Saturday, April 14, 2007


Steve Reich, 1981

So I've described this piece as "stunning" before, and really there's no better term. I really am just stunned by its beauty and its rhetorical power every time I listen to it.

This is a piece of music for a large chamber ensemble and small chorus of amplified singers. My first encounter with it was at a student concert, where there was the ensemble had some trouble with the score, but its wonderfulness still shined through.I bought the CD soon after, and it quickly became a favorite.

I can't get into everything that makes it so great, but I can review a few of the aspects that stand out for me. Certainly the rhythmic structures really draw me in ... all these overlapping tiny cells, most of them derived from the rhythms of the text, drawing focus down on the motion of each pulsing eighth note, and at the same time opening up larger vistas - timespans that mimic on a larger scale what's going on at the microscopic level. It's one of those pieces of music that lets you experience multiple timescales unfolding at once, which is at once invigorating and meditative.

There's the counterpoint, too, which is just gorgeous in places. Strict vocal canons skitter and swerve as the winds and strings hold long sustained tones. And some of the melodic contours have that brilliant mathematical gorgeousness that's such a rare treat in contemporary composers' work.

There are quite a few stand-out moments for me, one of them being the change end of part 2 and the opening of part 3. That change in tempo and pitch and intrumentation just is so right. I could write a whole essay on just that change (I'm sure you'd all just adore reading that). And there's the ending, which is laserbeam tight to the point of being shrill, but at the same time is precisely what is needed there. The word "alleluia" is sung over and over (did I mention that these are settings of psalms in Hebrew?), in different melodic shapes, finally resolving to a relentlessly repeated tone. Great stuff.

Besides, you gotta love any music that features the tambourine in a heroic starring role in the ensemble.

itunes link:

Arnold Schoenberg Chor & Schoenberg Ensemble - Reich: Tehillim - Three Movements


ASM said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog with pleasure and have found some fantastic music through it. You write compellingly about the aspects of a composition that interest you, which sparks my curiosity (and leads me into itunes debt). Thanks!

reviewstew said...

well thanks ASM - sorry to be facilitating the flow of cash from your wallet into Apple Computer's coffers though!