The Spiritual “Alchemy” of Psalm 104

Mar 30, 2022

March 22 - Joyful Voices, Stomping Feet

“Despite growing up an atheist, I’ve always liked religious music…”

Composer-in-Residence Alexis Alrich muses on the “alchemical” connection between music and spiritual text.  Her beautiful “Psalm 104” premieres on SFCA’s Joyful Voices, Stomping Feet concert, running online March 30 – April 17, 2022. Tickets & Details →

You’ve chosen to set Psalm 104, a sprawling and vivid psalm of praise. How did you choose this particular text? 

Despite growing up an atheist, I’ve always liked religious music. There’s something about religious texts set to music that’s just alchemy—no matter your upbringing, you can make that spiritual connection. So I knew I wanted to play with that kind of power, and when I was flipping through the Psalms, this particular one caught my attention. It’s about creation, so it’s got a little bit of everything in it: animals, landscapes, the divine and the natural worlds. I was particularly attracted to images like “He who walketh upon the wings of the wind” which are already so musical.

It was also fascinating to go through all the different versions, to read all the notes on the nuances of the translation from the original Hebrew. I ended up choosing mostly King James text because it was the most mellifluous, but reading multiple translations gave me a better  understanding of the deeper meaning of the poem.

As you note, the text is full of vivid imagery, and you’ve taken the opportunity to write many wonderful lines that musically illustrate what’s being “shown.” How did you decide where to tone-paint and where to stay more abstract? 

I saw two sides to the text. One is the imagery, which can be quite fun, to develop the music taking cues from the outside. But the other side is the feeling, for lack of a better word. You want to evoke something, to create an emotion in someone else. To me the text created these swirling images of all the great events of creation happening. And as I wrote, I found I was putting myself into the story, back in history, which was pretty awe-inspiring. I thought, “how would it feel to create like this?” 

What do you hope for the audience when they hear Psalm 104?

The voice is the most basic and wonderful instrument. It speaks to the human soul. The right note, sung the right way, with the right word, in the right time and place, has such a depth of meaning. So when people hear this piece, I hope they’re able to hear the story, and not just in the literal sense that they can understand the beautiful words of the poem. I hope they hear the meaning and the feeling.

 

Having returned to California after many years in Hong Kong, composer and pianist Alexis Alrich’s music is influenced by West Coast Minimalism, French Impressionism, Asian music and American roots music. Her Marimba Concerto was performed by Evelyn Glennie and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong and was released on a Naxos CD in 2020. Her erhu concerto Song of Eternal Regret was performed with soloist Xu Hui in Shanghai, China by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra. Choral compositions include Canticle of the Sun, premiered by Schola Cantorum in San Francisco, and Maine Suite for large mixed chorus, commissioned by the American Composers Forum. Other recent compositions include Sierra Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, Water Colors for oboe and strings, String Quartet No. 3 and Muse of Fire for percussion quartet. Ms. Alrich taught music composition in the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for 18 years and was a founding member and pianist for the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra. Her music is published by Alto Productions in Bristol, England. She is now teaching piano and composition in the Sierra foothills town of Grass Valley.