Steve Reich: Quartet


Co-commissioned by the Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, Cité de la musique and Köner Philharmonie, Steve Reich’s Quartet was premiered in 2013 by the Colin Currie Group. Dedicated to percussionist Colin Currie, the quartet is made up of two pianos and two vibraphones. The composer describes his choice of quartet in his official programme notes:


“Quartet, when mentioned in the context of concert music, is generally assumed to mean string quartet. In my case, the quartet that has played a central role in many of my pieces (besides the string quartet) is that of two pianos and two percussion. It appears like that or in expanded form with more pianos or more percussion in The Desert Music, Sextet, Three Movements, The Four Sections, The Cave, Dance Patterns, Three Tales, You Are (Variations), Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, Daniel Variations, Double Sextet, and Radio Rewrite. In Quartet, there is just this group alone: two vibes and two pianos.”


The Music

Set into three movements, this is one of Reich’s most complex works to master. The quick time changes create hurdles for all four performers. 


Movement I – Fast

The jazz-inspired opening movement is full of syncopated rhythms and quick rhythmic changes. Core harmony is heard in the cluster piano chords, with the vibraphones adding harmonic decoration around this. The four players are often found in sync as the movement goes on. When they part, all voices are still constant but they are just morphing into their new theme. The persistent nature of this movement adds to the charm of it, with Reich’s intriguing harmony layered throughout the ensemble.


Movement II – Slow

The harmony-based second movement opens with slowly placed chords from all four players. As Reich suggests in his notes, the parts themselves may not be the most difficult thing, but the musicality and virtuosity required to pull it off is what will challenge the players. The sonorous second movement is an interesting mix of light and shade and Reich experiments with timbres. 


Movement III – Fast

The final movement has a similar feeling to the opening movement – bold syncopated rhythms dominate all parts. The vibes play a larger part in the opening of this movement, however. The pulsating rhythms are unrelenting in this c.6 minute movement, with very little time for processing for thinking about what is being played. As the harmonies become crunchier, the dynamics become more intense within the ensemble. Reich concludes this unique quartet with a unison phrase played by all voices. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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