Reckless DC Music: Yizkor: Music of Memory


Yizkor: Music of Memory


The reviews for the CD are just starting to come in. Here are some links to those that I know about:

"There is now a recording, "Yizkor: Music of Memory" by David Chevan and the Afro-Semitic Experience - original, resonantly melodic jazz settings of Jewish prayers and psalms -- that Mingus and I, if he were still here, could rise and share . . . never before have I heard this lyrically powerful a fusion of Jewish and jazz souls on fire. . . "
Jews and Blacks Join in This 'Yizkor'”, Nat Hentoff, October 7, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

 "Yizkor: Music of Memory, is nothing short of a major addition to the spiritual jazz canon" -Jeffrey Siegel, September 5, 2008, Straight No Chaser
David Chevan’s Different Kind of Soul Music,” by Jeffrey Siegel, September 5, 2008
Straight No Chaser

 "There's aching sadness in these sounds, but also release and hope. Perhaps the dynamic rises and falls of the band's underpinning of Mizrahi's vocal suggests the mourner's sighs, and the grooves suggest the realization of divine or cosmic order hidden in the chaos, but that's just one interpretation. The musical and cultural semiotics of the Hebrew text, Chevan's setting and the ensemble's multifaceted interpretation are provocatively broad." -Brian LaRue, New Haven Advocate
Local CDs”, by Brian LaRue, September 4, 2008
New Haven Advocate

"Like Duke Ellington and Airto meeting Mount Sinai" by George Harris in Jazz Weekly

Here are some links to online news articles about the work and  new CD:

Celebrating Remembrance”,  by Joseph Leichman, Aug 14, 2008
The Jewish Daily Forward

Spurred On By Loss”, by George Robinson, August 13, 2008
The Jewish Week

A Conversation with David Chevan,” by Jeffrey Siegel, September 11, 2008
Straight, No Chaser

Chevan, Byrd Reimagine Yizkor”, by Paul Bass,  September 26, 2008
The New Haven Independent

Some thoughts about Yizkor:
the history of the service and a bit about making the CD

In my liner notes for the Yizkor CD I wrote that I would have an extended essay about Yizkor, it’s history and some aspects of the writing of this album. Rather than wait until it is completed I have posted this essay in it’s raw form.  I need to add quite a bit more in the history section, but thought that some people might find what I had to say about the making to be of some interest. 

Yizkor is the name of the Jewish memorial service.  The word Yizkor means remember or remembrance. The service is observed four times a year, on Yom Kippur and on the last day of each of the three major Festival holidays: Sukkot, Shavuot and Passover.  The relatively brief service consists of psalm readings, silent prayers and some prayers that are recited out loud.  The service itself is relatively new to Jewish practice and its contents differ somewhat amongst the various Jewish sects.

The making of the Yizkor CD
The beginning: The Days of Awe
One result of my ongoing work with the Afro-Semitic Experience has been an increased interest to all aspects of Jewish music.  In particular I became interested in Hazzanut—the Jewish cantorial tradition.  I began to transcribe recordings of various Jewish cantors to try and get a deeper understanding of how turn-of-the-century cantors created their melodies and how they improvised.  At a certain point I realized that I had enough material transcribed that I thought it might be interesting to record a CD of jazz interpretations of cantorial music.  I put together a set of music that had originally been recorded by Hazzan Yossele Rosenblatt.  I began rehearsing with the Afro-Semitic Experience and with Frank London, the trumpet player of the Klezmatics.  We recorded the music in 2003.  All of the music was for the Jewish High Holy Days so I named the album, “The Days of Awe.” 

After recording and performing the music from “The Days of Awe” my interest in Hazzanut was quite strong.  I had learned so much as a result of working with that material and the recording had piqued the interest of a number of cantors.  As a result the group found itself occasionally accompanying cantors who sing hazzanut.  In particular this project introduced me to one of the leading practitioners of hazzanut, Cantor Jack Mendelson of Temple Israel Center of White Plains.  Cantor Mendelson is the hazzanut teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary and also at Hebrew Union College.  He invited us to accompany him for Selichot services and soon I began studying hazzanut with him privately.  But on my bass!!  He had me working with various cantorial prayer books and I began to learn the material that young cantors study as they learn their craft—I recorded one of those pieces, Katchko’s “R’tze” on the Afro-Semitic Experience’s Plea for Peace CD!! 

A number of life events spurred me to begin writing the music for Yizkor.  Those included the death of my great-aunt, the last living family member of her generation, and the deaths and near deaths of several friends.  I needed to write something to say goodbye to these people as well as good bye to an entire way of music making.  Although there are some cantors who do still sing hazzanut, there seem to be fewer of them now than ever before.  My goal was to compose a work that would incorporate this singing and melodic style in a way that would pay homage to that quickly disappearing world as well as make it possible for younger cantors to have a contemporary work that they could use to learn that style.  Even though I got to work with Alberto Mizrahi, who is an incredible singer, I wrote the music in such a way that a younger singer with less exposure to older cantorial styles would be able to sing what I wrote and sound as if they were familiar with hazzanut and, if they hit everything just right, as if they were improvising!!

We had given a concert in Chicago with Hazzan Mizrahi so he was already familiar with us when we began working on the CD.  Moreover we had worked on the music a great deal for nearly a year.  The cantor at my synagogue, Hazzan Martin Levson, would come to my house about once a week and we would work on what I had written. He’d sing the lines and then I would hear how things were unfolding.  I had to make quite a few changes in order to get the language to flow properly.  My familiarity with more of an African-American gospel style of singing didn’t always work in my favor. Hazzan Levson was always quick to point out the ways in which I was twisting the pronunciation of the words in ways that were not appropriate in a synagogue.  At first I was resistant, but as time progressed I began to understand more and more what was needed.

On April 16, 2007 we performed an early version of the work for Yom HaShoah—the Jewish Day for Remembrance of the Holocaust at Southern Connecticut State University with Hazzan Levson singing.  I found out after we finished the piece that it had multiple meanings for many of those who came to the program because some of the attendees were already aware of the massacre at Virginia Tech that took place earlier that day.   One of my colleagues wrote to me a day after the presentation, “[I]t is an eerie coincidence about the performance and the events of the day on Monday.  I found it particularly ironic that one of the victims at VTech was a holocaust survivor.  Maybe in some way Yizkor was for him.” 

If you are curious to hear the live performance from April 16, 2007, it is available online exclusively from oysongs.  You can hear samples of the concert or purchase the entire piece by clicking here.

I continued to revise the piece until we were ready to record it.  The band has had so much experience working with Cantors that we had little trouble figuring out our parts behind Hazzan Mizrahi.  Very often different members would come over while I was working with Cantor Levson on the original material and they were developing their parts during every rehearsal.  In addition, Warren and I traveled to Chicago and rehearsed with Hazzan Mizrahi—showing him how we were thinking of accompanying him on the pieces.

Hazzan Mizrahi had all of two days to record with us in New Haven.  He came in on a Sunday and we rehearsed the material in my basement.  On Monday we recorded all but one of the pieces for the CD.  Then we had just three hours on Tuesday to record the El Maleh Rakhamim—which is the most difficult and vocally demanding piece of the work.  It goes through many moods and is quite demanding for the cantor.  We were not sure we could finish recording the piece.  We hadn’t even rehearsed it when we got together on Sunday.  So that is what we did.  We stopped recording and rehearsed the music.  We rehearsed all of the sections of the piece over and over.  With less than 45 minutes left to the session we started to record the piece.  After a few false starts we did it.  We recorded two takes and then Hazzan Mizrahi had to leave.  He was expected in New York to give a workshop at The Jewish Theological Seminary and he couldn’t be late.

My skewed understanding of Hazzanut
My knowledge about Hazzanut is spotty and based upon my less than scientific study of the art form. There are a handful of good books that I have encountered on the subject that seem to be a little more systematic in their focus and research than my work. Though I have listened to a wide range of earlier recordings of the music, transcribed hazzanut, and read at least a few pages in the bibliography my observations could easily be different from those that would be made by an experienced cantor. 

How old is Hazzanut?  So far as I know it is a musical way of singing that is unique to the Ashkenazic tradition.  There is some limited evidence to suggest that Hazzanut is quite old, we have some older music manuscripts, but we only have recordings that go back to the beginning of the 20th century.  The way the singers on the earliest recordings inflect when they sing makes me want to believe that there is some connection to ancient Israelite singing.  That is probably just wishful thinking, but I do wonder at how much these earlier Ashkenzic cantors sing melodies with what feel like Middle Eastern nuances and at first blush sounded to me like muezzins. Moreover, it is clear from these earliest recordings that there was a style of hazzanut in existence that was less influenced by opera than the later style of Koussevitsky or even Rosenblatt (whose singing in my opinion is less operatic and quite populist in some respects).   The recordings of Hazzan Alter Karniol, made in the very early 1900s all exemplify this earliest singing practice.

The best cantors served as an intermediary between the congregation and God.  One observer described their singing as crying in melody.  What I hear with my modern ears is a mixture of out-of-time recitative, some improvisation, and tune.  The tunes often use quite distinctive modes predominantly with simple meters and many of these modes are derived from the same musical sources for what we now call klezmer music.  Some cantors, like Yossele Rosenblatt, seem to have made a point of including tunes in their settings of the prayers.  Others, like Hazzan Berele Chagy and to a lesser extent, Hazzan Zawel Kwartin are less tune centered and more acrobatic and technical in their use of embellishments and melismatic hazzanut.

For me, it is the out of time recitative that can be the most compelling part of the prayer.  It is when the cantor moves from singing a tune to focus on individual words that those amazing improvised (and worked out) highly ornamental melismas emerge.  Very often a cantor will focus on a few words and begin to repeat them adding melismas for emphasis.  In some ways this is similar to what a gospel singer does, it is just that gospel music more often stays in time.   By the 1950s and 1960s these extended moments of beseeching became more operatic, but earlier recordings displayed an earthier quality that demonstrated a connection to the ancient and there is an almost Islamic muezzin-like singing style present.  These Semitic elements are rarely present in modern cantorial singing and I suspect it is because most cantors do not come from the synagogue but are instead failed or rather second rate opera singers.  As a result it is very hard to find cantors who can really get inside the prayers as is needed to really sing hazzanut.

I haven ’t run into any literature that talks about tune type in the cantorial literature, but there do seem to be a number of distinct ways that the basic structure of a piece of Hazzanut is composed.  One distinction that some scholar noted is between melismatic and syllabic melodies.  The general rule is that wordier prayers tend to get fewer melismas though there are certainly exceptions.  In general most Hazzanut is sung as recitative.  The tunes that I have mostly found in the music sung by Rosenblatt really appear to be more the exception than the rule.  That use of tune was one of the significant elements that attracted me to his music and prompted my work on the music for the Days of Awe CD.  The interesting thing that I found with Rosenblatt was how skillfully his pieces shifted between these different ways of song making.

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