Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Guest Posting From Rabbi Avraham Bloomenstiel - Some Thoughts on Breslov & Music

(Picture courtesy of musicalclarity.com)

Rabbi Avraham Bloomenstiel studied Musicology and Music Composition at Harvard University, Goucher College, and the Peabody Conservatory. He is a shaliach of Chassidei Breslov in Baltimore and gives regular shiurim in contemporary halachic topics at http://www.virtualyeshiva.com/.

Musically speaking, the past 150 years is unique in all of music history. Thanks to recording technology, music is ubiquitous. It’s with us when shopping, when eating, waiting for oil change, driving. On one hand, we have access to the joys of musical experience in a way we never have before, but on the other hand we take for granted much of the experience of music. Reading pre-recording era descriptions of music making is eye-opening: when a great performer came to a city he brought the populace to its knees. Paganini, for example, could bring the great European metropolises to complete standstills. Additionally, people sacrificed a lot for the musical experience which was considered a sublime communion by many. A young Johann Sebastian Bach is famously known to have walked over 200 miles to hear a recital by Dietrich Buxtehude, the greatest organist of the day.

Such tales seem almost silly and frivolous nowadays. But, again, we are a different society, musically speaking. The general consensus amongst musicologists and historians is that we are in a period of musical numbness. We have become trained by canned mall-music and elevator dirges to tune out music after only few minutes. Studies show that the average listener’s musical attention span has been trained to be about the length of a pop-song on the radio. After that we tune out.

As a result of this numbing, we are often unaware of the most important nuances and subtleties of melody. For a Jew, this numbness carries particular risks.

Music is regarded as one of the zayain chochmos hinted to in Mishlei 9:1 : “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.” I once asked Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter shlit”a, what it meant to label music a chochma. He answered that “One quality of the seven wisdoms is that they teach a person how to be aware of things that, absent such wisdom, one would not see. This is music.”

This remark struck a very deep chord (pun intended). My training as a composer in the conservatory system was all about learning to hear. I remember listening to Pierre Boulez’s avant garde work Structures (Book 2) for Two Pianos in my first year of theory and thinking “Two monkeys at a piano could do better.” Several years later I heard it performed and was thrilled. I heard a world of music, a new landscape that was as lovely, marvelous, and rich as any Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. I had learned to hear the language of Boulez’s music and could appreciate it on its terms. The first time I heard the work though, it was a closed world.

Another example: in an ethno-musicology course we listened to several clips of Tuvan throat singing. This is a bizarre vocal technique by which the human voice can sing two pitches at the same time. The first time I heard it, it just sounded like someone growling. After two listenings, I realized that there was an ethereal, lovely, whistling melody soaring above the fundamental tone of the voice. It was always there, but the training in how and what to listen for revealed it.

I believe Rav Yaakov Meir was speaking about these subtle aspects of music. As any professional performer can tell you, the physical difference between a good and a great performance is about 5% – the make-or-break is in the minutest subtleties of attack, phrasing, articulation, etc.

On a deeper level, though, I believe Rav Yaakov was speaking about Rabbenu Nachman of Breslov’s understanding of music. In Likutey Halachos (very beginning of Orach Chayim, ma’amar Nekudos Toivos) Reb Noson describes how composing melody is the act of being mevarer nekudos tovos, the process of evaluating and clarifying positive and negative nuances within oneself. The Rebbe, in the source Torah in Likutey Moharan, speaks in great detail about how the careful motion of the hands over an instrument is also in the geder of being mevarer nekudos toivos.

What comes out is that music is as much a process of subtle clarification and control on the physical level (attack, tone, tempo) as it is on a spiritual level (emotion expression).

This internal process of birur (clarifying these points) and chibur (synthesizing them into musical expression) by default inserts something of the performer/composer into the music. This process is what brings the music alive and transforms music making and listening into a human experience. In this sense, the music itself is a horizon of spiritual contact between performer/composer and listener. As we listen we experience not only the music, but elements (nekudos) of the performer and the composer.

This can be a beautiful experience, but can also be dangerous. The Reishis Chochma in Shaar Avaha 10 writes that song, if is improper or coming from an improper place, can actually uproot a listener’s soul from its holy source. Though this frightening warning is echoed by numerous seforim it is not a halachic statement. The warnings against improper music are brought mostly in the Sifrei Mussar and are based upon a gemora in Chagiga 15a. “Why did Elisha ben Avuyah become an apostate?” asks the Gemora. Because: “Greek music never ceased from his lips.” We see that this great sage, a master of kol chadrei torah, corrupted his soul through his involvement in inappropriate song.

All the more so, warn today’s Gadolim, must we be cautious. Music is everywhere and, as mentioned above, we tend to take its power and impact for granted. There was a time when we were much more aware of its affects, but in our days that awareness is numbed.

This having been said, there is an idea that these inappropriate melodies can be rectified. Rabbenu z”l , as well as many other Chassidic masters, write about this possibility. Using the paradigm of birur mentioned above, we understand this rectification as more than just setting holy words to a non-Jewish tune. The rectification is an actual tikkun, a second birur of the nekudos, subtleties, and nuances contained in the very melody itself. This deep reworking of the tune is not something that all persons are capable of. This is even of musicians. The Teshuvat u-Biurim brings a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztvk”l written to a religious Jewish composer who wanted to set holy words and themes to non-Jewish rock tunes. The rebbe dissuaded him, asking him to consider the outcome: Which would have more impact? Would he influence the melody, or, would the melody ultimately influence him? The Sefer Chassidim 238 takes the sternest position by forbidding any songs from non-holy sources, secular Jewish or non-Jewish, from being adapted even to holy purposes (needless to say, not many nowadays are noheg like the Sefer Chasidim).

In the end, the rectification if such music is something best left to those who not only understand the subtleties of the act of making and producing music, but also the nuanced, delicate process of birur that goes into creating the musical experience, the human expressive aspect of the music.

While these ideas speak mostly to our relationship to non-Jewish music, the Rebbe’s insights can also be applied to many of the other halachic issues regarding music (i.e. The halachic permissibility of listening to music bikhlal, using pesukim for songs, etc.).


At August 14, 2007 at 7:44:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gedolei Yisrael are also the only ones who know how to make the birurim for eating. Should the rest of us starve?

We need to listen to music. Just as my liking vanilla is the Ribono shel Olam's way of getting me to eat vanilla, His making like certain types of music and/or artists and composers, means He wants me to listen to them and take the moods they engender to invigorate my avodat Hashem (on my level).

At August 14, 2007 at 8:53:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Anonymous, what if you liked not vanilla ice cream but cheeseburgers?

At August 14, 2007 at 9:03:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Rabbi B. said in the above article,
"The rectification is an actual tikkun, a second birur of the nekudos, subtleties, and nuances contained in the very melody itself."

Can you provide an example of this, in which the nuances, etc., of an actual tune were changed with this in mind?

Rabbi B. also said, regarding music by Boulez, "I heard a world of music, a new landscape that was as lovely, marvelous, and rich as any Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven."

Is there anything in the secular instrumental works by these composers that you regard as problematic for Jewish listeners, and, if so, how and why?

At August 14, 2007 at 9:34:00 AM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

Received this feedback from a friend: "...just let us listen w/o adding guilt that only the gedolim shd do make tikkunim."

Apologies! That wasn't the intent - This post is addressing mostly hanhagos that are held al pli chassidus / mussar which are non-halachik. It is halachically permitted to make a secular melody into a Jewish song. This is true even for actual tefillah(within certain boundaries, of course - i.e.see Shu"t Benei Bonim III 35:10). This is the general hanhoga nowadays. Al pi chassidus, though, there are reasons to be machmir for the one adapting the tune (again, not everyone is strict about this). I don't think that the listener's should feel guilty or refrain once the tune is Judaicized.

At August 14, 2007 at 9:48:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more I read of this stuff the more upset I get at people playing God. Everyone is on their own level and they need certain types of music to help them live and thrive. Saying that it is best left to people who understand the nuances of rectifying songs to do the rectifying is wrong. Some people have the force and don't know it and it comes out when they work. I think people should stop guiding us and just let us live and do the best we can.

In addition though I will tell you that this whole business stunts creativity. It ruins a person's idea making process. Is this person Kosher or that? How are we to know? But we do know how we feel after we hear a certain song. And if it makes us feel bad we don't listen to it. If it makes us think we do. If it inspires us we use that inspiration. If it makes us happy we keep listening. That is called living. Why must we be guided by people who say they know what's better for us. Only our parents are theoretically in that job. Hashem inevitably directs us. I don't know...the whole thing bothers me.

At August 14, 2007 at 10:09:00 AM EDT, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

I agree with Anonymous's frustration (to a point):

Ideally our leaders should guide us. Ideally they should understand the nuances and realities of life. Ideally they should be perceptive and have a distant vision. They should be prepared and qualified to guide the Jewish people. Ideally.

Ideally, Jewish culture should be full of life. Ideally, we should be deep and nuanced thinkers. There should be growth and meaning. There should be recognition of the needs of the soul. There should be thriving Jewish art and music and poetry and ethics and morality. Ideally.

And when that happens, and when the leaders recognize that they are killing the spirit of Jewish people for at least 50 years, we will have gotten somewhere.

Until then, find special people. Find people that you can relate to. Find those people and speak to them - speak to them about the things that Jewish leaders aren't speaking about. Don't rely on yourself, but together with others that we can respect and understand - there we can find proper guidance.

At August 14, 2007 at 10:14:00 AM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

For Bob Miller -

The "2nd birur" could be a number of different things and is not necessarily an audible change in the melody (meaning the changes happen on a much deeper plane). However, there are older recordings of Modzitz nigunim with classical melodies that have been adapted and "tweaked."

As for classical music: again, a distinction must be made between halacha and chassidus/kabbalo. Al pi halacha a lot of poskim, based upon the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo I:17), state that classical music is not included in the general body of halachic restrictions on music. However, if we accept that the composer's intent and person are a part of the music (even music without lyrics) then there is reason to be strict even by classical music. I know people who do not listen to ANY non-Jewish music, including classical. I can't do that though - go crazy if I try. I listen to a lot of classical music (avoiding that which is religiously or explicitly romantically themed - try to stick to absolute music) and a lot of instrumental folk music (again, am careful that the music is not geared to any one theme though, just general "traditional").

At August 14, 2007 at 10:36:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Bartok's Rhapsody #1 for violin and piano (see http://www.classicalnotes.net/reviews/szigeti.html ) has a theme that reminds me a lot of Rabbi Nachman's nigun.

At August 14, 2007 at 10:57:00 AM EDT, Blogger Thinking Hard said...

Excellent article.
Unfortunately, whereas Jewish music in the past was composed by tzaddikim, today it is composed by people who are not tzaddikim. In fact, from my limited exposure to some of them (not to mention their music) I know that their musical sources of inspiration are whatever you happen to hear on the radio.

Personally, this sets up a conflict for me. The three weeks' sadness is augmented by a lack of music. But when I enter a store that usually pipes in popular Jewish music (ay ay ay oy oy oy) but at that time can't play music, I feel a great sense of happiness and relief.

At August 14, 2007 at 11:20:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Do we really know how much of the music heard and played by Jews in medieval Spain, Turkey, or Germany was composed by or, at least, reviewed by Tzaddikim?

At August 14, 2007 at 11:22:00 AM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

Thinking Hard -

It's not acurrate to say that all Jewish music of the past was composed by tzaddikim.

Furthermore, even the melodies composed by Tzaddikim contain elements of the music of the surrounding culture - Russian Chassidim's music is similar to other Russian folk music, Yekeshe music is similar to German music, etc. Even they were influenced by what they heard around them.

I think I see the point you are trying to make, but am a little unclear.

At August 14, 2007 at 12:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Mizrach 5 said...

I don't this there is anything radical about saying this, but seriously, there is no such thing as "Jewish Music" per se. There is music played or sung by Jews, but music itself is shared and influenced by all surrounding cultures - there is plenty of cross-pollination, but at least since the churban we cannot truly claim any specific music to be inherently Jewish.
What we can say is there is a Jewish feeling or a Jewish vibe, and any music played to express that is Jewish. But I dare say that it’s possible that a selected Bob Dylan song (for example) longing for geula, may be more Jewish than perhaps many of what we call Jewish songs sold in Sforim stores near you…

At August 14, 2007 at 1:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous avakesh said...

One problem in claiming a spiritual provenance for music is that music is very much based on the physical ( meter, timber, beat -heartbeat) and utilizes a physical sense - hearing. So its composition and reception are both of physical nature, although somewhat removed from gross bodily sensations. Are you prepared to ascribe inner spiritual essence to something which an so easily be taken apart into its constituent physical parts? For myself I think so, but I would like to hear your response.

At August 14, 2007 at 1:30:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Avakesh asked, "Are you prepared to ascribe inner spiritual essence to something which can so easily be taken apart into its constituent physical parts?"

Are you talking here about a piece of music or about a human being? It could apply to either!

At August 15, 2007 at 1:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very insightful post. It actually reminds me of something my choir instructor use to say during my days in public high school, "music is the most abstract art form".

It does effect the neshama. Thanks.

At August 15, 2007 at 5:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger Thinking Hard said...

I have read that Mordechai ben David's Yidden Yidden comes from the 1979 Eurovision song, "Genghis Khan." And yes, the song is equal to the title.)
Oy, meh hayah lanu!

At August 15, 2007 at 7:44:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Beautiful piece, Avi. You wrote in one of the comments: However, there are older recordings of Modzitz nigunim with classical melodies that have been adapted and "tweaked."
I'm curious as to what you are referring to. There was an instrumental recording, on LP, called "Music of Modzitz," which had Modzitzer niggunim play by an orchestral ensemble. To the best of my knowledge [as someone quite involved in both Jewish music & Modzitz Chassidus], the Modzitzer Rebbes did NOT listen to classical music. R. Benzion Shenker was recently here in Israel, & I asked him if Rebbe Shaul, the second Rebbe, listened to classical music [RBZ was Rebbe Shaul's personal secretary for the years he was in America, approx 1940-47]. His answer was that as far as he knew, in Europe the Rebbes had neither a radio or a phonograph. When he came to America, apparently his children brought a phonograph into the house & he may have heard some classical music that THEY played, but he did not "sit down & listen" to classical music.
I have commented elsewhere [was it on this blog?] that Toscanini came to Modzitz & wrote down notes & played niggunim, & that Shostakovitch may have been influenced by Modzitz niggunim, so the opposite seems to be the case. Please clarify your point, thanks.

At August 15, 2007 at 7:58:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

My comment about Toscanini & Shostakovitch & Modzitz music can be found here:

the THIRD comment in the comments section.

At August 15, 2007 at 10:17:00 AM EDT, Blogger Thinking Hard said...

In the past, I think, religious music was more closely tied to higher standards of spirituality, and (it must be!) higher standards of music.

Thus, often a tzaddik composed a tune, a tzaddik claimed or reclaimed a non-Jewish tune, or a tzaddik approved a tune brought into his court.

Today there seems to be a split where music making has become the province of musicians--some of whom, as I know from personal experience, are musically coarse and whose principle musical influences are gentile popular music and the music of their equally benighted colleauges.

At August 15, 2007 at 10:19:00 AM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

My comment had nothing to do with whether the Rebbe's listened to classical music or not. The point was that the nature of the tikkunim may be affected on levels that we hear or even that we do not hear.

That there are Modzitz niggunim that are, note for note, other classical tune is indisputable. I.e. One of the Kaddishes from the Imrei Shaul is, note for note, Brahms's Ungarische Tänze no. 5 in F-minor (I will b'n track down the year of this niggun for you). There was a study done almost 35 years ago which demonstrated the presence of non-Jewish melodies, note for note, in the Modzhitz Niggunim.

This doesn't mean that the Rebbes listened to classical music or even conciously borrowed from it. For example:

The Imrei Shaul was born 1886, while the first sets of the Brahms Ungarische Tänzen were published by Simrock in 1869. Brahms based many of the dances on folk themes, but his settings were very stylized, individual, and unique (bore the Brahms fingerprint, so to speak - the Imrei shaul's adaptation is 100% Brahms with some very slight tweaking to fit it to the new text - the tweaking is normal and expected in such a case).

By the late 1800's the tunes were monstrously popular - they were adapted to popular song, used as lullabies, played by street buskers, etc. Perhaps the Imrei Shaul heard it hummed sometime in his youth and didn't even know that it was by Brahms.

Alternatively, it could have been a case of cryptomnesia (happens amongst composers - google it - too long to explain here).

Either way, Brahms's tune made it to the Imrei Shaul via some path or another and he was metaken it. Now could he have independantly concocted the same tune? Possible, but musicologically unlikely. However, since we are dealing in the realm of Tzaddikim making tikkunim, that option may have somewhat more credibility than it normally would. In Breslov we would explain it that the Imrei Shaul and Brahms were yonek from the same makor - one made a nigun, the other a hungarian dance, but neither was neccesarily aware of the other.

At August 15, 2007 at 10:51:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

A commonly used wedding tune for "Keitzad Merakdin" also sounds much like one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances.

At August 15, 2007 at 11:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger Thinking Hard said...

May I put out a general question:
What Jewish music do you listen to not because you're supposed to but because you really love it?

At August 15, 2007 at 11:11:00 AM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

I really like Yosef Karduner and Joe Amar.

At August 15, 2007 at 11:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Avi, Thank you for a very illuminating answer. I will look into cryptomnesia, & the Brahms dances. Can you possibly point me to the name, author, etc. of the study done in the 70s comparing Modzitz & classical music? I'm very interested!

At August 15, 2007 at 11:30:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Who listens to anything at home because he's "supposed to" ?

At August 15, 2007 at 11:47:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Avi, I just downloaded Brahms' 5th hungarian dance from here:


last song on the playlist. I don't recognize any Imrei Shaul Kaddish like that...

please clarify

At August 15, 2007 at 1:11:00 PM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

I don't have the recording on hand, but when I get home I will pull it up.

At August 16, 2007 at 4:28:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Avi - Still awaiting a response re the Imrei Shaul kaddish & the study of classical music influences on Modzitz. ASJ, please forward to Avi if necessary, thanks!

At August 16, 2007 at 4:29:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

ASJ - could you possibly change your settings for the comments to register the date as well as the time? I've been meaning to ask you to do this for a while now, thanks!

At August 17, 2007 at 12:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous avi bloomenstiel said...

Yitz- I have to go back and pull down my albums which I won't have time for until next week (am very swamped). As far as the study from the late 70's/early 80's goes, that is going to be tough to track down. I can give it a go, though.

At August 23, 2007 at 5:41:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have two major concerns:

1)the influx of pop music into religious jewish life

2)the apparent lack of any apparatus/institution to train jewish musicians, like the leviim in yamim bet mikdash

1)commerciallly driven sound is harmful for the soul. i don't care who says their rav said it was ok...listen to that crap, i'm sorry, i'm a professional musician for over 30yrs. i know "avant garde" in know "noise music"...i've heard all kinds of stuff from different parts of the world. there's amazing music from far away places that would perhaps sound "noisy" to the untrained ear. however, commercial pop music, particularly when driven by synthesized/electronic instruments is harmful. the soul is subtle.
for G-d's sake, if you really listen to this stuff, you can often hear/feel the distortion and the negativity in it. but still, people go for it, and justify it all kinds of ways. if a hasid is making loud squeaks and distortion on an electric guitar, or rapping sounding like one of the pop guys and i'm next door trying to get some rest, sorry buddy, i don't want to hear it. nor do i want my kids to hear it.

when will we as a people begin to properly discern the inner sound of these things?

if a musician wants to play, compose, do it for the sake of Heaven and learn how to do it properly: meaning, without commercial concerns or artifacts.

commercialized forms are tricky and potentially very dangerous for the soul.

if you don't mind, i'd love if they said, ok, cancel all the synthesized sounds from all religious music,period. aha! now where does that leave you? you gotta learn how to play and respect instruments and sound. breath and your body. and this will connect us more to the true root of music, of sound: haK bH.

we must learn how to listen deeply, very deeply to the core of the sound.

that's why we need special yeshivot for jewish musicians.

can you imagine if we would have them already?

reb shlomo carlebach's music for example: i have never had such profound experiences in a shul than when singing and dancing to his melodies. i don't want to hear criticism of him, okay? whatever. he gave us a great gift and it's helping so many people connect, for G-d's sake.

this is on a whole different level than synthesized crappola i hear in some of the jewish bookstores, may G-d help us.

give me a group of hasids simply singing and dancing. the pure thing.

never, ever underestimate the power of a simple group of yids singing a niggun and dancing in a circle, okay?

the root, people, let's get to the root!! lshem hashemayim!!


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