The Listening Room: Reich’s Tehillim
28 Nov 2011
Inside the Classics

As previously announced, today marks the kickoff of a blog-based project we’re calling The Listening Room. It’s sort of a like a musical book club, and here’s how it works: over the next few months, we’ll announce specific recordings that Judd has chosen to feature, and we’ll provide a link to where you can go to download it or buy the CD… Then, on the designated discussion date, I’ll post an e-mail conversation between Judd and myself about the music on the featured album. With any luck, this post can spark a much broader discussion in the comments, and Judd and I will make a point of checking in regularly to respond to everything you all have to say.

The first album Judd chose to feature was this one, a Cantaloupe Records recording by Alarm Will Sound and the Ossia ensemble of Steve Reich’s Tehillim & The Desert Music. Tehillim is Reich’s 1981 setting of four Psalms. It’s considered one of Reich’s most important works, but also sounds quite distinct from much of his earlier work. The Desert Music is a choral setting from 1983 of several texts from the great American poet William Carlos Williams. For more background info on the album, check out my original Listening Room post, and you can click the album cover if you want to download the music and participate in the conversation.

I’m going to break our initial discussion of this album into two separate blog posts, for reasons of length and clarity. Today’s post covers Tehillim, and our discussion of The Desert Music will go up tomorrow morning. Enjoy, and don’t forget to offer your own opinions, reactions, and musical assessments in the comments!

Sam: Okay, so I think I know why you chose this album in particular. Tehillim is a setting of four Torah passages for women’s voices and an instrumental ensemble made up of some traditional classical instruments (clarinets, violins, etc.) and some distinctly 20th century electronic instruments. This is the type of ensemble you’ve written a lot of music for, and just this year, you premiered Sh’lomo, your own setting of passages from the Song of Solomon.  Fair to say that Steve Reich has had a major influence on you as a composer?

Judd: This is like one of those “do you think America is a great country?” questions from Presidential debates. Yes, Sam, Steve Reich has indeed had a major influence on me as a composer. I’m glad you asked.

Actually, all the composers I’ve chosen for The Listening Room have had a huge influence. Reich, though, is the composer who’s far-and-away most often cited when people are drawing connections between my music and that which has come before. The Hebrew has something to do with it, but much more, it’s the interlocking rhythms and modal harmonies, with a great attention to big chord changes as well as small-scale harmonic and contrapuntal details, that connect my work to his. I do love all those elements of Reich’s music, and I carry them over into mine. Reich loves to establish a pattern and then move chords underneath it, with the pattern remaining entirely, or almost entirely, static. You’ll hear that maneuver a lot in my new piece for the Minnesota Orchestra — it’s actually one of the main “ideas” of the work. But when I think about that musical device, I think of it as coming, in part, from the hip hop that I listened to, and made, when I was growing up. How do you know when a hip hop beat is ready to go? When you want to leave it on loop, and never stop listening to it. Then it’s ready for things to move over it — in this case, the MC, rapping. I think of Reich’s repetitions in the same way. Even though there’s a certain pacing that’s optimal, in terms of when the harmonies or patterns shift, and even though the shifts themselves are usually the most magical moments of the pieces, there’s also a sense in which you don’t want the patterns to end, when they’re good. I strive for that in my music.

Of course, Steve Reich didn’t invent that idea. In fact, as he’d acknowledge, it was inspired by West African drumming that he played and studied. Go a step further and you can find specific texts that he studied, which contain transcriptions of drum patterns that form the basis for much of his work in the 1970s. Does this question remind anyone of anything? “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.” Given that nothing has ever really sounded like Steve Reich, it’s a great example of the good that comes when a brilliant composer blatantly steals from someone else, or in this case, another culture. I’m very, very glad that he had the guts to do that, because the “safe” version probably wouldn’t have created the opening for his own distinct voice to emerge.

For me, I don’t know if I point back to Reich as directly as people think, but I definitely count him as a huge influence, and he’s one of the composers that I listen to regularly. That’s a short list.

Sam: Tehillim, which was written in 1981, was actually quite a departure from what Reich had been doing in the 1970s. It’s far less radical than most of his work, and dare I say, a little more classical? But Reich also wrote in the liner notes for the original recording that “the overall sound of Tehillim, and in particular, the intricately interlocking percussion writing which, together with the text, marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western musical practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time.” I confess that I didn’t hear it that way on this recording – the percussion seemed to blend very naturally with the almost Renaissance sound of some of the vocal lines. When you listen to the piece, do you hear all the disparate elements Reich talked about, or do you hear it the way I do, as a consonant whole?

Judd: This idea of “radicalism” is something that I really detest, because it always means looking at music from this extremely linear, highly shortsighted perspective. Human beings have been around for a long time and will continue to be here for a while yet, and our view of art is confined to this tiny little period of music history where we evaluate everything basically in terms of whether it moves toward or away from Beethoven (think about it). Tehillim is “radical” in Reich’s output, which to me is more important than whether it (here we go) Breaks New Ground In Contemporary Composition. Plenty of pieces that do the latter have been totally forgotten, because the Ground that they Broke was really uninteresting, and turned out to be more about where people happened to be at that time, than about where they’d be in just a few years. What’s unique about a work comes entirely from its status as a reflection of an individual artist’s uniqueness as a person, with his or her particular influences and ways of looking at the world. It grosses me out to read Reich’s own words on the topic, which are so incredibly and obviously defensive. It’s like, “no no, look, here’s why this isn’t as square as you think it is!” and I’m like, hey, Steve Reich, you just wrote TEHILLIM, it’s a masterwork, you’ll be fine. I think when he’s talking about the percussion writing, he’s tying it to works like Drumming, which introduces the African rhythmic practice; that interlocking quality is certainly present, wouldn’t you agree, Sam?

Sam: Yeah, definitely. And what you said about the quality of the work being more important than whether or not it breaks new ground is one of my favorite discussion topics. Is Mendelssohn’s music any less exhilarating because he didn’t “change the game” the way Stravinsky or Haydn did? Not in my book. And you’re definitely right that Tehillim gets counted among Reich’s greatest works today.

Judd: For me, [the pieces on this album] are Reich’s two greatest works. What’s remarkable about them is precisely that, like others in this late-70s/early-80s period in his career, they blow open the rigidity of his earlier work, which were built on the idea that discernible “process” had to be paramount over other formal concerns. What this means is that the musical elements in a given work tend to remain static, and when they change, the changes happen in only one or two elements at a time, and the changes are highly discernible. You’ll hear a note added to a pattern, and then that new pattern will repeat a lot until you get to know it, and then something else will get faster, and you’ll hear that until you’re familiar with it, and so on. What’s amazing about Reich’s seminal work Music for 18 Musicians is that even with these constraints, of highly-discernible, extremely transparent “process-oriented” music, he creates a large-scale form that’s rich and complex and not as linear as most process pieces tend to be (for obvious reasons). Tehillim and especially The Desert Music take this to an entirely different level, where the process elements are subservient to the larger form — at least to my ears (I don’t know how he constructed the works). The musical form feels highly intentional, and built from the top down, not the bottom up.

One interesting thing to note here is that a number of “minimalist” composers made this shift, as they moved into the late 1970s and 1980s — Philip Glass, John Adams, and others all started writing bigger Symphonic works that placed less emphasis on transparency than the works of the early/mid-1970s, and certainly, then those of the 1960s. I’m not sure what was in the air, but that coming-together was a really wonderful time for music, and some of my favorite scores emerged from the period, including these two.

Tomorrow: Judd and I tackle The Desert Music. Check back then, and don’t forget to join the conversation in the comments. The Listening Room stays open for as long as you guys feel like hanging around…

<February 2020>

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