The following is a liner note I wrote for the new Steve Reich Album “Pulse / Quartet,” out today on Nonesuch Records.
Every composer has a distinct working process, but one way of understanding them is to divide them into two groups: planning composers, and intuitive composers. Steve Reich began his career writing music as rigorously systematic as any: early on, the plan was the piece. Some of his earliest, most severely minimal “process pieces,” Pendulum Music (1968) and Four Organs (1970), made pulse both the topic and structural heart of the music: a regular rhythm gradually slowed to the point of imperceptibility. What thrilled in this music was the feeling of hearing an immense object move through time and space, even while anticipating exactly where it would end up.
As he expanded his compositional toolbox, his harmonies, which had been resolutely static, began to move and develop, articulating new forms. Music For 18 Musicians (1976) stretches a sequence of 11 chords across an ecstatic hour. The two outer sections of the piece, in which the chords are heard in quick sequence, are titled “Pulses”. Pulse and harmony had become the two structural poles of his style.
Over the decades, he’s moved in an increasingly intuitive direction. Typical Reich-ian structural plans—setting up harmonic structure around an ambiguously functional chord, putting canons in motion on top of it, then modulating upwards, increasing tension—all but guarantee a sense of musical form: beginning, departure, and arrival. The two pieces on this album stretch that template in increasingly non-systematic ways.
First there’s Pulse, whose emblematic title hints at a retrospective of the 40 years. But it is not the piece one might initially expect. The opening moments are pure American lyricism, the sustained timbres of violins, flutes and clarinets. When the “pulse” does arrive, it’s gentle, easy, intimate, the pulse of a person at rest: open, ringing piano chords, warm electric bass rounding out the low end (Reich prefers electric to acoustic bass, for its crisp articulation). This two-instrument rhythm section serves as a core around which the opening melody spirals and evolves. And it’s within that evolution that we find the music’s retrospective element: those same harmonies from the opening of Music For 18 Musicians.
It’s difficult to overstate how integrated the instrumentation is to the musical concept of Pulse, and vice versa. The unlikely band comprises 11 treble (high) instruments (counting the piano, which here never ventures below middle C) set against one very low one. The yawning registral chasm between the bass and the rest of the ensemble creates a sense of physical space in which the melodic peregrinations can reverberate freely. The overall effect is that Pulse is the most vocal of Reich’s instrumental pieces.
Never one to over-annotate a score, it’s nonetheless striking that the written dynamics of Pulse never rise above mezzo-forte—that simultaneously non-committal and enigmatic volume, right in the middle of the dial. Given this narrow compass, its mono-thematic quality, and its constant tempo, Pulse’s 15-minute structure is paced, therefore, by harmony (of course) and by continuous variation of that single theme. It can be difficult to deduce sections within music that’s this continuous, but different treatments of the melody provide clues. Material that might at first seem like a new theme actually proves to be that same melody, but stretched out into long sustained notes, or chopped up into short repeated sections to form a tense canon. It’s a slightly sneaky feat of compositional virtuosity which lends that necessary sense of departure and return while never actually leaving the station.
The musical jumping-off point for Quartet began with a friendly game of composer one-upsmanship. Reich had been debating the merits of key signatures with Nico Muhly (who subscribes to the modernist tradition of forgoing them). Muhly, in turn, ribbed Reich (who uses them frequently) with an emailed photo of a locksmith’s window sign—“keys made fast and accurate”. So Reich decided to write an entire piece in response, one that would change keys more often—and more ambiguously—than anything he’d written yet.
After the continuity of Pulse, the opening of Quartet feels like a bracing jump into a cold pool. Where Pulse is cohesive, even texturally static, Quartet is all rambunctious energy and hyperactive change. The piece is clearly in the lineage of 2x5, Radio Rewrite, and Double Sextet—music propelled by strong beats, driving syncopation, layered bits of those Ghanaian drumming patterns he studied in the 70’s. But here, Reich has chopped these influences into smaller chunks than ever before. The effect is somewhat dizzying. Grooves start and stop without warning, the ensemble comes to halt after screeching halt, instruments spiral off in different directions that lead nowhere. It’s all very unlike typical process of setting up a steady groove over which a series of canons play out. The effect is not unlike one of those “Reich remixed” albums, but this time the DJ is Reich himself.
In fact, listening to the first and third movements of Quartet, one begins to realize how close the breaking down of a sample is to the classical practice of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg, no less, to describe how composers would structure a large work by spinning out small bits of musical material). Even the title “quartet” puts the piece in a Classical frame of reference. Just as the string quartet lies at the root of the classical orchestra, keyboards, vibraphones, and marimbas frequently form the core of Reich’s instrumental combinations. Which makes perfect sense given his musical language: these instruments have clear, defined attacks and pure timbres, making harmonic change and contrapuntal interplay all the more apparent. Like almost all of Reich’s ensembles, Quartet (two vibraphones, two pianos) divides in half stereophonically, allowing material to seamlessly mirror and layer over itself; there are few Reich pieces in which this kind of canonic counterpoint is not an integral technique.
For all the jostling activity of the outer movements, the slow center of Quartet leaves the strongest impression. The pulse is still there, but obscured, slowed down to the point where it’s hardly felt at all; the music feels daringly spare, even haunted. One begins to imagine Quartet as a symbolic inverse of, or counterpoint to, Pulse, called “Harmony.” Lapidary chords are passed between the instruments, cohering into diffuse melodies, which are spiked here and there with evaporating canonic fragments. But everything is blurred, stretched, and overlapped. The texture evokes Reich’s reverence for the French tradition, the effect not unlike Debussy’s tone-painting piano Préludes; intoxicating, even dramatic, but at a remove. This feels like a new addition in Reich’s ever-expanding toolbox: music with a protagonist, a private space surrounded by but protected from the world’s bustle. Here, moments of change are less structural signage, more changes of color, shifts of light. Those old obsessions with pulse and harmony have led us into new territory.
–Timo Andres, November 2017