kaddishim for preemption, el akarib, & monotony

Several days ago I recorded an experimental Kaddish (kaddish_2010.11.29_itiMil), and I’m intrigued that nobody has had anything to say about it yet. In our private discussion of preemptive Levirate marriage raised by Mira’s death and the evil eye post, we addressed the difficulty of speaking the unspeakable, or in our case writing the unwritable. Mira commented that I’m lucky that I can express things in music, whereas she has only words, which can be so dangerous.

I think she’s right that there is a greater danger of words causing pain. Words, in their precision, have power we have to wield carefully. Music can express things in abstraction, and that slight distance of abstraction can give us just enough wiggle room to find the universal in a situation’s particular pain. We can experience Madame Butterfly’s exquisite agony through the music’s pathos without needing to buy the absurd premise of that misogynist pile of crap. On the other hand, we experience that exquisite agony because music advances emotional content that the libretto alone cannot—indeed, that even a libretto with a reasonable premise and realistic characters could not.

So is music a safer way to express a dangerous idea, because of its abstraction, or is it more dangerous still, because of its ability to grab us by the guts?

This Kaddish is intended to force that question. Are there combinations of ideas that are unthinkable? Are, then, the musical representations of those ideas also an unthinkable combination?

If you know your tunes and you pay close attention, you will find in this Kaddish a serious problem. Two ideas that we abhor combining in real life are represented together musically in combination. Combining the ideas directly—in precise, direct, dangerous words—might be considered unthinkable unto the point even of obscene, but I found that the musical effect is not obscene. I might even suggest that it is pleasing. The themes fit together harmonically. The moods are contrasting but compatible. “Bittersweet” can describe music as well as chocolate.

What does this mean? Is there a lesson for us in the musical compatibility of the ideas? Are we perhaps too attuned, sometimes, to an illusion of precision in our words, when the ideas we mean to express are not quite so clear?

The Kaddish for yesterday (kaddish_2010.12.01_elArakib) was supposed to be another bitchy Kaddish for paper-grading, but I couldn’t get Reb Deb’s post on El Arakib out of my mind. So while I intended to channel my inner bitch again, instead I found despair in the very first note, and the despair didn’t leave me. Yesterday’s Kaddish was determined to be for El Arakib. Sometimes the music has its own ideas, and yesterday was such a day.

I don’t pretend to understand the situation in the Middle East well enough to have useful ideas or even interesting opinions about it. I just despair for the people who live in that region’s unrest, certain of nothing but uncertainty.

Today’s Kaddish (kaddish_2010.12.02_improv) is a Kaddish for monotony.

Does that sound ridiculous? To grieve a loss of sameness?

It shouldn’t. Fear of change is a major anxiety for most people, and this is precisely why daily rituals provide comfort: because in a life in which everything is subject to change, all the time, it can be comforting to have one thing—one small thing—that stays the same from day to day.

Death is an example of change that we can’t handle. Its suddenness, its permanence, its arbitrariness can make us feel out of control. No matter how many other aspects of our lives might be just fine, no matter how much we might have been “expecting” the death, we suddenly and for a long while feel completely out of control. We panic. We question things that a few days earlier we took for granted. We feel unsafe in ordinary routines.

When we lose somebody, you might say we lose it.

We lose it. We can’t even say what it is, so complete is our loss of control. Whatever it is, though, we lose it, and we know it.

A few days ago I speculated that schlepping off to shul for the daily minyan to say kaddish could get to be a drag at times, where the hassle of one more obligation could outweigh the comfort of routine. In an impassioned and informative rebuttal (see the comments), Reb Deb argued that other aspects of the experience that are built right into the ritual can help snap you out of it. She made a useful comparison between donning tefillin and  getting changed in the locker room that reminded me of something I’ve thought for a long time about the life of a musician: that we need uniforms and teams. Our solitary work makes it hard to get into the practice room sometimes. Dancers get to do warm-ups together, gossiping together, wearing their tights and those bunchy leg warmers. Athletes spend time in the locker room suiting up and psyching up. And so on.

The motivating power of this kind of team-based physical ritual is well known. In Asia some of the more traditional companies still have a calisthenics period every morning before work—all employees regardless of rank line up outside in tidy formation and do a little warm-up routine together. This probably does a lot to reduce job-related injuries, especially for people doing physical work in factories. Getting the blood pumping before starting the workday keeps employees healthier, both mentally and physically, and having everybody do it together builds esprit de corps.

Musicians, though? We work together, we perform together, we rehearse together, but we prepare alone. We prepare in an isolation of intense privacy. We go into a solitary practice room alone. We warm up alone. We work on etudes alone. We study music alone. We take difficult passages out to the woodshed all alone. We attempt to learn how to play in tune with others alone. We attempt to learn how to play in time with others alone. We spend hours and hours and hours alone to prepare to play in concert with our colleagues in the most elaborate net of interdependency I know of, a musical ensemble.

Is this not madness?

I’m an introvert. Spending long hours alone with my thoughts and my labors is energizing for me. I’m well suited to the solitary labors of practicing my horn. But even for me, it can be lonely at times. It is most lonely early in the morning, when I’d rather not be awake, even, but I have to work out some physical issues—perhaps overworked embouchure, or tightened breathing, or I have to ‘shed a piece into shape. It’s one of those mornings that no coffee cup is deep enough, no omelet is cheesy enough, no sweater is fuzzy enough. You’re just cold and tired. And scared. Scared of how your face will feel after last night’s brutal concert, or scared that you won’t be able to work out the awkward fingers, or scared you won’t have the strength or the flexibility or the range or the inspiration or the…

Well, it really doesn’t matter what it is. The point is, you’re scared. Tired. Cold. And alone.


And where dancers will put on their tights and their bunchy legwarmers and creak over to the barre together with collective groaning over their stiff muscles—where athletes will change into uniforms and grumble about the coach’s sadism together—musicians walk alone into a practice room, wearing ordinary clothes. We face the music and the instrument and the day alone. And alone we force ourselves through the motions of our routine, hoping that the familiar process of our usual boring warm-up will stir our dejected flesh to life and bless us with some ability to raise music from the page once again. Eventually we stop for the day. No matter how long we’ve worked, we worry that we’ve quit too soon, left difficult passages too shaky, invested too little effort into strength-building. We leave the practice room just as alone as we entered it. Our finishing is as vague as our starting was. We’re still dressed in the clothes that say absolutely nothing about what we’ve been doing.

I envy those dancers their group warm-ups, their gossiping, their donning of special outfits that mark them as special. I envy them their breaks, where they lie together in giant puppy piles, sighing and laughing and complaining together. I envy them their changing back out of their sweaty dance togs into ordinary street clothes, the moment where they mark the transition from artistic struggle to daily anonymity. They know when they start, they know they’re working together, and they know when they’re done.

I feel the loss of the comforts of collective ritual we so often forego in our daily labor as solitary musicians, and I offer my nod to others whose work imposes solitude and denies ritual in this way. (Anyone recognize themselves? Mira?)

So, today’s Kaddish is a Kaddish for the contextual comforts and symbols that elevate ritual from obligation to celebration. Today’s reading calls attention to the comforts of ritual by arbitrarily removing the only real point of continuity we have in this project, which is the music itself. I imposed a rule on myself that any time the piece rested on a long note, I had to leave the page and improvise a commentary in a contrasting style. Before long I fell into a sort of modernist atonal style that cynics might dub “squeak and squawk music.”

And what is really strange about this Kaddish is that I improvised out of boredom, but in the process of writing about it, I followed a series of thoughts down a confusing trail to a contradictory conclusion: that the problem is not boredom with musical practice due to monotony but a lack of formalizing structure that could reframe the monotony as meaningful ritual.

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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10 Responses to kaddishim for preemption, el akarib, & monotony

  1. mira says:

    There’s so much to say, but I’ll say here only this:

    When music causes pain, we lap it up and ask for more, please.

    When words cause pain, we often don’t recover.

    And, as you know, I loved the ‘bitchy’ kaddish, which sounded not bitchy at all — but vivid and alive. More alive, perhaps than a kaddish is usually allowed to be.

    • erin says:

      Right—anger is lively! And often unpleasant—I’m one of those people who will go out of my way to avoid it. I hesitated to play an angry Kaddish for Eichmann; I hesitated again to play a bitchy Kaddish for paper-grading. As you say, Kaddish is normally not allowed to have so much vitality.

      But why is that? Anger is number two in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief. Surely someone saying kaddish for a year and a day is going to spend a bunch of those days in the grip of anger. Why shouldn’t they say an angry Kaddish?

      And if you’re right that Kaddish was a defiant response to pogromic annihilation, then anger has been a part of it all along.

      Since anger is one of those human realities with which I’m not terribly comfortable—and yet it is undeniably a part of the messy processes of living, dying, and grieving—perhaps it will be valuable in this project for you to continue calling me find a place, a makom, for it in the daily Kaddishim.

  2. Reb Deb says:

    Realistically speaking, Erin, no one could comment on kaddish_2010.11.29_itiMi until you or Mira did!

    I listened, wondered at the title, found it haunting and beautiful — it works very well — listened over and over. At some point the opening phrase and the clue in the title came together and it took my breath away! And then what words could I say?

    But I will say, the pairing may be transgressive in a sense, and yes, certainly can be taken to obscenity, but it is incredibly common — in fact, I think I just heard an author on our local NPR station talking about the need to include both in his book to make it real, or something, which is one of those little synchronicities that add delight. I’m not going to name the works of literature that jump to mind, starting with classic Shakespeare — you can probably do it yourself, and I am curious who else might recognize the tune without further prompting.

    I don’t think that unthinkable and unspeakable are the same; the latter is about not damaging relationships, especially perhaps in Mira’s post. I don’t think that combinations of ideas fall in neat categories of “safe” and “dangerous,” and I think neither do you. There are more powerful and explosive, and less energetic, and it’s how you treat them that determines their danger, both internally and shared.

    • erin says:

      True, it would have been tricky to comment on a post that didn’t exist yet! But you all know how to email us or make the comment on some other random post, and nobody had.

      I appreciate your validation of my sense that the two tunes work hauntingly well together. I think it’s objectively true in technical terms, but I know I lack objectivity about the subjective judgment, if you will. (Uff da. I get too meta sometimes even for myself.)

      While the situation Mira described potentially has “evil eye” written all over it, the possibilities are also heartbreakingly beautiful. Such an agreement is potentially the ultimate affirmation of love and life in the face of death, for all members of the Levirate triangle.

      I agree, our thoughts and feelings often don’t conform to tidy categories of safe vs. dangerous, or to the socially-acceptable norms we wish to impose upon them. I suspect it is part of the human condition that we regularly confront joys that come wrapped in sorrow, the messy realness of it all. We feel what we feel, we want what we want, and sometimes we can’t stand to think about it. But there she is, in front of us, asking us to dance.

      Mira writes, “When music causes pain, we lap it up and ask for more, please. When words cause pain, we often don’t recover.”

      I think she’s right. I’ve experienced it myself. In the midst of awful heartbreak, I’ve sought out and listened to heartbreaking music over and over. Years later when the injury has healed and scarred over, if I hear one of those tunes in a moment I am receptive, all my scars are ripped back open, the pain is fresh, and for some reason I even appreciate it.

      But why? Why do we seek out this effect? Why do we appreciate having the wounds reopened by music? Do we need that catharsis to feel alive?

  3. erin says:

    A reply from Zoe on the book of Face:

    I really enjoyed the ‘monotony’ Kaddish, though my interpretation was somewhat different from your intent. I found it wonderfully whimsical, and smiled through the whole thing. It made me think of mourning the loss of someone who always made you laugh. Thinking of them would bring back so many pleasant, fun memories, but those memories would be interspersed with and inseparable from the sorrow that there will be no more moments like those to come.

    Regarding the lack of preparatory musical practice rituals and music ‘teams’ with uniforms, locker rooms, etc.:

    1) It is obvious that you play instruments that don’t require much set-up/tuning time. Most of the time you just pop in a mouthpiece and go. Occasionally you need to lubricate valves or the like, but it isn’t a per-playing-session ritual. Woodwinds generally require some preparatory reed selection and moistening, plus instrument assembly – a somewhat more involved set-up ritual. Bowed strings require bow tightening and rosining, and tuning of all strings, which can be somewhat involved, depending on the weather and the relative finickiness of the instrument. Those set-up rituals are nothing compared to harpists and harpsichordists, who have dozens of strings to tune before they can begin!

    2) Why have you never played in a marching band? That seems like the obvious music ‘team’ with group practice sessions (in addition to solo training/conditioning – which is essential for any serious athlete, even those who play on teams), uniforms, long group bus rides, inside jokes, and all the rest.

    3) For about a year, ending about a year and a half ago, I took Alexander Technique lessons. Have you ever taken Alexander? While I was doing it, I usually did an AT lay-down session just before (and if I was being really good about it, during and after practicing). That was a great way of having a ritual cleansing start to my practice session, and, actually, I found that even factoring in the ten minutes of laying on the floor, doing my concerted best to do absolutely nothing, I was more efficient and effective when I was doing the AT. It was also great for stopping pre-practice procrastination, which os a struggle for me sometimes. I really should get back to doing it regularly. There is no good excuse for me not to.

    • erin says:

      I think your interpretation was not actually so far off from how I played it. As I wrote, the writing of this post took me somewhere unexpected, and I reached a conclusion that was pretty different from the impetus (boredom) that inspired the improvisation. I’m delighted that you found it amusing!

      I like your interpretation a lot, actually. I wish I’d thought of that—how even our soberest thoughts can be interrupted by gales of laughter (or anger, or…) because of WHO we mourn. It makes me think of that famous episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show where Chuckles the Clown has died, and Mary is horrified because people in the newsroom keep making jokes about him; then at the funeral, Mary is the one who keeps bursting into uncontrollable giggles as she remembers Chuckles’ gags—and eventually everyone else does, too. I like to think that Chuckles would have loved it.

      1) True. We’re pretty plug and play, brass players. I’ve got warming up down to a few minutes, if need be. A longer routine can be a comforting ritual, but I rarely have time for it.

      2) I have, actually. Hated it. With a royal purple passion. Or maybe I should say with a maroon and gold passion—our school colors. I have HS marching band to thank for my reasonably full vocabulary of marching band maneuvers, such that when a friend recently commented about “gating” in English Country Dance, I couldn’t help explaining it as a pinwheel for two. For my last several years of high school, I actually managed to worm out of playing for the Homecoming halftime show (and got out of all the practices too!) by being a member of the (adult) Grand Forks Symphony, because the Symphony played kiddie concerts on the same date.

      Our marching band didn’t do much conditioning. We just started marching all over town streets, getting yelled at about keeping “our lineal lines straight” and “watching our diagonals,” and bruising the crap out of our chops. Brass embouchures and marching were never meant to go together; dreadful combination.

      I did once join the Carleton College marching band in running with kazoos onto the field into The Dreaded Veal Cutlet Formation and thought that was pretty big fun.

      3) No, I haven’t actually, but a good friend is a nationally recognized Alexander expert. I keep meaning to work with her on that sometime… Amy, what’s your schedule like…?

      I recognize what you describe, though. I’ve found self-hypnosis to be helpful for performance anxiety management (read “audition anxiety”) and for deeper, faster learning. When I’m smart I invest some portion of my practice session in this kind of work.

  4. Reb Deb says:

    Of course Mourner’s Kaddish can be alive and vibrant. It’s recited by the living!

    And of course it can contain anger. Kaddish is, among other things, a container. A vehicle. But it is absolutely a container for one’s emotions. You can cry it out. You can yell it out. You can achingly whisper it out and lose the words in the middle.

    And on Friday night, for the first time I can remember, after a week of participating here, I found it inadequate that Mourner’s Kaddish is spoken, not chanted.

    And, it being Chanukah, I sang Chatsi Kaddish,\, the half-Kaddish that separates one section of the service from another, to a tune other than the standard; I used a lively and buoyant Chasidic or neo-Chasidic romp. That was unplanned and also motivated by this week’s reading and writing here. (Note: my services are usually unplanned, but Choir was singing and on those occasions it must be planned out musically with some precision. Though they have gotten used to my improv, including this.)

    I was going to leave this out but since the topic comes up in another part of this comment it has become more relevant: The mourning, for me, was around the fire in northern Israel — a signal tragedy in a country which is, north to south, roughly the distance from the Canadian border to Westchester. The height of New York State and a fraction of the width, and significantly shorter than the distance from SF to LA. Consider the devastation and tragedy a fire burning 12,500 acres causes in such an area, with 41 deaths. (I’ve no idea the accuracy, but compare this list of worst US forest fires: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0778688.html.)

    Reliving or re-experiencing wounds and aches and sorrows through music isn’t merely about catharsis (a concept I think is highly overrated, though if you ask me why I shall have to ponder). Heartbreak implies prior heart-fullness. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience that? And if it ended with heartbreak, then getting close to those wonderful emotions now includes feeling the heartbreak again, and starting with the heartbreak is probably a reliable shorthand way of getting there! Just an idea I’m having.

    Erin, on first reading I was not sure from your agreement paragraph (beginning “our thoughts and feelings often don’t conform to tidy categories of safe vs. dangerous”) whether you caught what I was trying to say. In trying to write this I see that you do. Still, I like where I’m going with this, so let me give the substructure (substrate? I’m sure there’s a literary term for this other than prosaic “background”: what I was thinking but didn’t make explicit): There’s a Jewish idea that I learned, appropriately, in the context of discussing whether human beings, being created with free will (you needn’t jump on that, Mira, for me that’s a quoting of shared text in religious community rather than expressing a statement of fact or belief) are inherently good or evil. The answer is “neither.” And the parallel that’s given, ironically enough, is fire. Fire is not inherently good or evil. It’s the use one makes of it, the level of control one can successfully maintain over it, that determines whether it’s put to good or evil use. (Lastest news says not arson but negligence: level of control not successfully maintained.)

    So too with our feelings, with the pairing of love and death (edit that out if you want to keep this ambiguous for future readers), with other potentially explosive or transgressive ideas. There are thoughts and feelings that are pretty easy to live with, personally and in relationship and in community; there are others that are much harder to manage in a way that doesn’t cause harm to self or others, relationships or community. But they simply exist; it’s what we do with them and how we manage ourselves around them that determines whether they’re poignant or obscene, energizing or explosive (e.g. anger).

    When my mom was in the hospital about 15 years ago a Carleton friend of mine wrote of “wonderful things wrapped up inside of terrible things.” It’s what people are trying to get at when they talk about the silver lining, though that always seems to me to over-focus on the silver. The bit of take-your-breath-away awe and wonder in this fire is the list of nations who have sent technical support: as if Israel were a normal nation, as if the politics of fear and hatred were not in play, as if normalized relations were already established, which they may be with many of these nations but I don’t think of that on a regular basis. The two most breath-taking were the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. The list continues with Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Sprin, France, US, UK.

    Laughter and death… Zoe, nailed it in one. If the person brought laughter and love, if being with them brought joy, then if at their funeral I don’t get people to feel joy as well as grieve, I haven’t done my job. So that’s most of us, no? (I just can’t say “if I don’t get people to laugh as well as cry” because not all joy or grief is expressed that way, though laughter is the common expression of the former at funerals.) Part of my job is to give people permission to laugh while grieving, if they need it.

    And Erin, one still can’t comment when one’s breath is taken away! And I don’t know how likely it is that your average bear would recognize an old (composed) folktune like that. I of course learn almost everything by ear, and this was no exception: Jewish summer camp 30-35 (ulp!) years ago. But a quick Google search reveals an Israeli “folkdance” choreographed in 1949.

    I don’t know blog etiquette — if this is much too long, or should be broken up into several comments one for each commenter being replied to, please let me know.

    • erin says:

      I’m delighted that this project has affected you to the point of wanting Kaddish to be sung! I’m looking forward to hearing you sing it and weaving your recordings into this project. Thank you again for agreeing to be the Project Rebbe.

      I think you’re onto something with re-experiencing heartbreak being about re-experiencing the heart-fullness that precedes it and makes heartbreak possible. I have more to say about that in my comments to Mira’s post “running away together—dordogne,” someday.

      The only blog etiquette I care about is that you comment when you have something to say, and you say it however you want to, but you do not link spammily to sites hawking Viagra, bootlegged mp3s, or shady financial schemes.

  5. Reb Deb says:

    I finally made time to listen to the Al-Arakib Kaddish. I like it better than any other I have heard. (And I liked a few others a *lot*.) And it evoked grief in me, which the others have not. You got the pause prior to the stopped portion *just perfect*, and after that I listened with my head in my hands, gripping my skull, experiencing the grief. And the final passage (a little more than the last 30 seconds) tied it all together, gave relief, so plainly said what I would like to say to God at the end of Kaddish. I don’t know what the words are, but the music said it.

    It was as if it had switched into major — we had a conversation (written, perhaps?) a long time ago about some other piece (of Kogan’s?) which went from major to minor, or minor to major, in the last bar, and I said it was typical of nusach but maybe couldn’t find any examples in time to buttress that. That’s not quite relevant, except as my own internal background for sort of hearing this go into major. Which of course it does not.

    This Kaddish was mostly statement rather than question. I didn’t think of despair, though upon re-reading your writing about it I suppose that it could be in there too. It’s stoic. It’s determined. It’s clear-eyed. And yes, it’s angry. But none of those words are nuanced enough, and what I need it really good writing and I don’t have it right now, it takes too long for this comment. And why I think I need to get the music into words is beyond me. Just listen to the Kaddish!

    • erin says:

      This one evoked grief in you; despair is what I felt when playing it. It’s working, this way of communicating. Yes, it’s stoic and determined. I see what is wrong in this situation with clear eyes, and I despair, because the way forward is anything but clear, and I also see people carrying on anyway, living their lives.

      About the major-minor switching: I thought perhaps Kogan’s piece for horn and piano, “Tfila,” which closed my master’s recital, matched that description, but I’ve just checked it, and it ends on A in open octaves—no chord, major or minor. That tends to sound empty, but it does also let the listener insert the major or minor third for herself.

      When a composer actually does switch a piece from minor to major in the final chord (or the final chord of a section), we refer to the major third (that would have been minor) as a “Picardy third.” These happen a lot in J.S. Bach’s inventions in minor keys, for example. The effect, especially when unexpected, can give you goosebumps.

      I do remember a conversation about major-minor ambiguity in Beethoven’s piano sonata #30 in E, op. 109. The first and third movements are in E major. Only the middle movement is in E minor, but even the outer movements are so intensely moody they come off as being in a minor key—but they aren’t. As is normal, all three movements pass through a sequence of key areas including plenty of minor chords, but that is not enough to account for the deeply mournful tone of the piece overall. It’s a piece that rarely fails to bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

      Anyone who has not heard it would do well to seek out a recording. I have and like Wilhelm Kempff’s on DG. I have it on good authority that Mitsuko Uchida’s is transcendant, but I have not yet had the pleasure. The one recording I really wish I could find is one that was never made—Bella Davidovich performing it live somewhere; I heard it on a Mostly Mozart broadcast of the CBC radio in the 1980s and it changed me.

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