Be a Blessing Liner Notes

Welcome to the “Be a Blessing” Page

First and foremost, I am very proud to share that “Be a Blessing” is available for complimentary download at CD Baby.

If you love this album and want to know more here are some extended liner notes… If you haven’t already, contact me to receive sheet music for any and all of these tunes.

Zichru L’olam/ V’Heyeh Bracha

 

Zichru L’olam/ V’heyeh Bracha are actually two songs combined into one. To make things even more confusing they are parts 1 & 2 of a 3 song “medley.”

The first part of the medley is called Zichru L’olam. It is based on a poetic passage from I Chronicles 16:15, “Zichru l’olam brito, davar tziva l’elef dor” which means, “Be ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations.” I am most drawn to this passage because of the phrase, “thousand generations.” I love the connection to history, to voices from the past, to our ancestors. It evokes mystery and a sense of profound wisdom.

The second part of the medley is called V’heyeh Bracha. “V’heyeh bracha” comes from parshat Lech L’cha where God first speaks to Abraham, telling him to leave all he has ever known. I can imagine Abraham being very scared and questioning the voice that he hears. After dropping the big news that Abraham is to leave his entire world behind, God commands Abraham, “V’heyeh bracha” (“Be a blessing”). I love the simplicity of this message. It’s not enough to simply “Be.” We have to “Be a blessing.”

There are many different ways to be a blessing. That’s the reason why there are so many voices singing in harmony in this song. V’heyeh Bracha ends with a cool, upbeat instrumental section. I hope you enjoy it! It was very fun to record!!

Halleluyah

Halleluyah is a very important song as it’s the last song on the album, the closer. It’s also the third part of a 3 song medley (that includes Zichru L’olam/V’heyeh Bracha). Halleluyah is the perfect song for the end of this album because it’s all about “praise.” The Hebrew text comes from Psalm 150—the very end of the book of Psalms. It says, “Kol hanshamah t’halel Yah” (“Let all that lives praise God.”). Imagine all creation singing a song of praise—shouting a song of praise even. That’s the vibe we’re going for here. It’s a celebration of life, living, and being a part of this amazing universe. The end of this song features a variety of different voices, all singing Halleluyah/ Kol hanshemah, in their own way. One of the groups of voices sounds very “angelic”, another sounds very “earthy.” The goal behind this idea was to bring Heaven and Earth together in a song of praise to God.

Zeh HaYom

Zeh HaYom is based on Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving that is a part of Hallel—the special collection of psalms chanted and sung on major Jewish holidays. The phrase, “Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha vo” (Psalm 118:24) often appears on wedding and b’nei mitzvah invitations as it means, “This is the day that Adonai has made—let us exult and rejoice on it.” The other Hebrew in the song is a very common expression of praise, “Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam hasdo” (Psalm 118:1). This means, “Praise Adonai, for Adonai is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal.”

The English verse in the song, “All praise to the One, shining like the sun” is meant to be a poetic interpretation of Psalm 118:1. Just as the sun is always shining (somewhere) so too God is always with us, bestowing blessings. Just as it’s cloudy some days and we can’t see the sun, sometimes we don’t see how God is with us.

This song is meant to have a southern rock/ Allman Brothers vibe. I think it’s very important that music reflect the spirit of the place where it’s created. You can hear the southern rock vibe in the guitar solo and the slide guitar work throughout.

Yihyu L’ratzon

 

The words, “yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha Adonai Tzuri v’Goali” (Psalm 19:15) are familiar to many because they are in most siddurim at the end of the Amidah as a “meditation” for silent prayer. They mean, “May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.”

Many musicians have set these beautiful words to music, so it’s a fair question to ask why we wrote a new version. Here are a couple of things that make our version unique.

First, “simplicity.” This song only has two chords. These chords repeat over and over again. Most songs have at least three chords, so this song is particularly simple. We did this because the words “yihyu l’ratzon” are simple words. We are simply asking God to accept us for who and what we are.

Second, this song evolves on the basis of harmony. It starts with a single voice in Hebrew (Mr. Kudlats) and then adds a voice in English (Ms. Kendrick), and then adds harmonies in Hebrew and English. Lastly, the song ends with a “niggun.” A niggun is a wordless melody. Sometimes music speaks louder than words and words lose their importance. By removing the words and focusing on the melody we return to the idea of simplicity.

This song is meant to make you feel peaceful, calm, and at one with yourself and with God.

With All My Heart

With All my Heart may sound like it’s based on the “v’ahavta” but it’s not! It’s actually based on the Psalm 9:1-2, “I will praise You, Adonai, with all my heart; I will tell all Your wonders. I will rejoice and exult in You, singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.”

The English lyrics are an original poem that expresses the different situations we find ourselves in as our life unfolds. Sometimes we’re leaving, sometimes we’re coming home; sometimes we’re with the ones we love, and sometimes we’re on our own. Sometimes we have doubts. But always, always, always, we can find something to be thankful for.

The music for this song is very simple. It’s meant to have a John Meyer kind of vibe.

Seek Peace

Seek Peace is based on Psalm 34. Psalm 34 asks an interesting question (Psalm 34:13), “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?” Stated differently, “What makes someone a good person.” Part of the answer comes later in the Psalm (34:15), “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu” (“Seek peace and pursue it.”). A good person is one who strives for shalom.

This song has a kind of “reggae” vibe. It features about 20 students from The Davis Academy. It’s meant to be playful and upbeat, but also to encourage people to really think about the idea of “pursuing” shalom with our heads, our hearts, and our hands.

Kol Yisrael

Kol Yisrael is based on the Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh L’Zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a). It means, “All Israel is responsible to one another.” Based on this teaching we set out to write a Jewish version of “We are the world.”

When describing Judaism many people focus on three things: God, Torah, and Israel. Each of the three verses in this song is an expansion on this “trinity.” The first verse is about Torah, the second verse is about God, and the third verse is about Israel (the people and the land).

This song begins with a single voice and piano. It builds with each passing verse and chorus. Finally, at the end of this song you hear the entire Davis Academy community (“kol Yisrael”) singing in unison.

Rise Up

Rise Up is based on the famous words of the prophet Amos (5:24), “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Significantly these words were also spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. many times during the Civil Rights Era.

Rise Up is a social justice song. It’s meant to bring people together around causes of righteousness and tikkun olam. It’s inspirational, hopeful, and upbeat. It’s also funky, so that people literally feel like “rising up.”

The vocalists for this song are the Mt. Zion 2nd Baptist Church choir, feature Ms. Janice Durden, our beloved Davis Academy receptionist.

Lastly, in addition to citing Amos and Martin Luther King Jr., there’s also a quote in the first verse from Theodor Hertzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He famously spoke the words, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Darchei Shalom

Jewish tradition makes it very clear that the Torah is meant to help us bring “shalom” into the world. Thus the well-known words from Proverbs 3:17 that we recite when we return the Torah to the ark, “D’racheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom” (“Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths, peaceful.”

The phrase, “mipnei darchei shalom” comes from the Mishnah (Gittin 5:8). In this chapter of Mishnah a number of different laws from the Torah are presented. The explanation for all of the laws is that they were created, “mipnei darchei shalom” (“for the sake of peace”). Many of these laws relate to how Jews are meant to treat the poor in their community, as well as how they are meant to interact with non-Jews. This, to me, is significant.

The chorus of this song is, “mipnei darchei shalom, for this world we call home, is not ours all alone.” It’s meant to have at least two meanings, depending on where you put the comma. For example, “mipnei darchei shalom for this world we call home.” But also, “For this world we call home is not ours all alone.” Basically, peace is good for everyone and everything. It’s good for nature and the earth, and it’s good because we have to share this world with others. The rest of the lyrics are a series of metaphors and interpretations of “shalom.”

This song has a pretty upbeat feel and also a significant musical change toward the end—when it basically turns into a jazzy jam. The instrument you hear featured is a trumpet. The basic idea here is that we should all rock out for peace.

Ki Va Moed

Ki Va Moed juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated Jewish texts. “Ki va moed” comes from Psalm 102:14 and means, “the appointed time has come.” In Hebrew “moed” refers to the three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. To me the phrase “ki va moed” means something like, “Sacred time is upon us.”

The second Hebrew text is, “Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu.”It comes from the prayer “Ahavat Olam” recited immediately before the Shema in the evening. These exact words mean, “For they are our life and the length of our days.” In the context of the prayer they refer to the idea of performing mitzvot—basically that our time on earth is measured by the amount of mitzvot that we do.

So how do these two Jewish teachings fit together? In my mind the connection has to do with the marking of time. Sometimes God tells us that a significant moment is coming and that we should prepare (“Ki va moed”). However most of the time it’s up to us to make each day holy (“Ki hem chayeinu”).

This song is a very powerful song. It’s got a strong beat, and a lot of percussion as well as electric guitar. The music is meant to convey a sense of urgency. It’s saying, “Pay attention. Life is happening now. This is important.”

Jacob’s Journey

 

Jacob’s Journey tells the story of Jacob’s ladder from parsha “Vayetze” (Genesis 28:10-19). It’s starts with a fairly literal translation of the story, but becomes more poetic as the song evolves. The Hebrew in this song is the phrase, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati” (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”). These are the words spoken by Jacob when he “wakes up” from his vision.

The music in this song is very different from the rest of the album. The Middle Eastern sounding instrument is an “oud.” This song is meant to make you feel like you are in the Negev with Jacob, thousands of years ago. The violin and viola arrangement that you hear is very intricate and meant to bring drama to the song.

Over the years many commentators have noticed that Jacob’s expression, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati” is very interesting. For grammatical reasons that I won’t go into here it’s basically as if Jacob is saying, “God is in the place and I (anochi), I didn’t know (lo yadati).” A modern commentator, Lawrence Kushner, wrote a book called, “God was in this place and I, i Did Not Know.” I love the idea of the capital and lower case “I.” For most of this song there are two vocal parts. Each vocal part sings the same words but one does so with a capital “I” and one with a lower case “i.”

This song is about Jacob’s journey toward increased enlightenment and awareness. It’s basically a song about encountering God in a new way. At the end of the song it says, “Join him at the foot of the stairwell and gaze into the light.” That’s meant to be an invitation to the listener to pursue their own enlightenment and discovery/rediscovery of God.

Beit Yaakov

Beit Yaakov is built around the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “Beit Yaakov lchu v’nilcha b’or Adonai” (Isaiah 2:5). These words mean, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

This song began with the guitar part. As the guitar part evolved it became clear that this song would be great for things like b’nei mitzvah and graduation ceremonies. Knowing that the words “Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai” made perfect sense, because they focus on the idea of the “journey” or in the case of graduation, “walking” across the stage to receive your diploma.

The English lyrics in this song are a poetic expansion on the verse from Isaiah. The words are written as if they were spoken by a parent or teacher to the child/young adult who is going on the journey.

The last verse of the has several references to other Jewish ideas. First it says, “Lech l’cha we’re with you.” This is a reference to Genesis 12:1 when God tells Avram, “Lech l’cha” (“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”). Also, the line, “May the mitzvot be a lamp to you and Torah fill your days” is a reference to Proverbs 6:23 (“For the commandment is a lamp, the Torah is a light.” This verse fits perfectly with the idea of light in the line, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

One final thought. If you take the first letter of each word in “Beit Yaakov L’chu v’nilcha” you get: bet, yod,lamed, vav. In Hebrew this forms the acronym “BILU.” “BILU” was the name chosen by a group of brave Jewish university students living in Russia in 1882 who decided to move to Palestine. They were among the first to make Aliyah to Israel in modern times and were incredibly brave.

“A Palace in Time” – TMI/ Liner Notes

It’s Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called both a “cathedral” and a “palace” in time. My daughter’s eating raspberries and watching Beauty and the Beast and I’m seizing a few moments while the rest of the family is napping to jot down some thoughts and recollections about the 2nd album of original Jewish music I wrote and created for The Davis Academy, A Palace in Time.

Let’s start with the basics– A Palace in Time is a musical exploration of the psalms and other liturgy that make up the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat is the portion of the Friday evening service that precedes Maariv. It’s a time when we focus on opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility of Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat is about creating within ourselves the capacity for active receptivity. It’s about fine tuning our ears, our eyes, and all of our senses so that we might behold the beautiful imperfection of our lives and our world, all with God’s blessing.

Pretty much every contemporary Jewish songwriter/composer has set pieces of Kabbalat Shabbat to music. Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat generally are the anchor of the Jewish people– a weekly reminder of the core values of our people and a  time to be together in sacred community. I am drawn to Kabbalat Shabbat for these reasons and because Kabbalat Shabbat is both well-known and shrouded in mystery for many Jews. Some liturgical passages are sung weekly, others remain whispered. There are recurring themes such as God’s sovereignty and creation’s collective praise and affirmation of God and many others. It’s ripe for musical exploration.

Here are some things to I want to remember about the process of creating A Palace in Time:

1. The title of the album was never a question in my mind.

2. Will Robertson, my musical chevruta and the album’s producer, remarked that he’d never started a project knowing in advance the entire track list, track order, and album title.

3. Many of the initial seeds of the melodies came to me all at once– I’m talking about 10-15 songs in a single sitting. I remember in those moments a profound sense of feeling that I was discovering rather than writing music. I continue to believe, perhaps foolishly, that “discovering” is more accurate a way of thinking about my role in creating this music than “writing.”

4. Initially I wanted and continue to want the music to feel instantly familiar and author less. Those who know Jewish music know that there are many melodies whose composers names are unknown or meaningless to us as the melodies are a part of soul. That’s my dream. My dream is that when people hear these songs they’ll feel like they’ve heard them before, like they’ve always been there, like they’re old friends.

5. Initially I envisioned very simple instrumentation for the album so that congregations would instantly be able to hear how the songs could live in their worship services. Though the recording studio seduced me into pursuing more dynamic arrangements the fact remains that every song could be rendered a cappella or with whatever instrumentation a congregation has available. The songs are meant for Jewish congregations across the religious spectrum and could easily be sung in Orthodox shuls.

6. In a similar spirit to the aforementioned musical simplicity the songs were originally intended to be only in Hebrew. I chose to include English because I felt like I wanted to participate in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat by interpreting the words in ways that reflected my understanding. All the English is optional. Some people really don’t like English in their Jewish music and I totally understand this. In the end I feel very strongly that the English lyrics are really quite beautiful and remain very true to the spirit of the liturgy.

7. The L’chah Dodi on the album was “discovered” (i.e. written) in the city of S’fat– the mystical city where the original words of this prayer were written in the 15th century. The melody came to me as I was chaperoning a group of Davis Academy students on our 8th grade Israel trip. We happened to be in S’fat on Erev Shavuot (the day leading up to Shavuot). The fact that Shavuot commemorates the giving of Torah and the revelation at Sinai isn’t lost on me. Another way of saying that I want these songs to sound familiar or that I “found” them is to say that the melodies are “mi-Sinai” from Sinai. That’s a Jewish way of saying that they’ve always been here, waiting for us to find them.

8. The percussion on the song Mizmor Shir is comprised entirely of things you’d find at or around a Shabbat table– candlesticks, spoons, a challah plate, bread knife, and trash can.

9. Even if no one else likes this music my daughter loves it and has learned much of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy by singing along.

10. The first couple of tracks on the album aren’t actually from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. They’re included as “opening songs” in the siddur of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’fila. For the song Hineih Mah Tov I reached out to the faculty and students of the Marist School, a local Catholic school with which we have an interfaith partnership. The message of Hineih Mah Tov– that it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace– is a perfect message for Jewish and Catholic teens to share with the world. There’s a deeper story here but it will be told elsewhere.

11. The student artwork is incredible. Rebecca Ganz, Davis’ visual arts teacher and I together came up with the idea of merging the traditional Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript with 1960s psychedelic music poster art. The cover, which she created with some input from me, captures one of Shabbat’s key ideas: the dual remembrance of the original act of creation and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Shabbat is fundamentally an affirmation of creation and liberation. Rebecca’s profoundly beautiful cover tells this story. I’m sure many people will be drawn to this incredible artwork and the cover in particular without ever noticing the fact that Rebecca hid the word “Shabbat” in the candles flames.

12. The closing song, Bar’chu, is what’s traditionally known as the call to prayer. It typically comes towards the beginning part of the worship service. That the Bar’chu is the closing song on this album symbolizes a couple of things. First, it reinforces the fact that A Palace in Time is truly focused on Kabbalat Shabbat– the beginning of the Friday night prayer service. Second, it subtly implies that, having taken this musical journey, whatever you do once you’ve listened to the Bar’chu has the potential to be a form of worship or devotion. Typically the Bar’chu is followed by specific liturgical passages. On this album it’s an invitation to think differently about what you’re about to do next.

13. One tough part of this album is the fact that many melodies I “discovered” for Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t make the final cut. 18 songs is more than any album really should have. God willing there will be future opportunities to bring even more Jewish music into the world.

14. A Palace in Time is inspired by a quote attributed to musician Mickey Hart who said of The Grateful Dead, “We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are in the transportation business.” Hopefully this music will transport the listener spiritually and emotionally.

The album will be available for complimentary download on all major music sites.

 

Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”

 

 

The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.

 

Be a Blessing

In parshat Lech L’cha God commanded Abraham to leave his home, his father’s house, and the land of his birth. He also commanded Abraham: v’heyeh bracha (“Be a Blessing). Here’s a song and a poem. The song is from my album, “Be a Blessing” and the poem was just easier to write than prose.

Here’s the song: V’heyeh Bracha

Be a Blessing

All the rest is commentary.

You could go and study it or you could,

be a blessing.

(I guess you could be a blessing while studying all that commentary but I digress.)

Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going,

be a blessing.

The voices you hear, the drive that propels you,

be a blessing.

The people you collect, the flock you shepherd,

be a blessing.

When you get there, when you build your home,

be a blessing.

When you greet your neighbor, when you greet your friend,

be a blessing.

When you raise your children, when faced with impossible demands,

when being in the moment, when making plans of plans,

be a blessing.

When you doubt, when you tire

When you stray, when you forget

When you return, when you recall

When you respond, when you restore

when you-

be a blessing

the rest is truly commentary.

 

 

On David Broza

I recently attend a concert by the unparalleled Israeli musician, David Broza. First and foremost, any guitarist who has never heard of or heard David Broza play guitar needs to check him out ASAP. There are absolutely no words to describe his passionate and spiritual virtuosity. As with all great music, there was much to reflect on both within and beyond the music.

 

David Broza as featured in Hadassah Magazine

1. Living in Multiple Worlds. Broza shared that, while he was born in Haifa, his family quickly moved to Tel Aviv, and then, from ages 12-18, to Madrid, Spain. It was in Spain that Broza fell in love with the guitar and with Spanish/Flamenco music in particular. David Broza wouldn’t exist as he does today without this rich immersion in another country and culture at such a formative time in his life.

I was recently reading a blog post by a colleague in the world of Jewish day schools. Ken Gordon and I share a mutual appreciation for the work of Cynthia Ozick, and one work in particular: Cannibal Galaxy. In Ken’s post he shares a quote that really resonates with me:

“In reality, it was all America, the children America, the teachers America, the very walls of the chair factory [the school is housed in a converted factory] America.”

I’ve definitely taken this quote out of context but I think it speaks to what I experienced while listening to David Broza last night. Here in the States there’s a real danger in becoming so thoroughly American that we become exclusively American, without the perspective, insight, or influence of other cultures and societies. This is a much larger point, but I believe there’s profound merit in having opportunities like those that Broza did… living abroad, immersing in other languages, and other cultures. For Jews living in America, Israel is not the only place we can turn to, but it is uniquely qualified to provide this perspective with a Jewish twist.

2. The power of the individual. Broza, a guitar, a stool, a hand towel, and a bottle of water. Not even a guitar tuner. It was a good reminder that sometimes you don’t need the kitchen sink, or even a percussionist. There’s power in the individual. When we go solo and unplug we create intimacy and vulnerability.

3. Collaboration. Even as there is power in the individual Broza continually revisited the theme of collaboration. Many of his songs are set to poems that he didn’t write. Some of his most poignant stories involved long standing collaborations or isolated and unimaginable collaborations. So long as we remain open to collaboration or actively seek it out, our art, work, lives are enriched.

4. The song is never finished. In spite of my love for Led Zeppelin, the song actually doesn’t remain the same. Songs, even once recorded, are never fully realized. With each performance and each iteration they have the opportunity to take on new life and meaning. The artist changes, the listener changes, the context changes as well. Broza closed with one of his most beloved songs, Yihye Tov (“It will be okay”). He first wrote the song in 1977 in response to political developments between Egypt and Israel that promised a more peaceful Middle East. Since then, whenever current events dictate it, he and Yonatan Geffen (who wrote the lyrics) add a new verse. Music, like life, is an imperfect, unfinished, and evolving art form.

Life Lessons from the Recording Studio

Context: I’m working on an album of original Jewish music. I wrote the tunes and am arranging them (i.e. giving them shape, texture, and form) with an amazingly gifted musician/producer/friend named Will Roberston as well as a cast of unbelievably talented characters including Jamie Kudlats, Guy Strauss, Bob Michek, and Kendrick Phillips. It’s my first time in the recording studio in any meaningful way and I’m finding the process to be very enlightening. As is often the case, a particular venue or set of experiences ends up being a microcosm of “life in general.” That’s proving to be true of the recording studio. So here are a few life lessons I attribute to the recording studio… This list is totally incomplete and not in any particular order, but here goes. I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) to chronicle my own experiences and 2) with the hopes that it will resonate with others, even if they haven’t ever recorded an album of original Jewish music!

1. The power of collaboration. I wrote a bunch of tunes. Good for me. Pat on the back. But the truth is that the music could never realize its full potential (if such a thing is ever possible) without the partnership and involvement of others. My role as “songwriter” isn’t to cram a fully realized musical vision down peoples’ throats, but rather to elicit the creativity, generosity, talents, and energies of others. My role is to facilitate and celebrate collaboration. And though the process is still unfolding, I can say with absolute certainty that openness to collaboration has radically impacted every level of this recording project, from the songs themselves to the musicians involved. Rather than being simply about recording music, collaboration has made this project about creating music, exploring music, celebrating music, and building relationships and community through music. Collaboration has made this a holy process, which, given the content of the music, is wholly appropriate.

2. Humility. Someone once attributed the following quote to Jewish tradition in a letter I received:

“The adornment of knowledge is wisdom, the adornment of wisdom is humility.” 

     If ever there were words to live by! Far from being a kind of self-abasement, true humility is the recognition that, vast though our individual gifts may be, what’s ours alone is not enough. Humility is what allows us to seek out people who have greater experience than we do. It’s what allows us to apprentice ourselves, to learn from others, to be grateful, and to be open-minded. Humility is the capacity to learn and the ability to celebrate (rather than fear or attempt to hide) all that you don’t yet know. It also means recognizing that there are some things you may never be able to do at the level you’d like (though it doesn’t mean abandoning the pursuit!). For example, humility means recognizing that a song may sound better with another lead vocalist even though it’s “your” song, or that, actually, there’s someone out there who can play a better guitar part. Humility is what transforms a potential inadequacy into a strength. Not only is humility an “adornment” of wisdom, but it is also a prerequisite.

3. Ego is a double-edged sword. It would be hard to write songs without an ego. It would be hard to have the nerve to believe that the songs I write with a guitar in my home when no one else is around have any value beyond being a nice hobby… without an ego. It would be hard to set aside time from my amazing family (and my 3 month old daughter in particular) to go into a recording studio to produce these songs without an ego. You get the point. And yet, as we all know, ego is truly a double-edged sword. Ego is responsible for all sorts of mishaps, musical and otherwise. Ego can be a stumbling block, it can make you blind, it can make you fearful, and it can lead you astray. Rather than ennobling you and filling your life with a sense of purpose, it can cuckold and trap you. If the songs I’ve written have any life whatsoever, it will be because the collaborative process has keep the question of ego in the fore. If my ego were unchecked then the songs themselves would have no room to grow, mature, and evolve. Being as conscious as possible of ego is the first step in making sure that ego works for you and not against you.

4. Music is metaphysical. “Metaphysical” is a big word and I’m not sure I fully understand it (but here goes…). For me music is metaphysical because it starts with the physical– bodies, musical instruments, voices, guitars, etc… but quickly moves beyond the purely physical. The minute you hit record and start editing, music becomes metaphysical. Yesterday Will Roberston did an awesome thing: he wrote an entire choral arrangement and recorded it completely himself. Hearing Will’s voice singing 10 different parts simultaneously helped me to understand that music is indeed metaphysical. The fact that you can detach your voice from your vocal chords and sing along with yourself x10 through the act of recording means that music is metaphysical. Also, the fact that Will can write a 10 part chorale arrangement wherein all the different parts blend and complement one another creating an absolutely magnificent and glorious soundscape– this wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t laws of harmony and melody that came, if not from God, then certainly from some realm other than the purely physical. I really believe this, and feel sad for anyone that hasn’t ever sensed something metaphysical (musical or otherwise). I guess that’s what metaphysical means– something is metaphysical when it attests to the fact that there’s a bigger picture to the world than physical, material stuff of our existence. Music is metaphysical, so is love, community, laughter, the connection between generations, and a bunch of other stuff. Seek and ye shall find I suppose!

Well, that’s all for now. I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit. It is great writing for an “imagined audience.” It provides a strangely metaphysical motivation to articulate some of these random thoughts.

Spirituality and Music

This week was a major first for me. I’ve spent most of chol ha’moed Passover at Gallup Studios in Tucker, GA. I’ve been there laying the foundation for an album of original Jewish music. Mostly for my own benefit I want to grab some of the narrative surrounding this project. As with anything in life, the more reflective we’re able to be, the greater depth of meaning and awareness we can achieve.

I’ve been playing music for a long time. Looking back, music has always been a form of communication. I find playing guitar and mandolin (my primary instruments these days) to be incredibly relaxing and comforting, and also a great challenge. Whenever there’s a guitar close by I know I’m at home. If I end up strumming for more than 1/2 it usually ends up being a good day. When I play music I often feel a sense of gratitude and connectedness.
The idea of writing a song is a strange one. It’s like writing poetry and music. For me there’s not a formula. Sometimes the lyrics come before the chords, sometimes the chords come years before the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are original, sometimes they’re lifted right from Jewish texts. Sometimes things are literal and sometimes abstract and free-associated.
One long held notion I have about music is that it teaches us about the transience and fluidity of life. A chord is strummed, it lingers and fades. True music enters the world, impacts it, and dissipates. While we’d like to hold onto a beautiful sound, there’s something powerful in listening to it fade.
For many years I struggled with the idea of “songwriting” because of my belief that music comes and goes. There was so much joy to be found in strumming and noodling that writing a song seemed inauthentic. However in recent years I’ve found myself doing a lot of “songwriting” and deriving deep meaning and satisfaction from the process (if you can call it that).
Songwriting in a Jewish context is an interesting enterprise. For starters I’ve often said that inspiration is easy to come by because the Eternal/Holy One/Source/Good/Truth/God is an ever present muse. I don’t need heartbreak, alienation, or melancholy to feel like I have something to say. Also, I stand firmly planted in a diverse community of Jewish musicians, past and present. From King David to Mattisyahu to Peter Yarrow and beyond, Jews have interpreted and created Jewish culture through music. For me (and for others) music is Midrash– an inquiring, seeking, interpreting, engaging, loving interaction with Jewish thought, life and the world.
The universe is overflowing with inspiration. There’s no place that’s more inspiring than The Davis Academy. I can trace the moment when I started writing songs to the early months of my joining The Davis Academy community. The children, their humor, intellect, energy, and wisdom, are incredibly inspiring. It’s also inspiring to be a part of an educational institution– a place where hearts and minds are open to learning. At Davis it’s not just the students, but the teachers, administrators, and faculty as well. There are days when I’ll come home from a long day and come up with 3-4 song ideas.
The studio is a humbling place. As with anything the best way to improve yourself is to surround yourself with experts. That’s precisely what I’ve done. The musicians that are joining me on this musical journey are incredibly gifted and incredibly “gifting.” Meaning they are generous, creative, energetic, and dedicated to bringing the songs to life. Yesterday I spent an entire day in the studio without picking up a musical instrument. We were recording bass and drums and I was there to witness, affirm, celebrate, critique, and enjoy. I see my role as checking my ego, believing in the value of the music, carrying the vision (and making sure it is shared), and helping to create the context where the gifts of others can be fully realized. My goal is for this Album to be a gift to The Davis Academy, the Jewish People, and anyone who loves music. We’ll see how the process unfolds!