daily kaddish: as promised

Last night’s Kaddish addressed a situation involving hope that is bound up in despair. Tonight’s Kaddish was a dispirited mumbling-through; practice that was only practice.


Tonight’s Kaddish is a reading promised to Mira regarding a situation we discussed privately.

My goal in this Kaddish was to remain focused on the emotions of the situation in question while playing, in an attempt to infuse those emotions into the music. I wanted to make a change of approach, from focusing on the technical musical matters of rhythm, notes, pacing, phrasing, shape, and so on, in a technical effort to evoke particular emotions, to embodying those emotions directly and seeing what happened in the music as a result.

I viewed the opening statements and development sections as troubled wandering in the difficulty of the situation.

A new idea came to me about the stopped section (the “why is it stopped here? what does it mean?” spot). As I arrived at that spot, it occurred to me that I hear the questions we have about the use of stopped horn in the passage—the passage asks a question. So I asked the existential questions of the situation in mind as I played that passage: what does it mean? what is one to do?

I viewed the final section—what I’ve been thinking of as the affirmation—as grappling with the impossibility of making life-affirming choices in situations that come wrapped in engulfing sadness.

What are you supposed to do when the impossible might be possible? When the unspeakable has been spoken?

By 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…

9 replies on “daily kaddish: as promised”

I’ve been waiting to comment until I had heard the Kaddishim.

Erin, when you were in college you informed me quite firmly that you did not emote while you were playing; you worked out the emotions ahead of time and then portrayed them, as planned and practiced. I was dubious that it had to be that way — after all, I was already involved in presenting/performing liturgy, and I felt myself capable of experiencing and expressing emotions but not in a way that destroyed performance control — but accepted this as being either your way or the classical music way.

This is one of the most beautiful Kaddishim yet. Particularly how it begins. Just the first three notes are qualitatively different from anything I’d heard yet. And continuing. I’m not sure it maintains its uniqueness evenly all the way through, but that also may be my powers of attention (especiallyon this sleep-deprived day), not necessarily what’s there. I’m listening as I type, and it’s just — oh, lyrical, gentle, beautiful — I mean the notes themselves. How to explain? I don’t have the technical musical language and that’s not the only way to get it across anyway: Each note is so beautiful. And then there’s what’s beyond that, the phrases holding together. And succeeding each other, note after note, phrase after phrase. (Tsav ba-tsav, kav ba-kav. Isaiah?)

No, as we come to the end: It’s the whole thing. It holds me, and I feel it in my sternum and in my gut.

The stopped portion does sound here like it’s in the distance! Muezzin is a great idea.

I have to say some things about this piece, though, and this seems where they may fit. Mira, I read your bit about marching music, and my mother used to sing “Anu, anu haPalmach!” too. (And being a horn player myself in high school, albeit only for about 4 years and nothing, nothing like Erin!!!!!, I did get to be in marching band, and I loved that. It was always the best part of the football games I went to with my Dad, too. My sadness about being able to sing Shir haPalmach since I got back from Israel a month ago is a different story.) Anyway, pardon the digression — personal writing habit, and one I indulge when I’m writing to Erin, so you’re getting it too — I get a sense that this is new to you; you probably wrote about it earlier and I haven’t gone back and read those posts, focussing at first as I have been on Erin. But if this generally hasn’t been “your kind of music,” maybe this will be of interest and perhaps useful to you too:

25 years ago I tried to find a way to chant the words of Kaddish to this tune. I stopped pretty quickly; it would require mapping out the syllables and notes and spreading the syllables across the notes visually, I think, and that’s enough to tell me that it’s not a natural or easy fit. Not that I thought it through, I just didn’t bother to keep trying for more than a few moments at a time. Because if it fit well, then I would have been able to put it back together aurally pretty quickly, at least partially.

But I have always tried to hear those stopped notes as the congregational response. It comes in about the right place: יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא / Y’hey sh’mey raba m’varach l’olam ul’almey almayah. (Sepharadic pronounciation)

But it’s not. It’s exactly the right number of syllables (if you combine l’o into one syllable, which is permissible because technically it’s only a syllable and a half. Rules of medieval Hebrew Sephardic poetry, thank you Prof. Stephen Katz). But it’s still wrong. Because musically, it’s only half a phrase. And the liturgical phrase is not only complete, it spills over and claims the first word of the next paragraph, easing the leader back into his/her role. Hm. Come to think of it, since traditionally the leader would often be a mourner, that’s a great communal role.

So I have thought for 25 years, and I still think it sort of, that Lev Kogan got it wrong here. Audacious of me, no? But when it comes to nusach (Jewish liturgical chant), I trust my ear. I would have written it differently.

But as I said, this isn’t a melody for the words of Kaddish. Interesting, no? Yet it is so obviously a chant, with words underlying it.

The only recordings that come anywhere close to this one are the two from memory on Nov. 22 and 23. If there are others from memory earlier, I don’t have access to them [yet]. Erin, thank you for switching over to MP3s.

Uff Da: What are the ethereal bell sounds in the background? I suspect that the answer is going to be “a metal chain banging against the music stand” or something like that, but listen to it carefully. It punctuates the music very effectively and adds something mysterious and beautiful. Tell me I’m wrong — it was on purpose?

Regarding emotions, my reply gets its own whole post: “on emotions in performance.”

As for fitting the text to the music, I am eagerly awaiting your text and recordings so I can begin making my own attempt to fit it all together. If you’d like, I’ll send you a scan (a study part, not for performance—fair use under my understanding of copyright law) of the music so you can put it together visually as well as aurally.

How would you correct Kogan’s mistake? Would you make the subsequent passage also stopped horn, so that the whole phrase of text would belong to “that THING”?

One of these days I’ll convert the early recordings to .mp3, also.

The “ethereal bell sounds in the background” are none other than the jingling of the chain part of a Martingale collar, a rabies tag, and a City of Oakland dog license by my beloved furry brown IT staff, recording assistant, and running coach, known to the AKC as “Velvet Marquesa Kjersten Kjøttkaker.”

You’ll want to be sure to have a listen to my duet with her (kaddish_2010.11.17_cajunDog), too. Labrador retrievers have beautiful bass-baritone voices, and I think Kjersti’s singing voice is particularly impressive. She has a cute embouchure, too, especially when she’s doing one of her multi-octave glissandi.

I knew there was something else about Uff Da. I suspect that the experience of saying Kaddish daily is somewhat different. The experience of community, for one thing. The fact that it comes at the end of a service that you can’t get through in less than 15 minutes, for another (and that’s Minchah, the afternoon service, and generally followed immediately by Ma’ariv, the evening service, which means another 15 or 20 minutes. Morning is longer, half an hour, except Monday and Thursday which are Torah reading days so 45 minutes.

So you’re not on your own, you share the responsibility for the experience with the community, you’re not generating it yourself. And for people who do, there’s the communal ritual of laying tefillin and taking it off, which are kind of like being in the locker room and changing before and after swimming: Communal “asides” which are nevertheless shared activities that frame the main experience. As is the practice of giving tsedakah after morning minyan. You might find a way to work that in, you know. It’s not that everybody does every day. Depending on local custom, the pushke might just be there, or it might be circulated.

Mira, any tsedakah boxes among your father’s stuff? There are fantastic shapes and varieties of them.

So yeah, I’m sure that being there at 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning and then going to work, or stopping at the shul before you go home from work, in the dark and the wet and the cold, are annoying and tedious. But I bet that a real minyan and a Kaddish in its place in a service provide containers for creating and holding a rather different experience, even on cranky, crabby days. Because even if being in company and davvening don’t do it, there’s probably someone there who’ll smile at you and ask how you are.

The tzedakah boxes are all in the museum’s collection. There was a great exhibit of Israeli kitch that had lots of boxes. Also — that Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man, had a great scene in the Hebrew School classroom, with a prominent tzedakah box on the desk, and a map of ha-aretz strategically blocked by a lampshade. The tzaddik, strangely enough, went more for Berber jewelry (hamsas, amulets, fertility eggs, fibulas) which were made in Tiznit (north western Sahara in Morocco) by Jewish/Berber craftsmen. Spice boxes. Candlesticks, Rimonim. You name it.

More important, the tzaddik was great at saying kaddish for folks. For leading them in their kaddish, taking them into it. Even if they thought they didn’t really need it. He didn’t make a fuss — he just appeared, with his siddur, a kipah, yahrtzeit candles, and would light the candle, and recite. It always made people feel better. More grounded. What he’s say, is “Let’s give [him/her] a good send off!” And he’d do exactly that. A good send off… And for that, a minyan really helps…

Yikes! Thanks for raising the issue! It turns out that any member of the Dropbox folder has the power to change, delete, and rename the daily recordings, and in fact one member had done so… probably trying to clear up disk space. Oh, dear… restored now.

I do have a separate archive (including full-quality, large .aiff files), so I can restore them as needed, but I’d prefer that people didn’t do this and make it necessary. I’d like the entire archive to be available to people who join the minyan. This is only one way in which Dropbox is a less than ideal way to do this. I’m not going to pursue a technology switch now, though; I want to keep my focus on getting the rights to podcast this publicly. Stay tuned…

Mira — oh wow. I hesitate to say the following only because I don’t want to give the appearance of claiming what’s not mine; but everything, every time, you write about him, I feel like this is somebody I should have known, or would have known given half a chance. Wow.

Where would he appear? When? How wonderfully audacious. How just right. Maybe I should do that sometimes too.

Even though I have to be careful, because as rabbi I am weighty: weighty in the sense of baggage (hopefully others’), as opposed to the sense of the “weight” he obviously carried: that of /koved/ (Yiddish pronounciation), honor, respect freely granted. [For those who don’t know, the root of the word means “heavy, weighty.”] So I can’t get away with it quite as emotionally fuss-free as I bet he could.

Erin — “Cajun Dog” happens to be the first one I listened to!

Yes please send scan.

“Correcting” Kogan’s “mistake” — it can’t live outside of quotation marks, it is as he wrote it! — might entail continuing the stopped passage, but also rewriting it because it’s too long. Just for the fun of it, I may play with it. The day I was thinking about this (while doing goat chores in the barn in the morning), I remembered the next phrase wrong, shortened it greatly and kept splicing it together with that wonderful swoop up of an octave (which I think actually comes *before* the stopped passage?), and that worked because it reminded me of the Chassidic (or neo-Chassidic, I don’t know, I learned it by ear, though our Choir has a printed version and I could check) Kaddish that I used in services on Friday night, in which the communal response flows up an octave to introduce the next “leader” part.

Yes, that octave slur comes a few lines in. The stopped passage is a few lines from the end. In yesterday’s kaddish for healing, I continued the stopping through the line to the low D, and I’m wondering if that ends up making any more sense to you. The line that follows is a bit of a comment on the stopping, I think—one last wandering before taking a deep breath and playing the final affirmation.

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