American composer Steve Reich is a bit of a rock star in the world of contemporary music – his website lists a performance of his material somewhere in the world most days this month. Still, it caught his attention when he discovered an actual rock star playing a Reich composition at a festival in Poland in 2011.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was in Krakow performing Electric Counterpoint, a 1987 piece for a live electric guitarist and 14 recorded guitar tracks. Reich was there too, and was impressed that Greenwood, who studied classical music and has written film scores, could thrive in a rock band and tackle a complex notated piece.
That experience sowed the seeds for Reich's first creative encounter with rock music, in a forthcoming chamber piece based on two Radiohead songs. At the age of 76, a master of American minimalism has linked up with one of the world's most important bands.
"Jonny's performance was particularly warm, and very personal, with a different sound," says Reich, who is a guest star at this week's Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival.
It helped that Greenwood had recorded all his own backing tracks, instead of just renting those laid down by the piece's first performer, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.
Reich and Greenwood hit it off personally, and when the composer got back to New York, he checked out some Radiohead songs for the first time. A little more than a year later, the London Sinfonietta is preparing for the world premiere of Reich's Radio Rewrite, an 18-minute, chamber-music engagement with Radiohead's music, at London's South Bank on March 5. The first U.S. performance, by Alarm Will Sound, follows on March 16 at Stanford University.
"It's not a set of variations," Reich says on the phone from California. "Radiohead gave me an armature, they got me up and running, but it's my piece and I'm on my own. They underpin it in a way that is sometimes perceptible, sometimes not. It's kind of like Radiohead slipping by, and then the clouds come over, you go somewhere else, and then whoop! – they come out the other end."
The cloud metaphor is apt for a lot of Reich's music, which often consists of short, precise musical patterns overlaid in ways that can give an overall impression of floating complexity. His influence has been immense, in contemporary music and at the end of the pop spectrum occupied by the likes of Radiohead, Bjork and Brian Eno.
Music by Reich and Greenwood will come together in Winnipeg during Friday's concert, which includes a suite from Greenwood's film score for There Will Be Blood, and Reich's choral piece Tehillim. Reich's other offerings in Winnipeg include Different Trains, for string quartet and tape (Thursday), and The Desert Music, a setting of poems by William Carlos Williams for chorus and orchestra (Feb. 2). Thursday's show also features Reich's Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet, one day after a different group of performers play it at Mount Allison University's Acadia New Music Festival in Sackville, N.B.
Reich will attend a day of rehearsals in Winnipeg, a luxury that doesn't always come his way. But he declares himself generally happy with the standard of performance he hears of his music. "People don't just play it correctly, they play it idiomatically, and bring a lot of emotion to it," he says. "The musicians are getting younger, and most of them have grown up with a certain familiarity with my music. It's part of the furniture in the room for them."
His music sometimes gives an impression of airtight precision, with not much room for individual choice. But some players have made strikingly different choices, and he often learns something from them. "Any music worth knowing admits interpretation, or there's something wrong with it," he says. "I have discovered things through performances that I never would have thought of, in terms of dynamics, attack and the feel of what people do."
Piano Counterpoint, which Vicky Chow is set to play Tuesday night at Vancouver's PuSh Festival, is a good example. The piece is a sanctioned solo piano and tape arrangement by Dutch pianist Vincent Corver of Reich's Six Pianos. Corver recorded his arrangement for EMI at an "extremely fast" tempo, the composer says. "I would say too fast, but it does have an amazing energy."
Reich is a stern critic of his own efforts, and discards far more music than he lets out into the world. The idea for Radio Rewrite came along just as he was running aground with another piece that now sits in his "ever-burgeoning trash basket."
As for Winnipeg, he says he curious about the festival, which has made the city known among composers around the world. But he is deeply apprehensive about the climate. "I'm absolutely petrified," he says. "I'll just grit my teeth."
King Crimson's Adrian Belew played on a 2005 recording of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur's Symphony No. 5, featuring a part for electric guitar. Ten years earlier, Belew made what was supposed to be the first of a series of albums of experimental modern music for guitar.
Sonic Youth recorded music by the likes of John Cage, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros on a 1999 album called Goodbye 20th Century. One of the contributing musicians was Christian Marclay, who last year shot to world fame with his gallery film installation, The Clock.
Frank Zappa often spliced modernistic bits into performances with the Mothers of Invention, and his compositions were recorded in the 1980s by Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano. Five months before Zappa died of cancer in 1993, he produced recordings of music by "the idol of my youth," Edgard Varese, but the album has yet to appear.
Toronto composer John Oswald's Plunderphonic album from 1989 anticipated the remix/mashup revolution by more than a decade, and featured dense reworkings of music by Michael Jackson, Stravinsky and Metallica. An underground classic to this day.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival continues through Saturday (www.newmusicfestival.ca).