REICH Pulse. Quartet
From the funky maracas in Four Organs to the famous pulsing chords that are heard at the beginning of Music for 18 Musicians, pulse (or, more accurately, the plural ‘pulses’), has become one of the most distinguishing features of Steve Reich’s music. Perhaps it’s surprising that he took so long to compose a piece directly inspired by it.
In fact, Pulse, composed in 2015 for winds, strings, piano and electric bass, is as far removed from generic pulse-based Reich music as one could imagine. It begins not with a pulse but with an undulating melodic line in flute, clarinet and violins, almost Copland-esque in its wide-open intervals and subtle blending of major triads. This melody stretches out across two octaves in its opening statement, cushioned by soft chords in lower strings, before gradually reshaping and regenerating itself in various ways throughout the work’s 15-minute span.
Soon enough, pulsing patterns are introduced on piano followed by electric bass, and the bright opening becomes increasingly darker and more intense as the opening melody takes on more intense chromatic inflections. The pulse momentarily drops out of the electric bass for a brief middle section that moves to the minor key before the introduction of a final section, which sees a variation of the opening melody heard in augmentation.
Pulse exudes a restrained, valedictory quality that partly stems from the way in which it briefly journeys through the main elements of Reich’s language – pulse combined with interlocking and interweaving patterns, melodies that kaleidoscopically reflect each other through canon and imitation, lines that stretch and contract through augmentation and diminution – yet remains at its core a brilliantly conceived and organically self-sufficient work: Reich at his imperious best.
The other work on this recording, Quartet, for pairs of pianos and vibraphones, composed in 2013, also looks back in its opening reference to the composer’s much earlier Violin Phase, but in all other respects is a very different composition to Pulse: rhythmically assertive, edgy and full of sharp juxtapositions. Both performances – the former by ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), the latter by the Colin Currie Group – are excellent.