Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sefira and Jewish A Cappella Music Pt 1

On the Jewish calendar, we're currently in the period of the Counting of Omer (Sefirat HaOmer), which starts on the second night of Passover and ends 49 days later on Shavout. (Today happens to be day 30.) The Counting is a Torah mandated ritual (Leviticus 23:15-16) for counting priestly grain offerings. Over it's history it has acquired a range of traditions. One of the most interesting, to me at least, is it's being characterized as a period of mourning with a subsequent ban on instrumental music and dancing. This ban has led to the development a significant contemporary genre of a cappella Jewish music, sometimes referred to as Sefira music. You can listen to Sefira a cappella online until Lag Ba'Omer on OU Radio or check out one of these albums:

AKA Pella 28th Day - Tracht GutBOJAC: Best of Jewish A CappellaBeat'achon: Jewish A Cappella
Sefira Music - Jewish A Cappella

The restriction on music is associated with the first 33 days of the Sefira (the period from Passover to Lag Ba'Omer). This period has traditionally been considered a period of mourning and while specific observances vary by local custom, typical prohibitions include bans on weddings, dancing, haircuts and instrumental music. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Yeshiva.Org.Il website offers an overview of the period of mourning and details of the customs.
"Because the custom during counting of the Omer period is to refrain from joyous celebration as much as possible, later halakhic authorities write that dancing, unless it is for the sake of a mitzvah, is customarily prohibited (Magen Avraham 493:1). Included in this abstention is the prohibition against performing and listening to music instruments. ... According to Ashkenazi custom, the prohibitions continue until the nightfall of Lag BaOmer."
There's a transcript of a great interview over at the Sameach Music Podcast site between Podcast DJ Sruly Meyer and Jewish a cappella singer and producer Jordon Gorfinkel. They discuss the connection of contemporary Jewish Sefira music with traditional Shabbat zemirot, the development of current genre's sound and touch on the argument about Sefira music going in the frum community.

The argument is one of those personal taste and local tradition things. The questions being argued are, roughly, 'to what degree can up-tempo music, even if a cappella, be considered appropriate for mourning' and 'to what degree can a recording where human voice has been intentionally made to sound like musical instruments be considered a cappella and appropriate for mourning." To hear a great example of this debate, listen to the JM in the AM host Nachum Segal interview (beat up on) members of the group AKA Pella. AKA Pella's new recording uses both clever vocal tricks and lots of computer mixing to get electric guitar solo's and a horn section into an a cappella album.

If want to know more abou the counting of the Omer Wikipedia, Torah.Org, JewFaq.Org, and Chabad.Org all offer good introductions. If you want to know more about Jewish A Cappella music, wait for Part 2 of this post. Hopefully tomorrow.

(hat tip to Life of Rubin for the link to Nachum Segal interview with AKA Pella)


Avi Block said...

My personal speculation is that the custom not to listen to music developed from the general custom of decreasing joy and dancing during sefira. To be sure, music per se is not mentioned any where in the shulchan aruch or commentaries. With dancing comes music so live dancing music became assur. My speculation is that there jews back then only had music during times of dancing and joy because there was no time for "stam" recreational listening. So of course "music" became prohibited. When people started listening to more recreational, non-dancing music, this became prohibited too by extension, after all, people hadn't been listening to music in the past during this time. They of course never realized that this prohibition was only for dancing and joy and not for non-dancing music. Nowadays we have recorded music. By my speculation, the original prohibition would only include listening to music, any music live or recorded, for purposes of dancing. While there may be several halachik discussions as to whether there is a difference between live and recorded music, or acapella music that's not the crux of issue. Live music and recorded music, whether permitted or forbidden, is entirely dependent on the motive of the listening.
However you slice it, modern acapella music is the same thing as recorded music. Imagine if i was to record my voice in a way that I can play it back in an infinite loop without noticing any break (kind of like an organ) and playing that sound through a synthesizer. Is this any different from playing the saxophone sound on the synthesizer? Obviously not. Processed acapella music is no different than musical sounds coming from a synthesizer. Therefore modern acapella music is no different than recorded music. However all this is all depends on the motive of listening to the music.

Moshe Cohn said...

As a member of one of the Jewish acappella groups currently recording and performing, I have a vested interest in the ongoing debate. I also have an admitted bias toward acappella music in general, entirely unrelated to sefirah. That said, . . .
The current debate is important for those who want to distinguish between instruments and voices, OR between joyous music and more melancholy or perhaps relaxing, music. Avi Block is essentially correct.
It is also clear that without the advent of digital technology and the influence of Western musical styles on the Jewish music industry, this debate would likely not exist.
I should also point out that most, if not all, assessments I've heard on the radio and read online regarding acappella music, its history, and it defining characteristics, is largely misinformed.
For me, the key is in the definition of the genre.
EVERY acappella group out there, secular, college, Jewish, barbershop, jazz, classical, gospel, etc. has one main goal: to arrange and perform music created solely with the human voice.
Acappella music is meant to be PERFORMED. (So are all other types of music, for that matter.)
If the arrangements cannot be performed, the recordings misrepresent the genre - because you'll never be able to see it live.
One last point: there have been at least a dozen albums recorded in the past few years that were made and marketed specifically for the sefirah period. These so-called "sefirah albums" are, in my opinion, not "real" acappella, because they aren't faithful to the genre - rather, they are recorded for the sole purpose of making money on Jewish music during a time period when most other Jewish music isn't being bought.
Where I come from (acappella-land), acappella music is a year-round endeavor. We love singing together, performing together, and recording together, in every season, because we enjoy this type of music, and not because of any pseudo-halakhic considerations.

Jack said...

Avi, your speculation sound very reasonable to me, though I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough to have an opinion. And Moshe, I agree with you entirely that appreciation for a cappella music should not be limited to Sefira. Thanks to you both for commenting.

What interests me most is how a cappella music on Sefira is an unintended consequence of our religions tradition, not an intended effect. In other words, Sefira wasn't developed to foster a cappella music. But it did anyway. And we ended up with something uniquely Jewish, 33 days when a cappella music is the norm.