Named by the New York Times as America’s “greatest living composer”, Steve Reich releases his twenty-third album on Nonesuch records, as his pieces “Pulse” and “Quartet” are given a new world of texture.
For many, Steve Reich’s work is by no means an easy listen. His compositions often require a certain degree of concentration to be truly appreciated. Just as easily, you can find yourself mesmerised without even knowing it.
Pulse, performed here by the International Contemporary Ensemble on woodwind, piano and electric bass is centred on a constant and persistently strange melody. Due to its arrangement, it feels slightly more earthy and grounded than other well-known Reich pieces, but it is no less intoxicating. At fifteen minutes long, the nuanced shifts in accent and the ebbs and flows in key are somewhat challenging. The throbbing heartbeat of electric bass allows you to keep one foot on the ground, yet at times, your head is somewhere entirely different.
Played by the Colin Currie Group, Quartet is written for two vibraphones and two pianos, and it’s texture feels more familiar. In some form, the quartet of two pianos and two percussion instruments has featured in many of the composer’s pieces, including The Desert Music, Sextet, Three Movements, The Cave and Dance Patterns. Here there is a quirky, and at times playful interaction between the piano and vibraphones, which leaves the piece teetering on the edge of jazz. Speaking of Quartet, Reich explains “the piece is one of the more complex I have composed. It frequently changes key or breaks off continuity to take up new material. Though the parts are not unduly difficult, it calls for high level of ensemble virtuosity”. Listening to Quartet, particularly it’s faster sections (I and III), one must take a moment to consider it is the work of four musicians, born of one mind.
For die hard Reich fans, these recordings may not reveal anything wildly different than what has preceded in a vast corpus. Reich is a composer whose work contains great nuance, and it is certainly the case for Pulse / Quartet. These are recordings that demand a few listens, they are worth it. Allow yourself to get lost in them.