Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jewish Music: Contexts and Categories

Jewish Music Resource Center logoSorry folks, no music this time. I just wanted to pass along an interesting email exchange I recently had with Eva Heinstein of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She works on the Thesaurus of Jewish Music and maintains their blog, Jewish Music Research. She wrote to me let me know about their website and we got to talking about Jewish music. Go figure. I posed her a question that's been bugging me and got an interesting reply. Here we go...
JACK: "I'm wondering if you or one of your colleagues might be able to set me straight on a music theory question that has been perplexing me. One of my observations studying and writing about Jewish music is that it is very diverse, but in relatively systematic ways. It's easy, for example, to categorize Jewish music by geography region or temporal period, for example. It's also (usually) easy to make gross genre comparisons (e.g. a klezmer doina vs a Ladino love song). There is another set of comparisons that I typically make but that I lack good terminology for, the distinction between the contexts in which a composer expects the musical work to be performed. For example, a musical setting for the liturgical piyot might initially be intended for vocal performance in concert setting, then get adopted into a communities shul-based Kabbalat Shabbat service, and then get re-arranged as performance piece by a rock band. As noted, I could describe the shift as "art music" to "liturgical music" to "popular music" or "choral" to "liturgical" to "rock." Those are meaningful comparisons but seem to miss the point. The big comparison that I see is the shift from a performance context to a practice context back to a performance context. Not being well grounded in musicology, I struggle with terms. Is "context" an appropriate term? If so what kind of context categories have been recognized?"

EVA: As for your question, I thought immediately about a paper that was presented at a conference in London last year. Suzel Anna Reily presented a paper, which examines whether the traditional musicological categories of folk, art and popular music still apply. While you are also speaking about liturgical and para-liturgical performance contexts, I think the idea behind the paper very much speaks to your question.

The head of the department here at Hebrew University, Professor Edwin Seroussi, speaks about the blurring of contexts and categories in musicological research often in his seminars. I read a paper of his recently that follows the "journey" of one Judeo-Spanish romance "Las Horas de La Vida" from its original folk contexts, to research anthologies, to commercial recordings, and back again. In the paper, he essentially tries to tease out how the folksong became one of the most performed and recorded pieces in the Judeo-Spanish repertoire. What becomes clear is that the categories of art, folk, research and commercial overlap and influence one another greatly. So, I think you are right in feeling that there is movement between contexts or categories, and that the traditional categories are too stringent for the kind of musical phenomena we see today (maybe they were always too stringent?).

I think your sense of performance versus practice contexts is generally understood in scholarship as art versus folk or popular categories. However, we know today that just because music is performed on stage, doesn't make it art music. Likewise, just because music is performed in a communal or family context doesn't necessarily make if "folk" or "popular." So again, I think we come back to the same problem of overly-simplified categories that no long really apply to the varied and multiple contexts in which the same musics (or variations of the same music) are performed.
So what do you folks think? What kinds of categories and contexts make sense to you?

Eva also provided this set of useful pointers in the ethnomusicology field. This is an area where I know nothing and need to get a bit smarter.

1)Ethnomusicology the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology
2) Ethnomusicology Forum (formerly British Journal of Ethnomusicology) published by Routledge
3) Yearbook for Traditional Music published by the International Council for Traditional Music at Columbia University
4) Popular Music published by the Cambridge University Press
5)Musica Judaica the Journal of the American Society for Jewish Music
6) Israel Studies in Musicology the journal of the Israel Musicological Society\
7) Yuval (our journal!) published by the Jewish Music Research Centre (There is also the Yuval Music series which publish musical anthologies on different areas of Jewish musical traditions).
8) Not sure how your Hebrew is, but דוכן is an important Jewish music journal published by the Rennanot Center for Jewish Music in Israel


A short list:

John Blacking's How Musical is Man? and Music, Culture & Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking. He was a very important thinker and founder of the discipline.

Bruno Nettl's The Study of Ethnomusicology. An important book that deals with definitions, methodologies, and a number of central issues in the dicipline.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay. She is the head of the department of Musicology at Harvard, and a very impressive academic. Her writing is delightful, and she has done a lot of work with Jewish music (Let Jasmine Rain Down is her study of the musical traditions of the Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn). She put out an annotated collection of articles dealing with core definitions and the scope of Ethnomusicology titled Ethnomusicology: History, Definitions, and Scope.

Mark Slobin. Has published a number of studies on Jewish music revival movements, particularly the Klezmer revival movement. He always approaches his case studies with more fundamental questions about music making, culture, religion, and identity. His writing is very thought provoking.

If you are looking for information on a specific ethnic music the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music is a great resource. It includes ten volumes, each focuses on another area of the World

Other helpful Websites:

1) Grove Music: You might already be aware of Grove Music Online, you need a subscription, but most libraries have access to the online version. The URL is www.grovemusic.com. In addition to information on specific composers and genres, it has some great articles on bigger ideas and questions from a musicological perspective (for example there is a great article written by Richard Tarushkin on Nationalism and Music)

2) Milken Archive of Jewish Music: http://www.milkenarchive.org/. You have probably also come across this website, but if you haven't, it is a great resource. Lots of bio's, interviews, recordings etc...

3) The Molly and Robert Jewish Sound Archive Website: http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/freedman/ An amazing database that includes thousands of Jewish music recordings.

4) Brown University Yiddish Sheet Music Archive http://dl.lib.brown.edu/sheetmusic/yiddish/. A great website with full Yiddish music scores scanned in, and a lot of great general information about Yiddish theater music and research.


1) Jewish Music Forum Lecture Series http://www.jewishmusicforum.org/. A very interesting lecture series that covers a wide variety of topics in Jewish music research. I was able to attend a few while I was a student in NYC, and I enjoyed them tremendously.

2) World Congress of Jewish Studies http://www.jewish-studies.org/. Next year it is going to be at Hebrew University. There are always papers submitted on Jewish Music, many of which can viewed in full text through Lekket the Web based collection of Jewish studies articles: http://www.jewish-studies.org/ShowDoc.asp?MenuID=60

Thanks Eva, I really appreciate the discussion and pointers!

1 comment:

TX972 said...

Seroussi's paper, given at Yale in 2003, is posted here (last article):


I'm still looking for a link to hear 'La Vida'

tobyz1 / last.fm