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