Michael Isaacson explores the Jewish in Jewish music
By Jill Timmons
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Music education in our public schools is often so watered down or altogether missing that the general public is rarely trained to listen patiently and intelligently to meaningful music.
In “Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish?” author Michael Isaacson suggests that in synagogue music, “by the trickle-down theory, this lack of musical knowledge will proliferate the demand for less meaningful Jewish music from songwriters instead of composers, and for performances by song leaders instead of cantors.”
Isaacson is a Los Angeles-based composer, arranger, producer, educator and author. His work spans some 40 years and includes more than 500 compositions and 50 CDs and albums. He has conducted and produced recordings of symphonic music with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tel Aviv Symphony, the Munich Philharmonic, the Mexico City Philharmonic and the Czech Chamber Orchestra, to name a few. His recordings with the Hollywood Pops, which he also conducts, may be heard on the Sony label.
Isaacson is also an internationally recognized composer and advocate of Jewish music. He has even written on Oregon’s own composer laureate Ernest Bloch. He was recently honored as one of the 10 most influential Jewish music composers of our time and has given hundreds of lectures on the subject of Jewish music to Jewish congregations throughout the world.
The genesis of Isaacson’s new book is rooted in his experience as a lecturer on Jewish Music. He says that the inevitable question posed to him and one which seems to fascinate the majority of his audiences is, “What makes music Jewish?”
In his insightful study Isaacson brings the reader into a lively conversation about how musical midrash and the temporal experience that music brings can connect us with the sacred.
The book leads us elegantly from a concise definition of the elements of music and the challenges of informed listening to the heart of how Jewish music can function as midrash.
Isaacson covers much ground, including string theory, quantum mechanics and the influences of American secular culture. He reminds us that great music can contain the seeds of relativity; that past, present and future can be experienced simultaneously—a kind of temporal midrash.
A particularly compelling topic in his book is that of “negative space” as the element that often defines a subject. In music, for instance, the silences we experience define that music as much as the sounds we hear. The cover of Isaacson’s book, with art by Oscar Reutersvard, is a powerful example of this notion in which the negative space formed by the design is also a Star of David.
Isaacson’s beautifully composed and performed musical examples on two accompanying CDs also serve to underscore his precepts about musical midrash.
The heart of the book addresses the complex question of what makes Jewish music Jewish. In the face of so many traditions, cultures and musical sources, Isaacson provides a list of characteristics that define this music. He builds on the concept of music as story.
He suggests that there is no single, identifiable sound to Jewish music, no specific kind of composer. Style and function, he explains, are fluid qualities, while geographic and historic treatments bear directly on the sound and performance practice. Where and when texts are found in the worship service determine how they are set.
In the end, Isaacson offers two simple and workable standards to help us understand the complexity of what makes music Jewish—function and midrash. The former, he suggests, is easier to understand. Midrash, however, gets to the core of what defines the ethos of Jewish music.
Isaacson sounds the clarion call advocating for the very best music to be presented in the temple or synagogue—for important sacred occasions, for any community or locale, and not just in terms of function but also for the all-important experience of midrash.
This requires an informed congregation, highly skilled musical professionals and insightful and inspired rabbis. In the Jewish community, he asserts, it is the religious and educational leaders who are best trained to understand sacred texts. It is up to them to provide appropriate music of the highest standard.
Isaacson’s book is an excellent resource for anyone in a leadership role within the Jewish community.
He provides a thought-provoking conclusion for the reader. “With the concomitant trivialization of theological ideas by pop culture, the quest for musical truth seems even more daunting. Meaning is not inherent; it is assigned.
“Through the conscious use of materials and design, the artist brings the willing audience on a journey of shared expression guided by signposts of delegated meaning.”
This is the true meaning of Jewish music and musical midrash. It encompasses story, sacred text, ritual and a concomitant connection to the Divine.
If you are looking for a book to inform and educate, this is an excellent read. If you are looking for a mind that will startle you, this is a must read.
You can find “Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish?” and the accompanying CDs by Isaacson at www.MichaelIsaacson.com. Ask for a signed copy.
Jill Timmons, artist-in-residence at Linfield College, performs internationally as a pianist and soloist and ensemble artist. She is currently at work with her husband Sylvain Frémaux on a translation of French author Joseph Lewinski’s biography of Swiss-Oregonian-Jewish composer Ernest Bloch`.