‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music

Summary of sections:
  • Prayer, words and music – the role of sacred music
  • ‘Reaching out without dumbing down’
  • Music as theology; music as midrash
  • ‘Prayer: the lost art’
  • Making music holy – kodesh
  • ‘God is in the detail’ – 25 questions for creating new musical prayer
  • Using PaRDeS (peshat, remez, drash, sod) as a framework for setting words to music
  • Isaac’s wells and Jewish renewal
  • Bibliography (extensive), including: printed articles; books; theses; online resources; teaching materials, poetry and miscellaneous

(Note: Although focusing primarily on the creation of new Jewish sacred music, this article also makes reference to modern Christian musical composition.) Read more ›

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‘You have all been shown’ – its music and meaning

Music and recording © Alexander Massey 19 May 2016

The sheet music for this is available for purchase as part of ‘Five Sacred Chants’.

“You have all been shown what is good, and what God seeks from you.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ

Higid l’cha adam mah tov, u’mah Adonai doreish mim’cha;

Ki im asot mishpat, v’ahavat chesed, v’hatzneia lechet, im elohecha. 

Only by meditating on and living with – and living out – this multi-layered text, can we sense its possible meanings. [1] Higid, the opening word of the original Hebrew text, shows that God teaches and guides us through stories (aggadah). God also gives us all (adam, ‘humanity’) a mind that can interpret, have insight, and make moral choices. Clearly, God hopes that we will seek and grow toward goodness. Mishpat represents the whole process of defining laws, passing judgment, and carrying out the judgement to punish or acquit. It is not enough to think about or decide what is right – integrity means taking a stand, holding a boundary, and acting (asot) – doing what is right and fair. To ‘love kindness’ (ahavat chesed), is to act as God the ‘king’ [2] would – generously, applying one’s resources, learning, insight, skills, and good fortune for the benefit of others, our own ‘kind/kin’ (i.e. all humanity). Lechet links us to halachah, the vast body of Jewish thinking and guidance developed over many centuries (and continuously even now), on how to ‘walk’ well through life. A person with tzana (humility) has a healthy sense of self – neither diminished or inflated. They are ‘earthed’ as a personality. (‘Humble’ comes from the Latin, humus, meaning ‘earth’.) Im eloheicha – staying close to God, and nourishing that relationship, and our God-awareness are crucial to leading a life that is good for others and ourselves. Read more ›

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Elohai N’shamah – its music and meaning

Music and recording © Alexander Massey 11 March 2015

The sheet music is available for purchase as part of ‘Five Sacred Chants’.

אֱלהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהורָה הִיא

Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi, t’horah hi.

My God, the soul You have given me is pure.

The Talmud teaches us to say ‘God’ as our first word when we wake in the morning (Berachot 60b) – God, the origin of everything, the essence of everything, and the ultimate destination of everything. Elohai – God of me, or to me – establishes our fundamental bond with God. N’shamah – ‘soul’, or perhaps ‘soul essence’ or even ‘soul-ness’ – is our most essential connection to God. God’s breath is our breath. Our soul is made of God’s soul. Shenatata bi – soul is a gift, intimately and freely given. T’horah hi – soul is a gift that makes purity our very essence.

The implications of this cannot be over-estimated. No matter how far we may stray, and whatever our ‘missings of the mark’, our God-given soul and purity give us the reason and the ability to be ‘theotropic’, do t’shuvah, and grow back towards God. We can start again, every day, every moment if we have to.Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov, a student of Reb Nachman of Bratslav wrote:

“The Rebbe became accustomed to constantly begin anew. Whenever he fell from his particular level, he did not give up. He would simply say, ‘I will begin anew. I will act as if I am just beginning to devotemyself to G-d and this is the very first time.’ This happened time and again, and each time he would start all over again. He would often begin anew many times in a single day.” [1]

The soul of God calls to my soul, and my soul calls to God’s soul in an endless cycle of love. T’hom-el-t’hom korei -“Deep calls to deep” (Ps 42:7).

The Elohai n’shamahprayer affirms that all humans have a pure, God-connected soul. Jacob eventually saw his brother Esau in this way: “I see your face as one sees the face of God.” (Gen 33:9) Indeed, it is, perhaps thevery means by which he is able to bridge the gap between them: Deep calls to deep. …. I see your face as the face of God.When we recognise “that of God” (George Fox) that lies at the heart of each other, we make the Sh’ma real, loving with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.

There are two other articles about this text and music:

  1. Elohai N’shamah and 2 meditations
  2. Elohai N’shamah: its deeper meanings
Notes

[1] Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov (1973) Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom: Shevachay HaRan & Sichos HaRan, translated and annotated by Aryeh Kaplan, Breslov Research Institute, p.8

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Five Sacred Chants

‘Five Sacred Chants’ is an 11-page sheet music set of simple rounds and chants for 2 or 3 voices. It includes a a 4-page introduction with an essay ‘What’s the point of chanting?’, and short commentaries on each of the five pieces.You can listen to all the chants on this website:

  1. Tashlich (2 voice round, with optional piano or guitar; includes instructions for a circle dance)
  2. V’asu Li Mikdash (2 voice round, with piano or guitar, and 2 optional flute ‘descant’ parts)
  3. You have all been shown (2 voice round, with optional piano or guitar)
  4. Elohai N’shamah (3 voice round, with optional piano or guitar, and 2 extra optional vocal harmony parts)
  5. V’taheir Libeinu (unison, with piano or guitar; optional easy descant voice part; includes instructions for a circle dance)

Please be fair, and buy the number of copies you need for the number of singers and instrumentalists who will be using my music. And please do not photocopy my music to save yourself money. Selling my music is how I (try) to make a living! Thank you.

NB Make sure you select the link you need for ordering hard (paper) copies for posting to you, or digital (PDF) copies for emailing to you.

Buy hard copies of ‘Five Sacred Chants’ (£9.99 incl. p&p)

Buy digital copies of ‘Five Sacred Chants’ (£8.99)

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What’s the point of chanting?

The focus of chants is not singing, but prayer avodat lev (or avodah shebalev), ‘service/work of the heart’. When we chant, it is not the quality of our voice or musicianship that counts, but the quality of our intention (kavanah). However advanced the musical and vocal skill in the chanting may be, and however accurate the ‘performance’, if individual and collective meditative focus on the sacred heart of the chant, or the meaning in the words, is lacking, the chant will not reach its full potential. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (zt”l) wrote: “We are not merely singing melodies … A nigun [a sacred tune with or without words] is a path to God, a ‘song of ascension’.” (Davening: a guide to meaningful Jewish prayer, Jewish Lights, 2012) At the very least, I hope for a chant to inspire, and give us deeper appreciation of a text, teaching or perspective.

For me, there is a clear order of priority: prayer, then words, then music. Read more ›

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Circumcising conversion candidates – ‘the most unkindest cut of all’

Jewish boys and the choice not to circumcise

Even though circumcision is not a halachic criterion for establishing Jewish status for a boy, there is a strong and widespread religious and social expectation within the UK Orthodox community (religious and non-religious) and Masorti community that a boy must get circumcised. Anecdotally, from my own conversations with people, this is also the case amongst UK Progressives (ie the Reform and Liberal movements), again, even when those people are atheist or not religiously oriented; this is particularly interesting, considering the Progressives have officially let go of using halachah as a binding frame of reference or even necessarily a guide. There are rabbis within the Progressive world who fiercely defend brit milah, and others who – privately – strongly feel either that it should be personal choice, or actively done away with. I wonder how many UK Progressive rabbis there are who openly declare brit milah as either optional or unacceptable?

So, when a boy is born, there may well be official, social and familial expectation, and pressure for the boy to have a brit milah, and many parents, religious or non-religious will accept that (although some will be privately very distressed, of course). Read more ›

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Concert – Sunday 3 March 2019, 7pm

‘The time of singing has come’

Inspirational Jewish Songs

composed by Alexander Massey

performed by Alexander Massey & Matthew Faulk

Slager Jewish Centre, 61 George St, OX1 2BQ

Entry free – donations welcome

Jewish Baby Blessings

Here is a list of the music that I have written to Jewish texts that be used for Jewish baby blessings, for boys or girls:

Here are some additional pieces that could fit well on the day: Read more ›

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Jewish Wedding Music

Here is a list of the music that I have written to Jewish texts that can fit into a Jewish wedding:

Here are some additional pieces that could fit well on the day: Read more ›

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Celebrating Jewish Women and Girls

Here is a collection of pieces that I have written that celebrate women and girls at the centre of Jewish ritual:

In addition, these can be sung at a wedding for two women, or for a transgender wedding: Read more ›

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