Monday, February 11, 2008

Cantors Conference II

The conference was very interesting. Here are some of my reactions to it.

Cantor Beer, using standard, well-known tunes as taught in the Baal Tefillah track at the Belz school, gave some nice background on the modes and moods helping us to properly "interpret the words" (to use Rabbi Lookstein's phrase). There was a strong emphasis on the need to stick with nusach hatefillah, which has tied together Jewish communities for centuries. While Musaf Kedushah is often the "hit parade", one should bear in mind the nusach, the modes that have been used for centuries - minor (Mogen Ovos), "Jewish major" (7th step depressed a half-step), etc. when selecting tunes for the different lines of kedushah.

Also, each chatzi-kaddish in the davening has its own tune. As Cantor Goffin has noted before, the chatzi-kaddish before Shabbat musaf is not the same as the one after leining. Neilah is not the same as Tal/Geshem. Etc.

The Modzitz presentation was fascinating, I hadn't known so much about the conscious musical training of the Modzitzer rebbes. One even called his sons before him to test them on which knew the nusach and niggunim (yes, Modzitz emphasized their variant of standard nusach, not just the niggunim) to decide which should get the rebbeschaft. Cantor Motzen gave us a sample of a Modzitzer Friday night service, that could be "real"-chasidic, as opposed to the somewhat contrived Carlebach service. Also, Cantor Motzen feels that the Modzitz niggunim fit the words better, or can be made to fit better, than the standard Carlebach tunes.

For example, the Carlebach Mizmor leDovid is done in a gloomy minor mode, while Cantor Motzen uses a major, hence more cheery and fitting the words, tune. [Yes, people can argue, majestic not gloomy, still, both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tunes that I know for returning the Torah, are major, hence upbeat. -jjb] Enough with the crying all the time. It doesn't always fit. Even with the niggunim, though, nusach is emphasized - each psalm is sung, but the closing verses are done in the normal Shabbat night nusach, as appropriate to the community.

This is just another example of a repeated theme: do not sacrifice the text to the tune. The tune should fit the words. The tune should not mangle the grammar, or the emphasis of each verse. This is a problem many people have with the Carlebach davening - the tunes are adapted from other words, and don't quite fit the less-rhythmical meter of the psalms.

[This just in - Blog in Dm also discusses the Cantor Motzen's presentation]

Cantor Malovany's presentation was impressive as always, but by the same token, less useful to most cantors and baalei tefillah today. For example, a tune which he presented as simpler than his own compositions, from a chazan who was not into coloratura, well, he sang it in his usual ornate style. Further, as Cantor Goffin and Cantor Beer note, chazzonus has largely fallen out of favor, making way for the simpler baal-tefillah style.

Now, one can draw congregants into a space where they may appreciate chazzonus, says Cantor Malovany, by periodically interrupting the recitative with a simple sing-along melody, then you've co-opted them, and the chazzonus may reach them; but the current trend against repetition of words and phrases militates against trying this.

For example, when I was growing up, the High Holidays cantor would sing "berosh hashanah yikatevun, uvyom tzom kipur yeichateimun (2x)", three times during that paragraph of UnesanehTokef, as a sing-along refrain; today, because repetition has fallen out of style, most won't do that, and the paragraph becomes either a long tiring stretch of pure chazzonish recitative, or the chazan rushes through it so as not to bore people. In either case, some of the impact of its solemnity is lost.

Interestingly, all of the speakers noted that "this is how you can do this or that without repeating words." Clearly, for all of them, repeating words is not completely anathema, but one has to fit the style of the time. The conflict between the cantors' mesorah of repetition and the rabbis' textual opposition to repetition goes on.

Cantor Goffin and Cantor Joel Kaplan gave a good discussion of their issues with nusach hatefillah and its fading from prominence on the Nachum Segal show, JM in the AM. Give it a listen.


micha said...

FWIW, my own irritation at "Nusach Carlebach"'s not reflecting the mood or the phrasing of the words is one reason why I ran a "singing minyan", not a "Carlebach minyan".

I also noticed, at least in my hometown, that the general notion of singing Qabbalas Shabbos to get "into" it has degenerated among the Carlbachians into using the tunes found in Shabbos in Shamayim as a weekly ritual. Changing passion into a new, longer, routine.


I'm not sure how much I should be bothered by the loss of nusach hatefillah during Qabbalas Shabbos. It's not like saying the words themselves is all that ancient.

Second, RSCarlebach isn't in general all that Litvish. Yeshivish minyanim use hartzig, Deveikus-like (the group) tunes, such that even Keil Adon comes out like a lament rather than regal. It's unfair and inaccurate to generalize from Mizmor leDavid to claim that Carlebachers are similarly dreary.

Last, I would not lament the loss of traditional nusach. I would lament the loss of traditional kavanah. If playing with tunes helps compensate for that loss, I would prefer to see far more creativity than allowing rote to continue in the name of mesorah.


thanbo said...

Nusach seems to be just one factor in the ongoing attempts to bring kavvanah. Familiarity breeds contempt, which gets people to do the hit parade at kedushah, or the occasional Carlebach davening. On the other hand, unfamiliarity breeds confusion in many people, so nusach itself is a reminder of whatever good feeling one has about the davening - people like what they're familiar with. And when I say familiar, I mean familiar - Idelsohn has found some of our tunes documented back into the 1100s, such as High Holidays maariv, and Festival maariv. It's a real tie to our early Ashkenaz ancestors.

It's the same with book publishing, particularly science fiction or mysteries - "genre publishing". Do you write a new novel in a new setting, or do you write a new story in your old setting, knowing that you have so many fans, it will sell - they like the familiar, and it's less work for you to create a new setting.