“This text is so timeless, even urgent,” he said. “We seem to live in a time when the differences between us are getting not smaller, but larger. The more vulnerable people need our protection.”
Mohammed Fairouz, Psalm 14
At its heart, Mr. Fairouz said, this psalm is about “believing in something bigger than yourself,” even while living in divisive times.
In writing his setting, “Diversions,” he felt the psalm’s message was ultimately one of hope. The piece unfolds in three parts: a poem that opens darkly (“Fresh corpses line the boulevard”); text by Isaac Newton, including his famous phrase “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”; and an excerpt from Psalm 14 that ends with the feeling, Mr. Fairouz said, that “if you look at the world we’re living in today, the opportunities are tremendous.”
William Knight, Psalm 21
Mr. Knight, a British tenor who grew up singing sacred music, is familiar with this psalm. Still, he said, “it was interesting to read it and interpret it in a new way.”
He found himself drawn to the psalm’s message about eternal life — something that “can be achieved through remembrance,” he said — and the concept of divine right. He thought of world leaders using religion to justify their actions, but pointed to the second half of the text, which depicts a wrathful God who has more power than any king.
Zad Moultaka, Psalm 60
Reading this psalm for the first time was difficult for Mr. Moultaka, a composer from Lebanon now based in Paris. “There is a lot of violence in it,” he said, pointing to moments in the text where, for example, God tramples down enemies.
Mr. Moultaka said that while revisiting this psalm for his piece, “Sakata” (its text in Aramaic), he interpreted it as: “We are lost, and we have to find a new way, maybe, to relate and find a new space together.”
Nico Muhly, Psalm 63
Choral music, especially sacred music, is Mr. Muhly’s home base. “It’s the first music that I loved and the first music that I made,” he said, adding that he enjoys setting psalm text “because it can bear the weight of a variety of musical interpretations.”
His setting, “Marrow,” takes its title from the line “My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness.” Anchoring the piece is a musical texture in three-quarter time — “a kind of wet aquatic idée fixe,” as Mr. Muhly called it.
Isidora Zebeljan, Psalm 78
Ms. Zebeljan, a Serbian composer, translated her psalm into Portuguese because “there is a very special melody in this language,” she said. The words fit naturally into the tone of her piece, which she described as a slow dance.
Even though the psalm deals in holy fury, Ms. Zebeljan said she wanted the music to reflect the line in which God remembers that people are “but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” She said she tried to capture that breeze as “a brief dance of changing and passing,” like the danse macabre that closes Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal.”
Caroline Shaw, Psalm 84
This psalm opens with one of the most memorable lines in Brahms’s “A German Requiem”: “How beloved is your dwelling place.” Ms. Shaw, who wrote the beginning of her setting like an Anglican chant, made sure to preserve that line while treating the rest of the text more liberally.
Ms. Shaw said the psalm made her think of the immigration crisis, which she alludes to her repeated use of the phrase “the sparrow found a house.” She added that she wanted to set that phrase “in a way that feels urgent and not calm.”
David Lang, Psalm 101
Mr. Lang, who describes himself as religious, rewrote the psalm for his setting, “if i sing.” The piece straddles the line between sacred and secular, as does “the little match girl passion,” his Pulitzer-winning oratorio inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
The psalm “is really like a bargain,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s like, ‘If I do this, will that work? Will you come to me?’” That question is present in nearly every line. By the end, it appears as a plea: “Come to me.”
Evelin Seppar, Psalm 129
“This is about overcoming difficulty,” Ms. Seppar, an Estonian composer, said of her psalm setting. “Something horrible has been done to you for a long time, but you haven’t given up.”
She aimed to create a dense, sea-like structure “with lots of voices, so that you can’t really tell what exactly is the harmony. I wanted this almost drowning feeling, that you’re in the water and it’s pulling you.”
Yet Ms. Seppar’s message is ultimately one of perseverance. “It ends in unison,” she said. “I don’t normally finish pieces like this, but after this turmoil it felt like clarity was necessary.”