Tag Archives: William Sharlin

Art and Apartness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is a sacred endeavor. Not in a theological or ideological sense—which is clouded by intellectualism and socio-religious determinations—but in the purer and more experiential sense of apartness. The primary aim and impetus of art is connection with the “beyond-the-ordinary”: a sensation of transcending the confines and occurrences of the mundane world. The artist who labors undisturbed in the creative process occupies a separate and all-consuming sphere of consciousness.

This explains the casual observation that artists are rarely drawn to the usual aspects of religious life: regulated rituals, group affiliation and formalistic prayers. Without having statistics to support this perception, it nevertheless seems that utterly artistic people—those who exist in an almost perpetual state of inward reflection and inspired invention—live the ideals that religion strives to impart through texts and structured practices. The artist is intimately familiar with transformation and elevation, making religion’s attempt to manufacture these qualities superfluous or even disruptive.

This does not mean that artists cannot be religious in the normative sense. The same variations of religiosity and non-religiosity are found among artists and the general population. Obviously, too, numerous artworks have been created for and commissioned by religious institutions, and many performing artists (mainly musicians) find steady employment in houses of worship. Even so, artists need not rely on public rituals or religious calendars to tell them how or when to encounter otherness.

From a humanistic perspective, religion, in all its forms and modes of engagement, is but a particularistic means toward a universal goal. The aspiration for transcendence is present within every human being. It is built into our biology. The fact that religions emerged at all in the course of human evolution is proof of this inborn longing of our species. Those who do not find sacred peaks in the everyday often turn to religious events (or pseudo-religious events, such as sports or concerts) in order to be pushed into that experience.

William Sharlin, a cantor-composer who found ecstasy alone at the piano and transmitted ecstasy through liturgical singing, included this remark in a lecture on the topic of art and the sacred: “The non-artist at best may strive for the occasional moment of transcendence and therefore may need the help of worship to separate himself from the ordinary.” Not so the artist.

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.