Steve Reich: It's Gonna Rain (1965)

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It's Gonna Rain (extract only)
Steve Reich: It's Gonna Rain (1965)

Sampling, found sound, loops and tape manipulation are commonplace these days -- but back in '65 this piece by minimalist Steve Reich (interviewed here) anticipated a whole style of experimental music.

And as with John Lennon -- who allegedly put the tape of the Beatles' b-side Rain backwards into his home player and loved the strange sound which emerged -- Reich came upon this purely by chance.

In '64 while at Berkeley in San Francisco, Reich was experimenting with tape recording and one afternoon in Union Square he recorded a preacher named Brother Walter who was declaiming a sermon about Noah and The Flood.

At one point Walter warned, "it's gonna rain".

Word is that Reich, recording all this, was going through a painful divorce at the time and -- what with the Bay of Pigs debacle and the killing of JFK -- the phrase resonated with him. Later he cued up two tape decks with that phrase on each in the hope of cutting from one to the other so the result would be "It's gonna" from one machine and "rain" from another.

But he cued them wrongly and they played the same phrase simulateneously -- but then Reich noticed one was running slightly faster than the other so the phrase was gradually going out of synch.

Listened to on headphones this created a weird, slightly Doppler Effect, impression as the sound panned across from one to the other.

Reich, it has to be said, had great source material to work with: Brother Walter had a powerful voice and the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. As Alex Ross notes in The Rest is Noise, "the machines essentially wrote It's Gonna Rain by themselves and [Reich] was smart enough not to stop them".

In subsequent years Reich -- back in New York and hooking up with the likes of Philip Glass -- explored tape further (Come Out in '66) and also used musical instruments (Piano Phase in '67)  which wouldd be phased by different tape speeds. His album Early Works from which It's Gonna Rain and those other pieces come is pivotal.

The original is 17 minutes long and is quite thrilling, but the sample here is illustrative enough.

There is another excellent example of tape manipulation on the Liverpool Sound Collage album from 2000 here.

For more on-offs or songs with an interesting back-story see From the Vaults.

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