‘Do it again! Kol han-sha ma ta-ha lail!” thundered Alan Pierson, conductor of the new music classical group Alarm Will Sound, at a rehearsal last week with the teenage ensemble Face the Music.
They were rehearsing Steve Reich’s seminal chorale piece, “Tehillim,” from 1981, which both ensembles performed together on Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall. Face the Music will continue to perform the piece throughout the city in upcoming weeks.
The teenage singers followed Pierson’s orders, singing in a precise, glassy shimmer of voices: “Kol han-sha ma!”
Satisfied, Pierson replied, “That was real nice.”
It was shocking not only to watch the esteemed Alarm Will Sound ensemble perform alongside a teenage group, but also to see the young musicians tackle “Tehillim,” a notoriously difficult work.
For the piece Reich, a Jewish New Yorker and one of classical music’s most prominent living composers, jettisoned much of chorale music’s basic components — consistent meter, vocal vibrato, clearly delineated movements. Looking to his Jewish roots for inspiration, he replaced them with elements derived from Hebrew liturgy.
“Doing ‘Tehillim’ has been a huge project, it’s really hard,” said Jenny Undercofler, the director and co-founder of Face the Music. Despite the difficulties, she and Pierson decided to go along with it anyway: “It’s a signature piece for Alarm Will Sound,” she said, “and the kids really love Steve Reich.”
Undercofler, 37, and Pierson, 36, met as students at the Eastman School of Music, a conservatory in Rochester, in the mid-1990s. Together they co-founded Alarm Will Sound, then only a student ensemble that specialized in crossover pieces bridging pop and contemporary classical music.
Undercofler left Alarm Will Sound a decade ago to work as a music teacher. But she founded Face the Music in 2005, which has much the same spirit. Made up of classical musicians at New York schools ranging from fifth graders to high school seniors, the group plays contemporary music exclusively. “I felt there was a real disconnect between the music [student musicians] were playing and what they’re actually interested in,” she said.
Steve Reich, now 74, was a perfect bridge. His pulsating, often electronic-based compositions have influenced pop musicians like the Talking Heads and David Bowie, and his music is accessible — still a rare thing for much contemporary classical music.
Face the Music’s success playing Reich’s music, and work similar to it, has already been astounding. The ensemble has been booked in fashionable venues like Le Poisson Rouge and the Bang on a Can Marathon. It has been featured on NPR, performed on WYNC and won the praise of The New York Times.
When Undercofler asked Pierson if he’d be willing to have Alarm Will Sound perform with her teenage ensemble, Pierson didn’t hesitate. “What makes it so great is that a lot of us were the age of these kids when we made our original recording,” Pierson said. “Tehillim” was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first professional recordings, made when a few of the group’s musicians were teenagers themselves.
Alarm Will Sound has collaborated with rock groups like the Dirty Projectors and classical composers like Nico Muhly. But for the students in Face the Music, the collaboration was not just about playing alongside a hip professional ensemble. It was about earning respect.
Addison Manion, a 14-year-old eight grader who plays percussion, said she was annoyed by the media’s often patronizing tone. When reporters wrote about the group, their reviews often seemed phony, as if the musicians were being praised simply because they were kids. “This makes it so they won’t even think about” us being students, Manion said.
Her friend Amanda Lubin, a 13-year-old eighth grader who plays the piano and was sitting next to her, chimed in: performing with Alarm Will Sound “makes it not just a teenage thing. It’s real; they’ll take us seriously.”
For Face the Music’s Jewish musicians, performing “Tehillim” has added significance. One of the things that Ben Goldstein, an 11-year-old sixth grader who plays violin, found most compelling was the opportunity it gave non-Jewish performers to experience his own Jewish culture. “It’s kind of cool for the people who’ve never sung Hebrew,” he said, adding that they get to experience some of his own tradition.
But there were personal benefits, too. “When I go to the synagogue and they sing [Hebrew], it’s not as nice as they do it here,” Goldstein said, as he sat in Merkin Concert Hall on a rehearsal break. At synagogue, he added, “they don’t even play instruments.”
For Ethan Cohn, a 15-year-old ninth grader who plays cello, it was an unexpected exposure to Jewish culture, outside the normal confines of Hebrew school or the annual Yom Kippur service. “I’ve probably heard more Hebrew here than since my bar mitzvah,” he said.
But he drew an important distinction between Hebrew prayer and Reich’s chorale music. “In synagogue, it’s about the meaning of the Hebrew. Here, it’s about the musicality.”
Whether he knew it or not, that’s more or less what Reich said about “Tehillim” himself. It was the first piece Reich, who was raised a non-observant Jew, ever wrote that was inspired by his Jewish upbringing.
During the 1960s and ’70s, many of his friends were getting into spiritual movements, and Reich was himself exploring cultures outside his own. While on a trip to Africa, he was struck by the drumming culture, and how it was passed down from one generation to the next.
“Each musician was playing something that they had learned from their father or their uncle or, you know, somebody in their family,” he told NPR several years ago. “It had been passed on that way for, you know, obviously a couple of thousand years or so. And I thought, … ‘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.’ … 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.’”
Reich came back to New York and began taking classes with an Orthodox rabbi and a cantor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Soon he found a way to channel traditional Jewish learning through his own medium of spiritual expression: his music. (He told The Jerusalem Post in 2007, however, that he now prays three times a day, tries to keep kosher, observes Shabbat and “reads Torah all the time.”)
Reich wrote music for four different passages from the Book of Psalms, all of which glorify God. But he drew less attention to the meaning of the words than the musical structure he created to support them. Reich adopted the Torah’s unique cantillation system, in which each syllable is given a specific pitch. He deliberately chose texts from the Psalms — which have no cantillation system — rather than verses from the Five Books of Moses — which do — so he could create his own musical pattern that was beholden to neither book’s specific tonal rules.
For the orchestration, he added instruments — rattles, hand-claps, miniature antique cymbals — that evoked the sounds described in the Bible of ancient Hebrew services. Singers were instructed to sing without vibrato, giving their voices a pure, ethereal sound.
“Steve was really connecting with his Jewish roots,” Pierson said about “Tehillim.” “You can feel that in this piece. It’s just a whole new level of expressiveness.”
Contemporary classical music is not often taught to young classical musicians, said Undercofler. They are trained on a steady diet of challenging works from Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart.
But Undercofler says the music she has Face the Music perform is extremely difficult too, if in different ways. “I think contemporary music enhances the skills they already have,” she said. Pieces like “Tehillim,” for instance, demand a heightened sensitivity to changes in meter and fastidious attention to the interplay of an entire ensemble.
And if contemporary pieces can sometimes strain a musician’s patience — what with all those squeaks, drills, and electronic tricks — “Tehillim” is not one of them, said Manion. “Some contemporary music is just weird for the sake of being weird,” she said. “But Reich’s music is meaningful. It has a pulse. It’s not dance music,” she added, “but it does make you want to move.”
Face the Music performs “Tehillim” four more times in the coming months. Performances are at the following times and places (call venue for prices): Le Poisson Rouge, (212) 505-3474, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m.; The Tank, (212) 563-6269, Sunday, Feb. 13, 3 p.m.; Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, (718) 429-1150, Sunday, March 20, 5 p.m.; Merkin Concert Hall, (212) 501-3340, Tuesday, June 21, time to be determined.