From the Academy: Musicology

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Judah Cohen serves as The Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and as an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University in Bloomington. His first book, Through the Sands of Time (2004), explores the history of the small Jewish community on the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His second book, The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment, will be published by Indiana University Press this fall with an accompanying CD. Cohen’s research impressively combines ethnographic and historical approaches to the question of how sound enriches modern Jewish life and culture.

What counts as Jewish music?

To me, people are what make music—or anything—Jewish. I begin with the assumption that people can bring ideas of Judaism to any kind of music or sound they deem appropriateJudah Coheniate. Once they do that, however, people then often need to justify their choices by building up historical, Biblical, cultural, or musical explanations for their actions. (And consequently, people will often use the same criteria to explain why competing forms of Jewish music are less authentic.) What’s most useful, I’ve found, is asking why people feel it’s important to define certain forms of musical expression as Jewish. Understanding the values involved in making music “Jewish” opens up a rich and vibrant window into the life of a community and its own sense of Jewish identity and history.

How does the study of Jewish music differ from the study of other musical traditions?

Theoretically, studying Jewish music mainly requires an open mind and a willingness to learn how to see the world through the eyes (and ears) of others. That’s not as easy as it seems, though, since our ears are often trained from early on to accept certain sounds as good, elite, or profound, and other sounds as bad, popular, or superficial. Jewish music poses particular challenges, since most of the scholars who study it identify as Jews themselves (this is less the case with Chinese music or Javanese music), and face some sort of personal stake in their projects. Developing the skill to stay true to one’s own beliefs while effectively studying and describing the closely held beliefs of others as represented through sound poses for a significant challenge for Jewish music study.

Pragmatically, Jews’ status as both insiders and outsiders to Western culture requires music scholars to straddle a combination of fields, including historical musicology (the study of Western art music), ethnomusicology (often associated with non-Western music), and Jewish studies. As a result, I need to maintain a palette of cross-cultural analytical techniques (musical and non-musical) that I can apply to my work as the needs arise. In actual research, it’s mainly a process of listening carefully, and then using (or learning from others) the forms of analysis best suited for the music or population studied.

What insights can the study of music provide into Jewish culture more generally?

Music, at its most basic level, is just a succession of traveling sound waves. That makes it a dazzlingly pliant canvas upon which to apply ideas of Jewish identity and practice: any kind of sound can mean anything, and that meaning can change from one moment to the next. Sensitively exploring how people determine the sounds they make to be “Jewish,” therefore, or how they link sounds to certain images, ideas, or senses of history, can lead to remarkably intimate portraits of Jewish culture.

At the same time, music provides an ever-present soundtrack to Jewish life that surviving texts hint at, but often miss. That soundtrack has helped Jews pray, accompanied Jewish celebrations, and pervaded Jews’ everyday lives. It’s a different mode of communication that is more vibrant than language, yet much more complex to pin down.

Are there particular challenges facing students who want to study Jewish music?

In Western society, music tends to receive the status of a leisure activity, a realm reserved for specialists, and a form often intellectually subservient to the written word. Many scholars have adopted similar attitudes: often pegging music as the “fun” topic, professing non-musicality as an excuse for avoiding engagement with sound, and relying heavily on texts as a determinant for scholarly rigor. Many simply don’t know how to incorporate music meaningfully into the pursuit of knowledge. Students who want to study Jewish music consequently need to be ready to build interdisciplinary bridges with sound: demonstrating compellingly to non-specialists how sound factors profoundly into ideas about Jewish life and culture.

Among music specialists, meanwhile, Jewish music study holds an ambivalent position between “Western” and “non-Western” music (quite like Jews themselves, historically). Jewish music as a hiring category thus falls between the cracks of the already small musicology job market: too exotic for historical musicology, often too Western for ethnomusicology, and yet acknowledged as important to both.

How did you find yourself attracted to this field?

I grew up in a family that loved to sing; my parents led children’s services at my synagogue; my cantor inspired me to take on musical challenges during services; and I excelled at piano and musical theater in high school. In college, my focus shifted to a non-performance music major, which I combined with a separate major in religious studies. During my junior year, I was roped into the musical directorship of a new a cappella group devoted to Jewish and Israeli music (Yale’s Magevet): my research on Jewish music of all genres for that group, combined with my music professors’ encouragement to apply to programs in ethnomusicology, led me to start my graduate training at Harvard University. I do not for a day regret my decision.

What do you see as the future of the field?

Jewish music study faces a wonderfully bright future. The field is lucky to have both a venerable, active group of senior scholars, and a young, dynamic cohort of junior scholars. Together, they are reframing the field to create a more effective interdisciplinary dialogue with scholars in other fields, while taking on a vibrant range of research projects that provide exciting new insights into the relationship of Jews and musical expression.

If someone wanted to know more about where the study of Jewish music is going, what would you recommend he/she read, or see, or listen to?

There are many wonderful works out there now. For a study of music in central European Jewish life, Philip Bohlman’s Jewish Music and Modernity offers a brilliant discussion both historically and theoretically. Edwin Seroussi and Motti Regev’s book Popular Music and National Culture in Israel offers fascinating insight into the development of Israeli popular music. Kay Shelemay’s Let Jasmine Rain Down provides a wonderfully nuanced exploration of music and memory among Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Mark Slobin’s Fiddler on the Move opens a key discussion of the new klezmer scene. Ellen Koskoff’s Music in Lubavitcher Life sheds important light onto the use of nigunim (sanctified melodies) within Chabad Lubavitch. And Jeffrey Summit’s The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land asks important questions about why people choose the melodies they choose in a synagogue setting. All these works portray music as intricately woven into the social, historical, and cultural fabric of Jewish lives; and Shelemay and Summit include listening examples with their studies. Within the last year or two, moreover, a new generation of Jewish music scholars have begun to add to this literature—so there is much more exciting work still to come.

Posted on August 3, 2009

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