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New York Noise
Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene
By Tamar Barzel
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Tamar Barzel
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The Art of Getting It Wrong
IN HIS EPILOGUE TO THE BOOK JEWISH MUSIC AND MODERNITY, ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman describes several narratives by which musicians and observers frame the character of Jewish music in Central and Eastern Europe today. Each of Bohlman's narratives functions as a conceptual lens one looks through to bring "Jewish music" into focus in a unique way. That is, each lens constructs a particular notion of Jewish music, and each of these notions is based on a selective interpretation of contemporary music-making. Bohlman's subject is dramatically different from that of RJC, and the site of Europe as the near annihilation of Jewish musicians and musical culture creates, in one sense, a chasm between the two contexts that cannot be bridged. But in a less contextually determined sense his insights are extremely useful in conceptualizing the Radical Jewish Culture moment.
Among the mostly non-Jewish performers and audiences Bohlman addresses, one narrative lens renders contemporary Jewish music exotic. A quality of exoticism inheres not only because the music is Jewish per se, but also because Jewish culture carries a "patina of pastness," denoting both something ancient and something gone. Like other exotic artifacts, this lens makes Jewish music, and by association Jewish culture and history, easy to consume. As ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin has observed, in the 1990s klezmer filled a complicated niche in Europe on the level of the exotic, offering Europeans "a vision of [Jewish] Americans as representing a romantic, faraway musical tradition" that has had little to do with the concerns of present-day Jews in the European body politic. Indeed, a perception of Jewish music (and Jews) as "exotic" has played an important role in the creative lives of downtown musicians when performing in Europe, just as it has with their colleagues in the klezmer revival. As artists have attested interviews and in writing, their perceptions of this attitude have influenced the way they have presented themselves and their Jewishly identified work. But audiences, both Jewish and not, bring many different stories to their encounters with Jewish music, and the presence of one narrative lens does not preclude that of another, seemingly contradictory one. Thus, alongside the lens that construes Jewish music as exotic, another construes it as something not to be assessed as "other" but to be adopted as one's own—an object of neglect that should be embraced and reanimated with as much fidelity as possible to the original. This view, which is typical of musical revivals in general, has resonances with the outlook of the early klezmer revivalists in the United States (with the obvious difference most revivalists were Jewish, whereas most of Bohlman's subjects were not)—just as it does with the mostly middle-class urbanites who instigated the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s, adopting rural idioms and championing the values they associated with rural communities, in a process one historian has memorably called "romancing the folk." There is yet another lens that corresponds closely not to the viewpoint of strict revivalists but to that of their colleagues in the neo-klezmer scene. This lens focuses contemporary Jewish music into that which is not revived but rather revitalized. Artists who frame Jewish music in this fashion are driven by a "desire to discover the vitality of a tradition that can live in the present rather than an urge to salvage one that had already died in its own day." It is just such a view that led klezmer historian and musician Henry Sapoznik to argue for the term "renaissance" rather than "revival" to describe the surge of interest in klezmer music in the United States in the late twentieth century.
Bohlman's insights into the role played by revitalization have a unique resonance for Radical Jewish Culture, offering a basis for understanding RJC'S signal contributions to Jewish music and musical discourse. However, this is not so because downtown artists adopted revitalization as central to their cause. To the contrary, the musicians on whom I focus developed their work and ideas in part as a reaction against the idea that revitalization—updating old genres, klezmer in particular—should be the main engine for creating new Jewish music. To make sense of their critique, it helps to turn back to Bohlman's discussion of his third conceptual lens, which speaks saliently to downtown artists' views on revitalization. He notes that the artists participating in the project of revitalizing tradition "want to put glitter and guilt behind them, instead going about the serious business of getting a contemporary Jewish music right. Doing that means learning languages, especially Yiddish and Hebrew, and it also means scholarly study, whenever and wherever that is possible." The phrase "glitter and guilt" is striking, but I would like to pause here to take note of the latter part of this passage, for it is through the notion of "getting a contemporary Jewish music right" that this lens brings the most crucial and compelling quality of RJC into sharp focus. To bring that quality into full view, one must (to stretch the metaphor slightly) look through the wrong end of the telescope.
Rather than seeking to get the new Jewish music right, then, the artists on whom I focus were motivated by the creative and cultural potential that lay in getting it wrong. It was precisely by sidestepping received notions about the proper way to go about making new Jewish music that they were able to channel their Jewish subjectivities and creative concerns into the project of the RJC moment: to make work whose language and praxis resonated with the particularities of their own Jewish experiences as well as with their creative concerns as experimentalists.
These artists, like those Bohlman describes, "come from a new generation, and they are interested in telling their own stories" to make music that draws on the sounds of the past while resonating with a contemporary soundscape. Their Jewish "stories" were both highly personal and downtownishly musical. That is, the stories were peculiarly their own and no one else's, both in that they reflected individual, subjective experience and because, as both composer and performer, each artist told his or her "story" in an idiosyncratic musical voice. The challenge was to create art that represented a compelling symbiosis among all these qualities.
Artists envisioned this music as offering listeners a paradigm for engaging aspects of Jewish American identity and subjectivity that could not be addressed in a more familiar musical way. Certainly, focused historical and language studies could form one basis for developing new Jewish music, but downtown artists sought another. If the Jewish qualities of their stories were highly personal, and thus hard to hear in the music, so be it. In developing music to reflect on the particular qualities of their Jewish experiences, they were, in Geertz's classic formulation, seeking to use art to "materialize a way of experiencing; bring a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where men can look at it." These aims saw their first major public manifestation in September 1992, at the Festival for Radical New Jewish Culture in Munich. In the years that followed, artists vigorously debated the panoply of issues that arose in conjunction with their creative project. These discussions emerged with such force in part because they contained the seeds of ideas that had been germinating on the scene, in the guise of occasional Jewishly identified pieces that artists had developed in the years that preceded the festival.
Before RJC, Jewish Music on the Downtown Scene
Downtown's Jewishly identified pieces were isolated efforts, and their very sparseness, amidst the scene's otherwise prolific character, points up the absence of a Jewishly creative milieu downtown that could match the contemporaneous klezmer renaissance. The early pieces can also be difficult to document. The evanescent quality of musical performance and the centrality of improvisation to the downtown scene means that much of its music has not been written down, and the informal nature and tight budgets of most downtown venues meant that live performances often went unrecorded. But when several of these early efforts are taken together, it is clear that RJC gave a community-wide platform to concerns that artists had begun to address well before the Munich festival.
Some of the pre-Munich music was released in commercial pressings that are no longer easily available. One such early project was Geduldig und Thimann: A Haymish Groove, a compilation compact disc produced during the 1980s by two semi-professional musicians whom Zorn later invited to the Munich festival. The recording includes several New York-based artists, including guitarist Elliott Sharp and clarinetist Don Byron, who contribute arrangements of traditional Jewish tunes using musical language characteristic of the downtown music world, with formal structures that include free improvisation, or an evocation of it, as both an expressive and a structural element. Byron's composition, for example, mimics a group of musicians warming up backstage before a performance, but they are subtly responding to each other and to the clarinet as it extemporizes on a traditional melody. In other cases, artists remembered making Jewishly identified work, but it was not recorded, or the recordings never resurfaced. Many musicians made personal recordings of their performances, but as saxophonist Roy Nathanson noted wryly when I asked about finding one recording in particular, "You'd have to go through hundreds of hundreds of [cassette] tapes to find it. Buckets of tapes." "Are they labeled?" "No. That's the problem." As he explained:
RN: My friend Ray Dobbins is a playwright, and [in the early 1980 s] we did a bunch of things for the theater, I would write music for him.... We did a piece about these two gay men who ran an antique store, and they died and the antiques came alive, and danced. And that had a kind of klezmer [sense]. There were a bunch of things I did for theater, [where] I was still playing around with [klezmer].
TB: And is there anywhere I could find it?
RN: No. Well, like I was saying, there are so many things that are just gone.
In Nathanson's recollection, somewhere in his "bucket of tapes" is a recording of his performance of "a trumpet and sax fanfare version" of a song he used to sing on Passover with his family. He performed this piece at the Knitting Factory in 1990, as part of a set he presented with Anthony Coleman. Their performance, in preparation for which Coleman explained that "we were just grabbing signifiers from everywhere," was a precursor of the RJC scene to come: it included an arrangement of the Yiddish song "At the Rabbi's Table" and an early version of two pieces each artist would develop further, Coleman into Jevrejski by night (Jewish by night) and Nathanson's into a solo piece, Kaddish, which he wrote in memory of his brother. As Coleman's phrase indicates, their early work contained the seeds of ideas they would develop more fully during and after the RJC moment.
In other cases, artists' personal tapes have resurfaced. For example, upon arriving in Berlin for a gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November in 1988, guitarist Gary Lucas recalled, "I noticed that it was the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. And ... I resolved to make a comment on it through music.... I put a piece together called 'Verklärte Kristallnacht,' which was a pun on [composer Arnold] Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. And I announced it after I played the piece. It closed my show." Lucas interpolated into his improvisation phrases from "Ha-Tikvah"—the Zionist hymn that became Israel's national anthem—as well as the national anthem of what was then West Germany. He cites this impromptu improvisation as a precursor to his soundtrack to the silent film The Golem (1920), in which he likewise indexes Jewishness through melodic motifs from "Ha-Tikvah," and which he and Horn debuted in 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival (PURL 1.1 and PURL 1.2).
Some of the Jewishly identified work that artists presented in Munich had been developed over a period of several years before the festival, but it was not recorded in full until later. A notable example is vocalist Shelley Hirsch's O Little Town of East New York, but, about a decade before she began to develop that piece, Hirsch wrote what is, to my knowledge, both the most forthright example of Jewishly identified music by a downtown composer/improviser and the earliest. In 1980, Hirsch recorded a brief, poignant piece called "I Am a Jew." Her arrangement prefigures her work in the long-form O Little Town, both in the way she integrates Jewish references into a downtownish syntax and in the way she treats those references musically—particularly as she layers different versions of her own voice, each representing a different character, an effect she expanded upon to dramatic rhetorical effect in the later piece. O Little Town is closely autobiographical, but although Hirsch titled "I Am a Jew" in the first person, she slips into character by taking on a distinctive vocal persona. That piece was not yet concerned with exploring the personal "little secrets" that were to emerge as one of the central concerns of the RJC moment (PURL 1.3).
In O Little Town, Hirsch denotes the interpenetration of past and present both through performing different versions of her own voice, as an adult and a girl, and by deploying techniques of layering, juxtaposition, and electronic sonic manipulation. In "I Am a Jew," she likewise uses these techniques, but in this case they imply a dialogue between one character, who is declaiming the title phrase, and another, perhaps an alter ego, whom that character is channeling.
To open the piece, an agitated alto voice performs a rhythmically ragged quasi-ululation over a crisp, melodically clapped ostinato; an ethereal female duet—one soprano voice, one alto—wordlessly glides through the melody of "Ha-Tikvah" in two different keys; and a woman's voice rhythmically declaims the phrase "I am a Jew" three times. As another character emerges at a near-subconscious level from within this mix of sounds and voices, an elderly woman's tremulous, Yiddish-accented voice laments:
There's so much suffering in the world. Why—why—we did not learn the lesson! More killing! More killing! The nice boys and the girls.... Haven't we learned? ... The people that have learned all the time.... Haven't you learned how people—suffer maybe, but learn, too? Kill? Nice!
Just as Lucas did in his guitar improvisation a few years later, Hirsch also interpolates a tonally decentered "Ha-Tikvah" melody into her musical fabric. A slight acceleration in tempo and the insistent, competing presence of the other musical layers—claps, ululation, off-kilter "Ha-Tikvah"—make the old woman's declamation of her last phrase particularly intense. Hirsch also gives each word in the last phrase an upward lilt, pausing between them and drawing them out, so that when she says "kill?" in her quavering voice, the previous word is recast: Not "too?" but "to." Rather than "suffer maybe, but learn, too?" we hear "suffer, maybe, but learn—to—kill?" (The phrase "learn too/to kill" is doubly suggestive here because learning is a concept of central importance in Jewish tradition, not only in the general sense but also because "learn" is a translation of the Hebrew term for studying Torah.) In performing this lament Hirsch takes on the persona of a woman, whom we may infer is a Holocaust witness or survivor, who despairs that despite Jews' experiences of persecution and genocide, Jewish ethical tradition, and the Jewish emphasis on peaceable study, Jews, too, have learned to kill. This piece, which was written during a period of escalating tensions between Israel and Lebanon and which, in Hirsch's recollection, "was made in response to the violence taking place in the Middle East at the time," suggested but did not name the Israeli army as its focus. At under four minutes in length, the piece might seem insignificant, and, as Hirsch pointed out, it was also an anomaly in her body of work: "It wasn't that I was doing Jewish material, it's just that I was conscious of what was going on in Israel and felt strongly enough about it to make a little piece about it." Nevertheless, the insistently repeated statement, "I am a Jew," marks this piece as a bold act of self-exposure in a Jewish community that had not yet come to grips with itself.
Excerpted from New York Noise by Tamar Barzel. Copyright © 2015 Tamar Barzel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of ContentsEthnomusicology Multimedia Series Preface
Introduction: The Downtown Scene
1. Jewish Music: The Art of Getting it Wrong
2. "Radical Jewish Culture": A Community Emerges
3. From the Inexorable to the Ineffable: John Zorn's Kristallnacht and the Masada Project
4. Queer Dada Judaism: G-d Is My Co-Pilot and the "Inbetween Space"
5. Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman: Music and Memory from the "Nowhere Place"
What People are Saying About This
"Tamar Barzel admirably and creatively portrays a musical community constantly forging new paths for understanding Judaism and its relationship to personal musical creativity."
"Tamar Barzel admirably and creatively portrays a musical community constantly forging new paths for understanding Judaism and its relationship to personal musical creativity."
"Tamar Barzel's book treats the phenomenon that came to be known as Radical New Jewish Music in all its complexity. She approaches her subject with the chops to understand the music, the background needed to grasp the musicians' intent, and the guts to unpack its contradictions. This book is a great document of the music, and analysis of the people and forces that created it, providing insight into a key moment in the intersecting histories of NYC Downtown, Jazz, Avantgarde, and Jewish musics."
"This highly anticipated book places readers at the scene as a transgressive, border-crossing musical movement that continues to inspire worldwide is bearing its first fruit. Tamar Barzel's brilliant scholarship deploys an acute ethnographic eye and ear to offer new perspectives on the complex relation among experimentalism, spirituality, sound, culture, and the artistic journey of discovery."