Friday, July 20, 2012

Steve Reich's "Tehillim:" Walking, Thinking, and Dreaming

When we finally got to contemporary music in my undergraduate studies, the topic was noticeably rushed. Perhaps this reflected the musical preferences of my professor, who seemed to get bogged down by his passion for romanticism, or perhaps it was because the 20th century was still in progress, but at any rate, we were encouraged to fend for ourselves on the subject. I was enthralled by what little I had heard, and I made a list of composers that I wanted to follow up on if the chance presented itself. Fortunately, this happened in the mid 90s when I was working at the Blockbuster Music in Lewisville. This flagship store prided itself on its dedicated “classical” department. When promotional materials came in from 20th century composers, there was very little competition from anyone else in the store, so I slowly began to check names off the list.

I felt somewhat familiar with minimalism by way of Philip Glass, so Steve Reich, being lumped into the same category in the textbook, earned a spot on my list. In 1994, I picked up a release of Tehillim, which I brought home and proceeded to not listen to.…at all….for nearly five years. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.....

In retrospect, I don’t exactly know why I took it off the shelf in 99, but I know I did. I distinctly remember listening to it in my discman (remember those?) on an afternoon walk sometime during the two years I lived in Krum. I discovered this album on that walk.  Tehillim’s pulsing, overlapping complexities ended up being an intellectually and kinetically invigorating soundtrack to an unexpectedly contemplative experience.

This performance starts at 1:39, and it has really nice lighting accompaniment.  When I stumbled across this clip, I was struck by how much larger the ensemble is than I had envisioned, and consequently, how much more complex the piece actually is.   

Although Tehillim has never gotten major rotation in my car, it has certainly remained in my listening orbit.  I regularly revisit it in quieter indoor settings.  Only recently, however, has another listening experience been able to dislodge the meditative walk I took over ten years ago from my memory. When my wife and I first began dealing with the unusual hours that a newborn infant foisted upon us, I set up a dedicated MP3 player in the room by our rocking chair and filled it with different kinds of soothing, intellectually stimulating music. It’s got Eastern Indian ragas, shakuhachi performances, jazz, Indonesian Gamelan, cross-cultual world music, ambient electronica, Stick music, and all manner of other styles floating under its “random album” button. There are also several minimalist composers represented, and obviously, Steve Reich is one of them.

Tehillim gained a new life for me in this venue. I can say with some confidence that a few months ago, the peice kept me from going totally bonkers when it was my turn for the dreaded 3-4 AM feeding. Thankfully, the Little One sleeps well through the night these days, but she still needs a little winding down before bedtime.  The booming lullabies that come from my mouth, however, just don't work like my wife's do. Tehillim, alternatively, serves as a wonderfully peaceful bedtime listen. Although it is calming, it is certainly not intellectually vacuous, like perhaps an ambient album or white noise machine might be. It’s incredibly expressive and deceptively complex to perform, and I can’t help but think that getting those structures in her ear as she drifts into dreamland is doing that growing brain some good.

No comments:

Post a Comment