Steve Reich Meets Radiohead

Jeffrey Herman; Gavin Peters / Retna Ltd. / Corbis

The two are playing each other’s music, prompting intrigue and speculation.

Last September, at Kraków’s Sacrum Profanum festival of contemporary music, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood sat onstage and played a meditative motif on his guitar that echoed throughout the vast space. The music looped, and Greenwood added layers, soulfully, as his fingers hammered on and off his fret board. Greenwood, a classically trained musician, kept his eyes glued to his blue-painted nails as a sonic vortex swirled around him. He was grooving to “Electric Counterpoint,” a seminal work by Steve Reich, one of the founders of 1960s minimalism, who is returning the favor by writing music inspired by Greenwood’s band.

The music of Reich and Radiohead share a number of qualities that a genre-based streaming service might ignore. For one thing, the band’s riffs, like Reich’s musical cells, are often repetitive before phasing into more complex patterns. Radiohead, like Reich, uses a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments to create what often sounds like a computer-generated score—that is, if the computer possessed human emotions.

Not long after Reich learned that Greenwood—who serves as composer-in-residence at the BBC Concert Orchestra and wrote the score for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood—performed “Electric Counterpoint,” the elder composer began work on Radiohead-inspired material. Reich’s music won’t debut until March 2013 in London, at the Southbank Centre, but it’s intriguing for Radiohead fans with “classical” tastes that the two parties have confirmed a mutual respect. Radiohead is touring the world this year, in the wake of its eighth studio album, The King of Limbs, which explores sampling as well as jagged dubstep rhythms. One wonders if Reich will join Radiohead fans at one of these shows and maybe even shuffle his feet to the bits and bytes.