Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jewish liturgical work debutes...at the Vatican

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Cantor Erik Contzius recently debuted his lovely new composition, "Mah Ashiv Ladonai - quid retribuam Domino" on November 16, 2010 at, off all places, the Vatican. According to the New York Jewish Week, "Twenty cantors of the American Conference of Cantors(ACC) will present for the first time a concert of Jewish music at the Basilica of Santa Marie degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome on Nov. 16 before Vatican officials, hoping to use music as another way to achieve closer relations between Catholics and Jews." The composition is a setting of Psalm 116. I find Mah Ashiv Ladonai, like Contzius' compositions, to be quite moving. Check out his website and, in particular, his recording "Teach My Lips a Blessing." I'm a fan.

Mah Ashiv Ladonai - quid retribuam Domino Premiere


Update: I just got a note from Ruth Ellen Gruber pointing me to her article in the JTA on the concert. It's a great read and provides a lot more detail and context for the concert. On of the elements of the story that she picks up on is dynamics of Jewish movements (denominations) and how they played out. While Italy has a Jewish community, their cantors have never sung for the Vatican. Why? Because they're Orthodox and wouldn't sing in a church. The ACC is Reform and didn't have an issue with it. Also, while Italy has a chief Rabbi, he didn't attend the show. Why? Because the ACC group included women cantors, which violates the Orthodox kol isha rules about women singing in public. Again, the ACC is Reform and have no such restrictions. What makes this double fascinating is that, in the four or five different articles on the even I read, only Gruber's draws out this critical detail.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A White Goat Under the Bed. A night of Jewish lullabies.

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I just got back from a fun night at my synagogue which included a talk on Mussar by one of the congregants and a talk (and concert and singalong) on Jewish lullabies by our Cantor Annie Rose. Mostly I enjoyed the lullabye part. Go figure. (The Mussar talk seemed to be well received by everyone but me. I found the speaker to approach it from a fuzzy faux-spiritualized self-help perspective that was sadly disconnected from any Jewish meaning. I'm just cranky I guess) The lullabies were great, though.

I know a bit about Yiddish and Ladino lullabies but Cantor Rose brought up a number of points that I didn't know including....

1. Lullabies typically express the yearnings of the mother, sometimes for the return of an absent father, sometimes for the future of the child, sometimes for love or peace

2. Lullabies typically tell a story, even if it's just the story of the day's activities and dilemmas

3. Yiddish and Ladino lullabies have a strong sense of Jewish culture and community, with common references to rabbis, prayers, and Torah study, Jewish superstitions (white goats are lucky), and Jewish experiences (the father conscripted into the army, merchant trades)

4. Did I say that white goats are lucky? Yep. Having one under your bed is a good thing. Really.

My favorite of the night was Unter Dem Kinds Vigele (Beneath the Baby's Cradle). The lyrics, which include a white goat, are:

1. Unter dem kinds vigeleBeneath the baby's cradle
Shteyt a vayse tsigele.Stands a white kid.
Di tsigele iz geforn handlenThe kid has gone away to trade
Rozhinkes mit mandlen;In raisins and almonds.

Rozhinkes mit mandlen iz zeyer zis,

Raisins and almonds are very sweet,
Mayn kind vet zayn gezunt un frish.My child will be healthy and alert.


Gezunt iz di beste skhoyre,Health is the best of goods,
Mayn kind vet lernen toyre,My child will study Torah;
Toyre vet er lernen,Torah is what he'll study,
Sforim vet er shraybn,He will write holy books.
A guter un a frumerA good and a pious person
Vet er im yirtse hashem blaybn.will he stay, God willing.

Unfortunately, I can't find a good version online to share. So here's Hannah Roth singing the lovely Yiddish lullabye "Shlof Mayn Kind (Rest my kid)," Lyrics by Shalom Aleichem.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Beyond the Pale nominated for the 6th Annual Canadian Folk Music Awards

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Just a quick pre-shabbat shout out to the Canadian klezmer band Beyond The Pale. As reported by the Vancouver Sun, they received the most nominations of any Canadian folk band in this years Canadian Folk Music Awards. They were nominated in four categories... instrumental group, world group, ensemble and pushing the boundaries. Way to go guys!

According to the CFMA website, the awards are going to be handed out on Saturday, Nov 20, so I'll report back soon with how BTP did.

Here's a recent video of BTP at the legendary Freight and Salvage folk club in Berkley California. None other than the also legendary Theodore Bikel came out to see them play, and then got coaxed on stage to sit in.



Hat tip to YouTube user ellyrocs for uploading the video

A Contemporary Kabbalistic Kabbalat Shabbat: Shir Yaakov & The ADVA Network Reunion

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Hi folks, Shabbat shalom.

I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit and his many musical adventures. He's a deep and soulful guy. For this week's 'get in the Shabbat groove' music, I want to share a lovely Shabbat service that he uploaded to Soundcloud. This is a wonderful example of where a Jewish community can go with Shabbat service that includes instrumentation but isn't a folk-pop guitar focused songleader or piano accompanied communal sing (not that I have an issue with that style). It's something else entirely and not something that can be easily replicated on your average Shabbat. But it really took my breath away and dropped me right into a Shabbat zone in the middle of a work-a-day Tuesday. Wish I was there.

Here's the short description Shir Yaakov's provided on SoundCloud. After the player, is a longer explanation of the event and how the service was conceptualized and planned.

"Friday, November 12, 2010 about 100 alumni of the ADAMAH Jewish Environmental Fellowship and the Teva Learning Center joined their hearts and voices together in prayer at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center"

ADVA Reunion Kabbalat Shabbat 2010 by shiryaakov
Shir Yaakov - "Two years ago the ADVA Network was combined to bring together alumni from two programs of Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center: the ADAMAH Jewish Environmental Fellowship and the Teva Education Center. (Adva means ripple in Hebrew.) I lead Kabbalat Shabbat for our Reunion last year but didn't post the whole service. I posted almost all of this year's service, except one song which became very loud and overloaded the recording.

For the first time this year there were three Friday Night davvenen options: orthodox, traditional egalitarian w/o instruments, and the service I led. This gave me more freedom to move away from the traditional matbeah and develop a kabbalah-inspired form. It was parshat vayetzei, where Jacob has the dream of the sulam/ladder, so I built the service around the sefirot in the Tree of Life array....

The first song we sang — Hareni Mikabel Alai/Dear Friends — corresponded to Chesed/lovingkindness. The matches liturgically with it's theme of love, and also with the essence of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, first developed by the Tsfat kabbalists; the Ariza"l (R' Isaac Luria) taught his students that taking on the mitzvah to love thy neighbor as yourself was a pre-requisite to prayer. Also, the traditional Friday Night service begins with Lechu Neranenah (Psalm 95); the letters of "lechu" — לכו — are an acronym for v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha, so I see this as a allusive correspondance. This simple, one part chant also, musically, corresponds to the simplicity of mitzad chesed in the Tree of Life.

I chose a two part, "digging" melody — Lulei Siroscha by R' Shlomo Carblebach — for gevurah/strength-limitations. I wanted to use two-part melodies for mitzad gevurah, seeing as the left-side has the aspect of duality and judgement, sifting. This is apparently one of the only Carlebach niggunim that are still sung in the yeshivish world because he composed it before leaving Lakewood.

As I mentioned above our three-part melody is not in the recording because it became too full and loud for the recorded. I used another Carlebach niggun — Ki Va Moed, which is often sung to Psalm 96 on Friday nights. It's in a major key, and it's three parts allude to the balance, integration and harmony of tiferet/compassion-beauty.

For Netzach/endurance-victory, we return to the simple, one-part chant Yachid Ge'eh. I composed this on 18 Elul, the birthday of the Ba'al Shem Tov. The liturgical source is Ana B'choach (Tefilat R' Nechuniah ben Hakana) and we repeat the work zochrei/rememberers. Memory is linked with netzach and this piyyut has the supplicatory tone of Moshe, who often is voiced in the text as an interceder, and is linked with this sefirah.

Hod/glory-submission comes from a root meaning thankfulness, so I chose Modeh/Modah Ani as the text and this two-part melody to correspond with the side of duality. I also chose this (and other melodies) knowing they'd be familiar to the group I was praying with.

Yesod/foundation was linked with another composition of mine (written 2 Elul 5769); another three-part melody, as yesod is the synthesis of Netzach and Hod. Shabbat is often linked with malchut, however, I placed the two parts of Lecha Dodi there.

I had planned a longer meditation for ma'ariv, but as you can here, this part of our service went much longer than I'd expected.

The musicians involved were:
Cassia Arbabi, violin
Jonathan Dubinsky, percussion
Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, guitar, vocals
Ilan Glazer, percussion
Joanna Kent Katz, harmonica
Rebecca Lemus, clarinet
Elisheva Margolis, flute
Yoshi Silverstein, octave mandolin
Tali Weinberg, vocals
Casey Baruch Yurow, mandolin

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting smart about Jewish art music

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I'm going to be giving another Jewish music talk at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor in January, this time on Jewish Art Music. I suggested the topic because a) it has a rich and misunderstood history and b) I richly misunderstand it as much as anyone. I know a lot less about Jewish art music than I do about other aspects of Jewish music. This has a bit to do with my taste in music and a bit to do with the challenges in tracking performers and composers in this space. I'll be writing a number of blog posts over the next couple of weeks that touch on Jewish art music, both as a way for me to get my thoughts in order and as a way for people to dope-smack me when I go astray. Which, I'm sure, will be often has already started.

Let me start by explaining what I mean by art music. Here's a pretty reasonable starting point, from Wikipedia. * (There is also a Wikipedia article on Jewish art music but I find it way too narrow.)
"Art music (or serious music or erudite music) is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition. The notion of art music is a frequent and well defined musicological distinction, e.g. referred to by musicologist Philip Tagg as an "axiomatic triangle consisting of 'folk', 'art' and 'popular' musics." He explains that each of these three is distinguishable from the others according to certain criteria. In this regard, it is frequently used as a contrasting term to popular music and traditional or folk music."
In this sense, according to Tagg, Art music (as opposed to folk and popular music) is characterized by professional musicians, written scores, limited distribution, an agrarian or industrial culture, written musical theories and non-anonymous composers. It's a mouthful but you get the idea. This is fancy stuff, not the anonymous and ubiquitous oral folk tradition or mass-produced & distributed recorded pop stuff. A variety of different musics fit under this heading including orchestral and chamber music, opera, choral, and arguably more challenging versions of (sometimes) jazz and (rarely) rock music.

Thinking about Jewish art music raises a question that exists, but is less interesting, for Jewish folk and pop musics. Why make it at all? There are Jewish folk, who make music, so you get Jewish folk music. There is a Jewish populous and bands that play for them, so you get Jewish pop music. But in the theory-rich and abstracted compositional space of art music..how and why do you end up with Jewish art music?

There seem to be a couple of answers.

First, you don't. There is a long history of extremely talented and famous Jewish musicians, composers, and conductors that have been central to the Art music tradition but did not typically or ever produce recognizably Jewish art music. Some famous examples include Giacomo Meyerbeer, Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Leonard Bernstein, and 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg. Professionally, it was often not advantageous to advertise their Judaism and musically it was often irrelevant. (Note I said typically, my buddy Daniel just pointed out that both Reich and Schoenberg have composed Jewish works as well as non-Jewish works. That's also true for Meyerbeer and Bernstein.)

Second, you do if the composer is interested in liturgical compositions. Western art music (classical music) traces its history back to Gregorian chants which trace their history back to Jewish liturgical music. Art music and liturgical music have been influencing each other ever since. While there is a sense in traditional Judaism that our liturgical melodies go back to Sinai (and are referred to as "Mi Sinai" melodies), in truth these melodies have evolved and changed over time. In the 19th century, Samuel Naumbourg, Solomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski documented Ashkenazi liturgical music and added their own, now ubiquitous compositions. New liturgical works are constantly being developed. Some, such as the works of Hugo Chaim Adler and Samuel Adler and Aaron Blumenfeld fit well into the mainstream of Jewish liturgical works as well as art song. Some are quite idiosyncratic. I'm personally a fan of the Herbie Hancock composed Jon Klien composed, Herbie Hancock performed "Hear O Isreal, a Sabbath Composition in Jazz" which was composed in the mid 1960's as commissioned work for Rabbi David Davis. For a wonderful, focused, exploration of the evolution of Jewish liturgical music, check out Cantor Andrew Bernard's "A Guide to Kaddish in 16 Tracks."

Third, you do if, as a composer, you're interested in the development of national music or cultural identify. There was a fascination in the 19th century, and to a lesser degree the 20th century, in developing cultural and nationalistic identities through the development of identifying cultural art, including music. For example, the "New Jewish School*" of music, represented by the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music,
"can be compared to other national currents, forming the European musical landscape since the middle of the 19th century. While Russian, Czech, Spanish or Norwegian national music was able to unfold and establish itself in the cultural conscience, the development of the Jewish school was violently terminated by the Stalinist and national-socialist policy after only three decades.

The history of the New Jewish School started in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908 the Society for Jewish folk music was founded in St. Petersburg - the first Jewish musical institution in Russia. Important composers, such as Joseph Achron, Michail Gnesin, Alexander Krejn , Moshe Milner, Solomon Rosowsky, Lazare Saminsky and others joined it. In contrast to Jewish composers from Western Europe these young artists did not lose their connection to the Jewish community. The more than five million Jews in Russia (at that time about half of the Jews in the world) lived in old traditions, which remained a nurturing soil and a source of inspiration for musicians. [Musica Judaica website]

In the 20th century, outside of Israel, diaspora composers have often substituted the idea of Jewish identity for Jewish nationality but followed the same compositional lines... developing non-liturgical compositions inspired by Jewish religious practice, Jewish events (often the Holocaust), or themes from Jewish folk and/or popular music. Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, for example, was inspired by the poem Babi Yar, by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, which tells the story of a massacre of Jews in Kiev by the Nazi's but is also the story of Russian pogroms and of callous hate. (You can read the poem at Remember.org, and hear a performance of the poem and the symphony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage website. Avant-garde Jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn developed the Masada Songbook of over 200 individual compositions based on a set of composition rules derived, largely, from his analysis of Jewish liturgical and klezmer modes. You can listen to an NPR spot on the Masada project on the NPR website. To develop an American Jewish identify, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has produce well over 50 CDs of American Jewish art music ranging from Yiddish Theater music to contemporary symphonies. My personal favorite so far is Ofer Ben-Amots' etherial "Celestial Dialogues / Hashkivenu / Shtetl Songs"

By the way...what comes around goes around. Two of my favorite albums are pianist Uri Caine (and his ensemble) exploring Gustav Mahler from both an improvisational jazz perspective as well as a Jewish music perspective, including klezmer styled horns and vocals by the extraordinary Cantor Aaron Bensoussan. The studio album, Primal Light, and the live album "I Went Out This Morning Over the Countryside: Gustav Mahler in Toblach" don't necessary show that Mahler had Jewish themes, which is questionable, instead they show how good a vehicle Mahler is for improvisation, Jewish themed or otherwise. But the irony, as well as the music, is delightful.

As I noted earlier, keeping up with Jewish art music is difficult. Here are some of my favorite resources, but all have frustratingly narrow focus areas.

1. The Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience
2. John Zorn's Tzadik label (look for the Radical Jewish Culture sub-label)
3. Jewish-Theatre.com - "The Global Website to promote Jewish Theatre and Performing Arts"
4. The Jewish Music WebCenter - an online forum for academic, organizational, and individual activities in Jewish music.
5. American Society for Jewish Music - which "serves as a broad canopy for all who are interested in Jewish music. Its members include cantors, composers, educators, musicologists, ethnologists, historians, performers and interested lay members - as well as libraries, universities, synagogues and other institutions."
6. The Klezmershack, Hava Nashira, and Jewish Shul Music mailing lists. While no one list focuses on Jewish art music, each occasionally has something interesting in this area.

* The Wikipedia article has lots of useful and cluttering footnotes and citations. Check 'em out if you want further edification. The Tagg article "Analysing popular music: theory, method and practice" is particularly fascinating.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jewish Rock Radio

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Jewish Rock RadioThere's a new Jewish internet streaming radio station in town. Helmed by Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Ron Hoffman, and musician Rick Recht, Jewish Rock Radio is a slick and glossy website and iphone app that's now streaming slick and glossy Jewish rock music 24/7. To give you a sense of their playlist, in the last 20 minutes or so I've heard Orthodox rapper Eprhyme, and Orthodox college pop band Blue Fringe, Israeli world-beat rockers the Idan Rachel Project, singer-songwriter Todd Herzog, and Reform camp rock superstar Rick Recht (hey..it's his station, right?). It's is a really nice pop-radio mix with a liberal Jewish orientation but drawing some great frum-pop and secular Israeli pop. Good for them.

And yeah.. I said slick and glossy twice. I can't help it. I'm so not a slick and glossy guy. I like my pop indie and my rock punk. I want them to play The Shondes and Girls in Trouble. I dislike Rich Recht's music so much it makes my eyes cross. But that's my deal. I honestly hope and expect JRR to take off and finds it's audience.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kol Achai at Shea Stadium. Spoiler Alert...The Cubs Lost

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Everyone once in a while I think I've got this Jewish music thing, and then the rug get's pulled out from under me again. My buddy Noah did that to me when he introduced me to a strand of Orthodox pop music that I didn't know anything about. It includes bands like Kol Achai, Abie Rotenberg & D'veykus. Let me start by saying I'm practically clueless about these bands and will be trying to piece it together over the next few months. What I know is that these bands were primarily active in the 80's, played a lot of NCSY camp events, and had a very (for the time) contemporary pop sound. They're connected, I think, with the Israeli scene that produced seminal Jewish rock pioneers Diaspora Yeshiva band and their repertoire includes Israeli tunes as well as original. But I'm really not sure about any of this yet. These bands have little presence on the web other than discographies on some of the Orthodox Jewish music catalog sites. What I do know is that I'm a fan. They're some great material in these discs and they're a pointer to a part of Orthodox Jewish culture that I was completely unaware of.

As I said there's precious little material on these bands on the web, but here's a great clip. It's Kol Achai singing The Star Spangled Banner at Shea Stadium on Sept 13, 1993. Spoiler alert...the Cubs lost.


Hopefully I'll be back with more info on this scene. If you were part of it, as a musician or audience, please get in touch with me.

Update: I just got an email from Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. He pointed out that while he respected mainstream Orthodox groups like Kol Achai and "Abie Rottenberg's soulful tunes" that DYB was part of a very different ba'al teshuva scene that "The Megama Duo, Piamenta, Yitzhak Attias, The Baal Shemtov Band and Rava Mehemna were our contemporaries- all returnees to Torah observance. " I really appreciate Avraham's update. For someone who wasn't there piecing this together is tough. By the way...I should note that DYB just released an awesome DVD of one of their 1982 concerts. It's great.

We sang Misheberach for the cat. It died. An interview with a Debbie Friedman Cover Band

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And you shall be a blessing...oh yeah!

Debbie Friedman is a seminal figure in American Jewish music, with a huge influence on Reform liturgy and camp music. She's inspired song books, movies, and now...the cover band Not By Might.

Ok. Not really. The guys in the video, Jason Mesches and Jacob Perlin are actually the musical comedy duo Mesch and Cod. But their mockumentary is brilliant and absolutely spot-on. If you've spent any time around Reform songleaders, you'll be in stitches.

NOT BY MIGHT - Debbie Friedman cover band interview



And because it's Shabbat and because it's been a long week, here's Debbie Freidman performing her classic Misheberach at LimmudLA on Sunday, 17 February 2008.

Debbie Friedman Performs 'Mishebayrach' Live at LimmudLA'08


All fixed and back online.

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That was weird. Google decided that my blog was involved in suspicious activity and shut me down. I jumped through the hoops and it's up again. No explanation of what exactly the suspicious activity was, though.

I'd say "if anyone is still having problems please let me know" but if you were having problems, how would you know I wrote that?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Israel's Yemin Orde Youth Choir on PRI's The World

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On Monday, PRI's The World did a feature on Israel's Yemin Orde Youth Choir. Most of the kids at Yemin Order, are Jewish, but not all. All are immigrants, some from Ethiopia, some from Sudan, some from Poland and Russia. The school is not a boarding school, but "a village, a community" that gives stability and grounding to "more than 500 immigrant, disadvantaged and at-risk children and youth from 20 countries around the world."

Here's the 5 minute program, hosted by Matthew Bell. (Download MP3)



The Youth Choir is on Tour right now. Here's a link to their tour schedule, which includes LA, NYC, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.

Here's a video of the choir singing a medley. If you enjoy it and can't make it to a show, consider clicking through to the YouTube page and making a donation.



There are a number of additional videos about Yemin Orde on Youtube, including "Yemin Orde Youth Village" a 10 minute clip from the PBS documentary "The Visionaries."