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.


  1. I had dinner with Reich a few years ago, and he told me that he composed this during a period when he found himself admiring the use of African and South Asian musical themes in some contemporary Western compositions. And then, he realized he had a cultural value of his own to bring to the table.

  2. Lucky you, Theophrastus! You get to have dinner with such interesting people. Like me! Ha! I really love that recording. He really does work with the rhythm of the words well. And except for the strange pronunciation of some of it (which I recall reading was also intentional; particularly segholizing the shewa), which isn’t intrusive, it was my first proper lesson in reading Hebrew. So, I’m attached to it in several different ways.

    Esteban, I looked, but couldn’t find even the usual Amazon samples. I think it may be because it’s so short. The first two pieces total 17:25 and the second two total 12:27. Samples that would be worth listening to would probably exceed an acceptable amount of each piece.

  3. There are three major recordings available:

    The ECM was the original release and the best one, in my opinion

    The Canteloupe recording by Ossia and Alarm Will Sound, which is a definite step down, but better than the Nonesuch

    The Nonesuch recording by the Hague Percussion Group and the Schoenberg Ensemble — arguably the worst of the three.

  4. Ugh. If something is worse than the Canteloupe one, it must be dangerous to the ears.

    That’s a bit extreme. I just popped in the Canteloupe for another listen, and it’s not as bad as I remembered it, but it’s still nowhere near as good as the ECM. The vibrato is not so noticeable as I remembered it. There’s a clarity lacking to it, though, that the Reich-performed ECM recording has that makes it so special.

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