Variations (Shiviti)

   I listened to Steven Reich’s You Are (Variations) (2004) on the way up to Syracuse yesterday. Its third track is entitled “Shiviti Ha’Shem L’negdi.” The phrase is translated in the King James as “I have set the Lord always before me” comes from Psalms 16:8. Alas, the new JPS translation translates “shiviti” as “I am ever mindful…” which obscures the idea and act of placing.

As for “Shiviti Ha’Shem L’negdi,” it is another Reich variation. Reich’s minimalist soundscapes are characterized by minimal loops of simple sounds building up into more intensified patterns based upon simple component pieces. He’s done it before with Hebrew verse in “Tehilim” (1981). I like this one better. The “Shiviti Variation” repeats minimalistic, electronic sound bands around a shorter, more simple Scriptural phrase. It does more with less.

What I find lovely about the scriptural poem is the way it lends and has lent itself to plastic, visual expression. Traditionally, the verse is inscribed onto decorative plaques for synagogue and home use, as a goad for mediation and protection against demons. The Tetragrammaton (the name YHWH) in large inky letters is the central focus of the plaque.It suggests how the idea and act of “placing God before me” forms into an “assemblage” moved by conceptual, acoustic, and visual characters.

I do not have the philological training or competence to decode the text iconographically and textually. But this I think I can safely say. Usually, one looks at a Shiviti plaque straight on. It’s a fairly simple, static frontal view from which you can step forward or backward.  In contrast the Reich piece sets the presence of God into an acoustic loop.

Listening to Reich’s “Variation” on a particularly serpentine, mountainous stretch of NY17 through the Poconos on a warm sunny morning in the dead of winter left me to consider an alternative visualization. The tempo is quick and excitable. The scriptural passage “setting God before me” shifted along a wide curve to the left, and then another wide curve right, back and forth for a couple of miles. The song places the name of God right there in front of you, along each bend in the way. If the song has to end, it’s only to echo.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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