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If nothing else, Tehillim appeared at the right time. The piece, originally recorded in 1981, not only marked Steve Reich’s first experiment with the singing of a text (though he had already employed voices, first in his tape-loop pieces and then to emulate instruments in compositions like Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ); it also presaged a whole sacred-music boom, which little more than a decade later found Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony outselling Mozart.
If Tehillim was in part a reaction to rival Philip Glass’ success with such “operas” as Einstein on the Beach, then its new recording—by the Schönberg Ensemble with Percussion Group The Hague—is ironic. This disc, which also includes a never-recorded orchestral piece, Three Movements, takes the place of The Cave, the Reich composition premiered live in London and New York in 1993 and originally announced for a late ’94 CD release. With its staging and use of video, The Cave comes closest to Einstein of any Reich piece. (The composer even grudgingly let people call it an opera.) As music, though, it proved problematic.
In that it’s much different from Tehillim, which ranks with Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians among Reich’s best work. The Cave and Tehillim are the only two pieces in the composer’s recorded canon that derive from Jewish tradition, but where the former recapitulates various familiar gambits in a sort of greatest-hits approach, the latter is a bold yet natural expansion of previous techniques. It employs the continuous percussive pulse that had become the composer’s trademark, while varying the meter to set supplely the Hebrew text (derived from biblical psalms). Reich takes a millennia-old heritage of religious chant, filters it through the minimalism of Violin Phase and It’s Gonna Rain and the African/Indonesian rhythms of Drumming, and brings it triumphantly out the other side. The result is austere yet lush, ancient yet modern, Eastern yet Western.
The new recording is all this and a little more. It sounds richer and more vibrant than the ECM original—that’s probably just the recording—and a little brisker. (The latter is an illusion; the new one actually runs a few beats tardier than the original, and ultimately clocks in about a minute longer.) The third movement is, Reich once noted, “the first slow movement I have composed since my student days,” and thus the one that came closest to forecasting the sonorous slo-mo of new transcendentalists like Pärt and Tavener. It merely sets the stage, however, for the fourth, which brings together all the timbres of Reich’s ’70s works for something minimalism had previously shunned: a climax.
Tehillim‘s jubilant and jaunty fourth movement is no exercise in kitchen-sink bombast, yet it does bring together most of Reich’s compositional concerns: staccato percussion and sustained tones, instruments and vocals that echo and even mimic each other, process and resolution, classical severity and jazzy syncopation. (Though not as obviously rooted in jazz as, say, Sextet, the piece is one of Reich’s most effective attempts to give some swing to conservatory music.) “Hallelujah,” the piece concludes, and that seems about right.
Three Movements was written two years after 1984’s The Desert Music, Reich’s first composition for full orchestra and chorus, and uses some of the same gambits: The percussion is given a prominence rare in European art music, and the strings provide minimalist shimmerings. Unlike Tehillim, this 15-minute work is hardly a turning point; it simply translates familiar Reichisms to an orchestral setting. It does offer an opportunity to hear what the disappointing Desert Music would sound like if stripped of its rather awkward choral element, and that turns out to be reasonably cogent.
Tehillim is something more than minimalist, yet it never loses the pulse, and its discrete percussive and vocal sounds are sometimes flooded in the enveloping drone of an electric organ. Both pulse and drone are derived from Terry Riley, whose 1965 composition, In C, mingled Erik Satie, John Cage, and Eastern musics to create the fountainhead of minimalism. Reich played in the concert premiere of the piece, Riley recalls in the notes to In C: 25th Anniversary Concert, recorded in 1990 but just released by New Albion in time for the 30th anniversary.
Riley is less known than his inheritors, probably because he—unlike Reich and Glass—abandoned composition for improvisation and spent much time out of the U.S., notably in India. These days Riley is composing again, though in a manner that allows some improv (as does In C). The Kronos Quartet (whose members are among the new-music celebs on the 25th-anniversary disc) recorded his epic Salome Dances for Peace in 1988; more recently, the Rova Saxophone Quartet collaborated with him on Chanting the Light of Foresight.
Much as Tehillim was inspired by Reich’s study of the cantillation of his Jewish forebears, Foresight marks Riley’s investigation of his Irish literary heritage. The piece was inspired by the eighth-century Taín Bó Cuailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”), the story of the invasion of Ulster by the army of King Medb and Queen Ailill. The title comes from the ability of Scáthach—the teacher of the tale’s hero, Cúchulainn—to tell the future by chanting the Imbas Forasnai, Gaelic for “the light of foresight.”
Literally, there is no chanting in Foresight, which is performed entirely by saxophones of various (and sometimes arcane) tunings; the piece is also not likely to strike fans of either the Chieftains or U2 as very Celtic. Instead, the prolonged tones—especially in the quietly mesmerizing first part, “The Tuning Path”—sound more like the Indian music that has so influenced Riley, while later parts such as “The Pipes of Medb/Medb’s Blues” and “The Chord of War” are clearly rooted in free jazz. The music is designed for both structure and improvisation, and the blaring, almost boogieing “The Chord of War” was actually added by the quartet, after its members decided that the composition was incomplete without battle music and Riley encouraged them to furnish some.
Like Tehillim, Foresight ends on a buoyant note, with the nimble circling riffs of the title track. Its most arresting section, though, is the opening one, in which the quartet summons what Riley describes as “sounds I had not previously heard coming from a saxophone.” There’s no pulse here, but these 17 minutes of overlapping waves of resonant sound are just as indomitable as In C‘s relentless 75-minute ostinato. Forceful yet serene, “The Tuning Path” is as transporting as anything Riley’s ever done, whether as composer or improviser, minimalist or maximalist.
Classical music snobs still sniff at Reich’s phase patterns, but the more practical-minded have long recognized their value; Reichbeats are frequently enlisted by film-score hacks to provide tension or propulsion. Chris Hughes, a British record producer, is not cagey about his debt: “From the music of Steve Reich” is the legend on the front cover of his Shift, which dolls up his inspiration’s innovations with wind chimes, bird chirps, and the like.
There’s a legend on the inside of the CD booklet too, “play quietly,” which suggests that Hughes knows his Eno as well. He’s simply being more honest than a lot of British popularizers who recycle German space-rock and American minimalism as “ambient” music. Hughes specifies exactly which Reich pieces inspired which Shift retreads, and the closer he sticks to the originals the better. Indeed, after the insipid synth washes of “Part II” of the 31-minute title track, it’s a relief to hear the genuine Reichian rhythm that introduces “Part III (From Violin Phase).” Each time it happens, I think for a moment that I actually like this album.
“There should have been more lawsuits,” Reich cracked of film-score hacks at a meet-the-composer symposium before the Kennedy Center debut of The Desert Music. For Shift, I take it, he’s getting royalties.