Applying Steve Reich's Phasing Techniques with Video

Reich's early tape loops have an creative analog in the age of YouTube
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Fig. 1. The New York Times called Steve Reich “our greatest living composer”. His early works feature intricately layered loops that phase against each other.

Fig. 1. The New York Times called Steve Reich “our greatest living composer”. His early works feature intricately layered loops that phase against each other.

In 1966, Steve Reich turned a single loop into a haunting piece of music called “Come Out” (see Figure 1). He started with a recording of a teenager saying “come out to show them,” then gradually offset and layered the phrase to produce a wash of sound. In my book The Art of Digital Music, I asked Reich how he navigates the fine line between repetition and boredom.

“Ha ha! That’s a very good question,” he replied. “In ‘Come Out,’ you first hear the whole sentence so you understand the context. Once it starts, you hear the phrase over and over, but then very slowly you hear — what is this? It seems like it’s coming apart. And, literally, it is coming apart. You’ve got the same phrase on two channels of the stereo tape and one is moving ahead of the other ever so slowly until finally it feels like reverberation. Then it feels like it’s shaking, and then it feels like cumma-cumma, showdem-showdem. And actually, you’re never hearing any repetition in that sense. This thing is constantly in motion.”

Reich laughed, “Repetition by itself is a cheap trick. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s artistically irrelevant. But it’s a gold mine if applied with some intelligence and some added feature that will make it riveting.”

Fig. 2. Entering a YouTube ID at www.batmosphere.com/loopwall loads and loops nine copies of a video, randomly off setting the start times. Here I played a metal drum tuned to a pentatonic scale so all the notes would harmonize.

Fig. 2. Entering a YouTube ID at www.batmosphere.com/loopwall loads and loops nine copies of a video, randomly off setting the start times. Here I played a metal drum tuned to a pentatonic scale so all the notes would harmonize.

In 2018, that added feature could be video. Inspired by “Come Out,” I uploaded a short music video to YouTube and set up a web page to play nine copies, automatically looping each as it finished (see Figure 2). There’s no sync, so each video starts playing as soon as it loads, offset randomly from its companions to create infinite combinations of sound and visuals. The browser adds another random delay when each video loops, increasing the variation.

Better Embed. To loop a YouTube video, you simply use the embedding form of the URL (www.youtube.com/embed/VIDEO_ID) and add two parameters: loop and playlist. For example, to loop a video with the ID YzuG6922zX4, the basic URL would be www.youtube.com/embed/YzuG6922zX4?loop=1&playlist=YzuG6922zX4. The loop parameter takes binary values: 1 means true and 0 means false. The playlist parameter is a hack for browsers that don’t understand the loop parameter; by setting the next video ID in the playlist to the original ID, you make playback repeat. If you want to play multiple videos at once without setting up your own web page, you can paste this URL into multiple browser windows. To make each video start automatically, add &autoplay=1 to the URL. (Note that mobile browsers typically play only one video at a time and ignore the autoplay parameter.) I’ve posted more background on my demo page at www.batmosphere.com/loopwall.

Fig. 3. The TCP: Reich iOS app (free) lets you experiment with Steve Reich’s composition techniques. This module simulates phasing tape loops. Dragging the slider changes the speed of one loop, creating drift; dragging the waveform changes the time off set.

Fig. 3. The TCP: Reich iOS app (free) lets you experiment with Steve Reich’s composition techniques. This module simulates phasing tape loops. Dragging the slider changes the speed of one loop, creating drift; dragging the waveform changes the time off set.

For even more variation, play different videos simultaneously, choosing musical parts that are in the same key. Because rhythms will never line up, this works best with pads and ambiences. Years ago, Brian Eno, also a Reich fan, created installations with multiple autoreverse cassette decks playing different-length tapes. A free iOS app (see Figure 3) makes it easier than ever to try these techniques yourself.