Past Forward: Composer Spotlight – Steve Reich

Steve Reich has been called “America’s greatest living composer” (Village Voice), “the most original musical thinker of our time” (The New Yorker), and “among the great composers of the century” (The New York Times). His music, spanning a vibrant career that started in 1960s, is a staple of contemporary classical repertoire and has influenced composers and mainstream musicians all over the world. Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains have earned him two Grammy Awards, and in 2009, his Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Tehillim, composed in 1981, is a work for four female singers and chamber orchestra that Reich says is quite different from his earlier works. He writes in his program note, “There is no fixed meter or metric pattern in Tehillim as there is in my earlier music. The rhythm of the music here comes directly from the rhythm of the Hebrew text.” The word “Tehillim” is the Hebrew name of the biblical Book of Psalms, from which the piece takes its text. Reich also writes that the work “may well suggest renewed interest in Classical or, more accurately, Baroque and earlier Western musical practice.”

The 2016–2017 season marks Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, with over 400 performances in more than 20 countries across the globe celebrating his music and legacy. American Composers Orchestra is proud to be a part of this celebration, and performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall

Steve Reich was kind enough to speak with us about the piece and his relationship with ACO’s Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording in 1981. This interview is transcribed from our phone conversation.

Composer Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman

American Composers Orchestra: We wanted to start by talking about your relationship with ACO’s Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording for ECM Records in 1981. Can you talk about how you came to work with him and what it was like?

Steve Reich: My ensemble never had a conductor for anything until 1981 when I wrote Tehillim. We felt we might be able to do it without one but it sure would be better if we had one. James Preiss, one of the main percussionists in my ensemble, was teaching at Manhattan School of Music and knew George, who was at MSM also, and said to us, I think I have the ideal guy to be a conductor. George had the same kind of mind set so we decided to try it. George came down to my studio on Warren Street near City Hall and it was just like hand in glove. We said, this is the guy! George completely mastered the changing meters which are [laughs] well, I would never write anything with such large measures the way I did in Tehillim unless it wasn’t necessary – it accurately reflects the vocal line – but it’s a difficult piece to conduct. I think Michael Tilson Thomas said to me at some point afterwards, “Musicians like downbeats!” [laughs]

Anyway, George did a great job during rehearsals. We then took the piece to Europe and he conducted on tour with us. We all lived together, worked together, performed together. It was just a delight. Back in The States we did the American premiere at the Rothko Chapel out in Houston and the NY premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the 20th century galleries. George did all of that and then finally we went back to Europe to do the recording in Stuttgart. It was very intense. There were a lot of people and we recorded live. There were lots of re-dos. Everybody’s in the room. I think it’s a remarkable recording. George is absolutely first rate and a pleasure to work with, and to top it off we both have the same birthday! [laughs]

George Manahan conducting the premiere recording of Tehillim with Steve Reich and Musicians in Stuttgart, 1981. Photos by Deborah Reingold courtesy of the Paul Sacher Foundation

ACO: Thinking about this first recording of Tehillim vs. the many subsequent recordings that have been made, can you identify anything about George Manahan’s approach to performing Tehillim that is different to other conductors?

SR: I think George was at home with this kind of musical language – the subdivisions of twos and threes – and he was familiar with a lot of 20th Century music. I would say for me, that recording and the Alarm Will Sound recording are the two outstanding recordings that come to mind. The Steve Reich and Musicians recording had [laughs] I don’t know 50 or 60 cuts. And Alan [Pierson, Music Director of Alarm Will Sound] sent me a lot of the in progress mixes. So as cohesive as it is musically, this is a testament to how correct Glenn Gould was when he recorded and re-recorded so many multiple takes.

ACO: Tehillim has been performed numerous times around the world since its premiere in 1981. Its initial reception was not as severe as say Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

SR: No no no [laughs] Tehillim was appreciated right away. It was pretty obvious that in general people were, and still are, attracted to Tehillim more than Four Organs. I enjoy it more. They are very different types of pieces.

ACO: Do you think audiences’ responses to these works have changed over the years?

SR: Of course! Four Organs created a riot in Carnegie Hall in 1973 – it’s been noted many times – but Michael Tilson Thomas did it in San Francisco in 1996 and … well, people recognized it and really liked it. There was a lot of resistance in the late 1960s and early 1970s to what I was doing and now that has changed enormously. I’m in Los Angeles right now – the LA Phil New Music Group just did Tehillim with conductor Jeffrey Milarsky. It was a great performance and received a wonderful standing ovation.

ACO: Do you think it is important for listeners to know the origins and meaning of the text in Tehillim?

SR: Yes, the text is the Psalms and, like any concert with vocal music, the text certainly should be printed in the program. They’re not that long since they’re really parts of the Psalms. The answer to your question is this: when you first heard Bob Dylan you said, “What … I can’t understand a word.” But there was something magnetic about the music. When you listen to Handel’s Messiah you don’t get all the words, but the music magnetizes you and you want to listen to it. You got some of it, got the gist of it, but later on you might say, “What exactly were they singing?”

Tehillim is of course set in the original Hebrew, which means that you’re not going to understand it by listening, so you’re either going to go to the libretto or you’re not. I think most people do end up going to the libretto and they understand it, they get it. Everybody especially understands “Hallelujah,” so the last movement is crystal clear and that may help gel a lot of the other parts. But for most people, if you’re just a casual listener, it has to work just as music. That’s a must for any composer. If you say, well, they’ve got to understand this and that and another thing, that’s just a crutch, that’s an excuse. I don’t accept it. If music is going to work it has to have legs and either it does or it doesn’t.

Now, if you’re attracted to the music and you’re interested in it, then you might listen to a recording before the performance or bring the text with you, and I think you will get more out of it, because Tehillim is definitely a setting of the text in the classical sense of that term. The meaning of the words counts and you want to capture that as best you can. So sure, the text matters, but the music comes first and then if you’re really interested you can go to the score and say, “How’d he do this?” [laughs]

ACO: You have said that you don’t believe in movements, that when the music stops, it stops. Is Tehillim an exception? If so, why did you make an exception for Tehillim?

SR: It’s an interesting question because it was the first piece of mine to have a movement break, but certainly not the last. I have a lot of other pieces now with movement breaks. You Are Variations comes to mind immediately, which is very much related to Tehillim. You Are Variations is one of my best pieces, but because of four pianos and a chorus it’s performed less than I wish it was.

But to answer your question, writing Tehillim with movement breaks was basically a gut decision. I had finished the first half and I remember being in the car with Péter Eötvös, the Hungarian composer-performer-conductor, who at the time was the conductor of the Ensemble InterContemporain and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart [Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra]. I had finished the first half and we were going to perform it as a work-in-progress. We were driving from Paris to Stuttgart. His English was not very good and my German was non-existent, so was my Hungarian, but he said to me at one point, “So you’ll go on like before? Same tempo?” [laughs] It hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, wow, what a good question. And really, what his comment ignited was the realization that I needed a slow movement. I hadn’t yet written a consciously slow movement at a different tempo. So that introduced the idea of taking a pause. Also, a lot of concentration is needed in the first half of Tehillim – it’s a very long section. A little break to catch your breath is very much in order in a purely practical sense, and the slow movement serves that purpose very well.

Having movement breaks or no breaks is not according to some theory or principle. If Péter Eötvös hadn’t said that, I probably would have gone with the same solution, but I do remember that moment with him in the car and thinking about it. The slow movement is the most chromatic music I have written to date – after my student years anyway – and I think it’s very successful. It was really exciting for me because I had never written anything that moved that slowly. It opened up a whole world which I pursued quite a bit going forward.

ACO: As you may already know, ACO is dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation and promulgation of music by American composers, and is involved in many programs to commission and premiere works by young American composers. Can you talk about any similar organizations or programs that contributed to your success as a young composer? 

SR: To be perfectly candid, I really wasn’t interested in the orchestra. I’m working on a piece now called 20 Soloists and Orchestra, which is a concerto grosso using the first chair people and a few soloists, but basically this is a large chamber work, which I’m always doing anyway, with a sort of backup band with brass and the remainder of the strings. So I have been writing chamber music all my life. Tehillim is a large chamber piece in that it’s one to a part. Is isn’t chamber music in the sense in which that it’s conducted, but I think playing it requires having to listen to each other much like you need to with all chamber music.

When I was getting started, no, there was no organization of any sort that I relied on to establish myself. The most overwhelming important thing for getting started was founding my own ensemble back in 1966. It started with three musicians, which grew to five, including Philip Glass and James Tenney. With Drumming I think it grew to 12, and then in 1976 it grew to 18. And there it more or less stayed until 2006, when I just felt I really couldn’t have the energy to do what was necessary to keep it going. Even though I had people to help out – I had managers and so on – there was an irreducible minimum that I had to do which I felt I really couldn’t.

My ensemble was the vehicle for my music, including Tehillim and of course Drumming and Music for Eighteen Musicians and other pieces. At a certain point I began writing for other ensembles and whether or not my ensemble could do it was sort of gravy or not, depending on the piece.

On the other hand, there was and still is an organization I was a part of, which I hope benefited others, and which I felt reflected my interest in the idea of the composer performing and getting involved in the performance of his or her own work. That is Meet the Composer. Myself, Fran Richard, and John Duffy were really the very center, the core of Meet the Composer. It was an organization that I really felt was worthwhile and of course it grew and grew and grew and now has turned into New Music USA by merging with American Music Center. I think it’s a very worthwhile mission. Supporting young composers by giving them money [laughs] and commissioning works is a great thing to do. ACO came along much later in my professional life, but it’s a great addition and something I’ve been connected with from time to time.

I should say in passing that the loss of Steven Stucky was just a total shock that completely left a hole in the American musical world. I think that should be noted.

ACO: Can you talk about the vocal style needed from the four female singers in Tehillim? Should their voices sound as similar in timbre as possible? Or can different vocal timbres create a richer texture in performance?

SR: Well, first of all, singers are human beings. I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that [laughs]. Their vocal cavities necessitate, as a rule of biology and physics, that their timbral quality will in fact vary. What is essential is not that the timbre of the voices be the same, but that the vocal style be uniform. So, if you’ve got one singer who thinks that they’re going to belt it out like Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the other three are singing early music style, which is what it should be, then that doesn’t work.

The vocal style of Tehillim is definitely related to Renaissance and Medieval music, but it can also be related to Ella Fitzgerald. Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, a great singer who is now in the Midwest, was putting together singers for the early versions of Tehillim. They would ask her, “What kind of vocal style do you want?” and she would say, “Similar to Joni Mitchell and he’ll love it.” Believe it or not, I hadn’t even heard anything by Joni Mitchell and only heard her about 10 years ago – I was completely floored, she’s absolutely amazing – but I think Cheryl had it right. Basically, singers are a good fit for Tehillim if they can sing with no vibrato, sing in a small voice, are at ease with a microphone, and are experienced with early music. They need to be agile and they need to have really good rhythmic qualities, which singers in the operatic world may not have as markedly as the people I’m talking about. So – early music, good with a microphone, at ease with different styles of non-operatic music – that is a necessity. Of course the timbre is going to vary from singer to singer, but if they’re all in the same stylistic world it’s going to work just fine.

ACO: Tehillim is especially intriguing in the way it doesn’t frequently display obvious tension then resolution, dissonance then consonance, whereas this is a basic tool used in a lot of music (especially Romantic and Classical) to create drama. How is it that Tehillim creates drama? 

SR: Tehillim obviously belongs in the tradition of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music – singers who regularly sing Bach cantatas will be right at home in Tehillim – and you could say a lot of music from those periods don’t use, to quote you, “frequent tension and release.” Bach seems to be doing pretty good [laughs] and does he have that kind of Romantic tension and release? Well, yes and no.

I would say that in Tehillim there are parts of the slow movement that have dissonances that resolve, albeit in a small and understated way. The Hallelujah at the end, to me, is ecstatic. I think it’s some of the best music I’ve ever written. If you can pull off a good Hallelujah in D Major then [laughs] that’s what it’s all about. So it does create strong emotional responses which surely vary throughout the piece. The mood of the slow movement is drastically different than the Hallelujah that follows it. The first two movements are similar, but in the first movement the voices are constantly doubled by the B-flat clarinet, then right on a dime at the beginning of the second movement, the voices are doubled by oboe and English horn. It almost feels like new singers – the timbre of the singers changes drastically.

Now, of course this is something Bach did too, changing the doubling of the woodwinds that are supporting the voices. These are all old tricks that go back to Bach and before, and this is part of the reason that I think the music is satisfying. For people who have listened to a lot of classical music from various periods – who relate to anything of Bach and before, and from Stravinsky onwards, and for that matter who like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell or lots of people who are singing today – it seems to satisfy them and give emotional variety, which I think is really the essence of what you are asking.

You can learn more about Steve Reich and upcoming performances of his music at

ACO performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information and tickets here.

ACO also performs The Desert Music at Symphony Space’s free marathon concert “Wall to Wall Steve Reich” on Sunday, April 30, 2017. More information here.

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