'Pulse/Quartet' Is a Testament to Steve Reich's Engaging Compositional Voice
With excellent contributions from the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Colin Currie Group, Steve Reich's Pulse/Quartet is a shining work from a modern master.
2 Feb 2018
Steve Reich's importance in the scope of modern music cannot be understated. His pioneering work in early minimalism cemented his legacy as a formative voice in the mid/late 20th century's changing musical landscape. His early works in the 1960s and 70s felt like a reaction to the increasingly abstract path composers deemed "proper" for classical music at that time. Reich's preferred musical lexicon–tape splicing and manipulation, clear harmonic trajectories, shifting and phasing rhythmic ideas–provoked not only new directions in art music but also a sense of accessibility that opened avenues for audiences previously disenfranchised with overtly intellectual aesthetics.
In addition to changing the contemporary soundscape, Reich's performance career challenged preconceived notions about the traditions and practices of art music. By forming his own ensemble (Steve Reich and Musicians), booking concerts in loft apartments and art galleries, and incorporating jazz and African rhythmic concepts into his massive compositions, Reich subverted the idea that classical music had become a commercially voided field of convoluted research, designated for ivory towers and academic grants. Admittedly, forming a group and setting up concerts in non-traditional spaces is commonplace today–some would even consider it a modern tradition in its own right–yet we can't neglect how revolutionary these acts were in a post-Milton Babbitt "Who Cares If You Listen" world.
Pulse/Quartet, the latest release of Reich compositions from Nonesuch Records, features a world premiere recording from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), as well as a reading of a 2014 work by the Colin Currie Group. Considering Reich's status as a living legend of modern music, it's fascinating to hear his newer compositions and to consider them in the context of his career output. The follow-up to Radio Rewrite, his astounding reworking/arranging of Radiohead songs for the powerhouse ensemble Alarm Will Sound, both compositions on Pulse/Quartet seem to musically relax a bit and focus on the introspective elements of Reich's style. With no pressing obligation to upend the musical world once more, it's comforting to see the composer still writing music that considers the brain as much as it does the heart.
At nearly 15 minutes in length, "Pulse" is a thoroughly contemplative work. Electric bass and keyboard lines maintain a subtle but consistent heartbeat while string and woodwind melodies stretch and shimmer above. The work gradually reveals itself as harmonies and tonalities shift without resorting to an overbearing textural mess. Like many of Reich's famous compositions (Music for 18 Musicians, Electric Counterpoint), "Pulse" is a work that needs to be experienced rather than endlessly dissected. Critics may accuse the composition of lingering on a single idea far beyond the limits of tasteful musical expression, yet this would entirely neglect the work's meditative quality. Performed live "Pulse" could be a transcendent experience, but it also makes for perfect headphone music. It's an enveloping musical journey of slowly evolving harmonies told through singing acoustic textures and throbbing electric… well… pulse.
By contrast, "Quartet" proudly revisits hallmarks from Reich's previous works. Composed in 2014 for the Colin Currie Group (who perform it on this album) the work features typical hallmarks of Reich's style. Set in three movements ("I–Fast", "II–Slow", "III–Fast", much like his trio of Counterpoint compositions) and featuring rhythmically active lines and sudden shifts in mood, it revisits prized aesthetics from the composer's past while maintaining a fresh vitality. Performed on two vibraphones and two pianos, it's an excellent interpretation from the Colin Currie Group, one that prizes the compositional clarity above all else. In some ways, it's almost too clean, occasionally sounding too robotic and polished and lacking a human element. However, it's just as possible to consider the group wholly submerged themselves into the work, giving up ego and inflection to honor the work as best as they possibly could.
Both works on Pulse/Quartet reflect Reich's maturity, one by lingering in a meditative trance, the other revisiting elements of his older voice. Pristine and reflective, both compositions slowly reveal themselves to attentive listeners as contemplative, yet no less accessible, works of pristine beauty. ICE and the Colin Currie Group deserve just as much praise for their carefully considered performances on this excellent release.