We Sing a Body Eclectic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything that we feel, consume or otherwise experience is really an accumulation of many things. At the microscopic level, all matter is composed of a variety of tiny units that combine in different and almost infinite ways. Combinations are also detectable at the macroscopic level. Take, for example, the clothing a person wears on a given day. Most of the time an outfit is pieced together from articles manufactured and distributed by different companies, acquired at different times and places, and sewn from a medley of fabrics and patterns. Similar mixtures are present in the food we eat, the gardens we plant, the cars we drive, the places we visit, the appliances we use, the words we speak. Purity simply does not exist in any strict definition of the term.

Yet the composite nature of everything is not usually obvious. This is primarily because of presentation. When soup arrives in a bowl or the pages of a book are flipped, we get the impression of singleness. A part of us realizes that soup is made of several ingredients and that books contain innumerable influences. But we gladly receive them in their entirety. The forest distracts us from the trees.

Unless we consciously direct ourselves to see, smell, taste, touch or hear the finer details and points of intersection, the whole is what we experience. Indeed, even when the diversity of components is obvious, we tend to receive them as if they were uniform. This is probably an evolutionary adaptation: it helps us organize and make sense of the complexities of reality.

Examples of this are found in the world of music. For instance, a songbook may consist of divergent offerings from varied songwriters, styles and time periods. But their inclusion in a single volume—printed in uniform fashion and on pages of identical shape, size and quality—obscures their origin and character. The same occurs when a performer gives a recital featuring sundry compositions. Because the same person is playing each selection, it is easy to lose track of the multiplicity—even when the music exhibits signatures of divergent schools. And there is the basic fact that each piece contains within it a blend of materials and inspirations.

One musical venue where assortment is especially hidden is the American synagogue. Like the country itself, American Judaism is an amalgam of people and practices from around the world. German-Jewish immigrants brought a tradition of choral hymns to American soil. Eastern European Jews introduced melismatic hazzanut. Twentieth-century composers like Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein expanded the limits of synagogue song. The 1970s brought guitars into the synagogue walls. Songwriters dabbling in an array of styles, from Sufi chant to Brazilian pop, have contributed to Jewish worship. Not confined to a singular rite, most liberal congregations are free to construct a service drawing from eclectic styles.

However, because most synagogues have a steady staff of performers (e.g., a cantor, pianist and choir), and because musical settings are typically presented without introductions or program notes, the line demarcating one piece from the next is blurred. Widely heterogeneous music is presented in a more or less homogenous way. Again, this phenomenon is perfectly natural and clearly beneficial: it adds to a service’s sense of flow, consistency, comfort and stability. Our disinclination to detect variation preserves the illusion of oneness. In a world as complicated and overwhelming as our own, that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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