'Most music is garbage,' argues the minimalist composer, equally at home at the Bloc Weekender and London's Royal Festival Hall
Electronic dance music is no longer a young upstart. This year's Bloc Weekender – a 15,000-capacity rave at London Pleasure Gardens, a waterside space at the Royal Victoria Docks – has enlisted some veteran headliners. But even among the likes of Orbital and Gary Numan, you might think a modern classical composer approaching his 76th birthday is an odd fit.
Steve Reich himself, though, would disagree. "I don't know exactly who my audience is these days. There are blue-haired ladies in the old sense of the phrase, and blue-haired ladies in the new sense. You know, there's a place here in New York called Le Poisson Rouge. It used to be a jazz club but now it's rock one night, new music the next. We need to remember, classical music isn't the other side of the moon. This is the way music moves now!"
Reich is a rare living composer who can honestly claim to have pioneered a new compositional language. Graduating from Oakland's Mills College with a masters in composition in the early-60s, he worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an early electronic music laboratory, alongside Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and visited Ghana to study indigenous drumming. All this fed into his compositional work, which pioneered experiments with tape loops, the practice of phasing – repetitive musical phrases that shift in and out of unison – and later, the musical style that would become known as minimalism. In its cascading, patterned repetition and open relationship with modern technology, Reich's music can feel like a pre-echo of electronica. Listen to his 1965 piece It's Gonna Rain, a tape-loop of a Pentecostal preacher, back to back with something utterly modern – say, some Chicago footwork – and you hear eerie similarities in the stuttered rhythm and hypnotic repetition. That's not to suggest DJ Nate and friends are rocking Reich, more an observation that Reich's influence on electronica is hard to quantify: you hear it in everything.
Reich says he can't tell his David Guetta from his Swedish House Mafia, and answers a question about drugs with a diplomatic "I don't think that's a question I'm going to deal with". He hears dance music occasionally "but I'm not surfing around to see what's up". Instead, he says, musical notation is still at the heart of what he does: "The people I work with need those skills. Not everyone in rock has them, but more people in conservatories are getting to do what they want, which is Beethoven on Mondays and Radiohead Tuesdays. I've no problem with that!"
Radiohead are Reich's current preoccupation, although he only got properly acquainted with them last year after attending the Sacrum Profanum festival in Krakow. Among those performing Reich and Reich-inspired pieces were Portishead's Adrian Utley, Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, Aphex Twin ("A very bright, interesting guy"), and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who joined Ensemble Modern to play Reich's Electric Counterpoint. "I'd heard his score for There Will Be Blood and I was thinking, 'Here's a guy into Messiaen.' I'd never have known it was written by a rocker. So I thought I'd better check out some Radiohead."
Two Radiohead tracks, Everything In Its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place, form the source text for Reich's latest composition, Radio Rewrite, premiering at London's Royal Festival Hall on 5 Mar, 2013. "Their melodic stuff is very beautiful," he says. "I treat it freely, so in places people may go, 'Where's Radiohead?' But those with sharper ears may catch harmonic similarities."
There's talk at the moment of "retromania", of a pop culture that's given up searching for a future, content to regurgitate its past. But Reich is an optimist, albeit in his straight-talking New Yorker way. "Look, most music throughout history is garbage. It could be Beethoven's contemporaries, it could be the current top 40; you play in a garden, you get weeds. A lot of people who use computers are gonna come up with junk; most of the people who use notation came up with junk, too. But there are the Brian Enos – people who have imagination for a new way of working that fits with their intuitive gifts – that come up with great stuff. A few things will turn out to be enduring. Well made, and in a new way."
Bryce Dessner Guitarist for the National, Dessner is also a composer, and was commissioned by Kronos Quartet to write two pieces – Aheym and Tenebre – in Reich's honour.
Aphex Twin While chaotic, Richard D James's experimental dance music displays the influence of minimalist composition. He collaborated with Reich as part of his 75th birthday celebrations.
Tyondai Braxton Former Battles vocalist Braxton's music is built on orchestral loops. He's also composed for the Reich-affiliated avant garde ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars.
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."