Pulse/Quartet by Steve ReichRelease date: February 2, 2018
Label: Nonesuch Records
I started listening to Pulse/Quartet as I walked out into light snow at twilight, which shortly thereafter became a blizzard. It seems worth mentioning this detail because, initially – but only initially – it felt like a very incongruous soundtrack. ‘Pulse’, performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, is a fourteen-and-a-half minute piece written for two flutes, two clarinets, piano, electric bass, four violins and two violas and is, (as that lineup suggests), a rich and almost orchestral piece for a composer who is still often classified as a minimalist. In its opening few minutes the piece has a sunny lyrical serenity that one doesn’t necessarily associate with Steve Reich, but throughout its running time the pulse at its heart becomes more insistent as the instruments circle and soar around it, making for an listening experience that becomes as tense as it is soaring.
The most marked aspect of the piece is – as you would expect from the title – its pulsing sense of rhythm and movement, a feeling (much more typical of the composer than the rich texture of the piece) of moving restlessly, but never thoughtlessly towards an uncertain resolution, where the restlessness ultimately feels like the point. ‘Pulse’ is in the end a beautiful and accessible piece – almost soundtrack-like in its traditional feel, a stimulating listening experience, if not exactly a soothing one. But because of its relatively traditional sound, it’s easy to take the piece for granted. It’s hard to think of another living composer (okay, there’s Philip Glass too), whose work crosses as many musical boundaries, but ultimately retains its own character. With ‘Pulse’, Reich gives the listener a piece of music that is simultaneously traditional and experimental, melodic and almost dissonant, beautiful but not always pretty.
‘Quartet’, performed by Colin Currie Group, feels more familiar, a highly jazz-influenced piece in three movements (‘Fast’, ‘Slow’ and ‘Fast’), for two vibraphones and two pianos. The fast pieces have a restless, telegraphic rhythm familiar from many of Reich’s previous works (think of pieces as far ranging in mood/sound as Nagoya Marimbas and Electric Counterpoint) and are breezily complex, marrying an almost stripped down hard bop/Horace Silver feel with the pulsing, hypnotic aspects of minimalism. That said, it’s a bright, airy and busy, rather than dark and moody kind of hypnotism; what it shares with ‘Pulse’ is that soundtrack-like quality.
The slow movement though, is perhaps the best. It’s still – in fact is even more – infused with a jazz feel, but – partly because of the timbre of the vibraphone as an instrument – it’s a limpid, melancholy, late night kind of jazz. But although that description fits the piece, it also sells it short. The subtlety with which Reich assembles the piece makes it hard to get used to; it reveals as much to the listener on the twentieth listen as it does on the first. As with everything on the album, one of the key aspects is its unpredictability; yes, it’s moody and minimalist, but who would have expected the fleeting moments of almost Mancini-esque lounge jazz in among the more exploratory probings of the quartet?
Considering the huge differences in tone and texture, Pulse/Quartet hangs together surprisingly well as an album, much as Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint did. The work of a composer who is already an icon, but shows no sign of resting on his laurels just yet, with Pulse/Quartet, Reich as ever makes his listeners work; but always in the knowledge that he has produced something worth working for.