Steve Reich: Tehillim

Back in 1984, when I was just out of high school, and two years before I came up to Berkeley to learn Hebrew, I bought Steve Reich’s then-new Tehillim in vinyl, and just today received the CD. The ECM recording, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians, conducted George Manahan, is superior to the Cantaloupe Music recording performed by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia, conducted by Alan Pierson (available in a paired CD with Reich’s Desert Music). One immediately perceptible reason is the vocalists’ vibrato in the latter, which is simply out of place in the stripped-down and intentionally archaizing composition of Reich, which is better reflected in his own performance. The ECM recording is striking; “the other,” as a distinguished friend of mine from Brooklyn would say, “not so much.” As Reich says in the notes:

The non-vibrato, non-operatic vocal production will also remind listeners of Western music prior to 1750. However, the overall sound of Tehillim and in particular the intricately interlocking percussion writing which, together with the text, forms the basis of the entire work, marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time.

Other listeners will no doubt concur that, ancient as the sung texts are, and as oddly archaic as the instrumentation and performance is, there is something undeniably fresh and vibrantly contemporary in this lively recording.

Reich based the rhythm directly upon the rhythm of the Hebrew words. As the Western Jewish tradition of chanting the cantillation marks in the Psalms has been lost (there is a tradtion preserved among Yemeni Jews), Reich chose the Psalms for his project, feeling free to compose melodies, as he says, “without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore.”

This performance is scored for all women’s voices: one high soprano, two lyric sopranos, and one alto. The instrumentation is piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, six percussion (small tuned tambourines with no jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone, and crotales), two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello, and bass.

The texts included are the following:

Psalm 19.2-5
השׁמים מספרים כבוד־אל ומעשׂה ידיו מגיד הרקיע
יום ליום יביע אמר ולילה ללילה יחוה־דעת
אין־אמר ואין דברים בלי נשׁמע קולם
בכל־הארץ יצא קום ובקצה תבל מליהם

Psalm 34.13-15
מי־האישׁ החפץ חיים אהב ימים לראות טוב
נצר לשׁונך מרע ושׂפתיך מדבר מרמה
סור מרע ועשׂה־טוב בקשׁ שׁלום ורדפהו

Psalm 18.26-27
עם־חסיד תתחסד עם־גבר תמים תתמם
עם־נבר תתברר ועם־עקשׁ תתפתל

Psalm 150.4-6
הללוהו בתף ומחול הללוהו במנים ועוגב
הללוהו בצלצלי־שׁמע הללוהו בצלצלי תרועה
כל הנשׁמה תהלל יה הללו־יה

I guarantee, O gentle reader, that once you have listened to this recording of Reich’s performance, you will always read these texts with his melodies in mind. They are inescapably catchy.