Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint — a justly popular composition for one live guitarist, who plays atop 13 other prerecorded electric bass and guitar parts — has been in need of a new recording for years. Pat Metheny’s original take for Nonesuch, while still valuable, now sounds a touch over-indebted to the thin, lite-jazz electric guitar tones of the late 1980s. More recently, Andrew McKenna Lee’s 2009 recording had a lot going for it — including just the right amount of post-grunge distortion in some sections — but lacked warmth. And all the thrumming notes and chords in this piece do need a bit of warmth to come across as triumphantly as they should.
So once Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood started trotting out Reich’s electric guitar opus at solo gigs, fans of both artists had a right to hope for a proper studio recording. The version Greenwood has turned in doesn’t disappoint: It nails the intricate detail of Reich’s patterns, and also sounds recognizably like other music the instrumentalist has played before. (Think of the glorious Greenwood guitar sound, circa In Rainbows.) It’s more than a good match; the connection between guitarist and repertoire feels fated.
Even though this album isn’t titled after the three-movement piece, Electric Counterpoint connects strongly to the two other selections on offer, giving the set a rewarding unity. Elsewhere, we have the similarly titled Piano Counterpoint — a canny rearrangement of Reich’s Six Pianos, for six pianists — in which four of the original piece’s layers are prerecorded, a la Electric Counterpoint. All that’s left, then, is for a virtuoso pianist to take on a blend of the remaining two parts, in live performance. Downtown NYC mainstay Vicky Chow has the massive talent needed to pull off such a feat, and she sounds just as well matched with this material as Greenwood does with Electric Counterpoint.
Then, as the album moves away from its “counterpoint” theme, we have a return to a Radiohead-adjacent sound, during the five-moment Radio Rewrite (played by the reliably thrilling chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound). Thankfully, Radio Rewrite is not a simplistic pop-rearrangement piece. Though half-familiar motifs do crop up, they mutate and change course in rewarding ways — the result of Reich’s free-associative responses to harmonic and rhythmic aspects of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything In Its Right Place.” If listening for elements of the former Radiohead track in the first, third and fifth movements, you’ll probably home in on what sounds like settings of various Thom Yorke vocalizations. (“The beat goes round and round,” for example, appears in a rhythmically staggered expression for Alarm’s strings and winds, starting at the 1:15 mark in the first movement.) But the chief enjoyment of Radio Rewrite isn’t in this kind of aural bookkeeping. The real joy is in hearing Reich at his most melodically inspired, here in the finale of what has to be considered a key album in his catalog.