When the Levees of Music Dried Up

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 14, 2019 / 11 Sivan 5779

Next week, as a last minute opportunity, we will have the chance to hear from Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who is the Director of the Masorti [Conservative] Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel (the organization of Masorti/Conservative rabbis). Please stay tuned for details.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses two great cultural losses, one in antiquity and one more recently. He connects those losses with the state of music in today’s synagogues.

Two thousand years ago, the Great Library of Alexandria caught fire. When the flames went out, scattered ash was all that remained of its countless scrolls of history, philosophy, science and culture. While the facts of who caused the fire are unclear, it seems reasonable to imagine that up to a half million books or so disappeared from the human record. We can’t ever know what was lost. Had the library survived, and its scrolls been periodically recopied, our understanding of the ancient world might be completely different. Moreover, it is possible that an entire sector of human history might have traveled another path; the western world might look substantially different. But that’s the thing with such a tragic loss—we can’t ever know.

Three days back, the world learned of another equally severe loss. This one happened eleven years ago, but it just came to light through the careful journalistic research of Jody Rosen. His feature article appeared in the June 11th New York Times Magazine and was entitled “The Day the Music Burned.” If you care at all about music, it’s worth looking up.

The short story is that a backlot of Universal Studios caught fire on June 1, 2008. Included among the buildings and film archives was Building 6197, which was known as the video vault to workers there. What was reported at the time was that while many tapes of movies were burned, copies of them all were preserved elsewhere in the public domain.

Within 6197, however, was a smaller domain of 2400 square feet; what burned within it escaped the notice of the press at the time, in part because of effective crisis management by Universal Studios. We now know, however, that Building 6197 contained a sound recording library of “some of the most historically significant material owned by UMG, the world’s largest record company.”

Lost in the fire were master tapes by artists like Yoko Ono, Al Jolson, Patsy Cline, Tupac Shakur, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Chuck Berry. The list goes on: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and Eric Clapton; Jimmy Buffett, REM, Tom Petty, Beck and Sheryl Crow. Personal Jazz favorites of mine such as Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Alice Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. The list goes on…

For those unfamiliar with the term, a master tape is the one-of-a-kind original recording of a piece of music. It is the source from which vinyl records, MP3s and CDs are made. While in some cases, we still possess the music of those artists in one of those lower quality formats, the world also lost countless unreleased works of musical genius. According to a confidential report, UMG (Universal Music Group) estimated that they lost approximately 500,000 song titles. About the size of the Library of Alexandria. As with that fire, we won’t ever know what is missing. We won’t know if entire styles of music, too radical for their day, were kept there only to have been lost forever. All we can say with certainty is that on June 1, 2008, much beauty disappeared from our world, never to be regained. We are all impoverished for that loss.

We ought to be more than impoverished, however. We ought to be outraged that UMG didn’t have proper safeguards in place. We should be livid that they didn’t create duplicates and store them in a secure location. UMG may have owned the rights to the music, and therefore the profit to be garnered from said music. But that ownership had an implicit if unenforceable assumption that they had a responsibility to the public and the artists to preserve the oeuvres of America’s greatest musicians. UMG lost a king’s ransom of gold on that day. We lost a crucial part of our culture.

Someone ought to advocate that music companies maintain their property in a proper archival setting. I am praying that someone leans on our politicians to enact legislation that will prevent this. Perhaps by requiring all music companies of a certain size to make duplicate masters. One copy could be kept by the Smithsonian, just as publishers submit a book copy to the Library of Congress. If anyone is so motivated to do so, feel free to use these words in that venture. It’s a bit beyond the scope of this rabbi to take this on, but if my words can encourage someone else in their efforts, they are yours for the asking.

The UMG fire may have been caused by human negligence, and by an unwillingness to invest in more robust fire protections. But how should we appraise the loss and destruction of musical culture that occurs by indifference and willful ignorance? I am thinking specifically of the state of contemporary Jewish music.

On the one hand, we live in an age of much musical vibrancy. Contemporary Israeli musicians are actively composing in all genres, and Israelis have won the Eurovision song contest four times. In the arena of Jewish liturgy, much new music has been written over the past decades. Our own Cantor Eyal Bitton has composed any number of moving settings and new compositions.

Additionally, new musical approaches to services have been promulgated by congregations such as B’nei Jeshurun and Hadar in NYC. Rabbi Sharon Brous at Ikar in Los Angeles has tilted to a percussion-heavy wall of voice and sound. Joey Weissenberg, now in Pennsylvania, has done strong work bringing the Hasidic world of the niggun (wordless melody) to a larger audience and incorporating these niggunim (plural of niggun) into prayer. In fact, a couple of years back for a few months, we experimented with many of his melodies during our “Tefilla Lab” days. (While that is an approach to prayer that spoke to some of us, it wasn’t a musical language of prayer that spoke to our community as a whole.)

On the other hand, even though there is exciting new music appearing in parts of the larger Jewish community, there is a simultaneous decline in much of the liturgical music many congregations choose to use. In ages past, Jewish sacred music featured rich, complex and soulful melodies. These compositions, like the sacrifices in the Temple of old, were meant to be an offering of the best we had.

In today’s world, fewer of us receive training or have an opportunity to take musical appreciation classes in our schools. My seventh and eight grade music appreciation teacher, Clayton Miller, permanently changed my life for the better by exposing my classmates and me to music of all genres and teaching us something about musical structure. I owe him a lifelong debt for how much musical pleasure I have enjoyed on account of his pedagogy. Unfortunately, my public school experience may increasingly be the exception.

So much of the American Jewish community therefore approaches liturgical music in the same way we approach pop music. Melodies with a simple, repetitive beat and a catchy hook are what we know best—sometimes all we have been exposed to—and we close our hearts and ears to music that demands more of us, but can also offer us more. In fact, when we hear more complex liturgical music, we often call it a performance, not understanding how to tap into the depth of emotion and spirituality it contains. We blame the music, rather than hearing it as an invitation to deepen our own knowledge and appreciation.

Clearly there’s room for a wide range of liturgical composition. There should be a rainbow of musical options in every service. Indeed, when we look at the words of the liturgy itself, we are asked to ride waves of emotion that take us from moments of elation into the somber tones of loss. Our music ought to do the same. We need simple and direct melodies. Whether we recognize it or not, our souls also need to linger on music that makes demands of our emotions and spirits.

To do otherwise is to create another fire of loss, this time sparked by our ignorance.

May the birds of Shabbat serenade you this weekend,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What song changed your life? Is it connected to an important moment in your life?
  2. Can we be impoverished by a loss we don’t know about? Or must we feel the loss to suffer it?
  3. Can you think of a song that at first you weren’t into, but that grew on you as you heard it repeated? What about songs you liked which grew flat after too many repetitions?
  4. What is your first musical memory?
  5. Do you regularly sing Shabbat zemirot at the Sabbath table? Why or why not?

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