Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Musikah: The pen of the soul

All Jewish diasporas always loved and continue to love sounds. Eretz Israel might firstly be a place of interiority. Certainly not the same way in the Negev or Galilee, whose sea is the Kinneret\כינרת and has the shape of a kinor\כינור - lyre, we could even say a sort of a guitar (alas we did not find yet our Yochi Kinor, some freak happy-go-lucky to be our pop Johnny Guitar).

We live with sounds, tunes, voices, cries; we love talking, chatting, yakking then swinging on a rap. Still, there is an Israeli way to consider music, chanting or instrumental, orchestral concerts. How peculiar though that, as in Persian, we do not have any local word for "musikah."

In Persian, "muzik" is the "sound of music" and "musiqi" the "science that deals with musical arts"; but it really does not sound very "native" and comes rather recently from Greek "museke" via Latin "musica". It is a challenge to define what "musicness" means: "ars musica" was connected with poetry in the Western Antiquity, but the same art exists in Israel and in all the tongues and cultures of the world.

The root comes from "mousa," the woman muse who inspires the artists or artistically hooks deep down into our souls. And muses are related to pure arts and styles, forms, words, poetry and songs.

Music jigs us into a move that jets our feelings beyond words. It magnifies our feelings and inmost emotions. It may flow, rush, silently drizzle like our rainy tif-tuf \ טיפטוף or jingle up and dance, swing and twist our ears and brains. Music shakes and quakes our members with special effects. Pleasures to be felt on the borderline between humanity and deity.

We say in Yiddish that "music is the pen of the soul". Therefore it definitely fits with the Jewish spleen after in depth feelings that boom out beyond thoughts, reflections, words. It proceeds of sounds put together with harmony or dissonant series of tones and waves. Melody is thus cultural and appeals to a certain understanding of harmony.

In the Jewish tradition, Tanya\תניא (Teaching), the hassidic chef-d'oeuvre written by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the first Rebbe of the Chabad, describes the marvel of speech abilities as a result of sound combinations. He added that no human being would be able to explain how and why members like the mouth, the tongue, the throat, the uvula or glottis can create the untouchable consonants and vowels that are produced.

Music requires human skills that unite other immaterial tones like rhythmics, which are always new because no artist can play a tune, sing or chant twice likewise. This is amazing as concerns music instruments. Yes, instrumental music is as prodigious and peculiar as the letters created by human tongues.

In Hebrew, the Greek-Latin muse is a bat-hashir\בת השיר and the word is not pagan; it tracks back to shir - shirah\שיר-שירה = to sing, to sing a song, chant, recite audibly. Different words and roots are used in Hebrew and the Semitic languages to define what Westerners call "music". Loudness of sounds: tziltzul\צילצול = ringing, from tziltzel\צילצל = to vibrate, have a clear ring (Talmud Sukkot V, 55b) as for the cymbals of the Temple.

Moreover, Qol\קול = voice linked to qahal/qehilah\קהל-קהילה = to call a community to be gathered together: "The enjoyment of sound, sight or smell does not come under the category of misuse of sacred property" states Talmud tractates Kritot 6a/Pessahim 26a.Voices are to be listened and heard, they aim at uniting out of the sphere of speech as regards instrumental music, but also, to some extent, chanting and singing.

Shir - shirah\שיר-שירה that is comparable to a voice proclamation is a "chain, a string" of sounds and voice tones that also include verses of the Psalms, poetry or any music. Talmud Rosh HaShanah 28a explains that blowing the shofar\שופר (festive trumpet) is a musical action. The whole book of the Levites (Hebrew Vayiqra\ויקרא) describes the audible play of the instruments accompanied by the chanting of the Levites and thus includes all of the holy services. Apparently it deals with furniture, morals, thus barely connected with sacred music!

Israel has always sung or played various instruments to praise God. The nigun\ניגון is a sort of mental/uttered rhythmic breathing of the soul as a prayer, a supplication or tune that leads to strengthen the emotional and spiritual upheaval: music is universal. As long as the Temple was alive (qayam\קיים) = standing, it was normal to play the instruments. There was the famous magrefah\מגרפה, the musical instrument in the Temple (Talmud Arakhin 10b). After the destruction of the Temple, instruments were banned. Some modern congregations do play the organ, for example, but this is not the Orthodox view that considers we are still going through a time of mourning in the absence of the Temple. As a comment told me after the publication of the note, Orthodox Jews do not play music during the three weeks of mourning preparing to Tisha be'av\ט, באב the memorial day of the destruction of the two Temples and other persecutions submitted by the Jews.

This is why various traditional tunes developed in the diasporas; and it is possible to follow how deeply all the religious chanting traditions are interconnected. This started in the Temple. "Chanting voices" are commonly found in all ancient Churches, Gregorian and Greek, Syrian-Orthodox choirs. The Russian Church developed 8 "tones - glasy/voices\קולות" that are also rooted in the most ancient musical and poetic local celebrations.

Jews have always been present as artists, in particular as violinists and pianists. Both in the Jewish and the Gentile communities. And this happened not only in Europe where musical artists progressively began to play specific instruments. They were also present all over the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Persia and the Ladino-speaking areas. This shows how Judaism got profoundly intermingled with all existing sorts of creeds and denominations, to begin with Christianity and Islam. It also generated interesting cultural musical categories as the Klezmer movement in Eastern Europe and the hassidic groups were strongly influenced by all the melodies of their local environments and vice versa.

In Israel, all tendencies co-exist. They arrived from more than 150 countries. The pioneers had the task to enculturate Modern Hebrew, mending East-Europe with Yemenite and Arabic-speaking singers who wrote more patriotic community songs. Yemenites have played an essential role as Shoshana Damari, Esther Gamlieli, Ofra Haza, Noa (who "swings" as well in English). This led to an immense creative work in folk music ("Songs of Eretz Israel") and some radio programs continue to propose, at night, to refresh our memory.

Israel is known for having exceptional orchestras and concerts are organized everywhere, at times also in the desert where acoustics enhances the quality of playing the instruments. Music plays an important role in the peace process as Jewish and Palestinian artists play together locally and throughout the world.

Modern music includes the world of rock and rap, metal rock and psychedelic trance in Hebrew and/or Arabic, mixing sounds in some advanced capacity to sustain cultural encounters between Jews and the Arab world, as also the native African Ethiopian styles. Music blows electrically, laser-empowered. It is just fantastic to note that some haredi (ultra-orthodox) or very religious singers succeed to cope with classical artists.

Concerts are often given in Churches and monasteries. Israelis read a lot and traditionally love books. Today this drifts to CDs, DVDs but most people love classical music. It is important for the Churches because they continue to make use of chanting, instrumental music and they developed special techniques. It would be great to study the numerous basic connections between all local communities (Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, Arab, Latin, European, African, Asian).

It should be noted that the Eastern Orthodox Churches ( e.g. Greek, Arabic, Russian, Romanian) never use any instrument during the services. Only chanting and singing are allowed - maybe somehow linked to the Jewish attitude that voice is the best medium "to let everything that breathes (kol haneshamah) praise the Lord\ כל הנשמה תהלל יה" (Psalm 150:6).

Music is sort of international Esperanto, eventually without words. It transfigurates human speech and it defects or failures.Singing incarnates the miracle of human sound production and uttering. At this point Hebrew got really prophetic for our generation and the comings ones.

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