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?

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

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As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

(music streaming for this album is no longer available)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.