Tag Archives: music

Sacred Subversion: What Do We Listen To When We Listen to Jewish Music

In the past weeks, we have approached the topic of “Jewish music” according to two parallel paths.

On one hand, we took the very expression, “Jewish music,” as a cultural construct. And we studied who, at different times in history (beginning in the early-modern period, in Europe), has expressed an interest in defining, and therefore “studying,” music in a Jewish context.

We have explored nine or ten competing notions of “Jewish music” that have emerged since the 16th century. These notions include antiquity (the idea that walking into a synagogue is similar to visiting a musical-liturgical “Jurassic Park” of sorts, in which all texts and melodies come by default from the ancient world), nationalism, hybridity, revival, and so on. A hopefully useful summary appeared on our whiteboard, so here it is:

Cultural Agendas and "Jewish Music"

These are notions that compete in defining “Jewish music” in our society. We “hear” them when we hear “Jewish music” and they define the music we listen to for us.

On the other hand, we also analyzed various modes of Jewish musical interaction, focusing on ritual performance in the synagogue. Several concepts have emerged. They are somewhat abstract, since we wanted to look at general forms of interaction, and not at the specificity of each musical “tradition” in the global Diaspora. But they also include some of the most basic form of vocal expression known to humankind:

  1. listen to a solo voice, or sing as a group;
  2. sing, then repeat (responsorial practice) or sing, then sing something different (antiphonal practice);
  3. apply strictly regulated formulas to voicing texts, or leave it up to modal improvisation to do the job, or divide your text sentences in 2-part (or 3-part) units, or associate a text with a “tune” of your choosing…

Here, too, the whiteboard kept a trace of our class conversations:

Music in the Synagogue

Finally, we established the top aspects we are looking for (or listening for) in our study.

Focus on Jewish Music

The last list establishes the “top three” aspects of musical interaction we are focusing on in our study of Jewish liturgy as performance.

  1. We are definitely interested in the materials of music, in what music is made of. We use terms like melody, rhythm, harmony, mode to do this. We also look at “native” (or “pertinent”) terms, used by Jewish musical practitioners, such as nusach (an Ashkenazi notion connected to modality and improvisational formulas, which has been extended beyond the strict realm of Ashkenazi music itself) and maqam (referring to the use of the Arabic and Turkish modal systems within many Jewish communities from the world of Islam).
  2. And we are equally interested in “performative dynamics.” By carefully watching “who” does “what” in the context of Jewish liturgy (who sings what prayers, and who doesn’t; who chooses the music materials; who participates and when, and to what extent, etc.), we connect our close analysis of musical interactions with the symbolic roles of synagogue life as we have examined in previous weeks. What real say does a hazzan (cantor) have over the choice of musical materials? Can a Rabbi stop the singing of a prayer to a popular tune he or she deems inappropriate? Can others also do that?
  3. Finally, we closely watch the multi-faceted relationship that music, as a predominantly oral tradition, entertains with the texts of the liturgy. Are texts and musical materials in perfect alignment with one another? (Some texts are typically associated with multiple melodies: do they all perfectly “fit” with them?). And when they are not, which aspects prevails? Are texts extended or shortened to preserve musical integrity, or, vice-versa, is music adapted to the meter and the length of a particular text? When the melody of a popular song is adapted to a Hebrew prayer text, which of the two will be the object of compromise? Will popular culture prevail over Hebrew liturgy, or not?

In considering these top three aspects of musical interaction within Jewish liturgy, we are thus interested in understanding up close how music acts as a vehicle to express ideas, interpretations, emotions, and more, outside the boundaries of verbal communication. Then, we want to connect music to body language (and ritual objects), and look for how they interact in expressing culture beyond its normative boundaries.

In essence, we are interested in liturgical performance as a platform for the expression of subversive behavior, right at the center of the “sacred.”

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Finding the Core: Class Project Deadline Coming Up

Dear Class,

As you all know, the deadline for presenting a proposal for your project for Performing Texts is coming up very soon.

Now

Here’s what the Class Syllabus states:

2. Projects will take the form of a combined research paper and class presentation based on the multi-disciplinary approach that characterizes the seminar. Projects will be created in consultation with the instructor (office hours: Thursday 11-Noon or byappointment) during the first part of the semester, and must be selected by Week 6. Presentations can take place any day of class throughout the Semester, after Week 8. Papers are due on November 20.

As we discussed in class, the idea is that you will need to produce a paper (format and length are entirely up to you) and present it to the class. These projects require a core topic, which can be in any of the areas we are discussing during the first half of the seminar (text, music, ritual objects, architecture, body language), and its inter-relations with the other areas of investigation.

I have encouraged you many times to establish your core interest in an area that reflects your “comfort zone,” (if you wish to work on texts, on a particular language of the liturgy, or on music, on on objects, etc., go there first), and than to branch out seeking multi-disciplinary connections.

Example: if my focus is on a given liturgical text, I will not only analyze the text itself for its many inter-textual dimensions, but I will also relate it to the specificity of the liturgy in which the text appears, to select music used in the synagogue by a variety of Jewish community to sound it, to the use of ritual objects that may be connected with it (the prayer book, biblical scrolls, Torah pointers, wine cups, etc.), and of the architectural spaces in which the text is performed…

In order to do so, you need to decide on the general topic of your project. And you need to do that by next Thursday (it’s already week 6 in the Semester!).

I have been disseminating a few hints to some students. Here are some examples:

  • comparing different versions of the same melody (or of the melodic renditions of the same text) among various Jewish communities.
  • researching the role of Judeo-Spanish texts in the liturgy of Western-Sephardic communities
  • a Graduate Student who is taking Performing Texts is working on the symbolic roles of individual synagogue-goers in the context of a congregation he is working at in San Francisco (and contextually examining his own role as an involved participant/observer in carrying out his fieldwork)
  • some students could research “sound objects” that are currently being selected for an upcoming exhibition at The Magnes (Spring 2013)

You can either find the time to come and talk with me (office hours are in the syllabus, but I am of course happy to meet you at other times), or if you are feeling quite secure on what your project should be about, just shoot me an email.

The best would be for all of you to write up a proposal. This does not have to be long (a paragraph? two?), but it should state what you’d like to work on, and what sources you’d like to use (the Syllabus provides you with a wealth of options). Please have it ready by next Thursday, October 4th.

Jewish Music: Ten Competing Notions

Let’s scan through ten (at times competing) notions of “Jewish Music” that have emerged during the last, well, 500 years.

Background information for this is in the articles by Philip Bohlman and Edwin Seroussi listed here, and in the Syllabus (they were last week’s assignments, so I’m absolutely positive that everyone has already read them carefully). These studies are also reflected in this week’s reading, and especially the “Jewish Music” entry in Oxford Music Online, which opens with the following statements.

‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today . Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn’s work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. This approach was perpetuated in later attempts to write a comprehensive overview of Jewish music from a historical perspective (e.g. Avenary, 1971–2). Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.

Below, I’m scanning through some of the connections that “Jewish music” elicits. I’m not pretending to be exhaustive, and I’m also having some fun in choosing related visual and musical examples to make my points.

1. Jewish music as “Musica Haebreorum”: the notion of a “music of the Hebrews (the Jews)” really begins with Christian Humanists and their heirs.

An example I particularly like (also because it has been eminently understudied, so far), and that one can read online, is from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (Source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23): Bottrigari specifically addresses “il Canto degli Hebrej” (the song of the Jews) and the musical rendition of the “masoretic accents” that govern the singing of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue liturgy. (Image source).

Il Canto degli Hebrej in E. Bottrigari, Trimerone (1599)

2. Jewish (musical) antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it?
Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many many more after him, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).
See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí):

3. The Wissenschaft des Judentums (19th cent.) and the invention of “Jewish Music” as a Jewish notion

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship was been the construction of the “Italian Jewish Renaissance” as a golden age of musical production, and of Jewish music as “art music.” Listen below to Salamone Rossi, ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta)

4. Jewish music as “Music of the Jewish People” (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity), as found in the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music” and in related Zionist musical agendas.
Lazare Saminsky (Odessa 1882- NY 1959), composed Conte Hebräique (Hebrew Fairy Tale) in Palestine in 1919, en route from Russia to America (via the UK).

5. Jewish music as “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by Richard Wagner) brings with it a certain passion for singling out “the Jewish elements” in the music of eminent composers of Jewish descent. This is a trademark of many 20th-century scholarly contribution to the field.
An excellent summary on the relationship between Wagner and modern Jewish sensibilities can be found in the form of a satire in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Episode 3: Trick or Treat (October 7, 2001) (note when Larry David whistles “Springtime from Hitler” from the Producers). Link courtesy of my friend Kathleen Wiens (UCLA).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerated Music” and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be purified from their influence.
Well, these are the Nazis… See them enjoying their right to free speech in John Landis, The Blues Brothers (USA 1980):

A book published in Nazi Germany, listing Jewish music professionals, is included in the music holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and will be accessible to interested students as soon as these holdings are transferred to our new facility.

7. Jewish music as lost (or suppressed) music: in the view of post-Holocaust cultural agendas, any sample of Jewish culture is worthy of attention, and the enormity of the historical legacy of the Holocaust trumps any aesthetic consideration.
Watch, for example, this news report on Francesco Lotoro’s KZ Musik project, conducted with the support of the European Union:

8. Jewish music as revival. In her essay, Sounds of Sensibility (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outlines several implications related to the (American) revival of “Klezmer” music.
In his fascinating eulogy of Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the protagonists of the American revival of Ashkenazi culture, Canadian writer, Michael Wex, thus articulated the special relationship that late 20th-century Jewish revivalists had with tradition:

[Adrienne Cooper] had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.

The New-York band, Klezmatics, turned the socialist song, Ale brider into an anthem for Queer rights. Here, they sing it together with Israeli folk music (and protest song) icon, Chava Alberstein, in Berlin, Germany:

9. Jewish music as “soul” and “fusion” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “masses”).
An example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman:

10. Jewish music as “world music” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “elites”)
An example by Moroccan-Israeli cantor and singer, Emil Zrihan:

Disclaimer: This entry is cross-posted here.

Between History and Ethnography (And More Breaking News from 18th-century Amsterdam)

This week, we begin positioning ourselves between history and ethnography. A somewhat awkward, albeit rewarding, spot, that requires both attention and a host of methodological considerations. We also go back to Amsterdam, which we briefly visited last week thanks to The Magnes Collection.

The inauguration of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam (aka, esnoga), an 8-day affair, culminated on Friday, August 2, 1675 (corresponding to 10 Av 5435 in the Jewish calendar; date conversion tool available here). As we saw last week, the event is described in the first volume of Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743) with an engraving comprehensive of the architectural setting, the reading from the Torah/Hebrew Bible, the attire and demeanor of those in attendance, etc. This work is available online via the UCLA Library. The first volume can also be downloaded in its entirety via the Heidelberg University Library. The engraving is accompanied by instructive captions (in French), which you can view by enlarging the images online, including the following:

La dedicace de la Synagogue et l’éntré des livres de la Loy se celebra pendant 8 jours, le 10e du mois de Menahem 5435, qui se raporte au mois d’Aut, 1675; on en fait la commemoration tous les Ans.

But Picart’s image—a photograph of sorts, before photography was invented—is far from being the only resource we possess about this event. It is worth citing a few sources, ancient and modern, to understand how all of them concur to expand our understanding of this historical event.

The Spanish-Portuguese synagogue is still standing, and it is now a still-functioning religious institution, a well-known cultural heritage site at the heart of Amsterdam, and a venue for cultural and political events. Of course, the congregation has its own website. where it has the chance to tell its own history.

Google Maps grants a street view of the synagogue

The website synagogues360, which provides 360-degree photographic documentation of synagogues worldwide, presents us with the opportunity of “touring” this synagogue. We can “take in” both the similarities with Picart’s description, and the architectural changes that accommodate its more recent role as a tourist attraction, souvenir shop and security exits included.

We can also rely on YouTube to see this synagogue set to the original candle-lighting features:

See it being used for a paraliturgical event (the “installation” of a new Rabbi), with Hebrew prayers sung by a full male choir:

Or even used as the venue for political speeches (no links provided, but if you search online you’ll see what I am referring to).

There are many other sources, of course. Many of them are historical.

The Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam has posted online other visual sources about the synagogue and its inauguration (available here) as part of its Treasures of Jewish Booklore online series.

The Amsterdam City Archives hold the Records of the Portuguese Jewish Community (inventory available here), which also relate to the inauguration ceremony of 1675.

But the ceremony also had a specific musical component. The music manuscripts of the Portuguese community have been the object of extensive study, especially by Israel Adler (1925-2009). Adler devoted a section of his study of “art music” in the European Jewish communities during the 17th-18th centuries to Amsterdam (initially in his PhD Dissertation, published in French as La pratique musicale savante, The Hague, Mouton, 1966; later in an English version of the Dutch section,  Musical Life and Traditions of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam in the XVIIIth Century, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1974). Adler’s study put the ceremony in the context of the musical activities of the community, and of the literary production of its cultural elite.

A Hebrew poem, Chisqi chizqi (“Strengthen my desire…), by Amsterdam Rabbi, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), was set to music for this occasion by Abraham Caceres (18th cent.), a composer of music for various communal occasions revolving around the life of the Portuguese synagogue and its members. The music manuscript of this composition, which was set for a three-part choir and instrumental accompaniment, is included in a manuscript (Ms. 49 B 22 fol. 15b-16a) found in the Etz Chayim Library (part of the synagogue compound). The manuscript was originally part of the private collection of Amsterdam Rabbi, J. d’Ancona (1911-1945), murdered in Bergen Belsen, and donated to the community library by his widow.

In class, we listened to a contemporary recording of the composition, from the CD, Synagogal Music in the Baroque (which is also listed in our Syllabus). Aside from considering the main features of poetic text (a fine example of Hebrew poetry in the age of the Baroque, full of alliterations, scriptural quotations, and Kabbalistic allusions), as well as the (equally Baroque) style of the musical composition, we can revisit this example of synagogue music in light of the context, and of the other sources at hand.

In Picart’s visual account of the 1675 ceremony, we see  men and women mingling in the main floor of the synagogue building, a space that was (and still is) occupied only by male congregants during the liturgy. At those times, women would sit in the gallery, which is located above the main floor. Following the historical sources that described the ceremony (quoted by Adler), we learn that the event was attended by a wide-ranging public (the “audience” of the musical composition, of the reading of the Torah, and of course of the other parts of the ceremony), which included the city’s Burgomaster and other official and notables. The ceremony was a paraliturgical event that preceded the Sabbath, and that was also a public event, with clear political connotations. It included elements of the liturgy, but was also open to a different kind of participatory use of the architectural space of the synagogue than then one required at liturgical times. Of course, liturgical occasions can also be public events. But their “rules of engagement” are somewhat different.

The liturgical repertoires of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam have also been the object of study. The list of sound recordings included in the Syllabus features The Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition, a CD that presents a selection of 39 melodies sung by Abraham Lopes Cardozo (Amsterdam, 1914-New York, 2006). Rev. Lopes Cardozo came from a long line of Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century (his great-grandfather was a chief Rabbi of the community), and served three Spanish-Portuguese communities in his capacity as hazzan (synagogue cantor)—Amsterdam, Paramaribo (Suriname), and New York City. A liturgical repertoire, like the one recorded in the CD, is the result of ethnographic fieldwork and of studio “reconstructions,” according to a methodology we will be discussing in the coming weeks.

As we see through a host of concurring visual, archival, literary and musical sources, the space of the synagogue provides a space for both the normative/liturgical and the non-normative/paraliturgical. In exploring synagogue life, we will be focusing precisely on that intersection.

The mandatory YouTube links

Since every university course must begin with a YouTube video, I decided to post two of them. Here you have two fine examples of how synagogue life has been portrayed in recent American/Global popular culture.

First, the amazing Bar Mizvah scene from A Serious Man (2009) by Joen and Ethan Cohen.

Then the much less irreverent Drake (in spite of the gross language).

In both cases, you are invited to listen to the sounds, the music, and look out for the architectural features of the synagogal space, the ritual objects involved, and, especially, for body language.

Even more importantly, it is worthwhile noting that even though these are just “reconstructions” of Jewish liturgical (and para-liturgical) settings, they are not much more distant from the “real thing” than many of the archival sources we have in our hands when we study music in the context of synagogue life. Given the traditional Jewish prohibition against writing and using electrically-operated equipment on the Sabbath and other major liturgical occasions, much of the documentation in our possession is derivative (recorded in a studio, or in a recreated setting, albeit from traditional culture bearers). Unless, of course, instead of relying on YouTube videos, or on materials traditionally kept in libraries and archives (sound recordings, musical transcriptions, and books), we go and see things first hand.

In the course of this seminar, we will not only talk about, but actually get a taste of fieldwork. I promise.