Music: Melting-Pot or Fruit Salad?

So far, so good. Camp is going well, I’m enjoying myself and trying many new things – today was yoga. I’m no butterfly, but I’m learning. Pluralism is touchy. Didn’t have the greatest Shabbat this week, but maybe I’m just homesick or feeling out of place. Perhaps I’ll write about it after I have another Shabbat under my belt.

My observation and what’s been on my heart this Shabbat, actually, is musical.

The camp where I’m working has a really interesting musical repertoire. The songs sung here are largely not the “typical” Jewish summer camp songs (at least, based on the camps in which I’ve been a camper and staff, which are all Ramah camps). Sure, every now and then we are graced with a niggun (mostly by Carlebach), but more often than not the songs being sung are Negro spirituals, or borrowed from church groups. They are American folk songs. Every now and then we hear a melody that rings South African or African tribal. Often we chant mantras, a concept that is borrowed from the Buddhist tradition – even if they are chanted using Hebrew text, they don’t ring “Jewish”.

Though it’s a Jewish camp experience, I’m really missing Jewish music. Where have all the augmented-seconds gone?? (For the record, someday I will teach the whole world that Carlebach’s Psalm 29 is not in major.)

Beyond my own yearning, though, came a different sadness. While I acknowledge that we benefit greatly from knowing others’ musical traditions, it’s still a little sad to think that faith groups, cultural groups, and national groups no longer own their own music. We fell that we can sing mantras that ring Buddhist, spirituals that ring African American, chants that ring African, gospel music that rings Baptist. We no longer have to intercourse with these groups in order to share music — we feel entitled and able to sing it for ourselves. But to what end? Because it is meaningful? Why can’t we find meaning in our own music? Why can’t we reinvigorate and compose within our own faith tradition? Why did we abandon our own song?

The poet asks in Psalm 133, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Is this the Lord’s song? Scratch that. Is this our Lord’s song?

Perhaps blurring the lines is a benefit. Perhaps it creates a Unity of Humankind. There are those who would tell you that a Unity of Humankind is exactly what we’ve always been hoping for. After all, the second paragraph of Alénu does tell us that “all flesh and blood will call in [God’s] name.” Well, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t account for our differences — our beautiful differences. The world is a wonderful place because each person has his/her own voice. Does that principle not extend to cultural groups? Frankly, other faith groups don’t go around singing Jewish music. Maybe they sing a piece or two in choral settings; but not often in worship. And how would we feel if they did?

Yes, we know historically there was cross-sharing when it came to musical traditions. Melodies from the synagogue made their way into the church service, while secular and some church melodies made their way into the synagogue. (For more on this, see Eric Werner’s The Sacred Bridge.) I don’t know — this feels different. William Sharlin talks about active assimilation versus passive assimilation of music: in “active assimilation” (which he discourages), outside music traditions are forced into Jewish worship, while “passive assimilation” allows them to permeate the borders of the music tradition with out being obtrusive. This doesn’t feel like borrowing and repurposing; it feels like stealing.

Then again, as one of my mentors once said, “Who am I to prevent anyone from being exposed to this music?”

So we hang in the balance. In a place that doesn’t insist on a prerequisite knowledge of Hebrew, how do I introduce more Jewish songs into the ethos? Can I leave a uniquely Jewish thumbprint? Can I insist on musical seclusion? Well, probably not. Definitely what to think about as we near the start of the camping season.

Suggestions?

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The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

The Art of Singing

“Chénier, the poet, treats the theme of love understood in its broadest sense. [Franco] Corelli, in that recording, seemed instead to be treating the theme of his love for his own art, the art of singing — that art which is capable of captivating, beguiling, and touching even those spirits most hardened by the trials of life.”

Andrea Bocelli, The Music of Silence, trans. Consuelo Bixio Hackney (Milwaukee, WI: Amadeus Press, 2011), p.12-13

Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.

Reconstituting Old Melodies?

Full disclosure: this is a brainstorm. It will not lead to any definitive answers, I will not follow through to any conclusions; but if you have answer to these questions, I’m open to suggestions.

Jewish musical history is filled with a lot of extraordinary music, from the likes of Salamon Sulzer, Louis Lewandowski, Marcus Hast, I.L. Mombach, Froim Spektor, I. Gottbeiter, Israel Goldfarb, Samuel Goldfarb, and others. All incredible composers of varying degrees. All treated the synagogue service with majesty and glory. Except in cases that are few and far between, when melodies stayed beloved to the congregation in communal moments, their melodies have evaporated from communal memory, save from conservatories and seminaries who study them, more as relics than as living, breathing synagogue music.

There must be another way.

There has to be a way that we can preserve, or revive, these melodies. How do we bring them back? As much as these composers would be rolling around in their graves, is there a way for us to “update” these melodies so that they can function as congregational? Can we take snippets of old melodies and reconstitute them so that they work more easily for our constituents? A lost melody no longer exists. Can we at least preserve them as art song?

When Passion Becomes a Commodity

I love music — singing, playing, and watching conductors are all parts of that love, among other things. I sing because it changes my world, however temporarily; I sing because it brightens my day, soothes my soul, and heals my wounds. I have a passion for the music that I don’t have for many other things. Music and I have a great reciprocal relationship: I tend to it, and it tends to me.

As I think about pursuing a career in music, I must ponder the question: what happens when music becomes a commodity? What happens when a person sings or plays so much that the music no longer brings her that joy, that meaning, and instead brings her disdain and arrogance?

This past weekend I had the great opportunity to speak with many different people about their thoughts on music. I was intrigued (I will perhaps write later about last weekend, but I don’t have time for that right now.). I had the opportunity to watch a variety of conductors and musicians perform works that shed so much light on the world in which we currently live. The perfect harmony of the old and the new, in song. When speaking with one woman why she didn’t want to perform with us in Carnegie Hall next week, even though she would have been able had she wanted to, she responded, “When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing a choir if they’re not paying me.”

This came as a shock to me, honestly, as I am still wide-eyed about the fact that I even have the opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall once in my life. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for this individual, I do. She’s wonderful and efficient, and given that the concert is a lot of Jewish music to sing for someone who isn’t Jewish, perhaps I can understand why the music wouldn’t have as much personal meaning for her as it might for me. On the other hand, her statement did get me thinking, as statements often do (and taken out of context as they usually are). The reader of my previous writings will remember that often an utterance I hear sparks a response that was almost completely unrelated to its original context.

“When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing in a choir if they’re not paying me.”

Such an unfortunate point of view! You’d think that music is something to be passionate about, something one does because, like I said earlier, it is uplifting and powerful and all-around a spiritual experience. You’d think. Well, amend: I think. I honestly don’t know if this woman is typical of musicians all-around. Most musicians I have met will make music on the job or off the job. What happens to someone that something they love becomes a commodity and that’s it? That it is only an essential part of their identity because it allows them to make money and nothing else? How could that happen to someone?

I have no answers, only questions. Unanswered questions. I’ll keep pondering, I suppose.