Steve Reich's Turning 80 — Here's Where You've Heard Him Before

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Steve Reich's influence dots a wide variety of modern music, from indie rock to hip-hop. (Alice Arnold)

Steve Reich may not have the immediate name recognition of other minimalist composers like John Cage or Philip Glass, but after a few minutes of listening to his music, you might be surprised at how much of it sounds familiar.

Spoken-word samples? Reich was one of the first musicians to use them -- Rolling Stone once called him the "father of sampling." Listen to EDM? Some scholars have suggested its repetitive nature has origins in minimalism, which Reich developed in the early sixties. And if you play music yourself, you’ve probably experimented with some form of phasing, another Reich invention -- the act of two musicians (or tracks) who start playing at the same tempo, with one veering incrementally off-tempo before aligning once again.

In October, Reich turns 80. His life's adventures include attending Mills College for graduate school, becoming involved with the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center, and pioneering minimalism with friend and colleague Terry Riley. This weekend, the San Francisco Symphony celebrates the milestone with a program of Reich’s work, featuring performances by the Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird and Reich himself. In his honor, we’ve collected six popular songs bearing his influence -- you might not know Reich’s name, but you’ve definitely heard his impact.

1. Sufjan Stevens

In 2007, Sufjan Stevens was asked to name his top five albums at a literary event. He only named one: Music For 18 Musicians. Reich's most famous piece, Music for 18 Musicians is centered around a repeating progression of 11 chords -- there’s a short piece of music corresponding to each chord, with each segment eventually folding seamlessly back into the piece’s rhythmic backbone, a series of pulses anchoring the piece. Reich's influence is apparent on several of Stevens’ songs, but it’s especially obvious on the last track of the 2005 album Illinois. "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run" is a an instrumental straight out of the Reich playbook, built around shimmery pulses and forgoing Stevens’ typical overstuffed songs for a minimal, cyclical approach.

2. David Bowie


In 1976, Reich premiered Music for 18 Musicians at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie. In the audience was David Bowie, who was living in Berlin, trying to kick coke and working on what would become 1977’s Low. Recently, Reich told the Guardian he was surprised to hear echoes of himself on the album: “I think 'Weeping Wall' on Low is somewhat indebted to that [performance]. That’s the beginning of my contact with popular music.” According to Bowie, the restless, slightly unsettling instrumental was written to evoke the Berlin Wall. It also evokes Reich: the song’s pulses, xylophone and vibraphone -- plus the use of the human voice as just another instrument -- are all similar to 18 Musicians.

3. Björk

Björk is another vocal Reich fan, citing his his 1981 composition Tehillim -- structured around four Psalms, with a rhythm corresponding to the Hebrew singing -- as one of her favorite albums. On her song “Sweet Sweet Intuition,” a B-side of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” Reich’s influence is clear. It’s cyclical and dramatically minimalist, with Björk singing slightly out of tempo with a taped loop vocal track, a starkly different version of the song than the album's original.

4. The Orb

In the 90’s, British electronic group The Orb occupied a singular -- and helpful -- space in the house music scene, making “ambient house” for people coming down from club drugs. In 1990, they released “Little Fluffy Clouds,” a dreamy track built around an unauthorized sample of a Rickie Lee Jones interview describing the idyllic landscapes of her childhood. The sample can be traced back to Reich and his early pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out,” both which pioneered the use of spoken-word samples. But there’s a more direct link to Reich’s work: the song also includes a sample of his 1987 piece Electric Counterpoint, performed by guitarist Pat Metheny, wherein Metheny plays against a recording of himself, alternating in and out of harmony. Orb’s song was a hit -- it was later used by Volkswagen to promote the new Beetle -- and Reich was apparently chuffed by the inclusion, later asking the group to remix one of his songs.

5. Tangerine Dream

Allegedly, the filmmakers behind 1983’s Risky Business originally wanted Steve Reich for the soundtrack, and after he declined, they tapped Tangerine Dream for the job. Whether or not that’s true, there’s no denying Reich’s influence on the film’s soundtrack, particularly on “Love On A Real Train,” which scores the moodily sexy, silent love scene between Joel and Lana. The sparse, minimal track shamelessly borrows Reich’s pulses and style of repetition. According to another urban legend, when asked what he thought of the soundtrack, Reich allegedly snapped, “They were paid to rip me off.”

6. Madlib & MF Doom

In 2004, Madlib and MF Doom's Madvillainy album excited and confounded hip-hop heads in equal measure: it skittered with a loping boom-bap beat, yet flaunted tradition with lyrical non sequiturs, short track lengths, high-pitched vocals and bizarre, chopped samples. One of those samples introduces "America's Most Blunted" -- a monotone voice saying "I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them," and then oddly repeating the phrase "come out to show them" several times before the beat kicks in. Fans of the massively popular album might be surprised that the outré intro isn't a Madlib idea -- it's Reich's influence yet again, lifted directly from his 1966 tape composition "Come Out." In this interview between Madlib and the Orb's Thomas Fehlmann, in fact, the two bond over having to get permission to use Steve Reich samples. The guy knows his own worth.



Steve Reich appears for an 80th birthday tribute with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, Sept. 11. Details here.