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Control Voltage’s Friday Five: A Steve Reich Renaissance

Steve Reich

Steve Reich’s influence on electronic dance music runs deep. It goes back, at least, to the Orb’s 1990 track “Little Fluffy Clouds,” which laced a passage from Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” with acidic synths and breakbeats and samples of a Rickie Lee Jones interview to create a chill-out classic. But it’s not just a question of samples: The essential pulse of Reich’s contrapuntal tumble runs through stripped-down techno classics like Jeff Mills’ “The Bells,” while the loopy incantations of Reich’s “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain” laid the foundations for footwork’s hypnotic vocal manipulations. It’s not a direct line — lots of stuff happened in between Reich and DJ Rashad — but the lineage is unmistakable.

When I interviewed Reich in 1999, on the occasion of Nonesuch’s Reich Remixed compilation, he told me that he had been late to realize the impact he’d made on electronic dance music. “I was with my ensemble in Japan in 1996, where we were giving concerts of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and ‘Drumming,'” he recalled. “While I was there, Hiro Nakashima — he’s a young guy working for Nonesuch there — said to me, ‘You know, there are a lot of young DJs in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. that are interested in your music. You should do a remix album.’ I really knew next to nothing about this. When I say next to nothing, I mean that about eight years ago, in the early ’90s, I was in London giving a concert and I was interviewed by some Keyboard-type pop magazine, and they said to me at the time, ‘What do you think of the Orb?’ and I said, ‘What’s the Orb?’ And they said, ‘Well you ought to know!’ And they gave me the CD, and I took it home and I heard, you know, ‘Electric Counterpoint,’ and I said, ‘Aha! — this is a new generation.'”

At the moment, we seem to be going through something of a Steve Reich renaissance: In the past few years, the composer’s work has turned up on mix CDs from the Cinematic Orchestra and Henrik Schwarz, Âme, and Dixon, and in podcasts from Donato Dozzy, Alva Noto, Rene Hell, and Brand Brauer Frick. There’s also been a flurry of new Steve Reich remixes, both official and unofficial; the most recent is a killer bootleg by Sweden’s HNNY. Read on for five examples of the new generation’s latest incarnation.

Steve Reich “Nagoya Marimba (HNNY Edit)” (No Rights Reserved)
There’s not a lot of information about the Stockholm producer HNNY out there; that’s probably a smart move on his part, given that most of his work so far has cheerfully flouted copyright restrictions. His first release, for his hometown’s Studio Barnhus label, flipped Mariah Carey’s rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is” into a kind of slow-motion electro, sounding like a boozier version of Oneohtrix Point Never’s chopped-and-screwed pop experiments as Sunset Corp. HNNY’s latest record presents edits of Reich’s “Nagoya Marimba” and Dorian Concept’s “Trilingual Dance Sexperience.” (Given the name of the label responsible — No Rights Reserved — I think we can safely assume these are bootlegs.)

HNNY’s “Nagoya Marimba” edit is based on a 1994 piece for two marimbas, originally released on Reich’s 1996 album City Life, and it’s the rare example of an edit that doesn’t cheapen its inspiration. Rather than just looping a single phrase and calling it a day, the rework preserves the original’s overall shape and sense of flux, right down to the key changes and a minute-long, nominally beatless cadenza where the mallets really fly. You can tell that HNNY is listening to his source material and following its lead. But it’s also a cracking club tune in its own right, with a satisfyingly stripped-down disco groove and dramatic string vamps. It’s probably more remix than edit, given the elements he’s added to the track, but that’s just nit-picking. As a house-music retrofitting of the master, it’s pretty much perfect.

HNNY’s Dorian Concept remix, on the B-side, is also pretty essential, translating the Austrian producer’s hyperdrive funk to a slower, more laid-back groove, without losing any of the original’s pitch-bent weirdness.

Steve Reich “2×5 III. Fast (Dominique Leone Version)” (Nonesuch)
Remix contests can be pretty dodgy propositions. I’ve sat on judging panels for a few, and “dire” didn’t begin to describe the creative wasteland from which the bulk of entries rolled in like so many toxic tumbleweeds. (Listen to enough contest entries, and you come to have a whole new appreciation for record labels as filtering mechanisms.) But every now and then, something revelatory emerges. That’s the case with Dominique Leone’s triumphant reworking of Reich’s “2×5 III. Fast,” which won first prize in Indaba Music’s Steve Reich remix contest in 2010. Leone is a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist (and occasional music critic) with a madcap, hyperactive touch and a fondness for strange time signatures and general prog overload, so it’s not entirely surprising that his rework of Reich’s composition turns out as super-charged as it does — like Battles, say, or Animal Collective if they partied with Jesse Pinkman, or the Boredoms on a Beatles jag. It sounds more like a cover version than a remix, thanks in part to added drums and vocals, but it’s not: In an interview, Leone explained how he manipulated small pieces of the original parts — looping, layering, adding distortion, and additional elements — to achieve his final result. He even remains faithful to Reich’s shifting time signatures, flipping between 3/4, 7/4, and even more difficult-to-parse meters. Nevertheless, it never feels needlessly difficult. To the contrary, it’s as immediate and exhilarating as jumping in a mountain stream.

Steve Reich “2×5 III. Fast (Vakula Version)” (Nonesuch)
The Ukrainian producer Vakula makes murky deep house with an obvious debt to Moodymann and Theo Parrish. But what separates him from scores of like-minded peers is a willingness to go way off piste. His Steve Reich remix, a runner up in the Indaba contest, manages to have it both ways: Keeping the DJ in mind, it’s anchored with crisp machine drumming in a straightforward 4/4, but the flow is thrown off by the melody’s odd phrasing — 21 beats long, if I’m counting correctly, which I’m probably not — that leaves the impression of two free-floating elements separated by a thin layer of oil. A wrong-footed groove has rarely sounded so graceful.

Steve Reich “Electric Counterpoint III. Fast (Röyksopp’s RYXP True to Original Edit)” (digital bootleg)
Chopping up the original’s 6/4 melody to fit a four-to-the-floor disco thump, Norway’s Röyksopp played it relatively straight when they remixed Pat Metheny’s recording of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” — a work veteran ravers will remember from the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds,” and which their brostepping younger cousins (or, indeed, offspring) might know from Nero’s “Choices.” But they manage to keep it all feeling fluid, deftly working layers of acoustic guitar, sampled strings, and synthesizers into a great, fluffy meringue of typically Röyksoppian proportions. It’s a delightfully excessive take on chill-out music.

Various, Reich Remixed: 2006 (Nonesuch)
I was never much of a fan of the 1999 album Reich Remixed. Leaning heavily on trip-hop and downtempo artists (Coldcut, Howie B, Tranquility Bass, the inescapable DJ Spooky), while ignoring contemporary minimalists like Carsten Nicolai or Thomas Brinkmann (or indeed Jeff Mills), it felt like a missed opportunity. Seven years later, though, on the Reich: Remixed 2006 EP, Ruoho Ruotsi’s “Pulse Section Dub Remix” of “Music for 18 Musicians” elegantly fused Reich’s pulsing harmonics with the stripped-down structure of dub techno. Meanwhile, minimal-techno producer Alex Smoke luxuriated in the rich textures and polyrhythmic nuance of Reich’s “Proverb,” and Four Tet dove into the chimes and mallets of Reich’s “Drumming,” playing telescoping delay chains off a relaxed 4/4 pulse. It sounds, unsurprisingly, like a distillation of everything Four Tet has ever done, laying bare his ample debt to Reich.