“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.

 

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!