steve’s song

jews and judaism in american elite culture .01

On Sun­day evening, Novem­ber 8, 2009 I attend­ed “Steve Reich Talks about his Jew­ish Music at JMF”. I was a bit sur­prised (after being told to reserve my free tick­ets in advance) that there were per­haps fifty peo­ple in the hall wait­ing to hear the words of this very pop­u­lar con­tem­po­rary com­pos­er. Most in atten­dance were old­er than I.

Steve Reich grew up in a very assim­i­lat­ed, (per­haps) Reform affil­i­at­ed “fam­i­ly” (his par­ents, divorced when he was a baby, lived in NYC and Los Ange­les). I think they were quite com­fort­able as evi­denced by his per­son­al expe­ri­ence that forms the back­drop for his com­po­si­tion Dif­fer­ent Trains:

Dur­ing the war years, Reich made train jour­neys between New York and Los Ange­les to vis­it his par­ents, who had sep­a­rat­ed. Years lat­er, he pon­dered the fact that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the Unit­ed States at that time, he might have been trav­el­ing in Holo­caust trains.

He was in the Berke­ley area at just the right time:

Sub­se­quent­ly he attend­ed Mills Col­lege in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, where he stud­ied with Luciano Berio and Dar­ius Mil­haud (1961–1963)

your own backyard

His min­i­mal Jew­ish con­nec­tions and the devel­op­ing inter­est in East­ern spir­i­tu­al sys­tems in the Bay Area at the time lead him to TM and oth­er sim­i­lar activ­i­ties. He referred to this in his com­ments, though he did not phrase the Jew­ish por­tion the way I did. After many years of… well you know, the usu­al… he found what he “was look­ing for in his own back­yard”. (I’m tired of this “own-back­yard-find­ing”.) He was in NYC and “found” (how was not made clear) rab­bis Shlo­mo (then Steven) Riskin and Ephraim Buch­wald who set him on the “right path” [my words, his atti­tude]. He is now a Baal Teshu­vah. Though he says he is not a “baal” (a mas­ter), only strug­gling with “teshu­vah” (return­ing). Many pho­tos of him show him with a visor cap: his kip­pah. This is how he dressed when he spoke at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. (I like the earth tones.)

Steve Reich at the Center for Jewish History

Steve Reich at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry

my coming out with reich

Jay and I first encoun­tered Reich’s music in the mid-to-late 1960s. I had record­ings of It’s Gonna Rain (which is very long; a brief expla­na­tion of the com­po­si­tion process and snip­pet of the piece itself appear about halfway through the fol­low­ing YouTube video)

and Come Out (one of my all-time favorite com­po­si­tions; click the right-point­ing tri­an­gle to hear a 30 sec­ond snip­pet. or “Play full song here” to be tak­en to anoth­er site where you can hear all 13 min­utes; you may need to reg­is­ter to lis­ten). Jay and I broad­cast Come Out fre­quent­ly on our radio show Catch­ing Up.

jewish? music

get chai on jewish music

get חי on jew­ish music

Date: 1990s?
Size: 3.7
Pin Form: clasp
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text Get

on Jew­ish music

In 1981 I invit­ed my two can­tors (Dick Bot­ton and Jer­rold Held) to join me and Deb­bie for the world pre­mier of Tehillim. (If I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, it was per­formed in a small hall that is part of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art.) I was thrilled to hear the piece. I’m not sure about the reac­tions of my guests.

no more humble

I will grant that, hav­ing won a Pulitzer Prize for com­po­si­tion, Steve Reich does not need to be hum­ble. How­ev­er (I’ve been want­i­ng to use this quote from Oscar Lev­ant in an appro­pri­ate con­text: “I am no more hum­ble than my tal­ents require.”), I believe he could use a bit of humil­i­ty.

He is not pleas­ant.

Reich is very dis­mis­sive of any fla­vor of Jew­ish liv­ing that is not the orthopraxy that he has accept­ed for him­self. And as for Jew­ish music he is con­temp­tu­ous… unless it is what he con­sid­ers the only Jew­ish music that is “Jew­ish”: Torah Chant. (It was inter­est­ing to hear him say this in the audi­to­ri­um of the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. I sat in the 7th row and two rows behind me were Jef­frey Shan­dler (at Rut­gers, who I met via Bar­bara Kir­shen­blatt-Gim­blett) and Mark Slobin (with whom I had a class in the mid 1980s at NYU… where I met Yale Strom), nei­ther of whom are slouch­es in the field.

Dur­ing the ques­tion and answer peri­od I asked mine:

Are you aware of your music being used in a litur­gi­cal set­ting, and how would you feel if it was?

He respond­ed with a tone of voice that approached anger: He is opposed to “litur­gi­cal” music. The only music in a Jew­ish reli­gious set­ting should be the Torah chant, etc. and he writes (he did not use these words) “art” or “con­cert” music.

I [don’t] apologize

Fol­low­ing the for­mal part of the pro­gram I approached him. I explained my long asso­ci­a­tion with his music. I then told him that it seemed I need­ed to apol­o­gize to him for using his music litur­gi­cal­ly. I explained that I had sung Psalm 19:2–5 (the first move­ment of Tehillim), solo, a cap­pel­la, reg­u­lar­ly for my con­gre­ga­tion Etz Chaim of Ramona, over a 20-year peri­od. He looked a lit­tle non­plussed and admit­ted that once he has writ­ten the music and sent it out into the world, he can­not con­trol what peo­ple will do with it.

And, of course, he is quite cor­rect in that. A num­ber of the links here are to YouTube which include many “mashups” of his music, mashups that take his care­ful­ly arranged sounds and push them in direc­tions he prob­a­bly nev­er imag­ined. I don’t feel bad at all about appro­pri­at­ing some of his music for litur­gi­cal pur­pos­es.

Reich spoke a bit of the rela­tion­ship between pop­u­lar and seri­ous music. He is quot­ed else­where (and from there in the Wikipedia arti­cle about him):

All musi­cians in the past, start­ing with the mid­dle ages were inter­est­ed in pop­u­lar music. (…) Béla Bartók’s music is made entire­ly of sources from Hun­gar­i­an folk music. And Igor Stravin­sky, although he lied about it, used all kinds of Russ­ian sources for his ear­ly bal­lets. Kurt Weil­l’s great mas­ter­piece Dreigroschenop­er is using the cabaret-style of the Weimar Repub­lic and that’s why it is such a mas­ter­piece. Only arti­fi­cial divi­sion between pop­u­lar an [sic] clas­si­cal music hap­pened unfor­tu­nate­ly through the blind­ness of Arnold Schoen­berg and his fol­low­ers to cre­ate an arti­fi­cial wall, which nev­er exist­ed before him. In my gen­er­a­tion we tore the wall down and now we are back to the nor­mal sit­u­a­tion, for exam­ple if Bri­an Eno or David Bowie come to me, and if pop­u­lar musi­cians remix my music like The Orb or DJ Spooky it is a good thing. This is a nat­ur­al nor­mal reg­u­lar his­tor­i­cal way.
—From an Inter­view with Jakob Buhre

As I walked home, up 5th Avenue on a balmy, unusu­al­ly warm, Novem­ber evening, I felt dis­ap­point­ed. I felt sor­ry for Steve Reich, espe­cial­ly giv­en his inter­est in Bartók, whose music Reich under­stands is so clear­ly based on the sources of his own peo­ple’s musi­cal his­to­ry. I find it strange that Reich is so dis­dain­ful of the pop­u­lar music of the peo­ple from whom he is only three gen­er­a­tions (at most) removed: klezmer. It is sad that he has, it seems, pompous­ly deter­mined that this is music not wor­thy of his inter­est. And I find it odd, that he believes that the music of the Torah chant is the same as what it was in late antiq­ui­ty. After all, he knows, from his own musi­cal com­po­si­tion style as a young man that sub­tle shifts of phase are quite nat­ur­al and can cause amaz­ing­ly beau­ti­ful new sounds. If, how­ev­er, I have mis­un­der­stood him, or mis­con­strued, or mis­rep­re­sent­ed, I’m sor­ry.

A col­league (Rab­bi Rachel Gure­vitz) recent­ly wrote about the last line of of the book of Psalms. There are some won­der­ful set­tings for these words. One is by my teacher Bonia Shur (whose huge eye­brows and fierce inten­si­ty fright­ened me as a young teenag­er in the Habon­im make­lah in the ear­ly 1960s in Los Ange­les).

Anoth­er is the final move­ment of Tehillim by Steve Reich (sor­ry… “Embed­ding dis­abled by request”).

And so, in hon­or of all the con­tem­po­rary klez­morim who work to bring one vari­ant of Jew­ish music, un-apolo­get­i­cal­ly, for­ward into the future, this but­ton that cel­e­brat­ed a great day on Eldridge Street.

a great day on eldridge street

a great day on eldridge street

Date: Octo­ber 12, 2007
Size: 5.5
Pin Form: clasp
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text A Great Day on Eldridge Street

Aaron Alexan­der, Michael Alpert, Moshe Berlin Eric Berman, Mina Bern, Phyl­lis Berk, Mark Berney, Theodore Bikel, Judy Bressler, Paul Brody, Tama­ra Brooks, Ismail Butera, Don Byron, Neshama Car­lebach, Robert Cohen, Mar­ty Con­fu­rius, Adri­enne Coop­er, Matt Dar­ri­au, Peg­gy Davis, Srul Dres­d­ner, Lar­ry Eagle, Mar­ty Ehrlich, Annette Ezekiel, Yan­kl Falk, Bar­ry Fish­er, Arkady Gendler, Bri­an Glass­man, Beyle Schaechter Gottes­man, David Julian Grey, Bur­ton Greene, Steven Green­man, Jim Guttmann, Glen Hart­man, Michael Hess, Avi Hoff­man, Elaine Hoff­man, David Hof­s­tra, Alex Jacobowitz, Sal Kluger, Vin­cent Knaven, David Krakauer, Joe Kur­land, Peg­gy Davis Kur­land, Shifra Lerer, Rachel Lemisch, Mar­i­lyn Lern­er, Howard Leshaw, Mar­go Lev­erett, Mar­ty Levitt, David Licht, Gary Lucas, Ken Maltz, Lisa May­er, Robin Miller, Bar­ry Mit­ter­hoff, Zal­men Mlotek, Jaap Mul­der, Ray Muzik­er, Han­kus Net­sky, Leon Pol­lak, Eleanor Reis­sa, Ron Rob­boy, Eric Roelef­son, Eric Rosen­thal, Sprock­et J. Roy­er, Joel Rubin, Peter Rushef­sky, Paul Shapiro, Eve Sic­u­lar, Jacob Sijts­ma, Grant Smith, Peter Sokolow, Nor­bert Stachel, Ilene Stahl, Peter Stan, Andy Stat­man, Deb­o­rah Strauss, Yale Strom, Ali­cia Svi­gals, Stephanie Tar­ras, Sy Tar­ras, Joris Van Beek, Sjaak Vav Der Rei­j­den, Josh Walet­sky, Greg Wall, Jeff Warschauer, Elaine Watts, Jim Whit­ney, Doug Wiesel­man, John Zorn

Octo­ber 12, 2007

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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