This week I wrote about the minimalist composer Steve Reich, whose groundbreaking Jewish chorale piece "Tehillim" (1981) is being performed by the teenage new music ensemble Face the Music next Thursday at Le Poisson Rouge. (They’ll perform "Tehillim" at other locations over the next few months as well.)
If you have not heard it, do so soon. I caught Face the Music’s performance at Merkin Concert Hall last Sunday, when they performed with the professional ensemble Alarm Will Sound. "Tehillim" was one of the first professional recordings Alarm Will Sound ever made (downloadable on iTunes), and their performance on Sunday was no less magisterial than their original recording.
If you want some more back-story on the how Reich, a secular New York Jew, whose now 74, came to write what may just be the most successful integration of Jewish and classical music ever written, I’ll excerpt Reich’s comments on the piece from an NPR interview he gave four years ago. The occassion for the interview was Reich’s 70th birthday, a time when Manhattan was a glow with concerts celebrating the man and his music.
Plus, if you want a good review of Reich’s career that’s succinct, learned, and lyrical all its own, check out Alex Ross’ recap in The New Yorker from 2006.
From Reich’s interview with Terry Gross, on NPR:
GROSS: Let’s jump ahead to 1981 and hear an excerpt of your composition "Tehillim." Now you talked a little bit about how you’d studied African drumming and Balinese Gamelan music. At some point you kind of explored your own roots in Jewish music and you studied with aJewish cantor. What sent you back to studying cantorial music?
Mr. REICH: Well, actually, it was a trip to Africa, strangely enough. When I was in Africa, besides studying music, I enjoyed being, you know, being over there. It was a very nice period of time, and one of the things that I admired was the fact that, in fact, there was no notation as you observed earlier. Each musician was playing something that they had learned from their father or their uncle or, you know, somebody in their family, and it had been so passed on that way for, you know, obviously a couple of thousand years or so.
And I thought, you know, I came back, `Gee, you know, isn’t there anything like that that I’m a part of?’ And I thought, `Wait a minute. I’m a member of one of the oldest groups on the planet, and I know nothing about it.’ I was raised as a Reformed Jew and I had zero information. I couldn’t read Hebrew, I’d never studied Torah. I didn’t know anything about it. Didn’t know it was written in a cycle. Didn’t know any of the practices. So I thought to myself, `Well, maybe I ought to look in my own back yard since I haven’t the foggiest notion of what’s going on there.’ And I ended up studying at an Orthodox synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and studying biblical Hebrew and the text of the Torah in its weekly portions.
When I was studying Hebrew–Hebrew as you may know is a consonantal language. There are no letters for vowels. There’s no A, E, I, O, U. Instead there are little dots or dashes which are affixed below or above the consonants and they are the vowel points. When I was studying Hebrew with my teacher, there was yet another little marking there and I asked him, `Well, what’s that?’ And he said, `Oh, that’s the musical notation.’ I said, `Really?’ So I said, `Well, how do I learn about that?’ He said, `Well, you have to study with a cantor to do that.’ So I looked up someone who was at the Jewish Theological Seminary through a mutual friend, and he taught me a little bit about how to do it and how the notation worked, and the notation was basically–have you ever looked at a Greek vase and you see a funny picture of a guy who looks like a conductor and he’s sort of motioning with his hands and the musicians are sort of looking at him? He’s not a conductor. He’s doing what the Greeks call cheironomy. He’s using his hand as a notational reminder, `Hey, it goes like that.’ And this was a common way of notating music within cultures prior to our system of notation which, by the way, evolved from the human hand. There are five lines on the staff because there are five fingers on your hand. So…
GROSS: I didn’t know that.
Mr. REICH: Well, live and learn. So I decided to set–"Tehillim" is basically the word for Psalms–the original word for Psalms. I took about a small piece of four different Psalms and set them in the original Hebrew, and after years of doing pieces of a more unusual sort, that you’ve heard a little bit of today, out came a piece that was very, very melodic in the simplest sense of the world.
GROSS: Let’s hear the opening of "Tehillim."