When I first encountered Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, I freaked out. Having been immersed in concert/symphonic school band from 3rd grade, I had no conception of what existed in the contemporary music world until high school (when I discovered Reich’s music). This music opened my ears to many concepts I was already starting to hear as well as pushed me into an entirely new world of new music to explore and listen to. 

I bought Reich’s Tehillim last year on a visit to Amoeba in the Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. After multiple listens, I had always been amazed at the writing and the emotion that this music emits when listening to it. Most recently, I popped the CD back into my CD player (yes, I still have a stand-alone CD player), to find new inspiration in this wonderful piece of music. 

Reich wrote Tehillim (Hebrew for “Psalms”) in 1981. Written in four parts (fast, fast, slow, fast), Tehillim is Reich’s first work reflecting his Jewish heritage. Tehillim is the setting of Psalms 19:2-5, 34:13-15, 18:26-27 and finally 150:4-6 and the four parts of the work are based on these four texts respectively. Tehillim is orchestrated for four women’s voices, piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, two clarinets, six percussionists, two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello and bass. 

What I find particularly interesting is that Reich, by using text as his raw material for composition, ending up writing music that was Jewish by nature, but doesn’t  sound overtly Jewish (like some of John Zorn’s music (particularly his different Masada formations)). Reich says in his liner notes:

“…there is no musicological content to Tehillim. No Jewish themes were used for any of the melodic material. One of the reasons I chose to set Psalms as opposed to parts of the Torah or Prophets is that the oral tradition among Jews in the West for singing Psalms has been lost.”

Because there was no previous oral tradition among Western Jews for reciting the Psalms, Reich was free to interpret the text and make personal decisions as to how and why he structured the piece as he did. Its almost like re-inventing the wheel (a very old and broken wheel of course). 

The concept of using text as a building block for composition is a very lucrative composing tool. In my own attempts at writing music based off Gematria, I’ve struggled to find different ways of incorporating/transferring text into melodic/harmonic/structural ideas.

Steve Reich’s Tehillim is a constant inspiration. Incredible to say the least. 

Click here for an audio clip of Tehillim.