The bulk of my composition work has been for worship in the synagogue. When writing music for the purpose of praying, I feel it is my primary responsibility to convey the meaning of the text. This is usually a challenge when setting works in Hebrew, because for American congregations, by and large Hebrew is not an understandable language. It is an emotional or spiritual language to be certain, but its literal meaning, syntax, grammar, etc. is lost on American synagogues.
Being a fluent Hebrew speaker myself, as well as a student of liturgy, I feel it is my duty to inhabit the history, context, and content of the Hebrew Prayerbook so that I may transmit its gravity and import to a community whose main understanding of the siddur will be via musical interpretation.
I hear many today who write synagogue music and attempt to “update” the sound of the shul, usually by setting prayers to folk, rock, or pop melodies. I believe this is unfortunate. First, there are already many writers of folk, rock, and pop melodies who do so with much more success in the secular musical world, that to do so in worship becomes an echo of something decent. Second, popular music lends itself primarily to metric poetry. Very few Hebrew prayers are written in any sort of meter. Case in point: L’kha Dodi, whose “chorus” has a very clear rhythm, has verses which are asymmetrical. Yet many have tried to squeeze its verses into simple forms, and the text becomes subsumed by the music. Third, and most importantly, modern popular musical forms were conceived of for the purposes of either storytelling or emotional release. To write for prayer is to draw attention to values and ideas both earthly and Divine. As such, simply singing a deep and profound prayer text to a tune by the Beatles diminishes both the Beatles and the prayer.
But at the same time, music has power which transcends text. For example, the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Kol Nidrei, from a liturgical standpoint, is a prayer from an age during which Jews were forced to renounce their birth faith in order to stay alive. They would then ask forgiveness specifically for this sin with the words of the Kol Nidrei. Thankfully, we live in a world in which we are not forcibly converted out of the faith, and yet the evening of Yom Kippur is called “Kol Nidrei” specifically because of this prayer. Why? Because of the haunting melody. To go through Yom Kippur without having heard that descending melodic line is as to not have prayed on Yom Kippur at all. The same might be said for the US National Anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote his words after he watched the bombing of Fort McHenry by British ships during the War of 1812. Few Americans, when pressed, will know this. And yet it remains our National Anthem–in no small part due to the melody, written by English composer John Stafford Smith, who wrote the tune for “The Anacreontic Song.” Despite knowing this, the emotions associated with our National Anthem are powerful and profound, and have transcended its origin as did the Kol Nidrei.
When I write for the synagogue and prayer, I like to tap into that emotional power. I rely on the musical language of Ashkenazi Jews: Nusakh HaT’fillah. The term, which literally means “The version of the prayers,” refers to a complex of modes, modalities, scales, and musical motifs which have pervaded Ashkenazi Jewish prayer for several centuries. To me, they simply sound the most “Jewish.” Once more, if one wishes to hear popular musical forms, one simply has to listen to the radio, turn on the TV, go to the theatre… but if one wants to experience the music of the synagogue, one must attend the synagogue. It is the only place to experience that genre of music, as well as its close association with Jewish prayer.
At the same time, I live in an America which is growing and changing. Jewish music did evolve over many years, drawing influences from the dominant culture. My aim is to rely on the sounds of the modern era, and at the same time temper those sounds with the ancient melodies and harmonies which can be defined as structurally Jewish in nature.
Once in that mind set, everything is set aside as I scrutinize the text of the prayerbook and seek out inspiration for a melody that hopefully will inspire the ones to convey the melody, as well as those who will experience it. This cannot be taught. If one thinks about it, much of human invention—art, dance, theatre, music—was all “made up!” What was preserved for millennia was the art which spoke to us then and continues to speak to us now. This is why the music of Mozart, Bach, and Handel are still performed today. This is why we still sing Kol Nidrei. And it is why today, when a melody is created which touches so many across generations, it will be preserved for tomorrow.
What is important for everyone to consider is that composing prayer music is really an exercise in reflection. Each of us can—and should!—do it. The prayers in the prayerbook do not change. It is we who change. Thus, the values, ideas, and emotions which the prayer can express can be rendered in a multiplicity of ways, each of us having our own song to sing out our hopes and dreams.
Our charge is to engage in the discipline of prayer. It forces us to confront that which is most valuable and valued in our lives and in the world. When we feel we are at the nadir of our existence, we rely on others to inspire us to leave the darkness; when we are lighter and embracing life, it is on the wings of our songs that others might be buoyed.
Let us all find our inner voice, embrace the world and all its challenges. And may our music reach the heavens and inspire us all to make the world whole.