The reason why the psalms are so central to religious experience is that they are a comprehensive catalogue of examples of how to talk to the Almighty, not by a prophet or a priest but in the voice of a single person out in the world, with problems and concerns not unlike those faced by real people in all times. Of course, it’s like reading one side of a correspondence—we can read David’s letters but the letters back are the ones we really want to see.
I am not a religious person. I don’t know how to pray. I do, however, know some of the times and places and formulas that are supposed to make prayer possible. Sometimes I find myself sending those messages out. And then I wait, secretly hoping that I will recognize the response.
My first thought for this piece was that I could somehow “borrow” my favorite running piano line from the beginning of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, bringing into the concert the piece that had introduced me to the idea of psalm setting, many years ago. More recently I have been setting the entire book of psalms, in an evening-length work for solo piano called psalms without words. I have been transcribing my own cantillation of the psalms—the rhythms, the accents and the pacing of the Hebrew. I used a similar strategy to convert the prayer before setting the psalms into the music for how to pray.
the American Composers Orchestra
3 November 2002, Carnegie Hall; Steve Sloane, conductor