The ProsenPeople

Bring on the Noise

Thursday, December 04, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tamar Barzel wrote about defining radical Jewish music beyond klezmer. Her first book, New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene (Indiana University Press, 2014, with a companion website with audio/video), explores the strange and compelling Jewish music that emerged from Manhattan’s downtown scene of the 1990s. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

This Thanksgiving, I had a couple of friends over. I had recently gotten back from doing research on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City, and they wanted to hear some of the music I’d brought back with me. But avant-garde jazz, electronic noise experiments and free improvisation are not to everyone’s taste. “Are you sure?” I asked, “It’s pretty weird.” But yes, they were. So I put on something beautiful and really, to my ears, not that strange at all. I would have been happy listening to it all night, but right away, they both got pained expressions on their faces and knocked back some more wine before venturing a series of questions that amounted to “What the hell?” After a while I asked my friend to choose something else, and he put on some Fiona Apple and everyone was happy.

I love a lot of different kinds of music, including Fiona Apple. But the music that usually grabs me the hardest, and most of the music I write about, is not that easy for most people to listen to the first time around. As 1950s movies about the generation gap (“Turn down that noise!”) and reams of scholarly literature attest (Jacques Attali, Noise), both music and noise carry all kinds of emotional, cultural, even ideological baggage. Noise is disturbing, and, as I know from the experience of introducing work by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler to students in my jazz history classes, the line between music and noise is one most people feel they can readily identify even though they can’t agree on where it is.

All this comes intensely into play in the case of Jewish music—as it would in any music, really, that is supposed to have a particular cultural valence, or even to speak, like the violin in Sholom Aleichem’s Stempenyu, in the voice of a people. While there is by now a tradition of Jewish music pairing dissonance with wrenching historical themes (Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw), much of the music I write about is dissonant, noisy, or fragmented just for the sake of it. It can be harder to convince people that this kind of music is Jewishly viable or interesting. But it’s that very nature that I find compelling, both as a sounded object and in a Jewishly usable way.

Take Alvin Curran’s Shofar Rags, released on Tzadik in 2013. I’m sure that to many listeners, a few seconds of the opening of this piece, an erratically patterned sound/noise collage, followed by a long, spacious and relatively static section of exploratory blowing, might signal an affront to Jewish tradition, a confusion over Jewish identity, or a repudiation of Jewish music itself. As Curran writes in the liner notes, the first time he featured the shofar in one of his performances, along with “midi triggered samples . . . broken accordion and soprano clarinet . . . and of course my usual counterpoint of taped sounds,” he was answered by “boos and foot drumming from two irate and presumably observant Israeli composers present in the audience.” In response, he wrote the music for Shofar Rags, for which he “had no deep post-modern interest in collective memory, in lost spaces of childhood or Jewish folklore, rather than in the contemporary task of unlocking the sub-atomic particles of resonant animal gas, fusing them with my own spit and breath and hurling this damp ethereal mixture into space . . . just to see, as one does in art, what might happen.”

To me, hearing the shofar in this context is thrilling. It brings the emotionally, culturally, and physically resonant sound of the shofar—its Jewish voice, if you will—into new territory, allowing it to travel through unfamiliar landscapes and take on surprising sonic characters. And because music has that power to transform us physiologically, it brings me right along with it. Far from sounding like an affront to tradition, I hear this music as an alternative world, one that recasts one’s experiences and perceptions of time, space, and the voice of the shofar itself. “Shofar,” as Curran writes, “is a form of petrified time . . . when noise, breath, speech and music were all the same.”

I didn’t always love music that takes me to an unfamiliar place. By now, I can’t live without it. And hearing Jewishly resonant sounds woven into inventive sonic landscapes is very moving to me. In a way, listening to this music is a deeply restful experience to me, because it unifies two fundamental aspects of my identity. It’s hard to explain. But if you keep listening, you’ll know it when you hear it.

Tamar Barzel is an ethnomusicologist and lecturer at Harvard University whose research addresses the interface between creative identity, cultural heritage, and adventuresome sounds. She is currently immersed in fieldwork on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City.

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A Jewish Music Koan: What is the Sound of a Klezmer Band Not Playing?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014 | Permalink

Tamar Barzel's first book, New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene (Indiana University Press, 2014, with a companion website with audio/video), explores the strange and compelling Jewish music that emerged from Manhattan’s downtown scene of the 1990s. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A few nights ago, by some very circuitous means I need not go into here, an e-mail from someone famous popped up in my Inbox. Well, maybe not famous. More like well-known. More to the point, even though I had never met this person before, I had always looked to his/her work as a source of great joy, solace, and penetratingly weird truths about life. As it turns out, this person’s family was known by someone who I had recently bumped into. When she found out that I was an admirer of her famous family friend, one thing led to another and she sent him/her (the famous person) a link to my book. So this brilliant person’s e-mail appears in my Inbox. And it says, “tell her [i.e., me] that her book looks like a brilliant work of life-changing genius.” ok…I’m paraphrasing here. She did say it looked interesting, though. And then: “I loooove klezmer music.”

Now, this was interesting to me. The word “klezmer” doesn’t appear anywhere on my book cover, blurbs, or anything else that would have been available at the time. But the power of association was strong enough that the title phrase, “Radical Jewish Music,” scanned, for this person, as klezmer. And that was ironic, because I once had a long chapter about klezmer in the book, which I ultimately took out because it no longer seemed that timely. I had written the chapter in the first place because in the early 2000s, when I was doing the first research for the book, every time I told someone what I was writing about, in a no doubt very convoluted way, there would be a pause, and then a light would dawn on their faces and they would say, “Oh, you mean klezmer?” And when I said no, everyone got confused again. Klezmer, which was everywhere in those days at the height of the klezmer renaissance, was easy to assimilate. Secular Jewish music that wasn’t klezmer, that was in fact in some ways anti-klezmer, was harder. When the musicians I write about were first getting it into their heads to make what I have come to call “Jewishly usable music,” they were invariably asked the same question. And the answer, again, was no. What they were doing, in fact, was investigating how to do new Jewish music without klezmer.

I should mention that these musicians write and perform their own music. They are composer/improvisers who once inhabited the Lower East Side, during that long downtown moment that came between the influx of poor immigrants and rich yuppies. Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, there was punk rock in their scene, and free improvisation, and skronk, and avant-garde jazz, and transvestite theater and edgy performance art and some other things. Eventually, the klezmer revival came downtown too, where some musicians did some original and beautiful things with it. (Check out Don Byron’s Music of Mickey Katz, the Klezmatics, Klezmer Madness, and two non-NYC bands, Naftule’s Dream and the New Klezmer Trio, a West Coast band that predated all the rest.) So yes, there was some great neo-klezmer music that came out of Manhattan’s take-no-prisoners downtown scene in the 1990s. Someone should probably write a book about it.

Some other musicians, though, felt a bit hemmed in by the assumption that if they were going to do Jewish music, it would have to be klezmer. They’re experimentalists, and they’re iconoclasts. They wanted to make some weird new Jewish music, and they wanted to do it in their own downtownish way. (Check out Shelley Hirsch’s O Little Town of East New York, John Zorn’s Masada Live in Jerusalem, and Anthony Coleman’s The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same.) Ultimately, I came to understand that they wanted their music to do some cultural and emotional work that they felt klezmer couldn’t do. As Coleman wrote in the liner notes to one of his recordings with the band Sephardic Tinge (a reference to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton’s famous phrase about jazz’s “Latin tinge”), “Poor klezmer! A music which most of us never heard until the mid- to late-70s has to stand for a completely hybrid and fragmented culture—New York Jewish Culture.” What did they come up with in its place…? That’s really what the book is about.

Still, I’m framing the e-mail.

Tamar Barzel is an ethnomusicologist and lecturer at Harvard University whose research addresses the interface between creative identity, cultural heritage, and adventuresome sounds. She is currently immersed in fieldwork on the creative improvisation scene in Mexico City.

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