Songs and Psalms
After 17 years in Israel, our family has temporarily relocated to Brooklyn. For a week after we arrived, our pious Jewish neighbors ignored us. Then, on Shabbat, three of them finally approached us, one after another—to tell us that the neighborhood eruv we were using really didn't exist and that we were profaning the Sabbath. In Israel, Jewish nationhood is in the air; you can forget that Jews around the world don't feel the same way. Here, you'll find people who are devoted to learning Torah or observing the commandments or who proudly proclaim their "Jewish identity." But Jews who dig Jews—Haredi, modern Orthodox, secular, and points in between? There aren't too many.
Still, every side has its flip side, and with freedom animating the atmosphere, American Jews who are passionate about being Jewish sometimes link their lives to the Jewish people in wonderfully surprising ways.
Daniel Asia is a celebrated American composer of modern classical music. He is also a passionate Jew who for many years has explored Jewish texts and themes through his music. Asia's recent album Of Songs and Psalms: Symphony No. 5, commissioned for Israel's 60th birthday, uses religious texts and the work of two Jewish poets, Asia's long-time creative partner, Brooklyn-born Paul Pines, and, in English translation, the late Israeli icon Yehuda Amichai. The result is a delicately nuanced, arrestingly sincere musical interpretation of ancient and modern Jewish verse. It is also a fascinating portrait of a secular transatlantic Jewish sensibility that responds to "man's uneasy place in the universe" by engaging in a dialogue with the God whose existence it doubts.
When most people—even cultivated ones—hear the phrase "modern classical music," they instinctively reach for the off switch. But Asia doesn't write atonal "serial" music or long-form, minimalistic vamps. Calling himself a "neo-romantic," he belongs to what Terry Teachout calls the "new tonalists," composers united by a love of the classical tradition and the desire to extend it. In order to make his varied emotional statements, Asia employs sources ranging from the more thoughtful serialists to elements absorbed from his early time as a jazz musician.
Songs and Psalms is a 15-part composition that makes its statements through a striking juxtaposition of the holy and profane. It opens with Psalm 115, sung in Hebrew by a choir, then turns to Pines' and Amichai's poems, performed by tenor and bass-baritone soloists. These earthly ruminations, on mortality, Brooklyn and Jerusalem, enemies, love, necessity, rebellion against and longing for God, fear, and exile, alternate, allowing each poem, Asia says, "to comment on, or allude to, the other." This alternation is interrupted mid-stream by the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd . . . "), sung by the choir in English, and concludes with "Barukh Adonai L'Olam" from the morning prayer service, in Hebrew.
The symmetry of placing the liturgical pieces at the beginning, middle and end of the song cycle echoes Asia's 2003 Sacred and Profane, an abstract, electro-acoustic music cycle featuring sayings of Hasidic masters at the beginning, middle and end. The stark contrast between sacred and profane, a signature of Asia's art, also marks the Asia-Pines 2002 song cycle Breath in a Ram's Horn and Pines Songs. The special virtue of classical music, Asia said during a recent visit to the Tikvah Fund, is its capacity to tell a story over time. The musically "sacred" moments are preceded by "profane" moments; instead of getting the quick "high" of a musical hook, you must first invest energy in paying close attention to what's happening in the musical world around you. Then, when the sacred moments arrive, they are that much more profound.
This principle is on display in the opening to Songs and Psalms, a thickly orchestrated Hebrew-language choral performance of Psalm 115, "Adonai Z'kharanu." The sound is oceanic and unsettled; when the punch comes and the dissonant, questioning lines are resolved into consonance, you experience not a hook but a well-earned high, a sacred moment:
Indeed, Asia's 5th symphony as a whole is characterized by an unsettled, questioning quality—a "psalmic sensibility," as Pines puts it, a "a longing after the transcendent father" with a depth that "opens the doors of perception." Pines explored his connection with his parents in a poem beginning, "My father's name was . . . ." and in Ram's Horn, Asia cast the poem in pseudo-Hasidic garb, giving it a humorous and affecting interpretation:
"My Father's Name"
Just as affecting is Asia's recasting, in Songs and Psalms, of Amichai's poem "Through Two Points Only" as a song with a Gershwin-like feel, rendered by Chrias Pedro Trakas' baritone soul:
"Through Two Points"
Songs and Psalms is wonderful music, and Asia is to be highly commended for portraying a global Jewish sensibility in text, rhythm, and tune. Moreover, his sincerity is doubly refreshing in our time of post-modern ironic poses. But with our virtues come vices, and I found Asia's interpretation of Psalm 23 excessively sincere. Asia emphasizes the "valley of the shadow of death" with music that grows powerful and dark. But this is a well-known text with a well-known meaning; the emphasis is hardly necessary.
And it is strange, coming from Israel, to hear the Hebrew language restricted to religious texts while the "profane" is given over to English. Didn't Zionism take the book of Psalms out of the hands of that righteous woman, the Hebrew language, and teach her how to buy vegetables in the shuk? And Amichai in English? Amichai's impact comes precisely from his subtle subversion of Hebrew's religious power to make the language of the Bible illuminate a secular universe.
Of course, Asia could not have successfully presented Amichai in Hebrew to an English-speaking audience. But this limitation makes one wonder how Asia's 5th symphony would go over in Israel. Songs and Psalms was originally scheduled to be performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, but the engagement didn't pan out. That's a shame, because Amichai in Hebrew would only deepen the ambivalent relationship with religion, the longing and the distance, that Asia's latest work so adeptly portrays.