Judd Greenstein discusses Steve Reich’s "Tehillim"


Steve Reich has indeed had a major influence on me as a composer… The Hebrew has something to do with it, but much more, it’s the interlocking rhythms and modal harmonies, with a great attention to big chord changes as well as small-scale harmonic and contrapuntal details, that connect my work to his. I do love all those elements of Reich’s music, and I carry them over into mine. Reich loves to establish a pattern and then move chords underneath it, with the pattern remaining entirely, or almost entirely, static… [W]hen I think about that musical device, I think of it as coming, in part, from the hip hop that I listened to, and made, when I was growing up. How do you know when a hip hop beat is ready to go? When you want to leave it on loop, and never stop listening to it. Then it’s ready for things to move over it… I think of Reich’s repetitions in the same way. Even though there’s a certain pacing that’s optimal, in terms of when the harmonies or patterns shift, and even though the shifts themselves are usually the most magical moments of the pieces, there’s also a sense in which you don’t want the patterns to end, when they’re good. I strive for that in my music.

Of course, Steve Reich didn’t invent that idea. In fact, as he’d acknowledge, it was inspired by West African drumming that he played and studied. Go a step further and you can find specific texts that he studied, which contain transcriptions of drum patterns that form the basis for much of his work in the 1970s. Does this question remind anyone of anything? “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.” Given that nothing has ever really sounded like Steve Reich, it’s a great example of the good that comes when a brilliant composer blatantly steals from someone else, or in this case, another culture. I’m very, very glad that he had the guts to do that, because the “safe” version probably wouldn’t have created the opening for his own distinct voice to emerge.

For me, I don’t know if I point back to Reich as directly as people think, but I definitely count him as a huge influence, and he’s one of the composers that I listen to regularly. That’s a short list…

What’s remarkable about [Tehillim] is precisely that, like others in this late-70s/early-80s period in his career, it blows open the rigidity of his earlier works, which were built on the idea that discernible “process” had to be paramount over other formal concerns. What this means is that the musical elements in a given work tend to remain static, and when they change, the changes happen in only one or two elements at a time, and the changes are highly discernible. You’ll hear a note added to a pattern, and then that new pattern will repeat a lot until you get to know it, and then something else will get faster, and you’ll hear that until you’re familiar with it, and so on. What’s amazing about Reich’s seminal work Music for 18 Musicians is that even with these constraints, of highly-discernible, extremely transparent “process-oriented” music, he creates a large-scale form that’s rich and complex and not as linear as most process pieces tend to be (for obvious reasons). Tehillim…takes this to an entirely different level, where the process elements are subservient to the larger form — at least to my ears (I don’t know how he constructed the works). The musical form feels highly intentional, and built from the top down, not the bottom up.

One interesting thing to note here is that a number of “minimalist” composers made this shift, as they moved into the late 1970s and 1980s — Philip Glass, John Adams, and others all started writing bigger Symphonic works that placed less emphasis on transparency than the works of the early/mid-1970s, and certainly, then those of the 1960s. I’m not sure what was in the air, but that coming-together was a really wonderful time for music, and some of my favorite scores emerged from the period, including this one.

— Judd Greenstein

From an interview with Sam Bergman on the Minnesota Orchestra’sInside the Classics blog.