Ask any E-dropping, glitter-wearing, backpack-toting club kid who first delved into the world of sampling and she’ll probably retort with a name from the early pioneers of rap. Grandmaster Flash or Kool Herc come to mind much more quickly than an avant-garde classical composer who spends more time touring Europe with a full orchestra than he does spinning vinyl at clubs. Be that as it may, it was minimalist composer Steve Reich — a man little known, until now, on the club circuit — who first used sampling as a musical technique when he looped taped speeches on top of themselves as early as the mid-Sixties in his pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.”
Flash-forward to the eve of the Millenium, and it’s impossible to turn on the TV without catching electronic samples behind everything from advertisements to The X-Files ghost hunts. Sampling is so pervasive, it’s often hard to discern between actual live music and virtual, recorded sounds. But for one of electronic music’s unwitting trailblazers and his discriminating ear, the difference is easy to detect.
“I was in London about six or seven years ago, and somebody said, ‘you know, the Orb,’ and I said, ‘What’s the Orb?’ So he gave me this CD with ‘Little Puffy Clouds’ on it,” recalls Steve Reich from his country retreat in Vermont. “Take a listen and you’ll hear thirty seconds of ‘Electric Counterpoint’ right off the record. I mean, it’s a real, large, noticeable chunk. And I said, ‘Ah, that’s interesting.’ This was before they really made it big, so we never sued them and they appreciated that.”
That was Reich’s first insight into his impact on DJ culture. “The scene was not something I was really aware of. I didn’t know any of this was going on,” he admits. That was then, however, and now, with the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” all over the Volkswagen campaign and Reich Remixed, an album made up exclusively of Reich pieces reworked by DJs like Coldcut, Howie B., Ken Ishii and Spooky, he’s pretty clued in to the sprawling world of sampling. Still, it’s a surprise to Reich that a genre so far removed from his influences and his audiences, which tend to be patrons of classical and experimental forms of expression, can be so heavily inspired by his work.
“I mean, when I was fourteen years old, I started going to jazz clubs, and it had a huge effect on me. Later, when I was going to music school, I used to hear John Coltrane and all that music played in the latter part of his life,” the sixty-two-year-old Reich says when asked for a brief history of his influences. “Cut to, like, 1974, and I was giving a concert in London, and when the concert’s over, a guy with lipstick and long hair comes up to me and says, ‘How do you do? I’m Brian Eno.’ And two years later we do the performance of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and David Bowie is there.”
Eno and Bowie were inspired by Reich’s use of non-Western music, African drumming, repeating basslines and static-filled stretches. And those same textures and sounds are what inspired the nine DJs who appear on Reich Remixed. “Here we’re talking about people who are twenty years or more younger than Bowie and Eno, and they’re finding interest in pieces of mine that were composed before they were born,” he says. “I mean, it makes me feel like I’m useful.”
Still, Reich knows that he and the DJs aren’t cut from the same exact cloth. “The big difference is that the DJs are sampling other people’s music and rearranging it with stuff that they generate themselves. I’m sampling specifically non-musical sounds,” Reich explains. “I’m not interested in synthesizers. I don’t want something that sounds like a violin, I want a violin. But I will bring in someone speaking, because of the melody of their voice and because of what they say.”
Whatever the differences between Reich’s sampling techniques and those played to the be-glittered club crowds, the composer is proud to be speaking to the next generation. “The kind of music that I grew up with alienated a huge, vast majority. The idea of contemporary music at a concert hall was like a bitter pill. Really, it was. Now you have a lot more interest in classical music, and it’s an added bonus that people in the pop world are taking an interest in it, that they see it as something that is connected to their lives.”