Voices and Visionaries: New York Celebrates Steve Reich at 70

The Los Angeles Master Chorale at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, October 28.

I attended this concert a week ago, and I’m still fussing over my blog entry. Writing about music is so difficult that for a while, I was tempted not to post anything about it. Ultimately, my obsessive-compulsively tendencies won out, though, so here I am trying to bring shape to my thoughts about Steve Reich’s music.

The concert opened with Reich’s iconic 1972 composition Clapping Music, with the composer himself as one of the clappers. This is the sort of music I associate most with Reich: a highly rhythmic work that holds intellectual interest but, for me at least, little emotional appeal. I follow the lines as the two performers move out of and into phase with each other. That progression is interesting and certainly innovative for the time—Reich is considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century—but it only engages my head.

I admit I didn’t know much of Reich’s work beyond such early minimalism, so I had no idea that the two choral works on the program, Tehillim (1981) and You Are (Variations) (2004), were going to be so engrossing. More fluid, more expansive, and more passionate, they captured my imagination, not just my intellect.

This is Reich, of course, so both compositions use a great deal of repetition, but for the most part, the repeated elements are compelling enough to withstand reiteration. I did sometimes wish the texture would vary more than it does, particularly in You Are (Variations). Marimbas and pianos (four of them!) dominate the small orchestra in that piece, and the chorus serves more as another instrument in the ensemble than as any kind of solo body. The Los Angeles Master Chorale—with its pure, straight tone—fulfills that instrumental purpose admirably, but during the prolonged passages in which the singers simply hit and hold whole note after whole note, while percussive instruments dance beneath them, I couldn’t help but long for some kind of melody to weave into the fabric of sound.

I preferred Tehillim because it offers more variety and more exuberant use of the human voice, in this case four women rather than a full choir. The women sing in canon over the chamber ensemble’s sonorous pedal tones. The space between entries is small, creating a tight weave of the chanted melody. In the third movement, a rare slow tempo for Reich, the winds becoming more active, echoing the vocal lines. The result is haunting.

Reich uses Hebrew texts from the Psalms in Tehillim, and although I don’t understand the language, the spiritual quality of the setting is powerful. The four soloists sing with the ringing confidence of cantors, and the polyphony of their voices sound like a joyful peal of bells.

As I understand it, one of the purposes of minimalist music is to allow listeners to truly digest each musical idea, to reach the point in which the music soaks into their skin. It doesn’t always work—if the elements are too simple or facilely treated, listeners’ attention will wander—but with Tehillim, I experienced that sense of connection with the music. Mellifluous and ardent, Tehillim somehow manages to sound both contemporary and ancient as it blossoms.