New York Noise: Rad­i­cal Jew­ish Music and the Down­town Scene

  • Review
By – November 25, 2014

Based on years of field study, inter­views, and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the down­town scene about which she writes, Tamar Barzel presents a schol­ar­ly and often high­ly tech­ni­cal account of the emer­gence of what she calls a rad­i­cal Jew­ish cul­ture” moment among musi­cians on New York’s Low­er East Side in the late 1980s and ear­ly 1990s. At this time, artists like John Zorn, Sharon Top­per, Antho­ny Cole­man, and Shel­ley Hirsch began to express their Jew­ish her­itage and iden­ti­ties through their com­po­si­tions and per­for­mance pieces. Their moment” reached its apogee in the Rad­i­cal Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Fes­ti­val orga­nized by John Zorn, in of all places, Munich, Ger­many, in 1992 and then mount­ed clos­er to home at the group’s unof­fi­cial head­quar­ters, the Knit­ting Factory. 

Part of a schol­ar­ly musi­col­o­gy mono­graph series, Pro­files in Pop­u­lar Music,” the book’s chief focus is on analy­sis of the com­po­si­tions of these musi­cians. A good deal of this analy­sis may not be ful­ly acces­si­ble to the non-trained read­er (even with the use of the accompany­ing web­site of exam­ples), but Barzel’s chap­ters on the ori­gins and devel­op­ment of this rad­i­cal Jew­ish music ably and clear­ly present, in a form many inter­est­ed read­ers can nego­ti­ate (an occa­sion­al indul­gence in aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon notwith­stand­ing), the provoca­tive issues of the roles of iden­ti­ty, eth­nic­i­ty, and cre­ativ­i­ty that the musi­cians them­selves inter­ro­gat­ed in their art. 

Barzel sug­gests in her intro­duc­tion and two overview chap­ters that part of the impe­tus for this eth­nic awak­en­ing came from a gen­er­al turn toward iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and aes­thet­ics in the 1980s, par­tic­u­lar­ly among hip-hop and oth­er black Amer­i­can artists. For many Jew­ish musi­cians, the turn toward an iden­ti­fi­able Jew­ish” music was often a fraught experi­ence. Many of them grew up in post-war assim­i­lat­ed homes where iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Jew was dis­cour­aged. Their eth­nic identifica­tion had been shroud­ed in a thick silence,” as Barzel calls it. What did Jew­ish music mean to them? Tra­di­tion­al gen­res of Jew­ish music — Klezmer or clas­si­cal Chaz­zanut—were deval­ued or scorned. These were musi­cians more at home with rock, jazz, blues, punk, and Latin Amer­i­can forms. 

Zorn seems to have been a cat­a­lyst in bring­ing to the fore the issues of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, but oth­ers were also mov­ing in that direc­tion. The Klezmer revival (or renais­sance,” as Barzel prefers to call it) was at its height, and many musi­cians worked on their avant-garde com­po­si­tions and dab­bled in Klezmer, often cre­at­ing blend­ings that pushed the son­ic envi­ron­ment to new lim­its (many exam­ples of this music are not easy listening!). 

But the rad­i­cal moment was not mere­ly a mat­ter of fus­ing avant-garde with Klezmer or oth­er Jew­ish musi­cal gen­res, Barzel argues. It became a mat­ter of inter­ro­gat­ing the forms of Jew­ish music them­selves as a means of inter­ro­gat­ing iden­ti­ty itself, not just reli­gious and eth­nic but sex­u­al, as well. Barzel pro­vides exten­sive exam­ples of how Zorn, Top­per, Hirsch, and Cole­man, in her words, chal­lenged estab­lished ideas about the nature of musi­cal com­po­si­tion” and argued for a new relation­ship between cre­ativ­i­ty and iden­ti­ty, there­by propos­ing a new tem­plate for com­pos­ing’ notions of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and tra­di­tion.” Some read­ers may not be con­vinced that this music does what Barzel claims it does, but her argu­ment is as provoca­tive as the music and the account is a wel­come addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture on con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish iden­ti­ty politics. 

Bib­li­og­ra­phy; musi­cal illus­tra­tions; notes; pho­tographs. (A web­site of musi­cal exam­ples will be also be avail­able online.)

Relat­ed content:

Tamar Barzel’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

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

Bring on the Noise

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions