ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Reich’s ‘Pulse/Quartet’

by Dacia Clay

I just realized that this album was released on my birthday this year. So, first, thank you, Steve Reich for the thoughtful gift. The pieces on the album were written a few years earlier—Pulse, in 2015, and Quartet in 2013, and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Colin Currie Group respectively. (Reich wrote both pieces for the ensembles by whom they are performed here.) But they work together beautifully in an unbroken narrative.

The Story

Pulse opens with an almost folk Americana sound a la Aaron Copland. Big wide open prairie, amber waves of grain-variety archetypical hopefulness and promise. Our hero is setting out from home. The instruments—violin, viola, flute, clarinet, piano, and bass—begin to lob notes back and forth between them. But very quickly, a darker bass note joins the mix. Minors and majors mix together. The bass chugs along with nods to a steady rock music beat. There’s a stillness in the background and movement in the fore, and they swap places constantly. The instruments join together, playing in sync, and then fly apart again, creating dissonance. This piece is like a train, passing by in perpetual motion, and the listener is hearing different cars as the train goes by. The players involved are all wrapped up together in call and response—they need each other to create a whole melody. And then the journey slows down and our hero finally comes to a rest.

Quartet has 3 movements: I. Fast, II. Slow, and III. Fast. And if Pulse is the wide open objective spaces of America, Quartet is its crowded solipsistic cityscapes. There’s something about Quartet that makes me think of a late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s gritty cop drama. You know, when TV was more subtle, dialogue-based, and recorded on film; when it relied less on fake blood. In the first movement, there’s one moment of urgency, but the rest seems to be about our main character’s workaday life. The piano and vibes come together. Neither is ever really in charge. I imagine that one is the city and one is the character, but I can’t figure out which is which. “Slow,” is like a rainy night, staring out a window. The hero is a little gloomy and drinks with quiet resolve. And in the third movement, there’s a shift. It’s the same story as the first movement, but a few decades in the future. We’re back in the daylight after a dark, solitary night that ended in passing out on the couch. This new version of the first story is lighter, emphatic and upbeat with the sound of a news dateline in the background creating an urgency, and the story ends, finally, on a high note.

The Facts

According to Reich, Pulse was a sort of reaction to Quartet because it’s “[a]ll in all, a calmer more contemplative piece,” though that is not what this listener hears. (I can’t help wondering what you’ll think.) In Quartet, he employs the Steve Reich version of a quartet, using his trademark grouping of two pianos and two percussion instruments (in this case, two vibes) instead of a traditional string quartet. As Reich notes, the piece is one of his most complex, and it, “frequently changes key and often breaks off continuity to pause or take up new material.”

The Last Paragraph

Steve Reich once said, “All music does come from a time and place. I was born and raised in New York. I moved out of New York, but it’s inside of me and it will be inside of me until they put me in a box in the ground.” This album feels like it’s of several times (which makes sense from an almost 82-year old) and places, but most distinctly of New York. I like the idea that even in music that’s dependent on pattern rather over emotion, you can hear who the composer is, and it endears me to this work.

What do you hear?

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, February 16 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air (Sono Luminus)
ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble)

If I had to describe this piece in one word, it would be ice. Not only is it an icy, ethereal soundscape sculpted by an Icelandic composer, but it’s even performed by ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble). Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air is an iridescent sound world scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics. Infinitely varied in its timbres and textures, the piece evokes the translucent calm and quiet sparkle of an icy landscape, with gorgeous harp details, gentle piano echoes, and whispering melodies glittering above the rumbling earth below.
 Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear a movement from this piece.


Florent Ghys: “An Open Cage” (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

If you don’t have five hours to listen to John Cage’s sprawling, narrated sound art piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” offers a compelling (and surprisingly catchy) four-minute summary. In Ghys’s version, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The unconventional duet expands as the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more and more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words:

“The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde, nothing would get invented.”
 – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


John Adams: Lollapalooza (Nonesuch Records)
Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor

I first encountered this piece over 10 years ago in my college wind ensemble. Although this version is for orchestra, the band version is an excellent example of quality writing for winds. And beyond that, this piece is one of the best examples of onomatopoeic music anywhere; once you hear it, you can never un-hear it.  Loll-a-pa-loo-za!
– Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Missy Mazzoli: “Tooth and Nail” (Bedroom Community)
Nadia Sirota, viola

Admittedly, I’m a little bit of a fangirl when it comes to Missy Mazzoli and Nadia Sirota, so I may be somewhat biased in my review of this piece. I love how much is going on in it—there are things going on near and far and in between. And Mazzoli brings the electronic textures I’ve heard in some of the music from her band Victoire into this. I hear echoes of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” in the chord progressions, and the same kind of desperation in the viola as I heard in Abigail Fischer’s voice in Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar. This was my introduction to Sirota’s album Baroque, and I can’t wait to dig in to the rest of it! – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir

by Maggie Molloy

Anna Þorvaldsdóttir tónskáld er höfundur Aeriality sem Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands frumflytur nk. fimmtudag. Anna lauk nýverið doktorsnámi sínu í tónsmíðum. Hún segir heilu og hálfu vinnubækurnar með hugmyndum bíða úrvinnslu og vonast til að geta einbeitt sér að tónsmíðunum af krafti á næstu árum.

photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

You could say composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a bit of an ice sculptor. No, not the frozen water type of ice—the musical type of ICE. The Icelandic composer recently collaborated with ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, to create a new four-movement chamber work titled “In the Light of Air.”

And while we’re on the topic of ICE, let it be known that they are not your average ensemble. With a modular makeup of 35 leading instrumentalists, the group performs contemporary classical music in forces ranging from solos to large ensembles. In fact, they make it their mission to advance the music of the 21th century by pioneering new musical works and multimedia strategies for audience engagement.

In 2011 they created ICElab, an innovative new musical project which places teams of ICE musicians in collaboration with emerging composers to develop works that push the boundaries of the classical genre.

ICE’s latest album, titled “In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir,” is just a single product of that collaborative project. The album features two gorgeously enigmatic pieces: “In the Light of Air” for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, and “Transitions” for solo cello. The performers on the album are ICE members Kyle Armbrust on viola, Michael Nicolas on cello, Nuiko Wadden on harp, Cory Smythe on piano, and Nathan Davis on percussion.

The title track is a tetralogy of works that together form a unified structure—the four main movements are connected by texturally fascinating transitions and framed by a prologue and epilogue. The first movement is an airy, delicate sound world aptly titled “Luminance.” The percussion and electronics provide a slowly rumbling bass part beneath a gradually shifting texture of sound materials, melodic fragments, and harmonies.

The second movement, titled “Serenity,” is an entire ocean of sound: infinitely varied yet beautifully unified in its ever-changing timbres and textures. The translucent calm sparkles with gorgeous harp details and gentle piano echoes, the vast and limitless soundscape punctuated with delicate, misty whispers of simple melodies.

The third movement is much shorter than the rest. Clocking in at less than four minutes, “Existence” is a slow and pensive journey, each bow stroke in the strings a deliberate, measured step through an atmospheric sound mass of deep drones and rumbling echoes.

The piece ends with “Remembrance,” a movement which delicately balances the lyrical, long-breathed melodies of the strings with the harmonic depth of piano and the textural interest of percussion. In fact, the percussion part features an installation of metallic ornaments which Thorvaldsdottir designed specifically for use in this particular movement. The ornaments, called Klakabönd (which is Icelandic for “a bind of ice”), were created by artist Svana Jósepsdóttir.

And if you’re lucky enough to see the piece performed live, there is an additional multimedia component: “In the Light of Air” incorporates a light constellation that was designed in collaboration with ICE. A collection of lightbulbs twinkles softly above the musicians during the performance, glowing and dimming according to the intensity of the music.

The other piece on the album is “Transitions,” which was commissioned by cellist Michael Nicolas in 2014. The single movement work explores the theme of man and machine, both of which are represented through contrasting cello parts. Nicolas soars through the organic lyricism and expressive melodies of man while also excelling at the metallic timbres and technical accuracy of machine. Through his sensitive balance and imaginative interpretation of each role, he showcases the cello’s rich tone, wide pitch range, and stunning timbral depth.

As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures that reveal a vast variety of sustained sound materials—and both of these pieces are a perfect example of her visionary style. Throughout the album, her subtle timbral nuances, poetic textures, and lyrical gestures immerse the listener in austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes.

So in the end, Thorvaldsdottir is probably more of a sound sculptor than an ice sculptor—but either way, she is certainly carving out a name for herself in the contemporary music scene.

In the Light of Air is released on August 28, 2015 – you can pre-order on Amazon or iTunes!