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Steve Reich: World Class Composer, World Class Jew – A Personal Reminiscence

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The whole world seemed to be celebrating the composer Steve Reich’s 70th birthday in October (October 3, to be precise). The New York Times ranked him “among the greatest composers of the century.” The New Yorker said he was”the most original musical thinker of our time.” The Village Voice declared him “America’s greatest living composer.” The Guardian (London) summed it all up by stating, “There’s just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history, and Steve Reich is one of them.”

For the first time ever, the three most important musical venues in New York City – Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) – have joined efforts to mount a tribute to a living composer. Steve Reich concerts are being presented in cities all over the world. And Steve recently was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Award in Music, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize (presented in areas of the arts not covered by the Nobel awards).

I first met Steve Reich in 1974, when he and Beryl Korot, then his girlfriend and now his wife, walked into the Bible class I was teaching at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The class was a review of the weekly Torah portion, and both Steve and Beryl were eager students.

After a while, I noticed that Steve traveled frequently, but before departing he would always ask for the following week’s assignment. I started receiving postcards from all over the world from Steve informing me that he had done his homework and would hopefully be back for the next class. In class, he often asked questions about the material we studied and offered novel insights into the subject matter as well. I soon learned that Steve was an upcoming musician/composer and was performing all over the world.

One day, while walking up Broadway, I noticed a flyer taped to a lamppost. The flyer had a musical score on it and announced that Steve Reich and some musicians were scheduled to perform at Columbia University. I had a strong suspicion that this was the Steve Reich from my class, but I was not certain. My wife, Aidel, and I decided to attend the concert not knowing what to expect.

Members of the audience (mostly university students) were hanging from the rafters. I had never heard Steve Reich’s music. I knew it was modern, and I had never cared very much for modern music.

I soon learned that Steve was one of the fathers of what is known as “minimalist” music. What I heard that night was very creative, based on subtle repetitions. Usually one percussion instrument repeats a brief musical theme again and again and again. Suddenly one note or one beat changes, and the music line is delicately transported into a new musical line or beat. It was hypnotic. The students in the hall appeared to be tripping – not on drugs but the music.

After the program, we took a chance and tried to catch Steve on stage. As soon as he spied us from afar, he excused himself from those around him and came running over with a broad smile, exclaiming, “My rabbi is here, my rabbi is here!” When he reached me, he gave me a big hug.

Steve took his Jewish studies seriously. He decided he needed to try to master biblical Hebrew. We teamed him up with Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Dr. J. Mitchell Orlian who became his mentor and taught him advanced Hebrew grammar and ta’amim (cantillations of the Bible).

I couldn’t understand why Steve was so keen on mastering this obscure subject matter, until I realized he’d decided to include Jewish themes in his music. One of his great pieces of that era (1981) is called “Tehillim”- not “Psalms,” but “Tehillim.” The skills he’d gained and his mastery of cantillations and Hebrew grammar are obvious in that musical piece.

While Steve’s contributions to music are universally acknowledged as monumental, his contributions to contemporary Jewish life are equally important. It was Steve and Beryl who suggested to me in the fall of 1975 that they could benefit from a special Shabbat service specifically designed for those with little or no synagogue background.

About the Author: Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald is director of the National Jewish Outreach Program.

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