The Influence Engine: Steve Reich and Pop Music

The Influence Engine: Steve Reich and Pop Music

As long as the “influence” of Reich’s music can be traced back up the chain, the narrative will keep feeding itself. But there are risks to leaving the engine running unchecked.

Written By

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

When Steve Reich’s new work for ensemble, Radio Rewrite, was given its world premiere by the London Sinfonietta earlier this month (it was subsequently premiered in the U.S. by Alarm Will Sound on March 16), I was asked to provide a program essay on the influence Reich has had on popular music, and vice versa. Radio Rewrite takes material from two songs by the British rock band Radiohead—“Everything in its right place” from their 2000 album Kid A, and “Jigsaw falling into place” from 2007’s In Rainbows. So the theme of popular/classical cross-influence pretty much jumps out at you.

Indeed, it’s a subject I’ve investigated before, in 2011 for another London event, “Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich,” a two-day celebration of Reich’s influence on classical and especially popular musicians. But on both occasions it was a subject about which I felt uncomfortable writing. Reich’s development—from his student works, through the early tape and phasing pieces, to masterworks like Music for 18 Musicians and beyond—does indeed run in parallel with the development of popular music from the 1960s to the 2010s. Many claims are made for his influence on pop, rock, house, techno, and even rap. And there are points of convergence, certainly. But such claims are often made by stakeholders in a narrative of Reich (and/or minimalism) as the savior of Western classical music from its serial/avant-garde(/European) doldrums.

I’ve come to think of this reception mechanism as a kind of “influence engine,” almost as self-generative as Reich’s own early music. Reich’s promoters want to hook him into the popular zeitgeist; non-classical musicians are happy to play along. Popular music appears to gain credibility; new music appears to gain relevance. As long as the “influence” of Reich’s music can be traced back up the chain, the narrative will keep feeding itself.

But there are two risks to leaving the engine running unchecked. First, that we perpetuate a trickle-down theory of musical influence, in which the best bits of popular music are presented as originating only in high (white, Western) art. And second, that classical music can only be validated by the impact it has had on popular culture. We need to ask: How much genuine contact is involved here, and how much wishful revisionism?

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow
Photo by Tomasz Wiech for Krakow Festival Office. Used with permission.

The Reich Meme
Minimalism’s breakthrough in the mid-1970s coincided with the height of disco. As Robert Fink notes in Repeating Ourselves[1], the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians in March 1976 came just a month after the release of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 17-minute groundbreaker “Love to Love you Baby.” Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach received its premiere that summer in Avignon.

The release in 1978 of Music for 18 Musicians on the hitherto jazz-only label ECM catapulted Reich and minimalism from the galleries and lofts of New York City into the wider consciousness. Magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone reviewed the disc—which sold more than 10,000 copies—and the overlap between Reich and popular culture became a serious topic. A live performance of the piece that year sold out the Bottom Line club in New York; just months later, a Rolling Stone feature on Glass attempted to argue that minimalism was a precursor of the disco style. In 1984 an article in Harper’s magazine even referred to Reich’s music as a form of “higher disco.”

It is certainly possible to read (as Fink has done) 18 Musicians in conjunction with disco. They share common features: a sprawling scale, a formal language of extended and repeating climaxes and releases, techniques of layering and cross-fading, and a relentless adherence to the beat. And there were occasional individuals—Arthur Russell, for example—who played with their feet in both camps. Yet how much Reich and disco really knew of each other is beside the point. What is clear is that both were attuned to similar musical and technological currents: Afro-diasporic beats; the technology of the turntable, tape loop and cross-fader; and the possibilities of accumulative and layered musical forms.

There were more easily documented, if less high-profile, points of contact with popular music earlier in the decade. Perhaps the most important of these was Brian Eno’s discovery of It’s Gonna Rain in the early 1970s. Eno began experimenting with out-of-phase tape loops with the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, resulting in the albums No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, and what came to be known as “Frippertronics.” In 1973 he saw Steve Reich and Musicians at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the influence on Eno’s post-Roxy Music work can be documented through solo albums like Another Green World, Discreet Music, and the Ambient series, as well as his work as a producer. In fact, 1973 proved to be a key year, since it also saw the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, both enormously influential carriers of minimalist DNA.
In 1976 David Bowie attended the European premiere in Berlin of Music for 18 Musicians. He was working with Eno on his Low album at the time, and the pulsing marimbas and vibraphones of that album’s “Weeping Wall” are an unmistakable homage. Bowie was far from the only rock musician to have felt minimalism’s influence. The Who had already quoted Riley’s arpeggiated keyboard style on “Baba O’Riley”, a track written in 1969 and released in 1971, and Reich’s technique of building up textures through closely spaced canons can be heard throughout prog rock. At its electronic fringes, references to Reich are most pronounced: especially brazen is Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” which was used as the theme to the film Risky Business.

Links between Reich and popular music continued through the 1980s, but the most recent and enduring phase of cross-influence was launched a decade later. The Orb’s sampling of Electric Counterpoint for their 1990 single “Little Fluffy Clouds” simply made explicit the sympathy between late ’80s/early ’90s rave culture and Reich’s glittering, pulse-driven soundscapes. Rave’s biggest act, Orbital (who themselves drew on Reichian timbres in the keyboard riff of “Lush 3” and the layered pianos of “Kein Trink Wasser”), paid a technical homage in their arch use of phasing speech loops for the intro and outro to their second (“Brown”) album of 1993.

Yet musical tastes and ambitions had changed since the ’70s. Electronica and minimalism were bridged in the ’90s by the general desire for individual self-sublimation that permeated popular music of the time, from rave to Nirvana. The attraction of Reich’s music now was its glowing mass, the total dissolving of surface into texture, the effacement of the individual. This idea had already been thematized in the 1970s and early ’80s by Kraftwerk, on albums such as Autobahn, The Man-Machine and Computer World. But in the late ’80s and into the ’90s it was everywhere, on albums as diverse as U2’s The Joshua Tree (produced by Eno), My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II.

Towards the end of the century, as techno matured and its producers became more self-reflective, a new genre—minimal techno, or microhouse—was born. The Reich Remixed album of 1999 may have been devised by Nonesuch records to attract a crossover audience to its Reich discography, but it still struck a chord. Producers had begun to create a new form of techno that was more attuned to minute processes of variation and evolution. Several of them, including Carsten Nicolai, Richie Hawtin, and Nobukazu Takemura, have acknowledged the influence in particular of Reich’s early music. Takemura (a contributor to Reich Remixed) samples Four Organs on his Assembler/Assembler 2 album. Hawtin’s Concept series of 12 inches focused with Reichian obsession on single rhythmic ideas; these were later “remixed” by Thomas Brinkmann into new rhythmic configurations by using a custom twin-arm turntable to play the record against itself. Brinkmann himself has taken Reich’s phasing technique to an extreme on his X100 record, which consists of just a click, a tone, and a bass kick recorded on two slightly out of phase grooves for the duration of one LP side. The Reich meme had morphed once more, into the validation for a hyper-modern aesthetic of automatism.


Before he met Terry Riley in 1964 and began working with tapes and tape loops, Reich claimed three major influences on his music: Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz. The last of these was most influential, particularly the playing of John Coltrane, whom Reich saw play many times at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop club in the early 1960s.

Reich was fortunately placed to be able to see, as an open-minded composition student, the unfolding of one of the great individual creative periods in 20th-century music. Watching Coltrane, along with players such as Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, forge a jazz revolution must have been a little like sitting in on the Beatles’ sessions between Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, or flat-sharing with Stockhausen in the mid-1950s.

Of course, Reich has acknowledged the influence of Coltrane many times. In particular, he has mentioned the importance of his 1961 Africa/Brass album, and listening back it’s not hard to hear why.
Africa/Brass was Coltrane’s first recording (of seven) for the newly formed Impulse! Records. Around this time, Coltrane’s palette of influences opened up considerably. North Indian music, via Ravi Shankar, had already led to Coltrane replacing chord changes with one- or two-chord drones (most famously on the album My Favorite Things, the last he recorded before beginning the Africa/Brass sessions). He had also begun to listen to West African, particularly Ghanaian, music. Hints of structural concepts borrowed from West African drumming also start to appear on his version of the “My Favorite Things” standard, in which sections are repeated until the leader plays a musical cue signaling everyone to move on to the next section.

While preparing for Africa/Brass, Coltrane listened to many African records for rhythmic inspiration. This was partly an urge to get away from the strictures of 4/4 time, but it also contributed to Coltrane’s broader project to move jazz improvisation away from pre-determined changes. By dropping the changes, the musical focus shifted from harmony and towards rhythm and melody. Elvin Jones capitalized on this opportunity to fashion a unique playing style that was indebted to West African drumming. Coltrane used his new freedom to focus on melodic creativity. “I had to make the melody as I went along. But at least I’m trying to think of a melody, I’m not referring to the chords to get the melody.” For the avant-gardist Ornette Coleman, another important influence on Coltrane at this time, this change in emphasis took on political connotations: “not referring to the chords” was an issue of authorship and ownership.

The “African-ness” of this shift runs deep. As documented by Steven Feld[2], Coltrane has become an inspiration to Ghanaian jazz musicians like Nii Noi Nortey, Nii Otoo Annan, and Ghanaba (Guy Warren), who see in him a kindred, diasporic spirit. Nortey says, in Feld’s book:

And the drummers, all them drummers [Jones, Rashied Ali and others], were playing something nearer to what I heard in Africa, in terms of complexities and tonalities and all kinds of things. I heard more of the African things in these drummers. I heard the drums overlapping and hooking up like our drummers do, and over that I can hear Coltrane as a drummer playing the saxophone, working his rhythms too. … He stopped playing all those chord changes and reduced them to one or two, which is also very African, because we tend to move at that level of keeping the music simple.

In many respects—its patterns of repetition, flow, and rupture, and its emphasis on the beat—Africa/Brass is typical of the music of the African (particularly West African) diaspora. To these Coltrane adds modality, an emphasis on massed sound, harmonic stasis, and a way of building form by adding or subtracting layers. We might recognize in these many of the planks of Reich’s minimalist style. Even details such as unison signals to mark the changes between sections are present and have, as we have already seen, their origins in Ghanaian drumming.

In fact, Reich wasn’t just listening to Coltrane at this time. Like the saxophonist, he was also listening to records of African music—conceivably the same ones, even. The timeline is unclear from Reich’s various biographers, but he certainly knew African music in the early ’60s while at Mills, and may have even discovered it in the mid-1950s while studying at Cornell. In 1962, he was taken to the Ojai Festival by his Mills teacher, Luciano Berio, who was the festival’s composer-in-residence. Here he heard Gunther Schuller talk on the subject of African music.

Schuller made reference to A. M. Jones’s seminal study of Ghanaian drumming, Studies in African Music, which Reich bought immediately. In its second volume, Jones’s book sets out some of the first complete transcriptions of Ewe drumming pieces, and Reich gladly immersed himself. Now he was able to see how the music that he (and presumably Coltrane) had been listening to was constructed. West African music, via Coltrane’s jazz and Jones’s transcriptions, was now imprinted on his imagination. When he traveled to Ghana for real, nearly a decade later, he writes of his visit not as a discovery, but as “basically confirmation: that writing for acoustic instruments playing repeating patterns of a percussive nature was a viable means of making music, and had an ancient history.”[3]

The Influence Engine
Music for 18 Musicians
A tangled web soon emerges when one begins to lay out the explicit or implicit relationship between Reich and popular music.[4] A feature of that web is its increasing circularity: the chains of influence rarely extend in single, straight lines, but tend to loop through a small number of nodes. At the start, those nodes are perhaps John Coltrane and Ghanaian music. A later one might be Giorgio Moroder; Brian Eno can certainly be added, as well as Kraftwerk and Mike Oldfield. The Orb, to name just one act, couldn’t have happened without these latter three. As the decades pass, new nodes are added, but the loops continue to pass up the chain. Since the late 1980s and the self-awareness of music history brought about by CDs and digital distribution, curious artists are more easily able to follow these chains of influence back as far as they like.

And those artists keep coming back to Reich. So in recent years we’ve seen Reich perform with Kraftwerk (Manchester Velodrome, 2009); billed alongside Orbital, Richie Hawtin, and Riccardo Villalobos (the aborted Bloc festival, London, 2012); programmed beside Lee Ranaldo, Tyondai Braxton, and Owen Pallett (Reverberations, London, 2011); and performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Kraków, 2011). And Reich himself flirted with the idea of writing 2×5 for Radiohead, before turning his attention fully to their music with Radio Rewrite.

I find the resilience of this phenomenon interesting. Why the urge to keep returning up the chain? And why is Reich, not Coltrane before him, or any of those rock and dance musicians in the 1970s from just after he established his style, that chain’s eternal endpoint? The answers to those questions say something not only about Reich’s music, but about our response to it and how we rationalize minimalism’s place within music history.

For those stakeholders I mentioned at the start of this article—critics, marketers, record companies, performance venues, ensembles, and the composer himself—the benefits are clear: the story of Reich’s influence on popular music helps him assert a position against Schoenberg, serialism, and all that. For the composer, it is a way to position himself within a canon of classical forebears who kept open the window between popular and classical music: Josquin, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ives, Weill, and Bartók are among those names he has mentioned in this context. (NB: His own teacher, Berio, composer of Folk Songs, Coro, and Sequenza XIII, and arranger of Beatles songs, does not make this list.) For popular musicians there are prestige and validation, should they want them. There is a cachet of a sort in being able to claim an aesthetic lineage from an esteemed classical composer.

The influence engine encourages us to view Reich’s music as the fountainhead of so many subsequent styles. Yet I wonder if it might not be more fruitful to think of its persistence as a result of its basis in an Afro-diasporic template—that is structured around repetitions, breaks, and accumulation, and prioritizes rhythm and melody—derived from Coltrane and other musicians, and that itself underpins much black music from blues to rap. In Music for 18 Musicians and other works, Reich brilliantly crystallized that template into something that, as history has shown, could inspire in many different directions at once. He took the biggest step in the chain I have described. Perhaps it will require a similar act of creative reception to refresh our understanding of Reich’s place in recent music history.


1. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (University of California Press, 2005)

2. Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra (Duke University Press, 2009)

3. ‘Hebrew Cantillation as an Influence on Composition’ (1982), in Writings on Music, 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford University Press, 2002), p.106

4. Ross Cole unpicks a number of threads from Reich’s San Francisco years in “‘Fun, Yes, but Music?’ Steve Reich and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Cultural Nexus, 1962–65,” Journal of the Society for American Music, vi (2012), 315–48


Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for a number of publications, including his blog, The Rambler. His new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music was published in September.