Pulse / Quartet by Steve Reich
Recommended if you like Terry Riley, Philip Glass
Favorite Tracks: 1
It was in 1987, Steve Reich says, that he stopped writing for orchestras. Speaking with The Quietus in 2011, he noted that “it took me several years of writing orchestral pieces to realise that, for me, writing for the orchestra is just bad orchestration, because I don’t need 18 first violins and 16 second violins. I just need a solo violin, or perhaps three, definitely no more, because the clarity of the music demands it … I don’t want to waste your time and mine with something that’s not my assignment, as it were.” A glance at his extensive body of work reflects the change of focus: 1976 saw the release of “Music for 18 Musicians,” and two years later he published “Music for a Large Ensemble,” while his later works are generally for lower numbers – solos, quartets, sextets. The most striking example of this shift is the most immediate: he composed his final piece released in 1986, “Three Movements,” for a full orchestra; his first piece the following year, “Electric Counterpoint,” was premiered by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and the Kronos Quartet.
Regardless of scale or year, his music has always found a sense of quiet grandeur in the simplest of ideas. “Music for Pieces of Wood,” a piece for five clave players released in 1973, gives each musician differing rhythms that bob and weave around each other in a dance as technically challenging as it is musically arresting. It may be both literally and figuratively simple on paper, its title a knowing wink, but in practice, as one might expect, it is another thing entirely. One sympathizes with the player whose role it is to keep a steady beat for nearly ten minutes while four other players seem to try to throw them off through continually-moving patterns, individually or simultaneously. Hearing the instruments phase in and out of sync with each other gives the piece a rhythm, an ebb and flow between chaos and calm that keeps it from falling into monotony; their differing tones and rhythms combine to form a melody in constant metamorphosis, albeit one whose exact characteristics are not prescribed. If Reich could achieve all of this with ten pieces of wood, why bother with a few dozen?
One can point to any number of pieces after “Three Movements” as examples of small-scale wonder, regardless of the ensemble he composes for. But “Pulse,” the first half of his latest release on Nonesuch Records, may be a good place to start. Scored for twelve players – four violins, two violas, two flutes, two clarinets, one piano, and one electric bass – but played so tightly as to feel like half that, its quarter-hour is busy and ever-changing even if its foundation and structure are relatively straightforward. If the piano and bass, serving as both metronome and a tonal center throughout, are the ground, then the rest of the ensemble is somewhere near the clouds: strings and winds circle each other endlessly, rarely glancing below. No instrument cedes the spotlight for long, playfully pushing the others out of the way to bring their own melodic idea to the forefront. The game eventually turns tumultuous, with the occasional blue note hinting at storms of dissonance that arrive as suddenly as they dissipate.
Fading out of the last notes of “Pulse,” an aching yawn of strings as hazy as the record’s cover, “Quartet” is an immediate contrast: a jolt of start-stop piano, vibraphones thrumming along with the chords that end each phrase. Each “Fast” movement – the first and third – opens with a head-slap of a phrase and spends the rest of its run-time stretching it and seeing how far it can be pulled before it snaps back. The music evokes a childlike sense of play; each musician bounces off one another, proposing their own main ideas that immediately become counterpoint for someone else. Both movements studiously avoid any sense of key or time, with the four keyboards turning to a wave or a wall rather than something with a discernible form.
The movement between them, “Slow,” turns the chase delirious and foggy by slowing everything down and shifting the focus towards empty space. The melody staggers and leaps, taking odd pauses that make sense in the moment – always pretty, never predictable. Halfway in, a vibraphone makes a run down the keys and the pianos follow. The sudden movement makes the return to slowly moving chords feel monumental in its speed (or lack thereof), and the crescendo they undertake near the end only underpins this. The return to speed in the third movement – this is intended to be played without pause, after all – is elegantly handled, with the chords of the second movement echoed in the third. Not everything in the piece works; all three movements, at times, read as random rather than planned, occasionally elevated through serendipity. But its kinetic energy is often enough to thrill, and the acrobatics that each player presents is its own kind of spectacle.
While the two pieces may initially seem ill-fitting companions, the contrasts between them help to emphasize each other’s strengths: the airiness of “Pulse” feels greater when paired with the physicality of “Quartet”; the divisions of “Quartet” make “Pulse” seem even more infinite. If anything, when paired they highlight both the specificity and breadth of Reich’s oeuvre: whether he’s composing for ten claves, eight mallets, or a dozen members forming a microcosm of an orchestra, his pieces tend to explore single ideas with a tone somewhere between adventure and intellectualism. In Pulse / Quartet, that search is rendered anew, and the results are, once again, emotionally soaring and compositionally down-to-earth. It may serve best as a reminder: in both his body of work and these particular pieces, the details may be in constant motion, but the core remains undisturbed.