When Steve Reich, the most important active composer in the world, was 14, he heard three things that have informed his music ever since: J.S. Bach's Brandenburg concertos, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and the bebop of Charlie Parker. Each defined a powerful artistic vision, and "all three were rhythmically perceptive yet melodic," he told me in an interview a few years ago. Later, while studying composition in college, Reich chafed in a music establishment that disdained jazz and other popular forms. "I remember distinctly in '63 , studying with [arch-academic composer Luciano] Berio by day and all us students writing complex ideas on paper, music that maybe 20 people would ever care about," he recalled. "Meanwhile, at night I would go to the Jazz Workshop [a San Francisco club] and see [John] Coltrane and just love him. It had an enormous impact on what I did, and gave a shot of musical health to the way music grew in that time."It grew by shrinking, for Reich applied the lesson of mid-60s Coltrane (forget chord changes and concentrate on melody and rhythm -- especially rhythm) to new composed music. Reich took simple, even simplistic musical themes and repeated them over and over, while gradually moving one or more part ahead of the others. These gradual processes focused the listener on the change itself and the patterns that emerged. The music inspired listeners to appreciate musical elements they'd taken for granted or that had been obscured in the increasingly complex, dense, and offputting 20th century music that Reich rebelled against. Along with Terry Riley, LaMont Young, and hos former partner Philip Glass, Reich was credited or damned for creating what was dubbed (to their unanimous annoyance) minimalism. Like the others, Reich long ago transcended both the term and the style, but unlike them, he just keeps getting better. His new CD, City Life, is not only the best new music album I heard in 1996, it also contains some of the most progressive and compelling music this master has ever given us. Before Reich could reach this zenith of accessible innovation, however, he had to push musical boundaries -- and even listeners' tolerance. Though innovative, Reich's early music challenged audiences accustomed to traditional Western harmonies, and is partly responsible for minimalism's initial bad rep. Midway through a 1970 live performance of Reich's unbearably minimalist Four Organs, for instance, a listener stood up and cried "Stop! I'll talk!!"More interesting were the mid-'60s phase pieces that used the human voice as a musical instrument. In Come Out and It's Gonna Rain, Reich brilliantly exploited the musical potential of voices by taping short phrases, copying the tape loop on another tape recorder, and manipulating their speed, echo and reverb until he ended up with complex, pulsating panoramas of sound, appropriately psychedelic for the period. In the 1970s, Reich dove deeper into rhythm, studying traditional music in Bali and Ghana. In wonderful ensemble pieces like "Octet," Music for 18 Musicians, and "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Percussion" Reich expanded his palette, forgoing the austere textures and relentless melodic repetition of his earlier work. "While there are processes at work in the music at times," he acknowledged, "the idea that everybody is gonna hear everything I'm doing -- that's not what I'm about anymore." Reich then began composing for traditional symphonic instruments. But while his orchestral works (like The Desert Music, perhaps his best known piece) drew raves, to these ears they sounded less assured and intriguing than his chamber pieces, where the music's rich textures and shifting rhythms could be better discerned. Meanwhile, his music grew increasingly popular, with artists like guitarist Pat Metheny, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and flutist Ransom Wilson recording his engaging series of "Counterpoints," in which the multitracked soloist plays interweaving lines that create an almost orchestral effect.In the 1980s, Reich returned to his use of voices as music. Tehillim, maybe his finest single work, used Hebrew texts and cantillation (scriptural singing), marking Reich's return to his Jewish spiritual heritage. The amazing Different Trains incorporated recordings of old train sounds, voices of Holocaust survivors, a retired Pullman porter, and Reich's childhood governess, and the strings of the Kronos quartets to create a new kind of music/voice hybrid. Then he spent four years creating a new kind of musical theater based on documentary video sources. Combining amplified instruments, four singers, verses from the Koran and the Bible, and multichannel video, The Cave (1993) broke new ground in 20th century art, but the recording, bereft of the visual imagery, lacks the power of the whole spectacle."I'm still very much devoted to the use of percussion and rhythmic structure in music," he explained, but also "altering harmonies and orchestrations, expanding length of melodies, in general using more of the Western talents that I was given and we've all lived with over the years. I've been adding the things that were subtracted when I started doing process music."Now Reich is back with a CD that embraces all the innovations Reich has pioneered over the last 30 years. "Nagoya Marimbas" demonstrates his innovative use of percussion lines and rhythms. The magnificent "City Life" conjures an urban soundscape that captures the essence of New York. It includes voices of a Manhattan street vendor, and African American political rally, and New York firefighters on the day the World Trade Center was bombed; synthesized samples of car horns, door slams, subway chimes, pile drivers car alarms, sirens, and other components of the New York soundscape; and a chamber ensemble-yet it's a fully musical piece, much more than random ambient sound. Finally, the pastoral "Proverb," perhaps his most lyrical piece yet, featuring Theater of Voices, again shows that Reich can make purely beautiful music. Much of Reich's work is available on disk from Elektra/Nonesuch and ECM records. His best '60s music is collected on a CD called Early Works. (I saw Reich and a friend perform the early "Clapping Music" -- look Ma, just hands -- at a concert in San Francisco last summer, delighting an audience of Deadheads and bluehairs alike.) Beginners should probably start with a 1994 disk containing "Tehillim" and "Three Movements," the Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint CD, or Music for 18 Musicians. But the new album probably best represents the many sides of this fabulous composer. A rebel like Reich will never win the favor of the academic classical music establishment, but when historians invoke the great music of our time, this CD (or whatever device they use then) will be one of those they play.