‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 5/7
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‘God is in the detail’
So, as a composer and occasional lyricist for sacred music, I have tried to articulate some of my key questions. These questions are not just about what might make the music and lyrics ‘holy’, but also what might ensure they are of sufficient high quality, and fit for purpose. My questions are guided in particular by two pieces of advice from the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The first is: “Content dictates form. Less is more. God is in the details.” (Sondheim, 2010) And the second piece of advice is: “the ear hears things that the mind does not know” (Horowitz 2010, p.117) What he means by this is that, even if our mind is untutored in the fine detail of language or music, our subconscious mind registers and responds to every detail in the words and music, and their combination. And therefore, as writers, we have to care about everything. So, on to the questions:
- Should I write for now, or for the future as well? Should I be expressing echoing the Zeitgeist, or contributing to shaping a new one?
- For this particular text or a specific context in which the music will be used, would there be merit in drawing on earlier practices of Jewish sacred music (e.g. appropriate nusach, cantorial or choral traditions)? Why, or why not?
- Does this vocal piece have “something to say, and say it economically, modestly and directly”? (Wren 1995)
- What theology is being expressed through a) the words, b) the music, c) this combination of words and music?
- Could this music-words combination address a spiritual need in the community?
- Could this piece “help us connect with those words and digest their import more clearly”? (Isaacson, 2007, p.131) Does the music make a midrashic point, and heighten our awareness of layers of meaning?
- Do the words or music call attention to the writer? Does the music call attention to itself, or the words and prayer? Do the words call attention to the prayer?
- Does this piece “give … ‘size’ to smaller ideas, and add … accessibility to greater ones”? Isaacson, 2007, p.226 Alexander Knapp says that it is essential that “… music reflect text, otherwise there will be a rapid loss of credibility in its practical function as a true and viable vehicle for religious feeling…” (Knapp, in RSGB Music Handbook, p.96)
- Does this piece, or even the writing of this piece, help me grow? Could it help anyone else grow?
- Does the music fit the liturgical moment? Could it be used in other contexts?
- Could this setting help anyone meet themselves or others?
- Could this piece help anyone turn towards, and meet God more deeply, and ‘let God in’?
- Does this piece (words and music) feel kodesh – holy and separate from everyday life? “A useful rule of thumb might be to ask, ‘Am I hearing ‘cross-over’ music imposed upon a sacred occasion, or is it music that is not usually or frequently heard outside the synagogue, and was created specifically for this worship and spirituality?” An ancillary question might be, “Does the timeliness of the music cloud the classic timelessness of the spiritual connection?” (Isaacson, 2007, p.132)
- Could this piece encourage a person to listen and consider? (Isaacson, 2007, p.130) Could it “elevate one’s thinking, spirit and emotive life”? (Isaacson, 2007, p.14)
- Could this piece revitalise individual or communal prayer, and enable greater ownership of prayer?
- Who might this setting include, and exclude? (Very few pieces of music work for everyone, and very few need to.)
- Could this piece help a person face reality, rather than avoid it?
- Is it a truly religious statement, that is, “a musical expression of man’s search for God”? (Jospe, Forum, 1972, p.83)
- Is this piece “lucid rather than childish”, and “engaging, rather than glib”? (Leckebusch 2012b)
- Is the level of difficulty appropriate for those who will sing and play this piece? Is the piece vocally and musically satisfying to learn and sing?
- Does this piece need to be adaptable/useable as a single, unaccompanied line – for a solo voice, for a congregation? Could it work as a choral piece? Could it be sung with guitar, piano or other instruments?
- Is the language in the lyrics inclusive?
- Does every verse, not just the first one, fit the tune? (Robertson 2003)
- Does each section build logically on what has come before it?
- Does the language flow well, and is the vocabulary appropriate, in a way that people would be able to connect with the words?
- Do the word words and syllables fall appropriately on the stresses in the music?
- Is it “plain and hard-wearing enough to stand repetition”? (Wren 1995) Will it “stand up to being looked at, and read and sung through many times over, during a period of years”? (Robertson 2003)
- Does it show mastery of lyric writing and music composition? Is there high quality in five elements: lyrics, melody, harmony, structure and musical arrangement? And is there an internal consistency within and between all the elements?