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Jane Enkin

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 22nd New Music Festival

by Jane Enkin, Jan 26, 2013

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 22ndNew Music Festival will celebrate the work of the important American composer Steve Reich. There are many exciting features to this festival of contemporary works by Reich and others, including world premieres, concerts by the dazzling percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and ballet and choral performances.

I encourage readers to attend the New Music Festival, especially this year when three of the pieces are of particular interest to Jewish listeners. The opening night of the festival includes Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni's powerful setting of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers. (Monday, January 28, 7:30 pm, Centennial Concert Hall.)

Steve Reich brings very personal experiences to the process of composing. Throughout his career, he has been an innovator intellectually, musically and technologically. Two of the works to be presented in the 2013 New Music Festival explore very different Jewish themes.

Tehillim is Reich's 1981 setting, in Hebrew, of selections from the Book of Psalms. (Thursday, January 31, 7:30 pm Centennial Concert Hall.) Reich worked very closely with the rhythms he could hear in the Hebrew words, with instruments echoing singers. The piece marked changes for him. Journalist Norman Lebrecht says that in the mid-1970's Reich
“experienced a spiritual awakening. ‘I began to think I’m not African, nor Balinese. I’m a Jew.’”After years in which his Judaism was not very present in his life and his music, he began to study Torah and incorporate Jewish prayer and practice in his life. He went to Israel to study Hebrew and traditional Yemenite synagogue singing. In his interview with Rebecca Y. Kim, Reich said, “By 1981, I really had a desire to bring it into my music in some way. I thought that the most obvious way was to set a text in the original Hebrew, and the most obvious text to set was the Psalms.”

There are musical departures to the piece as well. After years of building his pieces out of very brief repeated patterns, with the emphasis on rhythm, Reich based Tehillim on longer melodic patterns. This was also the first time he had set a text for singers since his student days.

For a fascinating and detailed guide to Tehillim and Different Trains, Reich's other piece in the 2013 New Music Festival with a specifically Jewish text, I recommend From New York to Vermont: Conversations with Steve Reich by Rebecca Y. Kim. You can find it at

Reich spoke with Kim about working with text and melody in Tehillim. “'Tehillimis one of those pieces where I did something entirely different in a big way. When I was first working on it my wife said to me, 'You’re actually singing! [laughs] You’re singing melodies with words!' It was the first time I wrote melodies in that sense. Tehillimis about melody.'”

It is also about the spirituality of the psalms, and the spiritual contribution this sacred poetry makes to communication. “My idea was to pick a text that I could say to anyone, Jew or non-Jew. In other words, it had to be a very universal text, and the ones I came up with were ones I felt comfortable saying to anyone.”

Reich opens the piece with verses from Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God”. He connects it with the midrash about young Abraham, who wanted to know who created the world. The sun, thought Abraham at first, but then the sun set and he was sure it was the moon. When the moon disappeared from the sky, Abraham realized that God had created them both.

The second and third movements of the piece focus on right behaviour, including the avoidance of lashon hara, evil speech.

Tehillim ends with the last psalm of the Bible, Psalm 150. “It’s deliriously overjoyed and it refers to tóf u-ma-chól, drums and winds , which is precisely what I was using in the piece. It was too good to miss.”

The other composition that reflects Reich's Jewish roots is his Grammy award-winning Different Trains, written in 1988. (Friday, February 1, 8:00 pm, Centennial Concert Hall) Reich combines recordings of people telling their stories with music played by a string quartet. Recorded sounds of trains in America and Europe and recorded string instruments are layered with the live quartet on stage.

Reich told Rebecca Kim about the origins of the piece.

“I was very excited about the possibility of using samples in my music...back then, samplers presented the possibility of bringing non-musical material into musical contexts by playing or programming it...


“Somehow, these train trips that I had taken as a child between New York and Los Angeles just popped into my head. I began asking myself, 'When did I do this?' and, 'What was going on at that time?' Well, that was 1939, 1940, 1941, and what was going on at the time was little Jewish boys like me were put on trains from Rotterdam or Brussels or Budapest to Poland and they never came back.


“That was the genesis of the idea, and once I had that I moved pretty quickly. I spoke to the woman who had taken care of me as a child, who at the time was living in Queens. I located a black Pullman porter in Washington, D.C. who had been on the very same lines that I had ridden on as a child. Then I went up to Yale, where they have an archive of Holocaust survivors on tape. I spent a couple of days up there just riveted. I copied what I felt were not only riveting stories but stories told in a musical tone of voice. Then I came back and went through all this material, stopping every time I got to something that seemed emblematic—“Nineteen forty-one”—emblematic in what it said, and emblematic in the speech melody of how it was said. I put these on a floppy disk and wrote them down as best I could in musical notation. After all this, I formulated some basic rules of thumb: every time a woman speaks the viola doubles her, every time a man speaks the cello doubles

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