Thursday, April 7, 2011

Divine Sparks Judicial Review: Critical reviews of Jewish music

A singular article was published online today by the Boston based group The Arts Fuse. The article described as a "judicial review" of the Divine Sparks concert at the Boston Jewish Music Festival where six reviewers, and a response from trumpeter Frank London, contributed their perspectives of the event "creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture." It's fascinating and frustrating in equal measure and one of the best pieces of commentary on Jewish music I've read in a while. The Divine Sparks concert, also a singular performance. was described as "a provocative attempt to explore how Jewish cantorial music and other kinds of religious song can spark musical improvisation and spiritual experiences" and included Frank London, pianist Anthony Coleman, cantors Yaakov Lemmer, Aaron Bensoussan, Gastón Bogomolni and Elias Rosemberg, and Hebrew College rabbinical student Jessica Kate Meyer.

Go. Read it. Now.

Ok. A couple of my favorite points.

- Hankus Netsky's introduction to cantorial music, Chassidic Niggunim and Sephardic Moroccan music is excellent and I was completely cracking up when I read his comment about the cantorial performance of these songs being "tainted by Conservative and Reform cantors trained to perform them with Contemporary Ivrit (standardized Israeli) Hebrew accents—imagine, if you will, the Delta blues as sung by Ted Koppel or Dan Rather." Absolutely.

- I found critic John Bradshaw to be gratingly unable to get past his own musical experiences. In a review of a Jewish music event I'm uninterested in his flawed comparisons to the Christian music he is used to singing. His complaint about over-abundant ornamentation and lack of melody characterizes his ignorance of the music. That's the way its supposed to sound, dude. Though, to be fair, the exuberant ornamentation of chazzanut has been a subject of debate in the Jewish world as well and has may detractors.

- I was also stunned by critic Steve Elman's ignorance. He writes "The only examples of true crossover music in the jazz tradition that I can recall quickly, Ziggy Elman’s freilach trumpet solos for Benny Goodman in the 1930s, were a sort of burlesque, a novelty rather than a genuine cultural bridge." There was and has been a significant interaction between jazz and Jewish musicians which include plenty of examples of cross-over music. I refer him to David Katznelson's recent collection "‘Black Sabbath’: ‘The secret musical history of black-Jewish relations" for a schooling. Though, here too, his basic point is correct. While the number of crossovers between Jewish music and American music is larger than he credits, it is not large.

Finally, without quoting it because I would need to quote the entire thing, I found Frank London's artistic response to be and eloquent and persuasive. I have been to a number of "cantorial concerts." While they have their value as entertainments, they have offered me far little in terms of spiritual content. Experiencing these cantors in true liturgical contexts is a different story, as is hearing a spiritually minded musician of any type. I remember fondly seeing the Afro-Semitic Experience (a jazz group) play the Michigan Sacred Music Festival two years ago and found their music to be deeply moving.

Ok. I hate writing blog posts that don't have play buttons. Unfortunately, as of the writing of this piece, no video of the Divine Sparks show has been put on line. So here's a clip of Cantor Aaron Benssoussan & the group OktoEcho performing at the Montreal Jewish Music Festival in September of 2010.

No comments: