Tag Archives: Synagogue Music

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.

Score is Not Territory

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

William Sharlin (1920-2012) was among the twentieth century’s most active and innovative composers of synagogue music. A masterful choral writer and self-described “freak” for the canon, Sharlin’s music freely crosses stylistic borders and evades conventional limitations and expectations of the worship setting. At its most elegant, his music seamlessly blends melodic modernism, jazz harmonies, Renaissance form and Jewish folk material. And nothing he wrote was ever finished.

Like many artists, Sharlin was never completely satisfied with his output—or, more accurately, ceased being satisfied with it after a short duration. Well into his eighties, he compulsively made changes to vocal lines, expanded harmonic coloring, and added figures to piano accompaniments. Some pieces were left on the brink of indecipherability, while others bear only surface resemblance to their original conceptions. He gave this treatment to published and unpublished pieces alike, and would complain whenever his music was reprinted without his express consent, as he almost certainly possessed a more recent version.

None of this editing or re-editing was done from a place of frustration. It was the inevitable byproduct of a perspective that saw written notes as temporary suggestions rather than concrete representations. For Sharlin, whatever appeared on the page was but a carefully constructed abstraction (though he was meticulous about how it should be presented). Notation was the model of an artistic reality, not the reality itself.

The above example complements the now widely accepted view of composition as a fluid and potentially unending process. Written notes are performed into existence. They only become music when they are heard. And each interpretation brings something new.

The creative functions of performance and reception cannot be overstressed. A piece is defined and redefined by the tempo, articulations, dynamics, attacks and tone qualities with which it is rendered. No two presentations are precisely the same, and each gives its own character to the composition. (This is clearly demonstrated on jazz albums that include two or more takes of a selection.) Listeners likewise play an active part in the creation of music, as their ears, minds and bodies make meaning of the sundry sound clusters. In this fundamental way, the involvement of performers and audiences, whether the music is live or recorded, is an extension of the compositional process.

The unfolding phenomenon of composition expands in cases where the composer continuously modifies his or her work, or leaves us with renditions capturing different stages of critical editing. Each of these versions carries with it unique nuances in addition to those always present among performers and listeners.

The upshot here is that the written note, while central to composed music, should not be confused with the end result. The depiction is not the depicted. Score is not territory.

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