Full circle at last. Ever since Steve Reich’s big hit, Music for 18 Musicians, in the late 1970s his music has been referenced and imitated by numerous artists, including Brian Eno, David Bowie, Björk and Aphex Twin. Until now the composer has acknowledged the cultural importance of pop/rock/electronica and has all the while resisted its lure. With the premiere of Radio Rewrite, a piece co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta but conceived as the result of an encounter with the Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, he makes the long-awaited breakthrough.
Although Reich is known for his use of sampling, Radio Rewrite is one of just three of his works that are dependent on the music of others. Advance publicity had revealed his reference to two Radiohead tracks – “Everything in Its Right Place”, the opening song from the Kid A album, and “Jigsaw Falling into Place” from In Rainbows – but fans hoping for some sort of mash-up would have been disappointed.
Radio Rewrite is a rich and impressive ensemble piece for non-rock instruments – performed here by musicians from the London Sinfonietta conducted by Brad Lubman. Those much-hyped allusions are fleeting (most noticeable are hints at the melodic loops of the Kid A track) and although the piece begins with sets of minimalist patterns, the journey through the five interlocking movements is varied, with periods of shadowy ambience.
Is it too much to read a sense of wistfulness into the piece? Radio Rewrite adds to a growing body of work that concerns itself less with the ringing clarity that has characterised much of Reich’s output, and more with the building of atmosphere.
Clapping Music, from 1971, co-performed by Reich himself, served as curtain-raiser. And Mats Bergström gave a stunning performance of Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s intricate portrait of the electric guitar. In Double Sextet (2007), performed here by 12 musicians (rather than the alternative of six against a prerecording), the aloof cool of the instrumentalists contrasted with the strange poignancy of the piece.
Reich’s opinion, republished as part of the programme notes, is that the polarisation of “concert” and “popular” music for much of the 20th century was just a blip. For many, Radio Rewrite will represent more evidence of the new convergence.