Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tehillim and Music

One of my giantest pet peeves in high school was the communal singing of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. First of all, this meant that everyone had to reach this point in davening at the same time, which of course was physically impossible and meant that half the school was sitting around whispering and giggling while the other half was still in Pesukei D'Zimra. The other problem, and the one that is actually relevant to my point, is that the singing was probably the most torturous, unmelodious thing I have ever heard.

This is not, I must stress, a reflection on the voices of my peers. As I have mentioned before, my own voice is undeniably awful, and most of my friends had actually quite nice voices. But there is little that even the nicest of voices can do with Hallel tunes. The tunes themselves might have been bearable, had everyone agreed to simply forget trying to match them to the lyrics- perhaps not pretty, or harmonious, or creative, but bearable. But instead, we hacked and stretched the poor words like a chorus of Procusteses (gosh, I love wikipedia)- here crowding three to a note, here making an unstressed syllable last three measures, here inserting imaginary syllables in the form of "oy"s or "la"s. It was bad. It almost made one forget that the words were beautiful and poetic and estatic and so forth.

And for the longest time, I blamed this simply on the tunes that the school chose to use. But over time, I have come to realize that even the best tunes for Tehillim involve a bit of word-mutilation. Tunes fit better when they have less lyrics to adjust to, but anything that tries to fit a melody to an entire psalm is just asking for trouble. Some tunes manage it more melodiously than others, but all struggle.

And just this week, during music, I realized why this is. I had always assumed that Tehillim was set to music at one point, and so it must be the sort of thing that musicalizes (yes, made up word. Shhh) well. And I still think that this is possible. But maybe we are simply trying the wrong kind of music? You see, once upon a time, back when there were basically just Gregorian chants, rhythm and meter really didn't matter much. Inserting and enforcing meter in music is a modern construct. So it's very possible that tehillim, since it really ignores meter within its poetry, is never going to fit very well into a tune that tries to dictate a meter to it. Maybe we should just accept this. I mean, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue putting it to music of all genres, but what I want to see is whether it goes better to meterless, Gregorian sorts of melodies. Of course, it is probably a little heretical and possibly non-halachic to suggest that we adopt Church musical styles, but I figure that that's probably closer to the way that it was actually sung in the Temple, which means that we have dibs. Plus, it doesn't have to be so Gregorian. I mean, often those chants are really pretty dull, since they weren't exploring all that many pitches either. What I actually want is something more akin to the antiphons, where they started having these cool soaring harmonies, still without imposing too much of a tune on the words and thus forcing them to be mangled.

This may, in fact, be the reason that I am so fond of Yosef Karduner's Shir Lama'alot- it wanders along with the words instead of deciding on a tune and making the words stay with it. It has that special feel of someone jsut saying the words, only a heck of a lot prettier. There is a beat, but it is fluid enough to allow the words to do the real work. Check it out here. I guess I want to see more of this seems more true to the poetic style of the Tehillim and less like an attempt to make the words perform a function for which they were never really intended.


e-kvetcher said...

I always thought that Gregorian type chants came from Jewish music, so it wouldn't be very heretical.

Tobie said...

Yay! We do have dibs!

e-kvetcher said...

As an aside, the Muslims chant many of their prayers. The music is very beautiful, especially to our Semitic ears. Also, Sufis and Dervishes, who are mystics will chant the phrase "lâ ilâha illâ allâh" [meaning "There is no god but Allah", but speaking Hebrew you don't need my translation :)] repeating it over and over to a drumbeat and go into a meditative trance. It is wild stuff to listen to.
[It is not Avodah Zarah to listen to it once, as far as I know]

Shana said...

actually Tobie, they do have a sort of internal rythym. (thank you midrasha)

One of the favorites I saw in midrasha is to use words to develop silence in the middle, and then grow back out to noise in the end.

Besides that, the temple stairs are unever, so that certain tehillim can be chanted alongside the stairs as people step up.

So yes, they had music, the music can work, just we don't like using music that will work for unknown to jam to L'cha

e-kvetcher said...

some more musical Yidden

Tobie said...

Shana- they have rhythm, but it's not the sort of formal, syllabic meter that modern poetry does- often, they'll have meter based on number of words per part of line, or something like that, but they don't really fit into a nice modern sort of iamb. I'm not saying that that means that they're unmusical, just that they would work better with music that's less metric.