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Steve Reich’s music hums with vibrating waves of our century’s ocean of sound, an ocean that swallows up Charlie Parker and Junior Walker, African drums and Manhattan abstraction, gamelan trance and looping magnetic tapes. But Reich’s experiments also loom over the beats and bleeps of DJ culture. Still, although the Orb squeezed his “Electric Counterpoint” into their “Little Fluffy Clouds,” and God knows how many DJs have slapped on their parents’ copy of Music for 18 Musicians during a stoney chill-out set, Reich’s relationship to electronica remains more prophetic than filial. He is an influence most stumble across long after they have already been influenced.
In any case, the idea of setting a host of remixers loose on Reich is a natch. The man himself often cites the “horizontal” dialogue between records as the spark that lit his own musical fuse in the early ’50s. After listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and some bebop in relatively quick succession, the teenage Reich tuned into a particular stream of beats all this music shared, a high-frequency metronomic pulse that would ultimately flower into his own insistent and invariant sonic signature. As a young composer, he also messed around with recording tech. On 1965’s “It’s Gonna Rain” and 1966’s “Come Out,” he twisted short tape loops of a black Pentecostal preacher into hallucinogenic mantras. These “phase” works paved the way for the cybernetic contraptions that Eno rigged up for Discreet Music, which helped loose ambience upon the world.
What last year’s Works 19651995 box makes clear is that Reich himself was no gearhead; after his tape pieces, he basically turned his back on machines, internalizing their compositional possibilities into largely acoustic settings. In 1976, decades before benighted souls coined ugly terms like “ambient techno,” 18 Musicians turned a “mechanically” reiterated set of rhythms and melodies into sonic ambrosia. Woodwinds and voices weave through overlapping beats like the filigrees of Goan trance, while mallet instruments keep up a steady 208 BPM pulse that Reich himself described as “digital.” A crossover record in its day, 18 Musicians was popular because its insectoid vibrations drew the listening mind into visionary dancefloor time, where climaxes do not resolve so much as dissolve into endlessly shifting planes of intensity.
Make no mistake. There’s no confusing the Reichean pulse with a sweaty four-to-the-floor pound, and Reich Remixed tends to be least interesting when it breaks out the big beats. In their “Maximum Drum Formula” mix, Mantronik runs roughshod over 1971’s “Drumming,” obliterating the shifting tapestry of beat clusters that make that piece well worth 56 minutes of your eartime. Dark British Mo’Waxer Andrea Parker also weighs in with a heavy hand when she attacks “The Four Sections.” Though cool enough in their own terms, Parker’s dominating beats grind down Reich’s symphonic score into bits and pieces. That’s half the point of cut’n’paste of course, but Remixed works best when the contributors extend and probe Reich’s ideas rather than simply using his sounds as DJ tools.
Take Coldcut, who turn in an attentive but still DJ-friendly remix of the masterpiece they earlier parodied on their 1997 track “Music 4 No Musicians.” Rather than allow their percussion and growling bass to just run on automatic, they manage to reflect the shifting dynamics of the piece. Similarly, when some guy named D*Note adds bass and a surprisingly down-tempo chug to his “Phased & Konfused Mix” of “Piano Phase,” his additions reorganize Reich’s overlapping piano patterns instead of treating them like window dressing. And when faced with “Eight Lines,” Howie B. doesn’t impress a single rhythmic framework at all, opting to playfully comment on Reich’s spacious pulses with his own array of spectral voices, dubwise snares, and handfuls of sonic gravel.
Others get even grittier. Jazzy Japanese DJ Nobukaza Takemura begins his treatment of “Proverb” with 45 seconds of aggressively Oval-esque digital deconstructions of the composition’s haunting female plainchant. And DJ Spooky, making a hardly unexpected appearance, takes on “City Life,” Reich’s sample-heavy and not entirely successful 1994 attempt to paint contemporary New York in sonic colors. Spooky, of course, is urban from his third eye to his futurist toes, and he graffitis Reich’s piece like Rammelzee on the IRT.
If Reich Remixed is more a conversation than a tribute record, then it only seems fair that at some point Reich would get to talk to himself. Tranquility Bass’s “Megamix” meets the need, cobbling together nine different pieces into an incantational Reichorama. With “Proverb” loops twisting in space, “Clapping Music” samples going disco, and the interlocking patterns of “Six Marimbas” undulating in and out as they please, it’s amazing Tranquility Bass can sustain this remarkably cohesive track for over nine minutes. “Megamix” is a testament to the fact that Reich’s music not only meditates on a core cluster of issues, but also refuses to close itself off, leaving room for other genres and generations to tune in and phase out.