Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Melodies I Have Seen: Jeremiah Lockwood's Nigun Project

Jeremiah Lockwood is one of my favorite contemporary Jewish musicians. With this band Sway Machinery, he has the uncanny ability to fuse cantorial singing and old-school R&B guitar and horns and create something deeply resonant, both hip shaking and soul shaking at the same time. Recently, with support of the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, Lockwood has begun a musical experiment. In monthly installments he's exploring Chassidic niggunim by creating contemporary settings of older melodies. The exercise is an experiment in many ways. While he's deeply familiar with niggunim, he wants to see where they take him musically as a contemporary musician and he wants to see what happens when he brings on board his musician friends who aren't familiar with niggunim.

Here's a representative example, with Lockwood working with Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the nigun "At the table."

Lockwood explained his motivation, and a bit on the background of niggunim, in the first Forward article back in March.

"In the Nigun Project, I am seeking to explore this seminal Jewish music form and remake it for the 21st century. The melodies of the Hasidim are a numinous and multivalenced text ripe for rediscovery and recontextualization, but as with so many aspects of Jewish traditional culture, the vast body of nigunim is lost to most people outside the religious community. The Nigun Project will reinterpret and bring these melodies to music lovers on the level playing field of art, where religious and nonreligious, Jew and non-Jew alike, can partake of that which is good."

I love Lockwood's work and I'm all for experiments but, after six or so installments I'm not sure how I feel about this one. For me two questions echo: how interesting are the reinterpretations (how good is the music) and how well does the project bring some essence of the niggunim to a contemporary audience that doesn't have direct connection with the niggunim tradition (how good is this music at conveying niggunim)? While I applaud the experiment, I don't think the music holds up well to either question.

First...is it good music? Lockwood and his guest musicians are all talented and have put a lot of energy into each recording. Undoubtedly each will find fans. And because of the revolving door of collaborators, Lockwood is systematically exploring different stylistic choices: mostly different flavors of indie-pop and hip-hop so far. That gives a certain breadth to the music but also makes it a bit thin. There is much less consistency or vision to link the installments than I would have hoped. While Lockwood understands niggunim, he seems to be giving too much control to his collaborators who don't. The result is fairly inconsistent and underwhelming.

This leads to the second question..how good is this music at recontextualizing (showcasing, drawing from, interpreting) niggunim? Unlike his work on recontextualizing cantorial singing, I find the niggunim project disappointing. As someone who deeply loves and finds power in the niggunim tradition, but also loves contemporary music and experiments like this, I had high expectations to love this project. But after listening to the first six, my only thoughts are that the tracks were well constructed but lacked any vision. After hearing them once, I had little interest in listening to them again. After listening to them a few times each I still had little interest in listening to them again. There's just a lot better out there.

Niggunim are not a melodic style as much as a participatory performance style. Niggunim melodies came from a wide variety of sources, some internal to the Chassidic movement and many borrowed from surrounding cultures. If there's a melody you love, you can make a niggun out of it. It's the making the niggun out of it that's the interesting part. Nigun as a musical practice is centered on a voice, typically a group, singing with an emotional intensity that rivals cantorial singing but in a much more intimate space. The reason that niggun are powerful is because there is a deep seated yearning in them, to escape words, to escape the body, to connect with the group and God. To my ears, this yearning and passion is lost in Lockwood's recordings. And with that lost, any real connection to niggunim is lost.

So, while I feel that Lockwood's Sway Machine truely understands and communicates the essence of cantorial singing, I feel that he's failed to do the same for niggunim in the Nigun Project. But not all experiments succeed and I'm very glad he's trying.

Here's an interview with Lockwood where he describes niggunim and what he's trying to do.
Listen to Jeremiah Lockwood discuss the Nigun Project:

For the full set of Nigun project recordings see the Jewish Daily Forward. I want to thank and congratulate the Forward for their support of the experiment. My understanding is that they've provided Lockwood the recording facilities he needed to put the project together. That's a wonderful use of their facilities and I hope they continue the project and consider other similar ones in the future.

Finally, I want to point out a much much better current recording that interprets the nigun tradition from a contemporary perspective. The group Darkcho's recording, now out on Shempspeed, does a fabulous job at picking up and interpreting the core essence of niggunim. Check it out.

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