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Human languages are contrived, insofar as they have undergone extensive sociopolitical reshaping. In Steve Reich’s Tehillim, however, words take on an organic feel—deeply rooted as they are in the nutrient-rich soil of the composer’s instrumental configuration—and serve to dictate the rhythmic and dynamic flow of a seminal shift in American “minimalism.” Being the first document of this new path in Reich’s personal and professional development, the present recording matches an endearing trepidation to every practiced gesture. This music, says Reich, may be “heard as traditional and new at the same time,” as it was both a way for him to explore his Jewish roots while weaving a new brand of secularism with the many liturgical threads at his feet. At just under 30 minutes, Tehillim is but a fleeting unraveling of that very fabric.
Tehillim, meaning “praises” and referring to the Hebrew Book of Psalms from which it borrows its texts, is quite simply a remarkable work. The scoring is deceptively simple, built around a core of drum and clapping before introducing a female voice doubled by clarinet. This opens into a series of four-part canons against a backdrop of electric organs and maraca. Each melodic line (human and instrumental alike) moves distinctly, unaffected by the trappings of vibrato or other unnecessary flourishes, as an enchanting imitative counterpoint works its way into the smoke of this short-burning votive candle. Part II carries the women’s voices into higher elevations in which the passage of time is marked by a light interplay of drums. Part III is the slowest of the four, ebbing and flowing with a breath’s involuntary precision. Like the most engaging of Gavin Bryars’s ensemble pieces, this section pulses with the quiet splendor of a deep-sea organism. The final part opens our eyes again to sunlight. With the barest assortment of auditory keys, it unlocks just enough doors to usher us into a more personal understanding of exultation. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the derivation of the title—Hey, Lamed, Lamed (HLL)—also forms the root for “hallelujah.” And so, when the hallelujahs that close the piece spring up like so much plant life, they seem to forage even deeper into their origins. Tehillim is the Tree of Life feeding off itself, bathing in the spores of the Word made flesh.