Tag Archives: nusach

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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