Steve Reich is the Bob Dylan of classical music: Everyone loves the revolutionary early stuff (“Come Out,” “Piano Phase,” “Four Organs,”) but the variety and longevity of the career that followed inspires more controversy. And also like Dylan, whose 2020 album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was largely acclaimed, Reich’s most recent work is worth a listen even for skeptics of the composer’s more contemporary output. “Traveler’s Prayer” (2020) for four voices, two vibraphones, piano and strings spirals around three Jewish chants and texts, bathing the listener in what feels like water flecked with sunlight. There is no Reichian groove. 

“Traveler’s Prayer” was given its U.S. premiere on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall. A week prior, I spoke with Reich by phone about first-performance anxieties, his modifications of Biblical texts for the piece, and the similarities between travel and death. 

VAN: Your new piece “Traveler’s Prayer” has premiered in Europe, but we are speaking before its New York premiere on November 1. Will this be the first time you’ll hear the piece live?

Steve Reich: I have curtailed my international travel because of age, health, and COVID. For the first time in my life, I was not at the rehearsals. There was a lot that I had to do by email. I’m going to finally be there on the scene at Carnegie Hall. I have just a few minutes to make some important points that have already been made, but have to be pushed further. It isn’t just hearing it, it’s making some crucial changes.

What are the places that you want to be making those crucial changes in the work?

They’re all in the balance. Have you heard it online?

Yes, I have. It’s really beautiful.

Well, if you like that, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The problem with the Amsterdam performance—in a sense it’s fine—but the balance of the voices…it should be strings and voices, and you can’t tell the difference. You may know “Music for 18 Musicians” or “Drumming.”

Yes.

As my recording producer, Judith Sherman, said years ago, referring to me, “What you want is a voicestrument.” It was a beautiful way of putting the fact that there’s a perfect blend so you don’t know: Is it a clarinet or a violin or a woman’s voice? Now, that’s when you’re dealing with vocalise: The sound that the singer is making is an imitation of the instrument. That’s an extreme form of the voicestrument. “Tehillim,” which will be in this same program at Carnegie, will have voices out in front the way that that piece has always been done, and the way it’s conventionally understood.

“Traveler’s Prayer” is a hybrid between [the extremes of the voicestrument and “Tehillim”]. What I was looking for was if you’re in your audience, you have to lean forward and listen in to hear the voices, because they’re so mixed into the strings. 

The form of the whole piece is basically A. [Synergy Vocals director and vocalist] Micaela Haslam said, “It hovers,” and that’s exactly what it should be. You don’t know quite where you are harmonically, and then a very low piano tolls in. It’s a very different piece. What I’m telling you about the voice and string mix was not something that I sat down to do. It’s that, in the setting of the text and the accepting of preexisting chant melodies, especially for the first two sections, I was in a different position than I generally am because the character of the text is quite different.

All of these together made me realize as I was composing that I didn’t want to have the voices the way they are in “Tehillim.” I didn’t really want to have an enunciated pulse. [“Traveler’s Prayer”] is mostly in two-four, and it is conducted quite straight ahead, but you’re not moved to tap your foot. Again, as I say, these were discoveries while composing rather than pre-compositional decisions.

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From listening, it seemed to me voices were pretty out in front, so what you’re saying is you want them slightly more into the texture, but not to disappear entirely as instruments.

No, they’re going to be there. I think that can be done simply by watching how well you pronounce. I want the consonants soft pedaled, a lack of diction, which most singers are rarely encouraged to.

Most people don’t understand Hebrew to begin with. That to me is a plus. Stravinsky used to talk about how he liked setting a “dead language.” Now, Hebrew’s not a dead language, but it was for thousands of years. Setting a language that people don’t understand has the advantage that they really focus on the musical aspect, they don’t grasp at the words as if they were being sung in a language that they understand. I want to accentuate that so that even if they do understand the Hebrew, they have to lean forward and try to hear what’s being said. You’ll know the voices are there, but you’re not really clear what the words are.

I have the Robert Alter translation of the Hebrew Bible, and I was looking up some of the lines you set. His translations are quite different from the English that you use in the notes to the score. But it sounds like that’s probably not very important.

No, it is important. I think Alter takes a lot of liberties. I took a liberty here with the first text, הִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י שֹׁלֵ֤חַ מַלְאָךְ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ֖ בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ / וְלַֽהֲבִ֣יאֲךָ֔ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֲכִנֹֽתִי [Exodus 23:20Ed.] I said, “Behold, I send a messenger,” not an angel, because the word malach can be translated as messenger. I wanted to stress that. “To protect you on their way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared,” is pretty standard, except the word messenger. The first melody is taken from what you would hear in a lot of Orthodox synagogues in America and Western Europe.

The second text I took a lot of liberties with, לִֽישׁוּעָֽתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְהֹוָֽה is “For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!” [Genesis 49:18—Ed.] I said, “It’s a little christological for Judaism.” Maybe not originally, but given 2,000 years of Christianity, it’s pretty out front. I like the idea of, “To your lifeline, I cling.” It is more of what I wanted to convey. Hanging onto a line for dear life is something you could understand. Let’s say you’re being saved from a sinking ship by a helicopter—that’s the image that I wanted to have. Now, the interesting thing here is the permutation of this text. “To your lifeline then I cling eternal, I cling eternal to your lifeline. Eternal to your lifeline I cling.” In the Traveler’s Prayer, when the single line from Genesis is taken, it’s always permuted. I didn’t invent that. 

It’s like you’re taking your lifeline. I’m wrapping that around me. You’ve got a request for protection [in which] you’re encircling your whole body. That’s the image that I was working with and that’s what those three permutations are about. The melody comes from the Italian Jewish tradition, which is really quite separate. 

The last text is from Psalm 121 [verse 8—Ed.], יְֽהֹוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָר־צֵֽאתְךָ֥ וּבוֹאֶ֑ךָ מֵֽ֜עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם which I translate as, “The Eternal will guard your departure and your arrival from now to the end of time.” It’s pretty straightforward; it’s my tune that I composed. But the idea of using preexisting chant melody immediately puts you in a different frame of mind because those chants don’t have any enunciated rhythm. That probably set the seeds for everything I’ve been talking about, the fact that it has no enunciated beat. I wanted the text to be not in your face, but something that you hear. It’s a very old text. If you etched it in stone, the stone would be worn away.

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With all your composing experience, do you still get nervous listening to a piece for the first time live?

Are you joking? Of course I do. I particularly do because I really I’m going to have, I don’t know, 15 minutes. They’re absolutely first-rate players. Most of the singers are early music people. They know about non-vibrato, everything that I want from singers. It’s just this issue of balance. They know I’m pushing for it, but they might not know how extreme I want to push it. It may be fine, but I am nervous because I don’t know and there’s not going to be much time to solve it. Given who I’m dealing with, I know it can be solved. It’s just that knowing it can be solved and solving it are two different things.

You mentioned the lack of pulse and how that’s something different for this piece. Do you see “Traveler’s Prayer” as a tangent that you’re going on and then you’ll return to having a more audible obvious pulse in further pieces, or is this the beginning of a new area you want to explore?

Right now, I’m about eight minutes into “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is the next piece. I finished “Traveler’s Prayer” in 2020. At the beginning, I didn’t know the answer to your question. But then, no: I do want a pulse. 

On the other hand, one of the things that I wanted to accomplish is this constancy. I talked about how the form of the piece is A, like a hovercraft. So how do you get a harmonic variety if you want to stay also constant and static?

Every music student, including me, learns about retrogrades and inversions and retrograde inversions, which is basically taking melodic material and doing it backwards, upside down, and upside down and backwards. In “Traveler’s Prayer,” I wanted to keep this constancy, but not just have the melody over and over again. I said, “I’m going to try these different forms.” I got very interested in them because the melodies are very straightforward. They’re very tonal. Basically, I was back in the 13th century. I had very simple scale constructions, even predating major-minor, all modal. I started using that. 

Then I realized what I really wanted to do is to vary the harmony from interval to interval as the singers are singing. I decided, I’m going to take rhythmic liberties in the melody itself; I’m going to play completely freely with that and with the second voice, which is the retrograde of the inversion or what have you. To get the harmonic combination between the two voices the way I want it to be. What you end up with is incredibly free chant. You know they’re canons because the words are the same, but very often, you realize that the second voice is not imitating the first. It is really unknown territory for me, that idea of dealing with canons which are not fixed rhythmically so that you can select your intervallic combinations. Using those other forms is intriguing. I do anticipate using them with a rhythmic background. Once you unlock the door, [you realize], Hey, the door is open to that room. 

The answer to your question is: We’ll see.

When I was looking at the score and listening the second time around, I noticed that the melody often feels like it resolves on an A, but the second voice is singing a B-flat. You have this feeling of resolution, but there’s a minor second going on at the same time, which is not usually associated with resolution. I thought that was an interesting effect.

Yes, I’m trying to avoid resolutions. I’m trying to keep the motion, keep the floating. In general, except at the very end of pieces, I very often will try to keep the harmony ambiguous and avoid anything resembling a V-I or IV-I. Then generally, I try to do [the cadence] up high rather than down low. It resolves to higher notes rather than a big heavy tonic base. That’s a habit that I’ve acquired from early on of just wanting to keep things light, floating, and moving ahead. None of it is clearly cadential. You listened well, so thank you.

You write in the introduction to your piece that the Traveler’s Prayer can be applied to physical travel, but also to travel from this world to the next. Has death been on your mind a lot lately? 

Not a lot, but certainly [somewhat]. I hope that you’ll get to 86.

I hope so too.

Your friends will be gone. I lost Ingram Marshall, a very good composer, I’ve known him for 50 years. Now he’s not on the face of the earth. You get a lot of warnings that life is short, because people that you know die before you. You realize you’re somewhere in line, but you’ll never know where. 

I don’t travel anymore. I traveled a lot for the last 50 years. When I did travel, I said the full Traveler’s Prayer. I always added these verses, and I always thought, “Gee, these verses say the whole thing anyway.” This is very familiar territory for me. I’ve lived with these texts for the majority of my life. When you say them, you’re saying, “Please, don’t let us crash.” In more primitive times, it was, “Please let us not be intercepted by bandits and be decapitated.” I’m sure more of the world’s religions have something like this because travel elicits prayer. 

If you’ve been saying that the Traveler’s Prayer your whole life, what made you decide to set it for the first time now?

I guess because it was no longer about travel. It was about age. It wasn’t, “Will the flight make it safely?“ The odds are it will. Will I die? You bet I will. 

The texts that I set are very striking. They apply perfectly to going on a journey by automobile or plane—and from this world to the next.

“Will I die? You bet I will.” An interview with @SteveReich via @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Are there new areas of music, new genres, new textures, new styles that you still want to explore in the time you have left?

I think we’ve been talking about it [already]. In other words, I didn’t really expect “Traveler’s Prayer” would be as radical a departure from me as it proved to be. I feel that I just put my foot in the water. To be able to swim in that… I hope I’ll get to that point. I’m trying to figure out where I stand with that right now with “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is a setting of Genesis 28:12 [וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽ וֹ, And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it—Ed.] Stay tuned. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.