Steve Reich’s Tehillim

Steve Reich turned 84 the other day, and to celebrate his publisher Boosey & Hawkes put a scrolling-score video of Tehillim on YouTube.

This work has always impressed me as something utterly remarkable. Indeed, of all the pieces I’ve heard that might be termed “classic minimalism,” Tehillim stands alone in my personal pantheon.

I was introduced to Tehillim by my first wife Karen Goldfeder, whose teacher, Jay Clayton, is on the famous ECM recording (and heard on this scrolling score video). In time, my second wife Sarah Deming also turned out to have a close relationship to this piece. Both Karen and Sarah are Jewish, and — without wanting to be too essentialist here — Tehillim was not just music they liked, but also contemporary religious music with historical resonance. Given the instrumentation, especially the “medieval” types of percussion, it’s not a stretch to imagine something like the sounds of Tehillim being performed by Karen’s and Sarah’s direct ancestors on the sands of the desert a thousand years ago or more.

Steve Reich is now an icon, a rare living concert composer who is part of the basic texture of American music. (To some, he is even an old monument that needs to be torn down.) Famously, Reich literally put the pulse in Terry Riley’s groundbreaking In C, a handy metaphor for aspects of Reich’s influence. One of Reich’s legacies is simply a proper infusion of metronomic time into American conservatories, especially through countless college percussion ensembles working on the various “phase” pieces.

But time is more than a metronome, and Reich at his most inspired understands this better than most of his peers. Reich name-checks Kenny Clarke and John Coltrane in interviews, and Pat Metheny plays the third movement of Electric Counterpoint with outrageously swinging phrasing (something that the score does not try to reflect, which only has straight eighths).

The ringers on the ECM recording of Tehillim include not just Clayton but legendary world music percussionist Glen Velez. Reich himself plays basic percussion on this recording, and more power to him for that kind of real world, real rhythm participation. How many 20th-century composers of fully notated music actually helped the rhythms happen on record?

Kyle Gann understands the whole of Reich’s oeuvre much better than I do, most of which doesn’t resonate with me the way Tehillim does. Gann’s pages on Reich in American Music in the 20th Century are concise, critical, and believable.

Reich’s own liner notes to Tehillim are very intellectual and generally murky. However, Paul Griffith’s notes to the reissue of Tehillim in the The ECM Recordings are a joy to read.