on how a memoirist changes a musician


Where is the place that you get lost? Is it the stopped horn bit? The fourteen notes with a distant, pinched, buzzy sound, and then the normal horn tone returns? Then there’s a phrase, then a restatement of the second big line of the piece, then the climb to the ending?

I’m doing musicology on the piece now. I’m only partway there; it’s a draft that needs more time and thought.

I worry, though, that a musicological analysis will colonize your brain, as decades of musical training have colonized mine, and it will take something away from your way of hearing, seeing, feeling the piece on your own terms. But I also worry that if I don’t start capturing my present view of the piece, it will be lost to history, because the piece is already changing through this exchange with you.

Your first midrash—your words that sparked this whole adventure—has changed how I understand the ending of “Kaddish,” you know.

When I first learned the piece and researched Kaddish, I didn’t know what to make of these words that don’t say a damned thing to comfort our terrible loss. As I’ve written, I guessed that Kaddish was one of those generic prayers that was used by mourners perhaps by custom rather than apparent relevance or usefulness. God knows there’s a lot of religious behavior meeting that description. Having thus abandoned the text as being of much use to me, I decided to grapple with the music on its own terms.

I found a Jewish chant that was mournful, slow, free, and haunting. I went with that idea and explored ways to bring out those characteristics. What I found was modal music, free (additive) rhythm that was notated with Western metrical rhythm but probably not meant to be played that way, and dynamic and tempo indications that suggest a general pacing and structure for the piece.

Clearly it was mournful. Kogan wrote music that evokes grief in many of its forms, including numbness, sadness, anger, lostness, despair, confusion, and even strength—perhaps triumph, or more likely stubborn will to live. When I’ve played the piece up until recently, I’ve felt it wandering in the areas of numbness, despair, and confusion. Most of the piece works in those moods. 

But the ending—the last long phrase, building up to the highest note and then stepping down through five final notes—has puzzled me.

The ink on the page doesn’t necessarily confuse me—it’s just those notes, in approximately the rhythm you’ve heard me playing, with a crescendo (increasing loudness), a fermata (holding the top note for indefinite length), and a ritardando/decrescendo (slowing and softening) to the end. But the way that phrase naturally feels to me, as a trained musician with many centuries of (mostly Western) music steeped into the folds of my grey matter, who understands phrasal structure in both an oral tradition that is beneath conscious understanding, and the way my educated analytical frame of mind thinks about the phrase, is different from the phrases that come before.

Until this point in the piece, the phrases have been long, wandering, contemplative. They linger on points of pain, sorrow, tiredness. They move more quickly through fragmented statements of will, questions, wishes.

But here, they reach. They stretch into a full, declarative sentence. An imperative. They proclaim.

State what, proclaim what, I could never figure out.

So I did my best with it—I drove up through the line, to a loud, strong, long high g”, and then I stepped down slowly, tentatively, landing on the long final e” with finality but not much conviction. A stopping point only because eventually we stop, not because we felt done.

That made a certain amount of sense to me. After all, grieving is like that. We don’t stop crying because we feel better. We just stop, eventually, because we can’t continue forever. We tire ourselves out. We get interrupted. Someone else’s needs demand our attention. Some other need of our own interrupts and takes over. It varies, but we do stop. We grieve in intervals, we cry in intervals, and we carry with the other truths and feelings and thoughts of our lives in the time between intervals.

Now I understand it entirely differently, and it affects my understanding of the whole piece.

I quote you again, the passage of your midrash that kept me up all night writing my response, your passage whose aftershocks find us now here:

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

Now I understand the piece differently. I still hear most of it as a wandering in the terrible loss. Seeking comfort, asking questions, inhabiting despair. And in the final lines, I hear the mourner gathering strength, taking a deep breath, deciding to live. Proclaiming—something. Making that display. Adhering to faith, or practice. Making a public affirmation, a show of strength, in the face of loss. That last line is the proclamation; it drives to the g” and holds onto it. This is me, affirming. The final five notes that follow are the period on the sentence, the “ve imru, amein” on the prayer.

Because I now hear the ending this way, I also hear the rest of the piece differently. Still a wandering in sorrow, yes; still asking questions, yes. But also gathering strength, drawing in breath, preparing emotionally to make a statement. Looking for the strength to make a statement. Finding it, or deciding to assert it anyway. Sometimes I hear those fourteen stopped notes as the last question: “Can I do this? Do I have the strength to affirm?” After that question, a final statement of the pain, with a gathering conviction. And then the affirmation, and the amein.

Your words have changed my music, already.

Thank you.



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  • Comments (7)
  1. I’ve been hearing the Kaddish’s storyline just as you do at the end, in words and music both.

    This dialogue is becoming such a beautiful testimony to emotional authenticity and survival.

  2. PS – Isn’t it time to change your blog’s name to something wider than the now-surreal “kitchen”? :-p

  3. Thank you–and wow.

    So glad to have you join the minyan.

    Yes, a new joint blog with M’s title, “kaddish in two-part harmony,” is on the way… Stay tuned!

    • mira
    • Nov 12th. 2010 10:51pm

    Most of my response is in the email that I sent you, but here I have something else to say. So yes, I do get lost in the same spot after wandering in places I both know and don’t know. I’m pretty comfortable in the first part, and then bam — I’m in deep trouble. You’ve stranded me in a landscape I just can’t navigate!

    It’s my own history with ‘music’ that’s partly to blame. When I was a kid my dad would put on ‘Anu, anu ha-palmach” and other Haganah songs, and we’d march in a rectangle around the dining room table. Marching was very comforting — music to put one foot deliberately in front of the other, for purpose. This led me (briefly) to want to be a Marine…).

    So, much of the music I’m drawn to is pretty heavy handed with the beat. Not subtle at all. (I’m also partial to minors over majors, just to reaffirm the breaking my heart).

    I’m also partial to qawali and drupad music. The latter, like Indian ragas, is tied to the time of day and season of the year. That certain notes, and phrases, if played and heard at the wrong time could make your house fall down, or worse — rend the universe itself. So, timing is important.

    When you record your kaddish and switch the time of day, everything changes. But I don’t know how or why. And of course the time of my listening.

    I’ve tried to write my side of the harmony at the same time each day — around midnight — to keep the timing as constant as possible. Believe me, a morning or noontime kaddish would surely be an alien creature.

    I think the kaddish you play me each night is meant to force me to wander inside the unfamiliar landscape of your horn. The fact that I struggle is fine — my visions are not a complaint, they’re simply a description of the landscape!

    Not about you. Not about me. Just about the material at hand.

    • Reb Deb
    • Nov 30th. 2010 5:04pm

    I’ve never understood those ending notes either.

    There’s a story — I don’t know the provenance, having heard several, but it may be medieval, and in my mind is linked to Crusades or Inquisition. The Jew who has lost everything to disastrous incursions from the (probably Christian) world: livelihood, home, family, all possessions. Washed up shipwrecked on a desolate shore.

    Turns to God and, shaking fist, says, “You can’t do it! You’ve tried every way in Your power to make me lose my faith in You! You have stripped me of everything, you have harried me, burdened me, laid grief after grief upon me, all in an attempt to try my faith. WELL IT WON’T WORK! YOU CAN’T STOP ME BELIEVING, YOU CAN’T STOP ME PRAYING, YOU CAN’T STOP ME CLAIMING YOU AS MY GOD.”

    That’s a different kind of “Amein.” Your writings above freed me to notice the potential of anger in that final Amein. It’s why the quiet dying away performance never really made sense to me. And it’s beyond/different from the squaring your shoulders and going on that is an affirmation and a statement, as you wrote.

    But it’s not the usually-expected anger of grief, either.

    The story is also quoted in “Yosl Rakover Talks To God,” which see.

    Thank you. I am going to be listening with different ears again.

  4. I’m delighted that you’re hearing different things. I am finding different things in the music, too.

    It’s an interesting process, this ritual of a daily Kaddish. I began it with some trepidation, fearing that after a few weeks of regular work on it, I’d just be repeating a performance that I grew increasingly sick of. Instead I’m finding new things in it myself, through the comments people are making, and from thinking about and feeling the piece in the context of the topics we’re writing.

    Zoe made an interesting comment on this post on our joint blog (http://beitmalkhut.org) about the last note dimuendoing a niente as reminding her of the moment life slips away into death.

    I’ll be interested to know your reactions—yes, yours in particular, Deb—to yesterday’s Kaddish mash-up (2010.11.29).

    An angry “amein.” Interesting. I’m charged with playing a bitchy Kaddish tomorrow and might try that tonight as well. Thank you. I’m going to be playing with different ears again.

    • Reb Deb
    • Dec 1st. 2010 12:00am

    This should be cross-posted on BeitMalkhut, if it isn’t.

    Of course angry! Kaddish is for weeping and cursing and calling out and reviling (See Aaron Zeitlin’s poem, first line of which in translation “Praise Me, says God…” Translation by Emanuel Goldsmith.) It’s for being too numb or weary or wrung-out to notice or care (and I actually wanted to point that out in response to your “Uff Da” Kaddish, but it’s getting harder and harder to track where I’m reading what I’m reading, much less the comments; in fact the only reason I finally remembered that that’s the current post is by mentally cross-referencing it with the recursive programming problem we were talking about/commenting upon on Facebook). Kaddish takes on all the emotions around grieving.

    Another God-related grieving anger: “You don’t exist and I hate You!”

    So much more to say.

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