I’m enough of a nerd that I just might buy this “album”

According to Pitchfork, Fiery Furnaces’ new album won’t be an “album” at all, in the way we’re used to thinking about albums.  As opposed to releasing a sound recording, they’re releasing

instruction, conventional music notation, graphic music notation, reports and illustrations of previous hypothetical performances, reports and illustrations of hypothetical performances previous to the formation of their hypotheses, guidelines for the fabrication of semi-automatic machine rock, memoranda to the nonexistent Central Committee of the Fiery-Furnaces-in-exile concerning the non-creation of situations, Relevant to Progessive Rock Division, conceptual constellations on a so-to-speak black cloth firmament, and other items that have nothing to do with the price of eggs, or milk, or whatever the proverbial expression ceased to be.

Try reading that all in one breath.

Grandiose and hipsterish as this may be, it’s kind of a cool idea.  It’s intended to be avantgardesque (yeah, only “-esque”) but ironically (perhaps that’s the point) is throwing us back about 100-150 years to the heyday of American sheet music publishing–an era when many homes had a piano, guitar, banjo, fiddle or accordion (etc. etc.) and several people who could play and/or sing, and who consumed their pop music by buying broadsheets, or inexpensive simplified sheet music arrangements, then performing for friends and family.

Pitchfork kind of hates on this as a liquid-courage-inspired, lazy-musician’s-way out.  That might be true, but I like the fact that it forces audience participation in a way that we haven’t seen explicitly required since the advent of recording technology.  I also like the fact that listening to this “album”–just like in the days before everyone could afford a phonograph–requires a group of people to get together.  I like the fact that, though visual representations of sound have their own limiting effects, the ambiguity of the “album” (yes, I will persist in using scare quotes) allows for a diversity of representations without worrying about intellectual-property tussles.  I really dislike the potential for music snobbery and clique-iness that is inherent in this project, but that’s an occupational hazard of indie/prog rock anyway.

More to come if/when I get my hands on this.

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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