You’d be forgiven for listening to ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, an early work by American composer Steve Reich, and coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t music as you understood it. Created in 1965, the song features the spoken words of a Pentecostal preacher delivering a passionate sermon about Noah’s Ark in San Francisco’s Union Square. Two recorded loops of the preacher’s voice begin simultaneously before one of the loops slowly creeps forward, causing the preacher’s voice to become out of sync as the title words break up into a series of challenging patterns and phases.
The music sounds broken, elliptical, confusing. Reich heard endless possibilities.
“It’s Gonna Rain” is “not a nice piece”, as the artist and musician Brian Eno puts it CALLS (Hannover Square, 347 pp., $27.99), a lively new book by Reich in which the composer romps through his career via casual Q. and As with various contemporaries, acolytes, friends and colleagues. But the song was a “life-changing” experience for Eno and so many others in the book who credited Reich with breaking the rules of classical composition and offering a new way of thinking about music and how we listen to it.
“Everything I thought I understood about music had to be revised,” says Eno, referring to the first time he listened to Reich’s early music. “It really got me thinking again about what music could be, and what listening consisted of, because it made me realize that listening was a very creative activity.”
Reich would later ditch the tape recorder and apply the phasing techniques of “It’s Gonna Rain” to live instruments and vocals, experimenting with polyrhythms inspired by African drumming and Balinese gamelan. In pieces like ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and ‘Piano Phase’ time seems to rush forward while you stand still, the notes are never exactly where your ears expect them to be. The joy of the book is to hear artists from different disciplines and backgrounds – including Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and sculptor Richard Serra – talk about their relationship with Reich’s music and how it influenced their own creative processes. The composer Nico Muhly compares it to a spiritual quest.
Memory of Ronnie Spector
The lead singer of the Ronettes, the 1960s vocal trio that gave a passionate, bad-girl edge to pop girl-group sound, died on January 12, 2022.
A similar dedication can be found in DILLA TIME: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 458 pp., $30). It is an exhaustive study of the life and legacy of Detroit producer James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, by journalist Dan Charnas. Dilla died in 2006 at the age of 32 from complications of a rare blood disorder. In his short life, he had an inordinate influence on hip-hop and neo-soul, genres for which he became known as an indispensable collaborator with acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots and Common.
He is perhaps best known for his album “Donuts”, which was released by Stones Throw Records shortly before his death. But, as Charnas points out, that album was largely edited by Jeff Jank, who worked at the label and was in charge of extending tracks from a tape of unreleased Dilla beats while the artist was sick. Fans put hidden meanings into the songs, many of them false, adding to Dilla’s almost mythical reputation.
For Charnas — who teaches a class focused on Dilla’s music at New York University and relies on musical analysis by NYU colleague, Jeff Peretz — Dilla’s near messianic following among artists and fans is based on his technical skills as a producer. Dilla also experimented with time signatures, machines and polyrhythms. “Before J Dilla, our popular music essentially had two common ‘sense of time’ – straight time and swing time – meaning musicians felt and expressed time as even or uneven pulses,” Charnas writes. “What Dilla created was a third path of rhythm, where those two senses of time, equal and unequal at the same time, were juxtaposed, creating a new, enjoyable, disorienting rhythmic friction and a new sense of time: Dilla Time.”
Charnas uses diagrams throughout the book to illustrate his dissertation and the ways Dilla created his unusual, signature hip-hop beats. He draws a line connecting Dilla’s innovations with his ever-present influence among artists who emerged long after his death, from the rapper Kendrick Lamar to the jazz pianist Robert Glasper, with his music becoming the subject of lectures, festivals and fundraisers.
But unlike the many artists whose music he helped inspire, Dilla never became famous. His brushes with the success of major labels always ended in disappointment, due to contractual disagreements, bad luck or creative differences. Despite the many artists who recognize him as one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, he has never become a household name like Kanye West, a producer to whom he is compared.
When other artists adore your work while your career languishes on the sidelines, one of the hard truths in BE MY BABY (Holt, 353 pp., $27.99), Ronnie Spector’s 1990 memoir, written with Vince Waldron. In the new release of this revised and updated hardcover edition, Keith Richards calls Spector “one of the greatest female rock ‘n’ roll voices of all time”. As the lead singer of the Ronettes, the beehive girl group that released the 1963 classic “Be My Baby,” Spector was an icon before she was 30 years old. “Every record they made was a number 1. Or if it wasn’t, it should have been,” Richards writes. Spector never even had a #1 song on Billboard. “Be My Baby” only reached number 2.
Spector, who died in January at age 78, spent most of her career chasing another hit. It never came. She came closest to “Take Me Home Tonight,” an Eddie Money hit single in 1986 with her vocals in the chorus. Instead, her marriage to Phil Spector, who produced “Be My Baby” and was later convicted of murder, derailed her recording career and her personal life. The abuse she endured in the marriage is well documented, but is no less shocking on later readings of the memoir: He threw a sandwich at her face for poking around his office. Out of jealousy, he didn’t let her tour with the Beatles. He was secretly married at the time he started dating her, and when they eventually married, he forced her to live as a hermit in a California mansion, demanding obedience and controlling her so much that she felt that she suffered from mind control.
His dangerous obsession with his wife, captured here in stomach-churning detail, was so complete that he ordered a life-size, custom-made inflatable plastic mannequin of his own to sit in the passenger seat of her Camaro, so she would never be seen driving alone in Los Angeles.
Alcohol nearly ruined her career, leading her to seizures, car accidents and failed live performances. But the memoir remains one of redemption. Though Spector vividly describes how she was brainwashed by Phil Spector, who died last year, her hardscrabble Spanish Harlem toughness hits every page of the book. Her struggle with infertility and her strong desire to become a mother eventually leads to a triumphant moment of self-discovery and happiness.
In a new postscript to the book, written during the pandemic, Spector, whose life will be the subject of an upcoming biopic, sounds confident. She joins other women in the entertainment industry who have survived exploitation and calls on the industry to hold more violent men accountable. For too long, bad behavior has been attributed to eccentricity, she says. Cruelty becomes “the price you pay for genius” when powerful people hurt others in the name of creative genius.
But “the world has changed,” she writes, “and I don’t see it going back.”