Steve Reich

This is Steve Reich, at the home of Betty Freeman, speaking to a roomful of invited guests about his composition “Tehillim,” which was brand-new at the time. STEVE REICH:  (1/16/83) I thought to play one piece on tape today, Tehillim, which is a setting of some of the psalms in the original Hebrew.  It takes a half an hour.  I’m sure some of you have heard it, and some of you have not.  Then I thought we’d talk about that.  I won’t initiate the talk.  I’ll try to answer any questions you have.  After a bit of that, Ransom Wilson, a flutist I’m sure you all know, is here today.  I thought he would play Vermont Counterpoint   together with a tape that Ransom has made.  It takes nine minutes to do that.  After that, you might have some questions for Ransom or myself.  Then, if we could keep that down to a minimum, maybe he could play it again.  So, that’s the overall plan.

I thought I’d do one thing:  since Tehillim is in the Hebrew language, I thought I’d just quickly run over the text.  There are four parts of four psalms.  I didn’t set entire psalms, the reason being is that I wanted to choose text that I felt that I could really say wholeheartedly from beginning to end.  Consequently, I made these selections.

The first is from the 19th psalm:  “The heavens declare the glory of God.  The sky tells of his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech.  Night to night reveals language.  Without speech and without words, nevertheless their voice is heard.  Their sound goes out to all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.”  Then, without any interruption in the music, there’s a brief percussion interlude which just carries the music forward, but gives you a sense of a stop.

The second text begins in the same tempo:  “Where’s the man who loves life, loves many days to see good?  Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.  Turn from evil and do good.  Seek peace and pursuit it.”  Stop. Musicians stop and turn their pages.  Conductor mops his brow.

Then there’s a slow movement which is a lesser known text for those of you who know these kinds of text.  It’s from the 18th psalm:  “With the merciful, You are merciful.  With the upright, You are upright.  With the pure, You are pure.  With the perverse, You are subtle.”

The last text is the last four verses of the 150th psalm:  “Praise Him with drum and dance.  Praise Him with strings and winds.  Praise Him with sounding cymbals.  Praise Him with clanging cymbals.  With all that breathes, praise the eternal, Hallelujah!”

(Recording played of Tehillim)

Well, I’ll be glad to respond in anyway I can to most anything that’s said.  (laughing)

ALAN RICH:. I hear a line, I think in the low strings. Does that spell out a chant melody of any sort?

STEVE.:  I’m trying to think what line you’re talking about.  The slow moving string part?

ALAN.:  The low instruments.  Very slowly and very regularly…

STEVE.:  The only thing low we have on tap in that section is the cello and the bass, so that must be it.  No.  That’s a good question.  Everyone who is interested in what I’ve been doing has heard that I’ve been interested in my own background as a Jew, and in the cantillations, the chanting of the Hebrew scriptures.  There’s no doubt that Tehillim  would never have been written if it were not for that interest.  But, there is no chanting of any sort in this piece.  As a matter of fact, as I rather laboriously spell out in the program notes, I chose to set the psalms because the tradition for singing psalms in synagogues here in Los Angeles, in New York, in Europe, has been lost.  It’s been lost to the western communities.  When we sing songs in the synagogues, as some of you know, the songs are probably stolen from the churches in the 19th century.

I chose to set psalms for two reasons.  The first was that it’s obviously the most musical text in the Hebrew scripture.  The second is that in contrast to the Torah, the five books of Moses, and in contrast to the prophets where there is an oral tradition, where this is most definitely some kind of continuity between the time of Ezra, five hundred years before Jesus, and the present, with all kinds of influences.  The tradition for singing psalms has been lost.  Actually, for those of you know anything about the little markings, they’re called tamin.  They’re accent markings.  The word tamin means “taste”.  The tastes of the writing are different little signs in the psalms, the Book of Job, and the Book of Proverbs, than they are from the rest of the Hebrew scripture.  Scholars write what they might have been, what they should have, what they could have, but nobody knows.  The Yemenite Jews and the Sephardic Oriental Jews do have a living tradition of chanting the psalms in their oral tradition, that is from father to son, from mother to daughter.  So, I felt free to compose, with a capital “c”, without a musical superego looking over my shoulder which people like Nick England [ethno-musicologist at CalArts] might understand when I said that, ‘I don’t want to use a gong-gong’.

Earlier on in my life when I was studying African music, I didn’t want to use an African bell which, although it’s tuned in rough octaves or sixths, is in no way related to that or any other piano or keyboard, except by accident.  To use one in the music would mean scraping it with a metal file or something like that.  It’s fine.  I’m sure that people are going to write a great gong-gong part.  I know I wish I did.  It’s not for me, and I didn’t want to use Balinese instruments…  Since I was brought up reformed, i.e. Unitarian, with a lip-sync bar-mitzvah… (laughing)  I didn’t know what it was that I was doing.  I didn’t really learn Hebrew until I was 37.  I volunteered at that late age to finally get that information.  The chanting was not in my ear, it was not something I grew up with.  I ended up feeling most comfortable taking the text and the accentuation of the text.  All the rhythms come out of the words and many of the notes come out of the words.  But there’s no chant.

ALAN:  It seems to be fair game among newspaper critics on both coasts these days, to take this word “minimalist” which is a journalistic catch-all, and throw it back at several composers as just the worst swear word in the vocabulary.  How do you react to that and how do you react to the term “minimalist” as it applies to your kind of music?

STEVE.:  I feel like a broken record because I really have been asked this question a lot, and I keep trying to make fresh replies.  As far as I know the history of it, and I may be wrong, but I believe Michael Nyman, the English musician, composer, and sometime journalist, coined the word in about 1970 or 1971 to describe the music of myself, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and LaMonte Young.  He, or whoever it was, definitely took the term from the visual arts where it would refer to people like Frank Stella or Donald Judd who were working in geometric and sometimes repetitive structures.  There was a kind of analogy.  At the time the word was coined in 1970 or 1971, I was getting into a piece like Drumming.  Certainly there are some analogies:  there’s obviously a tremendous amount of repetition, it does work with a limited harmonic compass (there aren’t too many notes in the piece), and the focus is on rhythm in a kind of single-minded way.  Many other aspects of traditional western music, changes of harmony, modulation, were simply forgotten about in quest of something that I was concerned with.

Later on, as time passed, I became interested to go forward and perhaps go backwards to visit our own musical history and to reinvolve myself with just the traditional questions that western composers have always involved themselves with, namely harmony and orchestration.  I believe that what I was doing rhythmically sort of took care of the counterpoint, and still does, but that’s something we can discuss separately.  And consequently, I think the term “minimal” became less applicable to the music.  I’m thinking of pieces like Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Keyboard, certainly a piece like Music for 18 Musicians is less minimal, less harmonically static than a piece like “Drumming”.

By the time you get to a piece like Tehillim, I think the “minimal” tag doesn’t fit very well.  There are some da capos as Bill Kraft [composer, percussionist] will vouch for, but basically it’s a big fat score and you go from the beginning to the end.  The kinds of repeats that are in it are the kinds of repeats that you can find in a Minuet and Trio in Haydn.  I don’t think the kind of repetition that’s in Drumming is really applicable, although there are other things that are very clearly a continuous thread.  So, my answer is, sure, if you want to call it ‘minimal.’ We refer to Debussy and Ravel as Impressionistic.  It’s easier to say one word than to say six words for two different names.  In that sense if you want Minimal music to refer to me, Glass, Riley, and perhaps now John Adams, although I think that’s a very poor description of his marvelous music, sure.  It’s like picking up a tea cup:  you don’t want to burn your hand picking up a cup, you use a handle.  So, it’s a handle.

ALAN:  Yeah, but we don’t say Impressionistic as if we were confining them to some kind of limbo.  But, if you pick up Donal  Henahan and the New York Times week after week, and you find that “minimal” is something that should be isolated on some island.

S.R.:  Look, there are some critics who don’t like me.  There are some critics who like me.  Well, I’m talking to you, so you must like me.  I think it really boils down to that.  That word could be used just like any other word.  The tone of voice varies in the mouth of the user.  I don’t want to dwell on it.  I think what I said covers it.  Are there any other questions?