Essential New Music: Steve Reich’s “Pulse/Quartet”

Pulse/Quartet’s one-sheet is bogged down in minutiae and erudite discussion of the theory and instrumentation constituting the halves of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s latest album. And while we’re sure “serious music” proponents will find value in this highfalutin discourse, what of the casual listener standing outside the pipe-smoke circle? “Pulse,” as performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, is a piece rooted in modern classical and PBS documentary scores focusing on clashing tones and deviant resolutions. The result see-saws between silky smoothness and sandpapery coarseness, and approximates the calm before a storm that never actually arrives.

“Quartet” has the Colin Currie Group performing a composition designed for two vibraphones and two pianos that Reich himself describes as one of his most complex. The three movements play with tempo and key changes and a lilting staccato. In the end, the dominant strain is melodically powerful modern jazz where “Mvt.-I” and “Mvt.-III” are the triumphant highlights with joyous Paper Chase and jittery Peanuts reference points. Those comparisons may have unflinching, furrow-browed listeners crowing about sacrilege, but we’re just calling ’em like we hear ’em.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko