Thursday, November 15, 2007

Question & Answer With Shlomo Katz - "Composing" Niggunim

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Each night, I put my 16 month-old daughter to sleep and I sing to her a niggun I "composed" which is put to the words of Tehillim 101:2 אַשְׂכִּילָה, בְּדֶרֶךְ תָּמִים מָתַי, תָּבוֹא אֵלָי. As I sit in the rocking chair holding my daughter in my arms, I sing and my daughter attempts to sing this niggun along with me.

Undoubtedly, I must have borrowed a bar from another niggun that was lodged in my memory. My attempts to figure out which niggun this was, however, have been unsuccessful. As someone who composes his own music, at what point can you consider a composition to be your own and not derivative of another piece?

Shlomo Katz responds:

Your question couldn't have come at a more perfect time. Just last week a well known musician who co-hosts a radio show approached me after appearing on his show. He told me he was in the midst of putting together an album in the style of a Shabbos Tisch and wanted to know if he could buy any songs from me. Knowing that this concept of selling songs exists, I found myself at a complete loss for words, not having any clue as to express to him what I felt at the moment. My response was a very confusing one, basically telling him that it's not so much my thing to sell a niggun.

However, I truly feel that a niggun is not something one can sell. You can sell songs, but a niggun, a real niggun is a gift from shamayim which only has one real owner, Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Having said that, we must always remember that chazal teach us that since Matan Torah there hasn't been any chiddush, meaning to say that all our Chiddushei Torah and niggunim which we 'compose' are (hopefully) a tapping into the one word, ANOCHI. This based on the Ba'al Shem Tov's explanation of David Hamelech saying 'Toras Hashem Temima', Temima meaning complete.

On a totally technical note - When you think a niggun came down to you yet one of it's parts is note for note the same niggun that someon eelse brought down, I would definitely recommend to really daven over it, and only then see if it still shayach to be put out.


At November 15, 2007 at 2:13:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

You are touching on a phenomenon that Avi Bloomentiel mentioned to me on a comment on this blog, called cryptomnesia [see Wikipedia for details]. Basically, sometimes we have a memory of a tune that's so deep, that when we recall it, we think it's something that comes from within, as if we're creating it now. This has happened to me many times. For this reason, I have tremendous respect for those who compose ORIGINAL niggunim, for it is something very difficult to do. I also find that listening to music all the time can be an impediment to composing, as you're always "hearing" something from someone else, & not from within.
Regarding the Holy Brother, Shlomo Katz, I first must say that he is one of the best of today's performers of Reb Shlomo [Carlebach]'s niggunim, & has been tirelessly putting out those "hidden" niggunim of R. Shlomo for the world to hear & sing. Yaasher Koach, Shlomo!
Now, it's one thing to compose a niggun with "inspiration" from someone else - whether it be their style, or even a few bars of one of their tunes. We are attracted to music we like, & it definitely influences what we try to compose. So if you have a short musical "phrase" from someone else's tune, that can be a springboard for your work - legit. But if you have whole "sentences" or "paragraphs" [I'm trying to compare it to writing :) ], then you're drifting over to "plagiarising" someone else's work. Incidentally, I found a "whole sentence" of Shlomo Katz's "VeHaKohaim" was taken from an old Ropshitz niggun, which I blogged about in my blog... [to be continued]

At November 15, 2007 at 2:16:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very timely indeed. I just had a conversation with a musician friend about lending he a niggun I 'made up' so that it could be set to music. Thanks.

At November 15, 2007 at 2:38:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

To continue... Sometimes one can hum a known tune, & all of a sudden, instead of contiuing that tune, he's taken "somewhere else" - a new tune arises out of the old one. Of course, it's best if the first is also his own - as Reb Shlomo used to say, "I'm allowed to 'steal' from myself!" But in any case, if the original is just a springboard, but the overwhelming majority of the tune is new, I'd say that's okay to call original. It's when a significant part of a tune is incorporated into something we may feel is "new" that we run into problems. I hope this is now clear.
Getting back to Shlomo Katz, while some of his music is RS Carlebach-inspired, most of it is quite original & very good. Also, the new "K'Shoshana" is a must-buy!!! S. Katz, A. Razel, and Chaim Dovid -- fantastic!

At November 15, 2007 at 2:41:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

By the way, there's a principle in Halacha that I like to tell my friends if they find traces of others' music in mine: "HaGanav koneh b'shinui" -- a thief who alters the stolen object acquires it. :))

At November 15, 2007 at 3:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the genre itself is a form of traditional music, listeners expect a degree of familiarity and get it. I wonder how much "original" material nowadays is traceable to tunes in the public domain. Follow the chain of musical "thieves" far enough back, and you will often find a old-time tune, possibly not a Jewish one.

The bad rock and roll riffs can be traced, too, but that's a whole other thing.

At November 15, 2007 at 3:16:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

Oy, puleeeeeeze Bob, let's not start that old debate. I'm not gonna quote Velvel Pasternak, as I've done several times before on blogs, but there IS such a thing as ORIGINAL Jewish music. Yes, every art form is "built" so-to-speak on previous works, but that doesn't mean there's no originality in a new song. And please don't start the old game of tracing so-called 'jewish music' to pop songs, there both pop and have nothing to do with Negina, which is what this post is about.
And speaking of Avi Bloomentiel, I've yet to hear a response from him about my queries about Modzitz music, which I maintain was and is the most original Jewish Negina in the last 150 years. Yes, Jewish music goes through "the crucible of Jewish experience" -- Rav Nachman Bulman ZT"L.

At November 15, 2007 at 3:17:00 PM EST, Blogger yitz said...

typo correction in previous comment:

should be "they're both pop" and not what I wrote, thanks.

At November 15, 2007 at 3:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz, don't worry; I'm friendly. I'm not against largely warmed-over tunes as long as they move me. There are some new wrinkles but---face it---without the nostalgic content, would we listen?

At November 15, 2007 at 3:23:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, Modzitz seems to be an original thing unto itself in many ways.

At November 16, 2007 at 2:20:00 AM EST, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

Modzitzer niggunim are absolutely gevaldig!! I heard a Chazzanus concert where the theme was Modzitz and the music was played by the Israel Philharmonic. Incredible.

Also, Reb Shloimo sang a lot of Modzitzer niggunim.

At November 16, 2007 at 3:52:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

Okay Bob, I hear you. Just for the record, I can tell you this: the previous Modzitzer Rebbe, the "Nachalas Dan," composed a new niggun every year for "Slach Nah" that is said during Selichos & on Yom Kippur. One year, he incorporated [I assume intentionally] a phrase from his grandfather, Reb Shaul's "Prok Yas Anach" niggun. So I understand whatcha mean by "nostalgic content."
Moshe David - I was at those concerts too. Yes, RSC very often used Modzitz niggunim, especially for Kaddish-Tiskabel when he sang that.
ASJ - Any chance of hearing your niggun? Can you put it up on your blog or e-mail me an MP3 file?

At November 16, 2007 at 6:28:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: Unfortunately, I do not have a digital recorder :(

At November 16, 2007 at 6:34:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

OK, ASJ, you're forgiven!

Some interesting R. Shlomo Carlebach "crytomnesia":
1. His niggun for Menucha v'Simcha [also sung to Siman Tov u'Mazal Tov] has an entire phrase from what he calls the "Rizhiner's niggun," others attribute it to the Baal Shem Tov. This may have been intentional, for "nostalgic content," to quote Bob.
2. Now here's an interesting one. Many years ago, there was a movie [maybe even a play before that] called, "The King & I." In it there was a song called, "Just Whistle a Happy Tune." Now, Reb Shlomo's "Barcheinu Avinu," the high/second part, has some musical phrasing that very closely parallels "Just Whistle." Very interesting, indeed!

At November 16, 2007 at 11:06:00 AM EST, Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I don't have much to contribute to this music discussion, but here’s some information about the Broadway musical "The King and I," withe links to info about the movie version.

At November 19, 2007 at 9:36:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

de main ting iz dis: dunt let anyting get in de vay of you zingin a niggin, natink, just zing bubbie, zing!


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