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Steve Reich is arguably the most influential composer of his generation. He's credited as one of the founders of the so-called minimalist classical music movement. His music, in turn, has inspired generations of composers whose work can be heard in concert halls, dance clubs and rock festivals. Reich turned 75 this month, and his birthday is being celebrated around the world throughout the year.

Gail Wein has his story.

GAIL WEIN, BYLINE: In the early 1960s, when Steve Reich was beginning his composition career, the contemporary classical music scene was dominated by atonal music - like this, by Pierre Boulez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE REICH: It was - fell to my generation to basically say, basta, enough to music which you could not tap your foot to, to music to which you could not possibly walk out humming anything, and music which had no harmonic center.

WEIN: But Reich didn't just sit down and write lovely melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEIN: He was studying composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, a hotbed of avant-garde creativity. He was experimenting with taking lengths of audio tape, splicing them together to form a loop, and putting them on a tape player so that they would run over and over again, continuously.

Reich went to San Francisco's Union Square and recorded a charismatic street preacher, whose sermon hovered between speech and song.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, " IT'S GONNA RAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He began to warm up Peter. He said, after all, it's gonna rain after all.

REICH: At a certain point, he says that, sho' enough, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain. And as he said, it's gonna rain, a pigeon took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REICH: So if you made a tape loop out of it, you heard it's going to rain, it's going to rain; and then you get wha-wha-wha-wha-wha, which was the pigeon taking off - repeatedly, on the loop. So you had a pigeon drummer and this incredible voice.

Well, I thought, oh. I thought, wouldn't it be great if it was like, two loops, and they were going like, it's gonna, it's gonna, it's gonna rain, rain, rain, rain, and the pigeon would just be drumming away.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, " IT'S GONNA RAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's gonna rain. It's gonna rain. It's gonna rain. It's gonna rain. It's gonna rain...

PROFESSOR TIM PAGE: He really taught us how to listen differently.

WEIN: Tim Page is professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. He says Reich's work was the opposite of what was going on at the time.

PAGE: It was very repetitive. It was very quote-unquote, tonal. And it had a very steady pulse. So it was really setting pretty much all the traditional modernisms that were in fashion in the '70s on their head. And for a lot of us, hearing his music was literally, a life-changer.

WEIN: One of those whose life changed after hearing Reich's compositions was fellow composer David Lang. He first heard Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" on an LP he came across at the record store where he worked.

DAVID LANG: I had never been prepared to hear anything like this. It didn't have a melody; it didn't have harmony - at least the way I had been prepared to understand it - it didn't have a way of progressing. And I remember thinking; this is the coolest thing I ever heard in my life. I was 17 years old.

I started thinking, the role of the composer is to experiment and explore, and to find something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEIN: Reich's music became hugely influential, and not just for classical musicians. Brian Eno and David Bowie as well as hip hop and house music - all owe something to this composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

WEIN: Younger rock musicians continue to be interested in Reich's music - like Bryce Dessner, guitarist with the band The National.

BRYCE DESSNER: I think for a lot of musicians like myself, Steve Reich's appeal is quite broad and, in a way, just to open this big space for musicians to move in.

WEIN: Dessner is also a classical guitarist and composer himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

WEIN: As for his rock band, Dessner says The National enjoys a daily connection to Reich's music. Drummer Brian Devendorf is obsessed with the composition "Clapping Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "CLAPPING MUSIC")

DESSNER: He plays it every night before the show. He'll play it for an hour to warm up. So we basically listen to Steve Reich every night. And it's kind of fun. It's just like this constant pattern that's just sort of looping through our heads before we go out on stage - is this Steve Reich's "Clapping Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "CLAPPING MUSIC")

WEIN: But it's not just Reich's past music that intrigues his fans, says Tim Page.

PAGE: One of the things that's really, sort of extraordinary about Steve Reich is that he's 75, and yet he's still somebody to whom everybody looks with great interest, to see what he'll do next. And that's a rarity.

WEIN: Reich himself is always looking forward, even after celebrating his 75th birthday.

REICH: Actually, I've already received what I want for my birthday, which is that young musicians around the world want to and actually do play my music very well. And to go around and hear that, in reality, is the best present that any composer could possibly ask for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WEIN: Concerts and festivals celebrating Steve Reich's 75th birthday continue through the year in North America, Europe and Australia.

For NPR News, I'm Gail Wein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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