on Fridays and/or Saturdays, my people convene at the local synagogue for the same reasons members of other faiths do: free coffee and pastries, gossip about other members, watching children in ill-fitting suits misbehave. And then of course, there's the prayer, such odd, ungainly stuff. Those millennia of Diaspora (that would be the idea of a culture's time spent away from its, in this case contentious and continuously vague, notion of a “homeland”) have piled up the signposts of a hundred other cultures. Whatever they originally sounded like is long gone, replaced with a wildly varying hodge-podge of long, snaking Middle Eastern lines, Eastern European melancholy, Baroque mathematics, medieval organs, and G-d knows what else. Musically they rarely make sense except through repetition—and are often memorized phonetically, especially by those of us in the more secular wing of Euro-American Jewry, which accounts for a little over half the Jews in the world. For us, the meaning of the prayer isn't in its verbiage, but in the general sense of the thing, a certain humble reverence or that distinctly Jewish brand of mournful joy in those persistent minor keys and those long air-filled moans, its closeness to the divine dependent only on how many times you say the word “Adonai.”

Dada manqué Kurt Schwitters cobbled his tone-poem-cum-roar-of-Thanatos Ursonate out of randomly-chosen syllables, marked at the vowels with dots and strokes for long or short phrasings, low or high notes, to be intoned as the performer sees fit. At every B'nai Mitzvah, the lucky young person is press-ganged into “reading” a section of the Haftorah, sort of an official Biblical commentary. It is composed of all the Hebrew letters, whose sounds have been pounded into those impressionable little Jew-child heads over endless Saturdays, and these hieroglyphs are festooned with dots and strokes for long or short tones, high or low notes. For one not versed in Hebrew as an actual communicative language, the reading is often little more than a rigorously controlled graphic notation. Though the reading lacks the more free-interpretive aspects of an Ursonate or most graphic pieces—grasping for some larger meaning as they inevitably are—nonsense is still nonsense, at least for many of us. So as we collectively or individually tease out a memory of this almost meaningless sound wrapped around these symbols we've been taught (to greater or lesser degrees of success), we're doing something that, at one time, in certain circles, was quite unheard of and celebrated.

In 1969, composer Cornelius Cardew, then of the free-chamber-noise ensemble AMM, formed his Scratch Orchestra, a loose, ever-changing assemblage of schooled and unschooled performers, to clang, whine, wheeze, and moan around many of his early scores, one of which was his 193-page graphic monster Treatise. The huge, heaving thing is composed of lines, arcs, circles, dots, and occasionally what appear to be mangled staffs, rests, and notes. It can be performed in whole or in part, as per conductor's instruction, equal part traditional notation and sign/signifier dialectic that, to a reader unaccustomed to its form, easily resembles an unfamiliar communicative language. Mix one part trained singers, two parts average, Earth-based souls (with all the tweaks and irregularities of personality that entails), hand them a book full of funny squiggles and give it time—what you get is a joyful noise indeed. This isn't to say that Schwitters and Cardew stole their best ideas from the synagogue—there's nothing to suggest that—but given the parallels, well, it's no wonder so many of my people turn to the Obscurer Arts. We were there. We were there.

It can't be that simple, of course. Every culture can lay claim to its share of later experimental sound moves, whether real, imagined, or, you know, prescient. But it's the sounds of Jewish tradition that stick. I haven't mentioned the shofar, the ram's horn, that interminable bleating, the kind that scrapes the fluid off your brain, that's somehow supposed to represent our freedom from slavery, of all things. I only briefly touched on the collective Jewish voice, the sort that can only be described as one loud kvetch, such a deeply grating, slow-motion whine, like the grinding gears of a million guilt trips. This is the sound of most of our youths. Merzbow's got nothing on us.

Egon Schiele: Arnold Schoenberg

Working in a space outside of—or perhaps perpendicular to—tradition, avant-gardism, if that's a word, is an academic exercise by nature. One can't effectively just reject, invert, or murder tradition without enough knowledge about it to pose the questions it can't answer. Arnold Schoenberg looked upon his long-studied classical 8-tone scale and beseeched unto it, “Whither a more complex tonal structure; for outside of you, O C-centered universe, resides a whole world of sound.” For instance.

There's something of a stereotype that says that Jews value education above basically all else. While that's certainly one of the least bad Jewish stereotypes floating around, it's not exactly accurate either; or rather, the reality's a bit more interesting. Going by the numbers it seems pretty straightforward: according to a survey conducted in 2002 by the United Jewish Communities, American Jews receive bachelor's degrees at a rate nearly double that of the country at large, and graduate degrees at a rate almost quintupling those of Gentiles. So on a fundamental level the numbers bear the stereotype out (though it should be noted that the survey release was delayed due to some questions regarding its methodology). What's more interesting, though, is the strain of rebellious argumentation at the center of our religious scholarship.

Jewish religious education starts with the Torah, of course, but any new student at any Yeshiva (rabbinical school) will know that going in. The meat of their education comes from the Talmud, a pair of texts devoted to dissection of the Five Books of Moses and various attempts to divine Earthly laws from them. Thinking of that, you could be excused for picturing a dry, dusty, lifeless tome; but no, you're greeted instead by florid debate, one diverging viewpoint after another, with none given the greatest weight. Students are encouraged to raise their thought and discourse up to the level of their elders and take a flyer on their own burgeoning rhetorical heft in the name of moving the meaning of their faith, and the faiths of their soon-to-be-congregants, forward. It's in this spirit that Judaism lives today, as always, without a central rabbinical authority. Anyone with enough knowledge can buttonhole their rabbi and square off on a tradition they think has no value, or a different value, than what they've been told; sects and factions break off and split all the time. It's the closest thing you'll find to irreverence in any orthodox theology, and it's passed down to all of us.

Even the most orthodox among us have their continuing controversies. “Kol Nidre,” the first prayer intoned by the congregation during the evening service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has been leaving contrails of vehement, even angry, discourse behind it:
Prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves - from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good - regarding them all, we regret them henceforth.

They will all be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.
Originally it was figured, after some rabbinical discussion, that the “abandonment” of “all vows” was considered necessary for complete and full atonement. But the argument didn't stop at the obvious point, that one could simply disavow one's word at any time, whether out of necessity or whim, finding the idea of a voided oath out-and-out absurd. For instance, some rabbis thought it appropriate that an annulment of vows should be kept a one-on-one arrangement, where a rabbi could question a congregant on the specific nature of the vow in order to pass a judgment on it, not an entire congregation at once. But it grew into some important uses: for instance, during the various Crusades and Inquisitions Jews could save their own lives by converting to Christianity in word only, rescinding that word through prayer, and thus be granted forgiveness and save their souls in the bargain. But the debate rages on to this day: does the prayer absolve the soul from all vows, even, say, in court? What's the point of atonement if some of your transgressions can just be wished away, while the rest must be sloughed off over a day of fasting and liturgy? Given its persistent use by anti-Semites, is it still even good to have around? Many congregations have removed it from the service completely, and others keep it on; the debate is far from over.

The only thing most seem to agree on with regards to “Kol Nidre,” if not its meaning or appropriateness, is that no small amount of its power comes in its simplicity and its melancholic beauty. Its present construction comes soaked in the rivers of European forms; a stark simplicity and a lovely decrescendo that has given composers from many different walks of life an entry-point toward adaptation and appropriation. After landing in Los Angeles in 1938, the great iconoclast Schoenberg, a Jew who converted to Lutheranism (which didn't stop the Nazis from removing him from his academic post and chasing him into exile), having reaffirmed his Jewish faith in the face of the horrors of National Socialism and the continuing disappearance of many of his friends and family, was commissioned to score his own “Kol Nidre.” After researching the prayer and its origins, he was horrified of its implications. So his version is more a quest, not only through the prayer but through his own, by now quite mature, methods. Instead of his usual twelve-tone atonality, he opts in the orchestra parts for complex, almost clustered, tonal harmonies, beginning at a tentative whisper and stretching out over its 15 minutes to something almost melismatic. It never rises above a dull roar, keeping a tense, nervous energy throughout. Paired with the rabbi's call-and-response of the prayer with the chorus, and his pre-song spoken incantation of the story of God's Light atomized through the universe so only His true believers may see it, his “Kol Nidre” becomes an endlessly vexing, thoroughly unnerving question.

A simple definition of “avant-garde” (from the French, literally “front” or “forward guard”) would be a methodology by which a culture expands its future boundaries by arguing vehemently against its past. That's reductive, certainly, and sounds more destructive than it must be by definition, but it's a qualified start. It's inherently recursive, constantly building new ideas over old, then revisiting those old ideas in light of the new. By the time Schoenberg had shaken the Romantics to let loose those four more keys, John Cage (not Jewish) had already laid his dynamite under the whole thing, reaching all the way back to the much older ideas of Zen Buddhism for a spirit guide. But then Cage's friend Morton Feldman (almost stereotypically Jewish), sensing an emptiness at the center of all this academic exercising, and needing something stronger to gird his New Buildings, reached back again to the Romantics and their easily-digested 8-tone scales.

John Zorn
“Because I’m Jewish, I do not identify with, say, Western civilization music. In other words, when Bach gives us a diminished fourth, I cannot respond that the diminished fourth means, 'O God....' What are our morals in music? Our moral in music is nineteenth-century German music, isn’t it? I do think about that, and I do think about the fact that I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.”
Indeed, Morty, what are our morals in music? Do we take their scale, the very foundation of the very same music enjoyed by The Man Who Shan't Be Named, in order to subvert or, G-d help us, end it? Yes, yes we do. Additionally we take the dominant avant-garde styles of our day—in this case, Serialism's staunch, authoritative control; the ping-ponging dissonance of Schoenberg's 12 tones; and Cage's almost theatrical randomness—and we take a 90-degree turn away from that too. Feldman was not a man for chaos, despite his younger dalliances with graphic notation, but order for its own sake wouldn't do it either. The old questions had calcified into answers; it was now time to pose new questions in turn. So naturally he mixed his modernist education with a Romantic ear for tonal complements, but more importantly he took the careering speed of constant modern novelty and slowed it to a crawl. Whole hour-long pieces—two hours, four hours—can go by like a single, deep breath, changing so imperceptibly as to seem monolithic, not to mention elegiac.

But that isn't really what Feldman meant by “morals in music.” In fact, his thoughts on the subject at hand seem a bit muddled, but really it seems he's intentionally leaving something out. Alex Ross nails it in a recent New Yorker piece with some choice quotes from Feldman: “I must say, you did bring up something that I particularly don’t want to talk about publicly, but I do talk privately.” Feldman stammered through that at a seminar in Germany in 1972 after an attendee quizzed him on whether his “Rothko Chapel” was a Holocaust memorial. He's being oblique and cagey, or maybe just trying to take a little extra-musical weight off his work. Less oblique and cagey, at a festival also in Germany, to composer Alvin Curran: “Can’t you hear them? They’re screaming! Still screaming out from under the pavements!”

But does that mean that all, or any, of Feldman's work can or should be viewed as some sort of Holocaust memorial? Except for the occasional title offered up as a dedication to someone in particular, he shied away entirely from narrative or literal meaning, so his reticence on the subject seems sensible; at any rate, heaving that much tragedy on a work, one that purports to nothing more than academic or aesthetic value, as well as implying that the work or artist in question should supply an appropriate mode within which the audience can react to, you know, the Holocaust, isn't exactly fair. Shying away from literal meaning—through chance operations, or new tonal structures or notations, or what have you—was the dominant avant-garde leaning at the time (in a lot of ways, it still is), and that doesn't leave a lot of space for a Jewish composer to deal directly with the dominant event of his time; Feldman's more immediate descendants like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Charlemagne Palestine all studiously avoided it as well. That being said, the time was not amenable to expressive Jews dodging this issue entirely; it would be continuously brought up in interviews and seminars and awkwardly dismissed.

That it took a college dropout to finally step up and do something shouldn't be too surprising. John Zorn learned music from childhood lessons, then picked up an abiding interest in free-jazz, noise, and other outré forms during his one year of higher education; but his real abiding passions, for a long time, were Carl Stalling’s music from old Warner Brothers cartoons, film noir, hardcore, and the snuff-art of Weegee. His earlier work was a cut-up admixture of avant-trash, most of which was harrowing, borderline sadistic, and brilliant, but that’s all irrelevant here. By 1993, something had happened.

His interests up to that point had led him to the avant-garde Mecca of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then to Japan, the mythical home of noise and Boredoms. But by the early ��90s, he’d started to grow disenchanted, or perhaps just bored, with his surroundings, so he headed back to his native New York and reacquainted himself with the culture of his youth. It was around this time he began work on his Masada songbook of Hebraic-themed pomo jazz, but first he cobbled Kristallnacht out of the broken shards of everything he’d previously written. He used it to inaugurate the Radical Jewish Culture series—a forum for various Judaism-related projects—on his Tzadik (“wise” or “enlightened one”) label, but they didn't get much more radical than this. Its foundations are in jazz and klezmer—the European chimera of Jewish and various regional folk musics—but its impact lies elsewhere. Given the seriousness of its subject matter, Kristallnacht is given to appropriate minor keys, stretched out like the low moans of prayer or, in this case, suffering; a terrifying, even physically painful experience. But its subtler cues come not from jazz or classical forms, but from contemporary noise, which had its beginnings in the academy, from Luigi Russolo and the Futurists and John Cage, but eventually found its way out into something more like pop territory, with its main intent being wholly nonsensical and visceral, largely distanced from intellectual concerns. It was probably the only way to do it.

Perhaps the academically-minded Jewish artists of Schoenberg and Feldman's time could be excused for wanting to distance their work from the Holocaust, still recent and fresh, the wound not yet scabbed over. Rationalizing this level of horror has all sorts of pitfalls, crazy-making rabbit holes, and chances for gross oversimplification—I've been struggling over this very paragraph for about a week now for just those reasons. Perhaps it takes someone not given to that sort of thought-pattern making, someone distanced from the actual event by enough time for it to pass into history, someone unafraid of being crass or even sadistic enough to lend a piece of art on the subject that was full of lizard-brained fear and blind panic. Somehow it seems much more appropriate than a dozen papers trying to reason out the possibly unreasonable. This isn't to say pure thought has no place in future discussions on the matter, just that, by separating the intellectual from the emotional, it's bound to miss much of what makes an event like that still resonate the way it does; the academic voiding his own messy humanity, the showman being just thoughtless enough to be more emotionally honest, wherever that road might lead. But there's a sense in Jewish culture that somewhere between the two poles of intellectual rigor and irrational faith there is a happy medium, a deal to be struck, and a life to be lived.

By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2006-09-25
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