Radio Rewrite is a 2012 work for instrumental ensemble by American composer Steve Reich (born 1936), inspired by two songs by British rock band Radiohead, Jigsaw Falling into Place and Everything in Its Right Place. The piece represents the first time that Reich has reworked material from western pop/rock music. It has five movements, alternating fast and slow, and is scored for clarinet, flute, two violins, viola, cello, two vibraphones, two pianos and electric bass. The work premiered in London, UK in 2013, performed by the London Sinfonietta, to a generally positive reception. Much attention focused on the Radiohead material, with some reviewers praising how completely it is integrated, while others question whether Radiohead's style is suited to Reich's work.
Reich is one of the founders of the minimalist movement in music. While his work takes inspiration from Baroque music, Igor Stravinsky, jazz, Hebrew cantillation and West African and Balinese music, the composer states that he has composed only two earlier pieces that directly reference material from existing music. His 1995 vocal work, Proverb, draws from 12th–13th century composer Pérotin; more recently, his 2011 piece for two pianos, Finishing the Hat, draws from musical writer Stephen Sondheim, Reich's near contemporary. Reich connects this practice of rewriting with a long tradition in classical music, stretching back to the early 15th century. Although he sees classical and popular music as closely linked – as he puts it, "the window is open between the street and the concert hall" – and has often composed for electronic instruments, Reich does not describe himself as a fan of rock music, and had never previously investigated the potential of western pop/rock music for such treatment.
Reich's compositions have frequently been referenced in popular music across many different genres, and his influence is apparent as an inspiration to works by Aphex Twin, Björk, David Bowie, Tyondai Braxton, Bryce Dessner, Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield, The Orb, Talking Heads, Tortoise and U2, among others. Reich claims to be happy for disc jockeys to remix his work.
Reich and Radiohead
Radiohead is a five-member British rock band, formed in the mid-1980s, whose recent style was described in 2012 as "jazz-tinged electronic rock." Reich first encountered the group's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, in September 2011 at the Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków, Poland, where Greenwood was playing Reich's Electric Counterpoint for live and pre-recorded electric guitar with Ensemble Modern. Impressed with Greenwood's performance, Reich was struck by the rock guitarist's varied interests as a composer and viola player. He knew Greenwood's score for the film There Will Be Blood and comments, "'Here's a guy into Messiaen.' I'd never have known it was written by a rocker."
After the festival, Reich explored Radiohead's music for the first time. He describes them as "an important and innovative rock group" and "definitely one of the best bands around," stating that "their melodic stuff is very beautiful." He found two songs were particularly memorable: their classic "Everything in Its Right Place," from the 2000 album Kid A, and the more recent and upbeat "Jigsaw Falling into Place," from the 2007 album In Rainbows. Reich describes "Jigsaw" as "a beautiful song" featuring "elaborate harmonic movement." "Everything" he calls "a very rich song. It's very simple and very complex at the same time." "It's three-chord rock but it's not, it's very unusual." He explains that although the song is in the key F minor, the F minor chord never appears. Reich also comments that the word "everything" is sung to tonic–dominant–tonic, echoing, probably unconsciously, the dominant–tonic chords that form "the end of everything in classical music ... it's perfect, it is everything."
In 2011, Reich was already working on a joint ensemble commission from Alarm Will Sound and London Sinfonietta, which he had originally conceived as "a giant counterpoint piece" for 15 musicians doubled against an equal number of recordings. The piece was stalled, having failed to come together, and Reich decided to use material in the two Radiohead songs that he found "exhilarating, energizing" as inspiration to reinvigorate the project. He neither sampled the Radiohead tracks nor wrote variations on them; rather, working entirely from the sheet music, he based his composition on the songs' underlying harmonies and also incorporated occasional short fragments of the melody. He deliberately composed the rock-inspired work for an ensemble playing almost entirely classical instruments.
Reich states that the strongest ties to the original songs are found in the first two movements of the five-movement work, especially the fast first movement which echoes the harmonic structure of "Jigsaw" and also borrows a brief melodic element. In the slow second movement, Reich deliberately shuffled the chord progression from "Everything", which he describes as "powerful," in addition to transposing it in key, to avoid drawing too heavily on the song. This section also borrows the tonic–dominant–tonic setting of the word "everything," which is additionally used in the other slow section. In the final three movements, especially the two fast ones, Reich moved further from the source material. The piece was completed in August 2012.
Radio Rewrite is scored for clarinet, flute, two violins, viola, cello, two vibraphones, two pianos and electric bass guitar. The piece lasts around 19 minutes and has five movements, which alternate fast and slow tempi and are played continuously. The three fast movements (first, third and fifth) draw from "Jigsaw Falling into Place," and the two slow from "Everything in Its Right Place." According to the composer, "As to actually hearing the original songs, the truth is – sometimes you hear them and sometimes you don't;" "...those with sharper ears may catch harmonic similarities." Reviewers note that a brief melody from "Jigsaw" appears repeatedly in the fast movements, especially in a clarinet phrase in the final one, while the clearest influence of "Everything" is a repeated three-chord progression. According to Seth Colter Walls, writing in Slate, Reich's work has a "rhythmic complexity ... that goes beyond ... either original track."
The Guardian's Guy Dammann considers that Radio Rewrite has some similarities in composition and scoring with Double Sextet, Reich's Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 2008, and states that the doubled vibraphones and pianos give the piece structure and progression.
Radio Rewrite received its world premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in London, UK on March 5, 2013, performed by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Brad Lubman. The composer manned the mixing desk for the performance. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, with each piece introduced by an interview with Reich. Radio Rewrite was subsequently performed by the London Sinfonietta on tour across the UK. The work was commissioned jointly by the London Sinfonietta in the UK and Alarm Will Sound in the US; the US premiere was given by Alarm Will Sound on March 16 in Palo Alto, California.
It's fantastic, and so exciting, I mean, I can recognise chord shapes and the cadences. ... What's interesting for me is all the vocal inflections. I can hear all the singing. His curiosity and his relationship to those chords that we've used, and repetition sort of teases them out, so it's fantastic. ... When I was listening to his work last night I was thinking about "Jigsaw" and different chord shapes, chord extensions for like bass lines, and stuff. I don't know about rethinking but just enjoying it, you know, you're seeing it through someone else's eyes, or a prism, you know, the different refraction. For that, we're all incredibly grateful.
The premiere gained substantial media attention in the UK. Radio Rewrite was generally well received by classical music critics, with the concert receiving four out of five stars in reviews by the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph, and three stars from The Independent and The Times. Laura Battle, writing in the Financial Times, describes the piece as "rich and impressive," and comments on its atmospheric writing and "sense of wistfulness." The Telegraph's Ivan Hewett calls it "a fine display of compositional mastery." Stephen Pritchard, reviewing for The Observer, describes the piece as "instantly accessible, instantly enjoyable," and draws attention to the "pearlescent luminosity" of the vibraphones.
The Radiohead inspiration had a somewhat mixed reception. Pritchard writes that the work is "no mere set of variations ... not so much a rewrite as a reimagining in Reich's hyperreal style." Hewett and Igor Toronyi-Lalic at theartsdesk.com both praise how completely the Radiohead material has been integrated, with the former commenting that the work has "nothing to do with remix culture." Toronyi-Lalic comments on the way that "the unfamiliar harmonies that Reich is forced to play with liberates him to explore a more dramatic palette. In the two slow movements, he revels in the dissonances thrown up by Everything in its Right Place, encouraging them to assume a Jewish cantor-like wail through woodwind colouring."
Other reviewers are more critical of this aspect of the piece. Dammann writes that "the piece absorbs only a handful of gestures from the songs into an otherwise familiar compositional framework," and Battle considers the "much-hyped allusions are fleeting." Helen Wallace of BBC Music Magazine comments: "The hope was that the Radiohead elements would ignite something, or at least disturb something, in Reich's creative process that would inspire him. / In fact, he neutralised them. The result was attractive and underwhelming. ... What some of his best pieces share ... is a disruptive 'alien' element, be it African music, poetry, documentary speech or sound. Radiohead's music, perhaps, is ultimately too close to his own aesthetic." Anna Picard, in a review for The Independent, assesses the work as "rather bland" and one of Reich's "B-sides," and comments that "after nearly 50 years of favouring the Early French polyphonists, modal jazz and African music as his influences, unmoved alike by disco, punk, techno, krautrock or Motown, Radiohead seems an odd place for him to start a relationship with pop: too thin, too drab, too short on ecstasy and heat."
From a rock perspective, Peter Culshaw at theartsdesk.com describes the Radiohead references as "a bit peek-a-boo and Spot That Tune," and is unconvinced by the work as a whole, writing that the slow sections show "flashes of real beauty, over enjoyably dissonant chords, but as a whole isn't entirely satisfying. ... The slow parts at times left a queasy impression – like someone painting a strange coloured rose on top of a Mondrian or a Bridget Riley."
- Schwarz, p. 50
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- Ross, pp. 476, 478, 498, 506
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