Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Erik Contzius - New Cantorial Music in the German Reform Style

There are other histories out there, if we know how to listen for them. Other musics that remind us of how complicated, and interesting, our trip has been and how brutally the 20th century disrupted that trip. But these histories are starting to reassert themselves. We all know about the klezmer revival, and I've written many times about reassertion of Sephardic musical culture in west, the explosion in Jewish popular and art musics, and the rise of the songleader folk pop-liturgy. Guess what..chazzanut, that great voice on the pulpit, still has it's champions and they're creating a new generation of liturgy work that is vital and compelling. And they're reconnecting current chazznut with historic traditions that have all but faded from memory in America.

Erik Contzius has a new recording, Teach My Lips a Blessing, of cantorial music in the German Reform tradition. For someone growing up in a mid-20th century Conservative American synagogue, it sounds like it could be from the moon. Shabbat prayers sung over pipe organ, backed by a large mixed choir? It's a distinctive soundscape that violates Orthodox and Conservative halacha (use of instruments on the Shabbat) and my sense of history (the role of the cantor fading as community prayer practice has become communal and participatory). But that sound!

Contzius has done something magical. This isn't the mighty voiced lion of a cantor praising and supplicating as the voice of his community. It's also not a call and response prayer leader. It's something different. Contzius has a strong clear voice, without the operatic theatrics I've heard in many cantors and cantorial recordings (If anything, his voice tends toward Broadway a bit too much at points. ) It's warm and inviting, and with the choir and organ behind him feels like he's singing both for and with the community at the same time. This is a very different sensibility than a songleader grabbing a guitar to lead a hundred congregants through an out of tune Shalom Rav. (which is a wonderful thing, too). There is a sense of leadership here, Contzius reaching out through his voice, showing us the way, and bringing us along. I don't feel the urge to sing when listening to Contzius, but I feel that his singing includes me already. While I love communal singing, there is a power to this way too.

Amazon has graciously provided us with a chance to hear some clips of Contzius recording. In particular listen to V'Shamru. I've relistened to it about a dozen times. (I get to cheat. Contzius sent me the album so I get to hear the full recording). It soars, but never so high that it leaves the choir voices behind. And that's pretty special and may help breath new life into chazzanut.

You can hear more Contzius compositions, learn more about his approach, and purchase this recording via his website or download the tracks through the Amazon player.

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