Tree of Life Nigun

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 4 May 2007

This nigun was written to mirror the movement of the angels on Jacob’s ladder, ascending and descending between earth and heaven (Gen 28:10-19). I originally thought of the melody spanning 10 pitches (B to D), reflecting the 10 sefirot, the ten attributes of God, and of Creation, as represented on the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Carrying this melody with me provides me with a spiritual anchor, a way of centring and connecting, to develop a more personal, intimate, relationship with God through musical meditation at any moment when I need to. It works well as a meditation in late evening, or entering into the night of Shabbat, or coming out of Shabbat at havdalah. The tune begins at Malkhut (the part of the Tree most connected to our physical world), climbing in stages up the Tree of Life towards Keter, the spiritual ‘root’ of the Tree in heaven (or beyond). Phrase two starts and ends higher than the first, and the third phrase starts and ends higher than the second. In the middle of the third phrase, we reach the highest note (on deliberately ambiguous harmony), representing Keter, touching it for a single moment, before the next two phrases bring us down again to the key note of Malkhut.

There is a mysterious moment where, in the last phrase, the music dips below even the key note at Malkhut – adding an 11th pitch. What does this represent? I sometimes think of it as humanity’s yetzer ra, the impulse that we can choose to take ourselves away from God, or that we can master in order to bring us closer to God. Shabbat can be that transformative time where our yetzer ra is lifted higher, through the sefirot.

Late one night I was at a motorway service station driving home. I was tired, scruffy and unshaven. I stopped for some quick food, and the place was almost deserted. I started humming this tune under my breath to give myself some sustenance, and the person serving me asked, “Are you a priest?” Perhaps the tune had touched something in her.

Performance notes:
  1. This works well if sung freely the first time, without any accompaniment, beginning at the end of bar 4. Once the accompaniment is included, the pace must be kept steady, drawing musicians (and any listeners) into an ever deeper meditative state.
  2. Part of the sensuousness of the lines comes from ‘bending’ the intervals in places, for example between the 3rd and 4th beat of bar 6, and in bar 7 between beats 1 and 2, and beats 3 and 4, and so on.
  3. The B major chords in b 13 and b 17 intentionally ‘scrunch’ against the melody.
  4. I prefer to sing this in C minor (i.e. with the guitar capo on the first fret).
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