Radiohead have reached the kind of rarefied air that few bands could ever hope to arrive at. They are so commercially successful that they can sell out stadiums all over the world and have their every last move be scrutinized with a jeweler’s loupe. At the same time, their music remains so melodically and rhythmically complex that it has been covered by dozens of jazz and contemporary classical ensembles.
Now, the English group has scored perhaps its greatest coup: having their work inspire a new piece by minimalist composer Steve Reich. As the story goes, the 78-year-old heard his solo guitar piece “Electric Counterpoint” performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood at a festival and was so impressed that he sought out some music by the band. The two tracks that stuck with him the most—“Everything In Its Right Place” (from Kid A) and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” (from In Rainbows)—wound up becoming the basis for “Radio Rewrite,” a new composition commissioned by new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound.
“Radio Rewrite” isn’t an interpretation of those songs, nor does it take the easy way out and use samples of the source material within. The five-movement piece feels more like homage, using some of the same chord structures and time signatures of the Radiohead to explore some new sonic terrain. You can pick out the connections though—the third movement mirrors Thom Yorke’s vocal pattern on “Everything,” right down to his holding out the last note of every verse, while in the fifth movement, the ensemble crowds around the same melody as the guitar lines in “Jigsaw.”
Like a lot of Reich’s work, the music suggests forward momentum, but with “Radio,” the movement is in a much more oblong fashion. In the second slow section, the piano and strings strike a chord together and then circle back on it, at first relatively quickly but then with longer and longer notes held out between them. By the time they are in unison again, the notes have changed and the cycle begins anew. This plays out similarly in the faster movements, but it gets pushed into the background while rigid staccato pulses take precedence. Listened to in one sweep, the music strangely ends up feeling surprisingly loose and improvisational for what is a strictly composed piece. There’s something about the awkward angles “Radio Rewrite” takes that echoes a more freeform nature, very much akin to the work of a certain five-piece rock outfit.
Accompanying this new work on CD is a pair of fine complementary pieces, “Electric Counterpoint” (played to perfection by Greenwood) and a transcription of Reich’s 1973 work “Six Pianos.” In both, a sole instrumentalist accompanies pre-recorded parts. This feels more dramatic in the case of “Piano Counterpoint,” as the foundational material is played much faster than I’ve ever heard it, allowing for a great showcase for pianist Vicky Chow to dazzle with her ability to maintain the same tempo as she adds the staggered repeating melodies that carry this work forward like a steadily-moving river.