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

Posts tagged ‘composers’

Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”

 

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Untimely death of the Hebrew language: in saecula saeculorum le-olam va-ed.

When I was a kid, I thought that my Catholic auntie was a genius: she knew the whole Latin mass by heart. She could pray the rosary without the booklet, all in Latin. Later, when I went to high school and learned some Latin, I realized that, after decades of rote repetition of a text in a language she didn’t understand, my auntie had transformed the prayers in a gibberish in which one could barely recognize some original Latin phrases. Latin is a dead language. You can mistreat it to your heart’s contempt because no native speakers are around to defend it or to laugh at you.

Now, Hebrew is miraculously alive and well. People in Israel speak it everyday, and here in America many non-natives love it and know it pretty well. It is the language most of us use in shul for our prayers and study. Unfortunately, for many it has become a death language, after decades of rote learning of bar mitzah’s haftarot (aka “half-Torahs”), of simplifying our prayer books to their bare bones, of people graduating from (aka checking out of) Jewish education after their benei mitzvah, of cantors and rabbis assuming that Hebrew alienates people from communal Jewish life.

Far from me to try and solve all that at once, but I would like to comment on my particular area of interest: that of Jewish music. Simplification is everywhere, and reaches almost absurd extremes. While on a trip, I was at a shul on Shabbes. At the end of pesukei de-zimra, the congregation sung the so-called “Sufi melody” of Ps. 150 (big, cautious quotation marks there). I often use the same melody when I lead services too, because one can fit all the words of the psalm and yet it is not overly long. However, this shul’s version was quite simplified. They had substituted all the words by two simple phrases, halelu halelu halelu (repeat at will) and the known kol ha-neshamah ending. With all due respect, maybe we are treating people like little kids. In our effort for not alienating people due to Hebrew, we are educating generations that not only don’t know the language, but are not even familiar with how it sounds. Learning all the words of a psalm you sing weekly does not hurt. Congregants will appreciate knowing prayers in Hebrew; it is their heritage, their treasure and birthright. Even if they barely understand them, the sound is there, building identity, creating memories, and awakening people’s curiosity to learn the language eventually.

I have the biggest respect and admiration for my fellow Jewish composers but here’s my friendly advise: please, if you don’t know Hebrew well, other people will be happy to help. There’s no shame on checking with your cantor, rabbi, Hebrew teacher, or Israeli speaker. Admittedly, one in a hundred congregants will realize of your mistakes, but why should you take that risk? Checking your Hebrew text before recording is particularly important. The famous Halelu halelu halelu melody can be found in several CDs. At least in one of them, it breaks my heart to hear so clearly after a long list of mere halelus– “kol han Shema” instead of kol ha-neshamah, again repeated a number of times.

If you are “atem,” then we’re nitzavim; we stand here today and remember the dream; kehilah kedoshah: a nice song of a talented composer that I admire. However, as a linguist, I can’t but label its use of Hebrew as mere diglossia, folklorization, or heraldic use of language: words lose their primary function and are used as mere ornaments. Language is no longer alive, but fossilized and packed for casual consumption. Any person who speaks both English and Hebrew –and probably you have a handful of them sitting in the pews– understands the strange phrase as meaning if you are you then we are standing. Another example: May Shekhinah bless you… ha-Shem panav eleikha is also a beautiful and inspiring song, but it would be so much better if its composer didn’t suppress the verb of the Hebrew phrase, thus rendering it unintelligible.

We should honestly evaluate if writing English lyrics sprinkling Hebrew words instead of salt-and-pepper is doing any good to the musical education of our congregations. Hebrew should impregnate all our congregational life, particularly our music, because it is one of the keys of our survival as a cultural minority.

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.