recent kaddishim: on connection and music

Something unexpected happened a few weekends ago. I asked Mira to record the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish for me, and she did, and then everything changed.

We are nearing the end of the first three months. We have almost ten months to go on this daily musical exchange, according to the Julian calendar, because this is a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, which adds not just a leap day but a whole leap month. And after what felt like a lifetime of awful recordings to both of us, we’re both starting to enjoy the music.

This is a story in two parts about how the performance and perception of music seems to be affected by the connection between musician and listener. It’s also a partial reply to her essay, “the problem with music: a preamble in expectation of a response.”

I had been listening since early January to a recording of the Aramaic text of the Mourner’s Kaddish that Reb Deb (our project rebbe) had made for our study purposes. I had asked her to do this, so that I could hear the rhythm and the poetry—yes the music, even—of the prayer itself. Among other things I hoped it would help me find the prayer in the music that Lev Kogan wrote in his “Kaddish” for solo horn.

When I listened to Deb’s recording, I heard the voice of my friend. Her voice took me back two decades, the way a whiff of a remembered smell can hit you in the gut and bring back an image of someone you haven’t seen since childhood. One day I made a “Kaddish” recording with Deb’s voice looping in my headphones (kaddish_2011.01.20_aNatScharf), and it felt different. Deb’s voice was not actually heard in the recording, but Mira could hear the change:

It’s as if you needed that bracketing to give the piece its context.
You clearly like working with her
You’re playing sweetly for her
Maybe the best one yet

I was having a hard time hearing the text of the Kaddish, though. I heard the voice of a friend. I heard the voice of my friend playing a role I always hoped and somehow knew she would someday play: rabbi, leading a prayer—with dramatic pauses, lilting rhythms, and the shape of poetry that is in itself a piece of music. But my memories, pride, and love deafened me to the text itself, which is a weird thing to realize.

Which brings me to the second part of my story: I asked Mira to record the Kaddish for me, also.

No big deal, you think. Mira’s Jewish, she’s studied Semitic languages, she’s steeped in this culture, she heard her father say Kaddish a zillion times—she can knock it off for me while she washes dishes.

Well. Not so fast.

Recall that at the beginning of the project, Mira and I agreed to certain terms. We had never met each other, and we still haven’t, and we had agreed that during the course of this project we would not meet. Not face to face, and not directly by phone. Mira had said that I could leave a Kaddish on her answering machine: the voice of a horn, but not the voice of a voice.

And here I am, asking to hear her voice. Not kosher!

She said no. Not just no, but hell no. That’s not how she put it—she’s nicer than I am—but it’s the message I received. And after that, she gave me all kinds of sensible reasons: she hasn’t spoken Aramaic in years. She says she does not say kaddish. Like me, she’s an atheist who doesn’t pray. She’s not a performer—that’s my thing, not hers. She doesn’t have recording equipment. She doesn’t know the text.

All perfectly reasonable points.

But I pled my case. “It’s a kaddish in two-part harmony, and that was your title, not mine!” I continued, “Kaddishim are said together by a minyan, not alone in a one-way transmission of music.” Then I compiled a long list of mostly tongue-in-cheek reasons for her to relent, including the most alluring promise of all: that if she sent me a kaddish recording, then for one day, she wouldn’t have to listen to me playing that damned Kogan piece.

Yep. She hates the piece. Poor woman! Can you even imagine, having sworn off music for years, and now having to listen for a year and a day to a recording of a piece that you don’t even like? Every day? For a year and a day? A few days earlier, she had written:

Someone must like this piece of music. Music is there to express feeling/emotions and transmit them as well—and I can’t feel it.

I don’t know if the promise that she wouldn’t have to hear it for one day was the argument that won the day, but I do know that my shy kaddish collaborator summoned her courage, figured out how to use Garage Band on her Mac, found the text in her son’s siddur, and with great trepidation made me a recording of that ancient Hebrew/Aramaic text. She sent it to me with a warning: “you’re not gonna like it!”

How wrong she was. Mira’s voice was a revelation. So not what I’d been imagining.

Think about it: you’re getting to know someone you’ve never met through a daily practice, a collaborative writing project, and email. You’ve seen a few pictures on Facebook and you are starting to get how her mind works, but you’ve never actually met. And then you hear her voice, and it’s not like yours, which you suddenly realize is the voice you’ve given her in your imagination. No, it’s a few tones higher, lighter, prettier. She speaks much more slowly and melodically, over a wider pitch range.

I also noticed that her Hebrew/Aramaic has an astounding variety of fricatives that I don’t think I’ve heard in any American shuls. Which makes me curious. Christian sacred music uses a “church Latin,” where “Agnus dei,” for example, is sung with an ñ sound for the gn, rather than the hard G, N sequence you’d hear in a Latin class. Is there a “temple Hebrew” whose sounds are distinct from the language spoken in Israel?

Fricatives are those sounds of spit rattling somewhere in the mouth, like the throat-clearing sound of the German “ch” in “Bach.” Each fricative consonant is located differently and a sound distinct from the others: the ח ḥet (the sound you make when you almost swallow a fishbone) and the ה hei (the sound you make when you talk back to an angry cat), and the ר resh (like a uvular, gargling French “r” but without the frontal shape that an American English or French “r” contains), and all the other ones that I can’t think of right now.

None of that has anything to do with my thesis, but I can’t resist geeking out about it. The fricatives I’ve learned for German, Norwegian, and French are here child’s play; Aramaic is Advanced Spit Management (which is a lot coming from a brass player)!

Or maybe it is related to my thesis: as a musician, I take in a lot of information through my ears. I attend to details. Aural specificity is a big part of how I observe my world. Hearing someone is huge.

Anyway, it was spectacular.

Filled with mistakes of a beginner reciting kaddish. You need to be truthful here—my kaddish sucks! And now I’ll have to work on it until I get it perfect. And I’ve been studying the text more, to get it right. My father is surely chuckling in the grave that my shikse Norwegian collaborator is forcing me into a practice of kaddish.

If you say so, Mira! I was away from home without any instruments last week, so I had no choice but to record myself saying the text (Kaddish_2011.02.03_textYikes), and that’s what a beginner sounds like!

So now I listened to Mira’s Kaddish looping in my earphones and worked on learning the text, and after a few days of that, I decided to try recording “Kaddish” with Mira’s Kaddish in my headphones, as I had done that time before with Deb’s Kaddish (kaddish_2011.01.23_duetForOne).

This is where it all changed, again. Suddenly I went from playing to microphones and feeling alone in an empty room to playing for a person that I know just a smidgin better.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I have known for decades that it feels different to play when I know somebody in the audience, or even if someone sitting next to me points out someone. The concert changes; I feel more personally engaged and the music is better. I know I’m not explaining it very well, but other musicians have told me they feel the same way.

Teaching is like that too—depending on who’s there and what their needs are, the same ideas are transmitted quite differently, and new ideas come into play.

Our virtual, asynchronous “minyan” has grown to several dozen, and I know that friends, colleagues, and family members of ours are visiting the Dropbox folder and listening to recordings frequently, but there is only one person who I know for certain is listening to every single daily recording: Mira, whom I’ve never met, and hearing Mira’s voice had added a whole new dimension to my sense of who she is.

It probably sounds insane, but now when I play “Kaddish” while listening to Mira recite Kaddish in my headphones, I feel more patient and focused, and less alone. The sound of my horn is richer. My breathing is easier. The pacing of the music feels expansive, unhurried. The pauses can stretch for several deep breaths as I listen to Mira intone the words. The long notes and phrases have direction, either momentum toward their endings or relaxation away from their beginnings.

Again Mira heard the change in my music. I did not include her voice in the mixdown, only in my headphones while I played. But right away she heard the connection that I finally felt to my primary audience:

it felt very intimate to me. (your playing) and I still feel it. can still see it.

I made another the next night, the same way—her voice in my ears, but not in the mixdown. Her comments again show a whole new level of connection to the music. As is usual for her, Mira’s description was visual:

We are on the cliffs, Sicily again —
yes, I said ‘we’!
so this is a first.
ouch, we stumble together
but I’m a stumbler. [well, it was your stumble, but I followed suit…]
you take my hand
I lead you up the trail to the cafe
You’re tiring out—
Must be the time difference, for I gather you’ve just arrived

[I loved this one!]

I did, too. Finally! I’ve loved this piece for twenty-five years, but for three months, I had been feeling like I didn’t know how to play it anymore, but with Deb and then Mira murmuring the prayer in my ears, I knew how to play it again. Since that day, I have made many recordings with Mira’s voice in my headphones, and quite a few of them have featured Mira’s voice in the mixdown as well (kaddish_2011.01.24_duetForMrsTz, kaddish_2011.01.25_improv, kaddish_2011.01.26_grendel, kaddish_2011.01.27_trioForGrendel, kaddish_2011.01.28_shabbes, kaddish_2011.01.29_havdalah, kaddish_2011.01.30_fishscales, kaddish_2011.01.31_cynthiaSchroederB, kaddish_2011.02.01_taniaForte, kaddish_2011.02.02_cancer.mp3).

Mira’s listening notes have taken a dramatic turn, too. Although she swears she likes the mixes without her better than the ones with her, and I can’t seem to slide her fader down far enough for her comfort, in both cases, she has started hearing music that moves her. She’s starting to like the piece. She’s getting ideas for other ways of collaborating in the daily recordings—as have I. She has started doodling while listening. She has stopped hearing my mistakes—which are still very much in evidence—and started liking what I’m doing.

She’s hearing herself hyper-critically, just as I always hear myself hyper-critically, and perhaps that new empathy is part of the change, too; we now have a compassionate connection, where we each hear our own mistakes and don’t notice the other’s.

She has stopped hating the piece!

wow.

soulful. I agree. yet with initial hesitation
I DO like it
and there’s this almost Middle Eastern moment—to you a glitch, to me a lovely everything
slow

what makes this so unbearably lovely?
what is it about musicians?

Shortly after listening to this “Kaddish,” she wrote that she was finally able to finish something she’d been procrastinating, and she was expecting to sleep well, “rocked by that very sweet lullaby.”

That’s when I realized it: we’re starting to accomplish the healing that our collaborative project has been all about. I write:

Connected and flowing. Between, within. That you might sleep well… Gratifying.

That’s how this is supposed to feel, I think, this whole music-for-mourning thing. It’s supposed to make that connection, from my gut to your gut and the other way and back again. I think releasing the grief requires having the connection—having the plumbing in place—before the grief can flow…

Finally the music is slipping into place. Kaddish in two-part harmony—you had it right from the start. Creating a ritual together and the baths and the oils and the writing and the music are all about making a healing connection. We’ve both been stopped up with grief and needed to get our blood flowing again.

We might wonder whether my developing bond with Mira is taking over my music-critical self, but my wife Victoria commented after hearing me record the first of these, also without knowing at the time that I was listening to Mira in my headphones, “Wow—that was soulful.” A few days later I got a note from my dad, who mentioned that the recordings had suddenly become noticeably better. He asked, “Did you do it live or did you do some electronic trickery to do it?” I explained how I multi-tracked an audio file she’d sent me with my own live recording, and in a few I had layered her voice tracks at brief delays for percussive, atmospheric effects. He replied, “It is effective and certainly your horn tone was way up there above the usual level.”

Kogan’s “Kaddish” hasn’t changed. I haven’t become a better musician. Mira’s musical cognition hasn’t changed, either. And yet my performance and our perception of this one piece of music has changed, palpably.

I think it’s about the connection between musician and listener.

It’s not just about Mira; it’s about having an audience that I know somehow, with whom I have a connection. My primary, guaranteed daily audience in this project is Mira, but I’ve also made some of the daily recordings with a small live audience, or in response to requests from our readers. Mira and I have both noticed that those recordings sound better.

One example is the Christmas Eve recording I made before a service started with some of the early-arriving congregants already seated, and in response to a request from Deb, who’d had to conduct two funerals that day (kaddish_2010.12.24_rebDeb’s2).

Another is kaddish_2011.01.15_bishopsRanch; I had been taking advantage of an empty chapel’s wonderful acoustics when a young man entered and asked politely if he could sit and write. I agreed and offered to take a break from playing, but he said he’d enjoy listening, so I continued. As he sat and wrote, I recorded “Kaddish,” and I could feel him listening—and it mattered to me that he was.

I look forward to reading what our other listeners have noticed in the recordings and how they have been changing over time, particularly in the last several weeks’ recordings. This post is already a mile long, so I’m not going to go into detail on the other recordings since my last “recent kaddishim” post, but I’ll be happy to read your comments and answer any questions.

And if you’d like to provide me with your own recording of the Kaddish, here’s a PDF with the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish in English, Hebrew/Aramaic, and transliteration.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…
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16 Responses to recent kaddishim: on connection and music

  1. Reb Deb says:

    Ah…… I listened to yesterday’s Kaddish, which has Mira’s voice layered over and over itself, and that’s the first one I’ve listened to in nearly a month. It’s wonderful. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the music as the words, but undoubtedly concur with the playing — anyway, I’m not a horn player or that level of musician, so don’t have the technical details to comment. Didn’t even notice the spoken mistakes at first, but now am very glad to have them acknowledged, because they were starting to bug me.

    I can’t speak to any differences between Hebrew and Aramaic — for the Jews I know, the pronounciation practices are the same. But there is definitely a difference between the Hebrew (or Aramaic) pronounciation of most North American Jews, and that of Israelis, and Mira’s had more of the Middle Eastern in it, to nobody’s great surprise.

    Know exactly what you mean about not being able to hear the text when spoken by your friend! Glad to have Mira’s explication of it for you. Go ahead and restore mine to the duet, if you wish, or more probably, restore the duet to the DropBox — if she, and you, can bare your performance souls like that, I shall too. It’s just really weird to be recorded; my performance is in-the-moment performance art, not supposed to be captured for the ages. But I can do it. BTW I haven’t listened to that duet yet. I’ll get there.

    • erin says:

      Oh, excellent news! Thank you, Rebbe! And, of course, I’m looking forward to more when you’re back in full voice and have the time.

      Thank you for elaborating on the issue of pronunciation.

      Believe me, releasing the daily kaddishim is pretty painful sometimes. It’s hard enough to release the recordings that have clams and intonation problems, bad breaths, phrases that didn’t work out, but then there are the ones that turn out to be crimes against music.

      Take the recent kaddish_2011.02.08_hnShofarDidge, for example, where I tried to put down didgeridoo and shofar loops as a rhythmic ostinato accompaniment to the usual horn. First my didge sample sucked, then my shofar sample sucked, then trying to play “Kaddish” to a steady tempo sucked, and finally my ability to put all these layers together in Pro Tools sucked. I just couldn’t quite get any of them to line up, since my rhythm was the teensiest bit off the click track in each one of them—differently, of course.

      Mira’s comments were priceless. I had suggested that she, a nondrinker, might want to make an exception. She replied:

      I didn’t understand your comment about drinking until I listened. I don’t think it would have helped.

      ouch
      OUCH—
      the elephants are NOT happy
      ’cause the hyenas are fucking with their territory
      (which is something they do, but still—)
      and there’s a snuffling—
      the warthogs are backing up into their burrows
      aha. we’re in the Serengetti.

      ooooh, this hurts —
      can I go insane now?
      oh shit.
      rhinos!
      oh.
      how appropriate!
      and mandrills too, though this is a bit east for them —
      and now they’re hurling shit —

      Can we get outta here?
      DRIVE the bleedin’ landrover already!
      We are the fuck not camping here tonight.

      (She apologizes for the cussing, but insists the elephants made her do it—and the mandrills. But let’s face it, the “music” itself was reason enough for the saltiest possible language.)

      She elaborated, later:

      I love that you’re willing to TRY — and no matter how awful it sounded, it was still great! and I could easily journey with it. I even had to google to find out who was burrowing, ’cause they were too fast for me. Was surprised to know it was the warthogs. I’d seen them in the distance, but didn’t know they were trying to cool themselves underground…

      and rhinos! that was hysterical, ms neti pot… good pun. thank you!!

      I could only marvel at the difference the connection between us is starting to make in the daily “Kaddish” ritual:

      Well, I know we’ve turned a major corner now, if you found things to enjoy in that mess! It was ghastly. You’re even willing to give me credit for your pun—no, I committed a sonic atrocity and you’re generously greeting it with brilliance and a sense of humor.

      • erin says:

        Oh, hell. I just realized that I’ve drawn more attention to a recording that would be better overlooked.

      • Reb Deb says:

        And I suppose I’d better record some proper shofar for you, too. Along with some explanation about the 3 shofar calls. Which was, BTW, the subject of my very first-ever Rosh HaShanah sermon, back in Dubuque, Iowa, at my first student pulpit.

    • Reb Deb says:

      Oh! It’s not a duet. I hadn’t realized. It works well. Thank you.

      Wow. In fact, I like the music part of the recording even better when it comes after my recording of Kaddish. I listened first to the recording as you first released it, without including my Kaddish recording; then immediately after to the original version. And it could be that it was the second time through, so I wasn’t listening quite as intently as the first time; but I think I was listening with a different set of ears, after hearing my voice speaking Kaddish. It works!!!!

      • erin says:

        I’m so glad you agree.

        So my next several kaddishim shall be experiments. Tonight’s, already recorded, had one of you looping in my headphones. Tomorrow’s will have the other of you looping in my headphones. I will not identify which night was whose, and let’s see what everybody hears.

  2. mira says:

    oh, Deb, I feel exactly the same way! I was shaking in my boots — have never read kaddish before, as in ever! Except in Study Group examining text — but even then, we were not reciting. I don’t know the kaddish. It does not come easily. How I wish I had a recording of my father’s kaddish! And how, upon Galina’s death, he comforted me with it (against all reason).

    What is it about kaddish?

    But being recorded, in all my imperfection? I credit Erin who has been willing to record Kogan night after night — a piece she knows forwards and backwards — and willing to let the errors just be. On my own kaddish (the only one I’ve recorded to date) I cringe at what feels like wrong intonation, not to mention just plain stumbling around it.

    I have, however, added a phrase toward the end. And when I get a chance to try my own kaddish again, I know that I’ll add more. And if I keep at it the way Erin has, in diligence, by the end of the year, most likely I’ll have written a kaddish that I’m fully committed to — and one, with any luck will resonate with you as well…

    • Reb Deb says:

      Yes, I noticed (and liked, and approved, not that that’s needed) your addition. Others add ועל כל יושבי תבל /v’al kol yoshvey tevel/. R. Arik Ascherman, in Israel, added something that was even more inclusive, something that implied the entire environment/landscape, not just living/moving beings.

  3. erin says:

    You can both make me more Kaddish recordings any day of the week, you know.

    That goes for everyone! Please, dear readers—record the text for me! Mac users can use “podcast mode” in GarageBand, and the free software Audacity is a good choice on pretty much any OS. Set the audio input level so that your loudest words bounce just into the yellow zone, not red, and leave a bit of a pause before and after for me. Here’s a PDF with the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish in English, Hebrew/Aramaic, and transliteration. Either email your audio to kaddish@beitmalkhut.org or add it to the Dropbox and send a note.

    Please note that by sending us an audio file, you grant us permission to use your voice in the project.

    • Reb Deb says:

      Problems with your PDF transliteration. I’m going to have to correct this one myself, aren’t I, if I want it done to my satisfaction?

      • erin says:

        Please do! All errors can be laid at the foot of wikipedia, by the way, and if I’d attempted any of this myself, it would have been far worse. I’ll email you the source to save you some typing.

        • Reb Deb says:

          Wikipedia’s transliteration uses a symbol set which preserves differences in spelling which are not pronounced differently by the majority of North American Jews. (Some of the pronounciation differences are retained by Arabic-speaking Jews, others, by Yiddish-speaking Jews, and still others by certain academics.) So for North American purposes, it could be much simpler.

          But in any case there’s at least one mistake.

          • erin says:

            Interesting—would the more-specific Middle Eastern rules throw off a North American audience, and vice versa?

            And the mistake is…?

          • Reb Deb says:

            It’s not Middle Eastern rules, it’s a simplified academic system which transliterates the *spelling* as opposed to the pronunciation. Since many of the consonants have assimilated to each other’s sounds over time (most in Europe and North America, but some even in Israel, even among Arab Jews), retaining the differences in spelling are probably more confusing for non-speakers.

            The Biblical Hebrew book from which I learned in college, Intro to Biblical Hebrew (Lambdin), doesn’t even require the learner to learn the Alef-Bet for the first several chapters; everything is in this academic system of spelling-transliteration. I thought that was pretty amusing.

            The mistakes include vowels (beʻagala should be baʻagala), missing letters, and incorrect original text (I’m not referring to the addition).

  4. pfvang says:

    Just listened to the 25 Feb Kaddish, Turning Tables. I don’t know how you did it, but the echoing effect of the horns was marvelous. Good job.

    Obviously, an increasing challenge in this process is coming up with new file names. Why ‘Turning Tables’?

    • erin says:

      The idea of “turning tables” is that usually the horn is in the forefront, and Mira’s voice reciting Kaddish is (by her request) in the background, sometimes with echo or phase-shift to create a rhythmic backdrop. This time I turned tables on Mira and put her in the foreground, and I backgrounded myself with an undramatic reading and a phase-shifted copy processed with “large church” reverb effects. I liked hearing the text at the forefront, quite a lot, and to my slightly surprised delight, so did Mira.

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