Oneg Nigun

Music & audio © Alexander Massey, 23 March 2014

In Jewish life, we take joy seriously! We are reminded that, on Shabbat especially, we should be joyful, prompted by the verse from Isaiah 58:13 – “and call the Sabbath a delight [oneg]”. The weekly Friday evening celebrations can include food, prayers, music, stories, dancing, and general all round fun. On Shabbat, we remember God rested after 6 days of the work of Creation, so we, too, rest; we mark the symbolic liberation from Egypt (Mitzrayim – whatever constricts us or weighs us down); and we orient our minds and hearts to gratitude, spending time with family and friends, encouraging an atmosphere of shalom/harmony in our homes and communities to restore a sense of the Garden of Eden. We remind ourselves of the vision that we want to work towards. The appropriate state of heart and mind for that is oneg – joy.

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Naomi’s Nigun

Music & audio © Alexander Massey 14 May 2016

The melody is based on the nusach for the haftarah blessing on shabbat morning. It has 50 notes, in honour of my friend Naomi’s 50th birthday!

Lamah Lanetzach (Lam. 5:20-22)

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 6 Dec. 2013

20. Why have You forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for all time?
21. Turn us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old.
22. For You have utterly rejected us, bitterly raged against us. [Or “Unless You have utterly rejected us, and are exceedingly angry with us.”]
Turn us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old.

I see a powerful ambiguity in this text. Who is responsible for the current impasse in the relationship between God and Israel (i.e. between God and ourselves)? Verse 20 suggests that God has given up on us, and we are pleading for God to be open enough to take us back – the burden is apparently being placed firmly on God to fix things. But verse 22 seems to suggest that it is we who have turned away from God, and therefore carry some responsibility for the rift. And yet, if that is so, why do we ask God to turn us? Is it not for us to do the work, the work of returning to God? Or after God’s rejection in verse 20, have we turned away in sorrow and despair, so that in verse 21 God must make amends and give us hope so that we are persuaded to be turn back to God? That might explain the first suggested translation of verse 22. The softer, alternative translation of verse 22 could be a little bit of attempted manipulation on our part, a bit like when a cheeky lover, who knows s/he has done wrong says, “Please let’s make up, that is, unless you just don’t love me any more …”. These few verses seem to hover between anguish, complaint, yearning, remorse and tender love. It is worth noting that in Jewish tradition, when the Book of Lamentations is read, verse 21 is repeated after verse 22, in order to end the reading on a positive sentiment. [1] My musical setting is in keeping with that tradition.
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Nigun Chakartani vaTeida – Nigun meditation on Psalm 139

Music & audio © Alexander Massey, 26 Oct 2018

Music’s role is often to express or explore what cannot be put into words. I wrote this nigun at a time when I found myself soul searching and questioning, and wanting to reach out to God. In turning towards God, I felt that I myself was being searched and I felt the reassurance that I was in some way being met and understood. And then a phrase from Ps 139 came to me: “You have searched me out and known me”. For me, the two-quaver (eighth note) figure that occurs frequently as both a rising and falling motif expresses the gentle, insistent searching; it echoes the rising and sitting mentioned in verse two. The ascent to the ninth above key note parallels verse 8 (“If I ascend to heaven, you are there!”); and the repeated drop to the key note matches the descent into the deepest parts of myself. So, having composed the nigun, I discovered afterwards something of the inner world that I feel it represents.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

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Kol B’Ramah, Kol D’mei

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 11 April 2018

Jer. 31:15; Gen. 4:10; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

On Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah, we commemorate both the victims of the Holocaust, and those who heroically resisted. This piece was written to honour those people. The three Jewish texts offer a space to reflect on the preciousness of human life, and our personal and collective responsibility to protect it. The piece begins with the voice of a mother weeping for her dead children. In the second text, the voice of God asks, ‘What have you done?’; and the voice of each one of those who have died cries out to all of us. The Talmudic Rabbis noted that in Gen. 4:10 the Hebrew uses the plural – ‘bloods’. The Rabbis warned that killing one person kills off the possibility of countless descendants, a ‘whole world’.

The music draws on the nusach of Musaf at Yom Kippur, the service that includes the honouring of Jewish martyrsBeginning with wailing and jarring dissonance, the music gradually transforms to gentler melodic shapes and harmonies. This echoes the sequence of texts that takes us from death, loss and desolation, through awakening conscience and responsibility, to dedication to life, and therefore hope.

The first verse begins with the word kol (quf-vav-lamed) – a single voice crying out. The second verse begins with the same word, but this time kol represents a voice echoing down through the generations; in the third verse (and fourth verse), the opening word sounds the same (being a homophone) – kol– but this time, it is spelt kaf-lamed, meaning anyone, and therefore, everyone. So, the song begins with a single voice crying out, and ends with an invitation for each one of us to consider our response.

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Lo Yisa Goi (No.2) – Nation Shall Not Raise Sword

Music and Audio © Alexander Massey 28 January 2017

Instrumental version (easier to hear the individual parts)

This three part round is written in 2 languages (Hebrew and English) and 3 different time signatures (4/4, 6/8 and 3/4), each line being pitted against the other two. Although this might seem a formula for chaos – just as war is – in fact, the lines end up in rhythmic step with each other. And the piece ends with all three parts singing, in unison, ‘War no more!’. This piece takes confidence, independence, keen listening, cooperation, practice and perseverance to master. But then, so does peace.

Lo yisa goi el goi cherev, v’lo yilm’du od milchamah.

“Nation shall not raise sword against nation,
And they shall not learn war any more.” (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4) Read more ›

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Nir’eh Or – In Your light, we see light

Psalm 36: 8-10 – Music and audio © Alexander Massey 16 Sept 2018

Music, English lyrics & audio © Alexander Massey 16 Sept 2018

Enjoy listening! Fuller commentary / essay coming soon – in the meantime, here are some brief thoughts:

I wrote this as a companion piece for B’ruchah Haba’ah (‘Blessed is She’), the song for the blessing of a baby girl. Nir’eh Or (‘In Your Light, We See Light’) can be sung at the blessing of a baby of any gender, can also be used for a bar or bat mitzvah, and can fit in well at a wedding.

O, how dear is Your kindness, O God;
         all Your children find shelter in the shadow of Your wings.
You nurture them with the nectar of Your house;
         You give them drink from Your river, for the pleasure that it brings.
For with You is the fountain of life;
         and in Your light, we see light. Read more ›

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Han’shamah Lach – a new musical setting

Music and Audio © Alexander Massey 13 Sept 2018

Enjoy listening! Fuller commentary / essay coming soon – in the meantime, here are some brief details about the prayer:

  • The prayer is usually associated with High Holy Days. Yamim Noraim, and is sung at Selichot, and also Kol Nidrei. The verses used in this setting are part of a longer prayer. Often just these two verses (or even the first verse) are used.
  • The machzor (High Holy Days prayerbook) of UK Judaism cites this source: Machzor Oholei Ya’akov, ed. R. Ya’akov ibn Yitzchaki, vol II (Jerusalem 1910), p.37. Idelsohn attributes the poem to Abraham Ibn Ezra.

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Kumi Lach Rayati

In Hebrew

In English – ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one’

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 9 Dec 2015

This recording and a version of this article were published on Ritual Well (USA) as ‘Arise, my love‘.

English duet version (a recording with women’s voices is coming soon!)

Hebrew duet version (a recording with women’s voices is coming soon!)

I wrote this song in the same week that I wrote Libavtini achoti chalah. Both songs draw on verses and phrases from Song of Songs. The purpose for writing was very clear. Two friends of mine, Ella and Natasha, were getting married, and I wanted to offer them music for their wedding based on traditional Biblical text. The challenge was that there was, of course, no explicit Biblical narrative of a same-sex marriage.

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Halleluyah No. 2 (Psalm 150)

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey, October 2011

Psalm 150 not only completes Book 5 of the Psalms (tehillim), but is the last of all the Psalms. As such, its message is particularly important as a summation – a vision – of what our central intention should be in prayer and liturgical song. The Psalms cover a huge range of human experience and emotion, including anger, pain, doubt, sorrow, yearning, hope, pleading, revenge, wonder, as well as – of course – praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 150 focuses on hallel ‘praise’, a word used many times in this text. It is recited as part of daily morning prayer in the psukei d’zimra (verses of song), and in the musaf amidah (standing prayer in the late morning service) at Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year); and v3, mentioning the shofar (ram’s horn) is found in the repetition of the morning amidah at Rosh Hashanah.

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