Tehillim/The Desert Music


The 1980s were Steve Reich's orchestral decade: his entire orchestral output begins with Variations in 1980 and Tehillim in 1981, then ends six years later with The Four Sections. He has no plans to write again for such large forces. Few composers wait until the age of 44 to compose their first orchestral work, but Reich had developed in the 1960s an idiom that differed fundamentally from anything in the symphonic literature, and he organized his own ensemble with which to develop the specialized performing skills this music demanded. Where orchestral music generally involves a complex discourse, each early Reich work focuses on a single idea which is obsessively repeated and gradually, methodically altered. Reich developed this approach in his 1966 tape piece, It's Gonna Rain, which is built entirely out of a short tape loop from a sermon about the end of the world. Layered and repeated ad infinitum, the preacher's three words evolve into a thick and slowly shifting canonic texture.

For the most part, this music was played at art museums rather than concert halls - Reich never expected to reach more conservative classical music audiences. However, one of his most unsymphonic works, Four Organs (1970), did show up on a symphony program in 1973. Scored for just five players, the piece consists of a single chord repeated hundreds of times while growing gradually longer. Michael Tilson Thomas's decision to program the work on a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was an audacious one, and it proved to be more than some listeners could tolerate: when the program came to New York City on tour, the audience erupted in a near riot.

It's not just the austerity of this music which set it apart from the mainstream, but also the role that Reich gave himself in the composition. Here, the composer remains somewhat removed from the moment-to-moment details of the music, functioning like a clockmaker who designs a system and then allows it to play out on its own. "I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes," Reich wrote in 1968, "but once the process is set up and loaded, it runs by itself." Thus, the composer maintains a distance from the music's expression-in It's Gonna Rain, it's the preacher who sets the expressive tone; Reich's role is essentially to frame his voice.

About Tehillim (1981)

In choosing to tackle Jewish texts, Reich's first impulse was again to use another man's voice, to build the piece out of recordings of traditional synagogue chant. But in the years leading up to his first orchestral works, Reich had begun to loosen his once rigid compositional technique, and in so doing, to free his own voice and take more direct control of the composition. While "musical processes" still guided every work, they had become pliable, providing an overall shape for a piece without necessarily determining each individual note.

Ultimately, then, Reich decided to compose his own settings. He chose to set a body of liturgy for which no traditional chant had survived: the book of Psalms, called "Tehillim" in Hebrew. He selected four psalms, one for each movement of the piece: the first and last are jubilant, extroverted celebrations of the greatness of G-d and the universe He created, culminating in King David's famous "Hallelujah" psalm. In contrast, the two central texts look inward. The second urges generosity and cautions against gossip, while the penultimate text - the darkest of the piece - warns of the dangers of perversity. The uneven accents of the Hebrew words led Reich to a new approach to rhythm. While the relentless pulse of his earlier work remains, its fixed meters and short patterns are gone - Reich felt them too rigid to reflect the texts. In their place are groups of 2 and 3 eighth notes, combined in ever-changing metrical patterns to highlight the accents of the words.

Despite the freshness of the rhythmic language, we still find here the clarity of Reich's earlier compositional thought. The melodic material for each movement is drawn from a single tune stated at the movement's opening. And Tehillim is still built out of musical processes. The material which runs through the process is much longer than before-instead of the single chord of Four Organs or the tiny speech snippet of It's Gonna Rain, the basic unit of Tehillim is now an entire melody, 25 seconds or longer in duration. But like his earlier pieces, each movement of Tehillim is built out of repetitions of this melodic unit, and each repetition involves some sort of variation on the original.

The first half of Tehillim was composed and premiered first, and these two movements show the most direct connections to Reich's austere earlier work. In Part I, the melody, initially presented by a solo voice and a drum, is processed through canons of increasing complexity, recalling the phasing tape loops of It's Gonna Rain. In Part II, the melody is gradually lengthened, like the chord in Four Organs. The instruments maintain rigidly stratified roles throughout: the drums and mallet instruments lay down an interlocking pulse; the voices and winds present melodic material; and the strings provide harmonic grounding through shifting, sharply accented chords.

But there is much more here than the mere unfolding of processes. The canons are seldom exact, and as the melodies lengthen, Reich spins freely composed ornaments about them. Repetitions of the tune are sometimes interrupted by purely instrumental sections in which the ensemble outlines the melody's rhythmic profile. And in Part I, Reich generates a sense of long-range harmonic progression by exploiting the harmonic ambiguity inherent in the tune. The final two lines of the melody include only four pitches (D E G A), which could suggest a variety of harmonies. As the tune repeats, he uses the strings to gradually shift the melody's harmonic context beneath it, from G minor at the opening to increasingly bright major sonorities at the end.

Following the premiere of the first half of Tehillim in 1981, Reich was convinced by conductor Peter Eotvos to follow the first two parts with a slow movement. He'd never composed one before, and the result is a startling departure from his prior work. Languid, introspective, and darkly chromatic, Tehillim, Part III is Reich's first mature piece to be composed without the guidance of any overriding process. As in the other movements, there is a basic tune which repeats and is altered. But where repetitions in previous movements suggest an evolving process, those of Part III are free variations on one another. One can still find traces of Reich's old process-oriented approach, but the process is so vague and the repetitions so long that the result seems more related to conventional theme and variations than to the unique forms of Reich's earlier works. Most importantly, the composer's hand is now constantly present. Reflecting the changing moods of the text, the music restlessly shifts from one ambiguous key center to another-a stark contrast to the relentless tonal planes of Reich's optimistic earlier work. Freed from the constraints of process, Reich set Tehillim's darkest test with his most conventionally expressive music yet.

Returning to the rhythmic drive of Tehillim's first half, Part IV draws on techniques from all three preceding movements: canons, augmentation, and finally free variation. The theme is reworked in so many different ways that it is no longer possible to explain the trajectory of an entire movement as the result of a single process. The result is a complexity of discourse that recalls symphonic music more than it does Reich's prior body of work. Out of the ideas from his austere, reductionist works of the late 1960s, Reich has in Tehillimdeveloped a unique and completely personal musical language with the breadth and sophistication to produce truly symphonic thought.

The ending of Tehillim stands among Reich's most spectacular creations. The fourth movement tune recalls the harmonic ambiguity of Tehillim's opening melody: its final two lines involve those same four pitches (D, E, G, A), which suggest a variety of possible harmonic interpretations. From the outset of the movement, where they are cast in dark harmonies, Reich moves to increasingly bright tones. And in the conclusion, during which the singers again and again repeat the word "Hallelujah," these four notes are firmly grounded in D major. Following the shifting dark harmonies of the third movement, the resolute conclusion is a triumphant moment. Tim Page, in his evocative notes for the original recording, describes the effect as "incandescent," the voices "strong and proud, intertwining and harmonizing in continual ascent towards grace, striving towards the light. . ."

About The Desert Music (1984)

Light is a central image of the William Carlos Williams texts that Reich sets in The Desert Music, an image associated with creativity, imagination, and love. Opposed to this symbol is that of the bomb, which represents not just the nuclear threat itself but humanity's destructive impulse in general. "The Orchestra," which provides the text for The Desert Music's inner movements, centers on the poet's chilling warning: "Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish." Reich originally considered setting these words using a recording of the poet's own voice, much as he had presented the equally apocalyptic sermon of It's Gonna Rain. Ultimately, however, he decided to compose his own setting. The rest of "The Orchestra" is preoccupied with the same concern but approaches it more abstractly. Williams uses the orchestra as a metaphor for civilization - just as an orchestra must bring a multitude of disparate sounds into order, so must humanity find a design to control and contain its own destructive tendencies, to resolve what Williams calls its "wrong note."

The darkness of Williams's subject matter is echoed in the harmonies of Reich's setting. There are plenty of "wrong notes" in The Desert Music - this was Reich's most dissonant piece yet. Harmonically, each movement is organized around a cycle of altered dominant chords. The seven movements (I, II, IIIA, IIIB, IIIC, IV, and V) form a kind of palindrome, each one sharing its harmonic cycle and musical material with another at the other end of the work. The harmonic cycle of the first and last movements moves from darkness to light, the dissonant notes finally all resolving to a pure white-note diatonic harmony before the cycle begins again.

While these harmonic cycles underlie the entire composition, they are most apparent in the waves of pulsing chords which open and close the piece. Reich had framed his seminalMusic for 18 Musicians (1976) in a similar manner. The Desert Music draws on many ideas and techniques developed in Reich's prior work. Like most of his pieces from the 1970s, the odd movements of The Desert Music - I, IIIA, IIIC, and V - are built upon repeating patterns in a 12-pulse rhythmic cycle. In movements I and V, the principle pattern is presented by the first string quartet, then imitated canonically by the others. This rhythm, slowed down, becomes the vibraphone pattern of movements IIIA and IIIC. The strings play canons here too: the first quartet introduces an ornamented version of the vibraphone rhythm which the other quartets then echo. In between these rhythmically regular movements are sections which eschew steady meter in favor of the unpredictable groups of 2 and 3 eighth notes that Reich developed for Tehillim. Here, the mallets take over the role of Tehillim's drums, laying down interlocking patterns that outline the shifting meters.

While these materials are not new, Reich's treatment of them is. Rather than occupying the focal point of the music, they now become part of a backdrop in front of which he suspends long, freely-composed melodic gestures. The central section, IIIB, is the only one that truly fits into the conventional Reich mold, with a theme that is repeated and altered through various processes. Elsewhere, the vocal writing is entirely through-composed. Gone is the insistence upon structuring an entire movement around repetitions of a basic theme. Gone too is Reich's stratified instrumentation, replaced by a more typically orchestral approach in which, as he says, "all the sections of the orchestra get a workout." The Desert Music was Reich's freest composition yet, continuing the path he established in Tehillim of developing his materials in increasingly symphonic directions.

Reich's new, more symphonic approach to musical discourse in The Desert Music is reflected not just in his treatment of musical material, but also the in the complexity of thought suggested by his use of the texts. After a relatively straightforward setting of Hebrew scripture in Tehillim, Reich now brings together excerpts from four separate poems in a way which reveals as much of his own thought as Williams's. The choice to title the work The Desert Music is not made merely to cite the poet, as only one of the poems that Reich sets is drawn from Williams's collection by the same name, but is itself a kind of compositional decision. For Reich, the desert of The Desert Music is a place of both desolation and revelation. It is the desert in which the first atomic bombs were tested and the desert in which Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed all sought spiritual enlightenment. Thus, the desert suggests to Reich a reconciliation between the two polar symbols of the Williams texts: the bomb and the light.

Only one section in the work is intended to directly evoke a desert landscape: the opening of the fifth movement, in which long, slow-moving lines are suspended far above and below bustling string canons. But the idea of idea of seeking light in the midst of desolation is a central concern to the text which Reich uses to close The Desert Music, "Asphodel: That Greeny Flower." "Asphodel" is a love poem, written by the dying poet to his estranged wife. Here, the opposing symbols of light and bomb are finally brought together. They are, Williams argues, "inseparable." It is, after all, humanity's imagination and ingenuity, "its light," that has given rise to the bomb. The two are for Williams like the brilliance of the lightning strike and the thunder stroke that inevitably follows. But there is hope here: the bomb gives light as well as fire. And Williams assures his wife that it is the light which "takes precedence," and that the even "in an eternity," the thunderbolt and its heat will not overtake it. It's an ambiguous hope. Williams's own death is imminent, and he may not be promising a reprieve from the bomb, but rather suggesting that humanity's light will somehow survive it.

In Reich's music, this light is represented by the shining white-note chord at the end of the outer movements' harmonic cycle. At the climax of the work, as the chorus chants "the light" over and over, that clear harmony seems finally to have decisively arrived; like the jubilant D major at the end of Tehillim, it resolves all the "wrong notes" of the entire work. But here, certainty soon melts away into a sea of pulses and into the cloudy, shifting, dissonant harmonies of the opening. Reich's end is as ambiguous as Williams's - the bass of the ensemble fades away, leaving just the upper four voices. Without the harmonic grounding of the lower parts, it's impossible to know where we are in the cycle. Have we retained the luminescent chord of "the light?" Or are we back again in the darkness with which The Desert Music began?

About the New Versions of These Works

Both Tehillim and The Desert Music exist in two versions: an orchestral one for full symphony orchestra, and an alternate version for a large one-on-a-part chamber ensemble, essentially an extension of the percussion-centered group Reich assembled to play his music in the 1970s. This choice to hedge his bets in these first steps into orchestral writing suggests some of the composer's ambivalence about adapting the idiom he'd developed in his earlier works to symphonic forces.

Reich wasn't the only composer bringing minimalist ideas to concert music: 1980 also marked Philip Glass's and John Adams's first forays into orchestral composition and more conventional kinds of musical expression. But while these composers have continued working in the symphonic tradition, The Desert Music represents the apex of that trend in Reich's work. The orchestra turned out to be a frustrating setting for Reich, as the rhythmic language of his music demands a level of precision, communication, and ease which is nearly impossible to achieve with so many players and such limited rehearsal time.

Reich has come to feel that these works will survive primarily through versions for smaller ensembles. After recording the orchestral version of The Desert Music, Reich prepared the alternate chamber arrangement. (Though with 49 players, this "chamber version" still demands orchestra-sized forces.) The string section and the chorus were scaled back as much as possible, eliminating all doublings and leaving just one performer on each line. Reich removed the brass and most of the wind instruments entirely, replacing them with additional keyboard parts.

The edition of The Desert Music performed here is one that I developed in discussion with the composer as an attempt to combine the strengths of the two original versions. The scoring is based on his chamber orchestration, but with the orchestral brass restored in the form of a reduced seven-player section. Other minor changes were made to the score as well, adding articulation markings, rebarring certain sections, and fixing discrepancies between the published score and the original orchestral recording. Reich intends this new version of The Desert Music to be the standard chamber orchestration, and a score is forthcoming from Boosey and Hawkes.

Unlike The Desert MusicTehillim was originally composed with two versions in mind. In this case, it is the chamber version that was initially performed and recorded. The orchestral setting, with full string sections and additional wind doublings, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and has been released in a recording of their live performance. As with The Desert Music, I intended the version presented here to reflect the strengths of both original editions. Our scoring matches the chamber version but adds a second string quartet in order to produce a fuller orchestral sound and avoid the awkward double stops of the chamber orchestration. This permits a more lyrical line in the third movement without muddying the rhythmic incisiveness that characterizes the original chamber version. 


Tehillim/The Desert Music
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