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.