Tehillim is the setting of Psalms 19:2-5 (19:1-4 in Christian translations), 34:13-15 (34:12-14), 18:26-27 (18:25-26) and finally 150:4-6.
The four parts of the work are based on these four texts respectively.
In its standard chamber version Tehillim is scored for four women's voices (one high soprano, two lyric sopranos and one alto), piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, six percussion (playing small tuned tambourines without jingles, clapping, maracas, marimba, vibraphone and crotales), two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello and bass. The voices, winds and strings are amplified in performance.
Tehillim may strike listeners familiar with much of Reich's other work as something of a departure from his earlier pieces. In contrast to his entire oeuvre, with the possible exceptions of The Cave (1993) and Proverb (1995), Tehillim is less "radical" musically.
This difference is, on the one hand, thematic. It was the first major composition by Reich to reference explicitly his new-found interest in his Jewish heritage, and his Judaism as such. However, although this is obviously central to the work, and although Reich has never subsequently (until his 2004 You Are (Variations)) set the Jewish scriptures to music, the real difference lies in the formal aspects of Tehillim.
Typically, Reich's music is characterised by a steady pulse and the repetition of a comparatively small amount of melodic material emanating from a clear tonal centre (a style of writing which is called 'minimalist'). Both aspects are certainly to be identified in Tehillim (the composition in no way marks a complete aesthetic break for Reich), for example in the quick, unchanging tempo of the first two parts, which are played one after another without a break, and the close four-part canons of the first and fourth parts. However, these aspects together constitute only the broad outlines of the work; how they are presented is markedly different from his early work.
These differences are a direct consequence of the need felt by the composer to 'set the text in accordance with its rhythm and meaning'.
There is no fixed metre or metric pattern in Tehillim. The rhythm of the music comes directly from the rhythm of the Hebrew text. Secondly, the musical setting of lengthy 3-4 line texts results in the composition of extended melodies at that point untypical for Reich. 'Though an entire melody may be repeated either as the subject of a canon or variation, this is actually closer to what one finds throughout the history of Western music'. As such, this second aspect of extended melody contributes to the appearance of structures not without precedent in Western musical history.
'The use of extended melodies, imitative counterpoint, functional harmony and full orchestration may well suggest renewed interest in Classical, or more accurately Baroque, and earlier Western musical practice. The non-vibrato, non-operatic vocal production will also remind listeners a singing style derived from outside the tradition of 'Western Art Music'. However, the overall sound of Tehillim, and in particular, the intricately interlocking percussion writing which, together with the text, marks this music as unique by introducing a basic musical element that one does not find in earlier Western musical practice including the music of this century. Tehillim may thus be heard as traditional and new at the same time'.
None of the writing is informed by the sound or structure (in spite of the composer's recent study of Hebrew cantillation) of Jewish music generally or any existing tradition for singing the Biblical text. Indeed, a major factor in Reich's choosing the Psalms was that 'the oral tradition for Psalm singing in the Western synagogues has been lost. This meant I was free to compose the melodies for Tehillim without a living oral tradition to imitate or ignore.'
All quotes taken from the liner notes written by the composer, Steve Reich, in February 1982 for the ECM recording by his own ensemble.