Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Archive for the ‘New technology’ Category

Jews and the Internets

Any keyboard player of a certain age –and I risk dating myself here– will agree that the advent of commercial music synthesizers introduced revolutionary changes in the music scene. While for older or less adventurous musicians they mostly meant a tool for cheap emulation of acoustic instruments (why hire a string orchestra if you can use one of these new synth patches?), for artists who were ready to think outside the box the invention offered a dramatically enlarged sound palette. It just doesn’t make sense to poorly imitate violins when we can create amazing sounds that never existed before. Changing parameters is quite ineffective without a change of mindset.

 

New technology applied to Jewish institutions goes much farther than approaching email as a cheaper form of mass-mailing. Too many people still look at computers as sophisticated typewriters of sorts that will save us a fortune in printing and edition. Although there is a real danger of implementing new technology for the sake of itself, as an end and not as a means, most Jewish groups are rather conservative when investing in technology. Timidly, some denominations and groups are approaching the Internet with a more open mind and consider new possibilities such as podcasting their Shabbat service, using social networks to announce their programs, uploading their benei mitzvah materials online, etc. (I will not extend this post by enumerating potential uses of the internet, their virtues and flaws, but I suggest you to check this interesting article from the Reform movement). These are all good steps, although sometimes I wonder if we are not keeping the old same idea and just switching physical supports, like when we substituted the haftarot recorded on tape for those shiny CD’s. Yes, now the audio files can be downloaded straight to the kid’s Ipod, but isn’t the idea the same?

 

Of course, as the article says, the application of technology is not exempted of dangers. We risk having a virtual community of people connected online, but not in touch with each other in the “real” world. The availability of information may lead some to think that teachers, rabbis, and cantors are no longer needed, since after all the answers are online. We’ll have to believe that ultimately Judaism will find ways to use new inventions like we did in the past. The Talmud, as R. Dan Moskovitz says, was probably the first blog ever. This compendium of vivid discussions is based on a central mishnah to which a number of rabbis through the generations added their commentaries, rebated each other and a few times even reached to conclusions! From our modern perspective, the results may look somehow chaotic but they help us understand the richness of our diversity of opinions. When extending the metaphor to Web 2.0 and Judaism, we see many parallels. The problem –if there’s such a thing– is that today everybody can chime in, both rabbis and amkha, while in the Talmud only an elite was involved in the discussion.

 

New technology is not inherently good or bad; it just changes the rules of the game and, if we are lucky and clever planners, may become the motor for a giant evolutionary leap. The invention of the printing press allowed an unprecedented diffusion of Jewish knowledge and a standardization of key textual sources. What made the Shulhan Arukh the preferred halakhic code for generations was the virtue of being written at the beginning of the printing revolution. It enjoyed momentum over the older Arba Turim, for instance, thus becoming the reference code. Our current configuration of the Talmud –Mishnah and Gemara in the center, surrounded by Tosafot, Rashi, etc.–, was an innovation we owe to the early printers. And yet, the same miracle technology favored the expansion of Sabbateanism through Europe and that almost destroyed Judaism.

 

One of the virtues of web 2.0 is what Emily Grotta calls democratization of Jewish life, although I am not so sure new technology introduces a real democratization but rather an equalization of voices. People and opinions who were in the fringes now can reach big audiences. I think this is ultimately good and is helping create grassroots movements that are making a difference. Just a small example: when in the early nineties the first group for LGBTQ Catalan Jews was created, its founders had to invest many hours, phone calls and snail mail. After a year of hard work, when the group was about to host the European convention for Queer Jewish organizations for the first time in the country, joined pressures of the mainstream Jewish community managed to stop the event dead. The local group disappeared after a couple of years. By contrast, nowadays the new local Jewish LGBTQ group is alive and well. It started as a grassroots movement on Facebook, out of the reach of political games, interdenominational, and virtually unstoppable.

 

In any case, the democratization brought by Web 2.0 is not always so welcome and often has unpredictable consequences. It is a know fact that big pharmaceutical companies are eliminating their social networking groups. They simply are not willing to implement the feedback they receive about their products. Some Jewish institutions may just not really want feedback from our constituents. In another very interesting article Charles Lechner refers his conversation with certain Jewish federation who solicited his advise on online development. His answer was clear: you’ll have to think different, to evolve from the top-down agenda to a listening agenda, to give voice to people other than the big donors. Their answer: this is just not going to happen. The key is fear of democratizing the communication power, fear that information is going to spill out of control. What happens when you don’t listen? That all those marginalized voices stop sending their donations and even using your services. Sometimes –Lechner explains– the interest of the donors can clash with that of the regular patrons, like in the case of New Voices, a magazine targeting Jewish students. After listening to its readers, the magazine opened its pages to voices that were very critical with Israel. The donors, however, were not pleased and pulled their money out.

 

Jewish institutions are often controlled exclusively by big donors. As I wrote in several occasions, it is not clear what will synagogues and Jewish organizations look like in the future, but something tells me they will have to introduce many changes to survive. Take a look at the average age of these organizations boards. It is no secret that younger boards would probably be more open to technology changes, or to any kind of changes for that matter. And yet, an obsolete Jewish organization will probably not revive just because of a great Internet campaign. We have to face the future with realism, evaluating the actual needs of people and not expecting them to finance programs based on the needs other people had in the past.

 

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5 Reasons Why Jewish Musicians Should Network: the Shalshelet Experience

Today my good friend Cantor Jill Pakman sent me a link to a video presentation of last Shalshelet festival in New York city. I’ve been honored to participate in the last two Shalshelet festivals, and lucky to have two of my compositions awarded and published there. (At the bottom of this post I’ll insert the presentation video as well as that of my piece for this year).

In any case, this presentation reminded me of the Shalshelet experience and made me reflect on Jewish musicians and composers, and how much we need to network. Shalshelet is an international festival that happens every other year. Composers and musicians from everywhere present their work at a main concert, as well as at a number of workshops. Other than the performances themselves, it is a great opportunity to connect with other people involved in Jewish music across borders and denominations. But why should we, as Jewish composers and musicians, care so much about networking and participate in events like Shalshelet. Here is my take, reduced to 5 main reasons:

1. Creating tradition: To me, this is the first and foremost reason. Unlike what most people believe, a good part of the “traditional” melodies we use at shul are not traditional at all. Our grand-parents would not recognize the eclectic mosaic of liturgical melodies we call “traditional” today. That includes hassidic music from the 1970s, Naomi Shemer, or Debbie Friedman, z”l. How can your music become the new tradition? Only by being shared and used by other cantors, song leaders, etc.

2. Diffusion of your work: Admittedly, unlike Christian rock, Jewish liturgical music doesn’t have many forums and doesn’t get much exposition in mainstream media. Major media are oblivious to our music and, if they ever touch the subject, it is only to offer a very partial, biased view of a couple of styles and standards, not of the whole panoply and richness of the Jewish musical universe.

3. Learning from others: We shouldn’t even have to mention that. Unfortunately, the smaller our entourage, the more we find artists that choose to measure up to the wrong models. Or maybe they just do not look up to other models but to themselves, secure as they are of their own artistic ways. I think this is particularly true in certain small and endogamic Jewish circles. There’s nothing as pernicious to art as misplaced artistic self-efficacy. (No, that’s not you, so stop worrying now 🙂 )

4. Collaboration. Let’s face it, generally Jewish music doesn’t make money. Most of us simply have no budget to hire session musicians for our recordings and for our performances.  However, cultivating your network is the key for having the collaboration of great Jewish musicians in your projects. I’ve been blessed with such opportunity in my last recording, and certainly look forward to repeat the experience with more and more projects, mine and other people’s.

5. Finding new venues for what you do. My immediate community is well aware that I perform Sephardic music and lecture (in more than one sense) about its history. Of course, I don’t feel the same ease and “authority” to play Yiddish ballads, for instance. Only by networking I can bring my music to another venue and get to know what you do, so I can invite you to talk and perform in my area.

So go ahead, network, network, network. We have amazing technologies at our fingertips. Let’s put them to good use. And let’s support great networking experiences such as Shalshelet.

Closing this  rather long post, here you have the videos. First, the Shalshelet presentation, with yours truly briefly talking at 2:39.

And here’s my piece, awarded in last Shalshelet. Sorry for the quality of the recording.

Welcome to my blog

I really appreciate you dropping by! I decided to start this blog in order to open a dialogue about issues concerning everything Jewish music. In particular, I want to focus on three main subjects, which of course are interrelated:

  • Jewish Music: its history, development, variety, and future. I am very interested on how music and musical memories contribute to the formation of our Jewish identity. In fact, this can be extrapolated to all other collective identities: we live  in a world where we do not only live in two civilizations –as Mordecai Kaplan claimed– but in a multifaceted, complex combination of civilizations and societal ascription that configure us as individuals.
  • Jewish Identity: factors that are (re)shaping the Jewish identity. What is the future of this identity in a changing world.
  • New Technologies: nothing like modern technology has changed the way we deal with music nowadays. It has shaped the way we listen to music, the way we have access to it, the amount of music available; how it is distributed, popularized, and published; how it is created and composed; how we share it within any given human group. New technologies have also reshaped how Judaism –and particularly its music– faces the future.
The title of this blog, Gershayim – גרשיים, has several meanings. It designates a typographical mark in the Hebrew language that serves to indeicate an abbreviation, an acronym, a number, the name of a letter, or even an acrostic (some people call it chikchak, go figure…). To me, this is a metaphor of modernity, the multiple meanings of simplicity. Furthermore, a gershayim is also one of the trop marks we use for Bible cantillation. It is a musical sign in itself, an embellishment formed by ascending and descending notes. Gershayim represents where writing, language, and music meet; where profane and sacred touch.