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.