, flying over Manhattan and bursting into flames in Jersey in 1937, seemed a perfect choice.

"The atomic bomb was impossible to avoid, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been done so much. The idea of the Bikini tests came up because most people thought the name derived from a bathing suit; they didn't even know where it came from. So the whole idea of the island inhabitants of Bikini being forced to vacate their island so that it could be incinerated for nuclear testing - having previously had very little contact with the outside world - seemed a really extreme interface.

"The third tale, we weren't really sure of until 1997, when Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland, and we looked at each other and went: 'That's it!' It was a totally different perspective, coming out of biology, not physics - the fruits of which we won't know for a while. With both Hindenburg and Bikini, we were able to use archive footage, but for the last part we went out and made interfaces with the scientists of our time who are not talking about it but actually doing it."

One burning question when you talk to Reich - a man who makes strikingly diverse music - is whether he considers himself a classical composer. His answer is long and studied: "Well... yeah, in a way. But the term 'classical' basically means music between Haydn and middle-period or late Beethoven. After that, you get Romantic music, and before that, Baroque. I normally weasel out of that question by saying that I play concert music," he laughs. "But the periods in Western music that I really feel close to are the Baroque, Renaissance and particularly the medieval period. I never listen to classical music, and I never listen to Romantic music. I love Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok. I've learnt a lot from all of them - especially Bartok."

Although known as one of the forefathers of electronic music, Reich is still a staunch supporter of live music. "If live music stopped and all we had was Powerbooks, I think we'd all commit suicide," he notes mournfully. "When I did the tapes pieces, such as It's Gonna Rain, that came out in the Sixties, I felt that it was wonderful, but that it had to be done by people, or it wasn't real. So I finally sat down at a piano, and made a loop, and then got rid of the loop and made it with another piano. That gave birth to all the phase pieces. Technology opened the door to a new way of playing live. But it was essential to get back to the live playing, as far as I was concerned, and that attitude is very much in Three Tales."

When confronted with the idea of being described as America's greatest living composer, Reich is understandably keen to play down the notion. "Look, I've had lots of reviews, and some of the reviews about this piece have been just awful.

"The fact of the matter is - if you look at it scientifically - if a composer writes music, and musicians and the musical community at large, who play from notes, want to play the music and get pleasure out of playing it, then that's half the battle. The other half of the battle is the people sitting in the audience. Not everybody is going to love it, but if enough people want to hear it, then your music will live."

'Three Tales' is out now on Nonesuch