Shofar kavanah

It seems I am three degrees of separation from a composer who is having a CD release event at a classy downtown Boston gallery next week (actually, Back Bay rather than downtown, for locals) and needed someone to play the shofar at it. That’s going to be me.

Any musical instrument gives you the option of just picking it up and making sounds or first thinking about that particular instrument, that kind of instrument, its history and cultural connotations, and then making sounds. I’m not sure, but I suspect that the sounds are much more likely to be music if you think first.

The shofar (and there’s a picture of one on one of those links) is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It’s the reason musical instruments called “horns” are called horns; it’s just an animal horn with the end cut off to form a mouthpiece. Shofars were used as signaling devices on the battlefields of the ancient Near East at least three or four thousand years ago, the way bugles were in the Civil War. For the last two thousand years, pretty much their only use has been as part of the observance of the Jewish New Year.

“Kavanah” is a crucial Hebrew word which is pretty much like concentration, intention, attention, and mindfulness. It’s what you want in someone who is leading a religious service — thinking about what you’re saying and meaning it, not just repeating the prayer for the five hundredth time. It’s also that better option for playing a musical instrument. It’s particularly important for shofar, which only has a few notes, fewer than a bugle, and depends on something other than what notes you play to be interesting.

To play shofar, you have to work backwards, through all the times you’ve heard the Rabbi preach things like, “The shofar calls us to repentance at this season of the new year” and “The shofar is our wake-up call to get back to the work of tikkun olam, improving the world”. You need to make that clear in the sound! A little farther back, you have to remember all of Jewish history and how the shofar has been sounding in religious services for over two thousand years, and get all the wanderings of the Jewish people in there. Going back to Talmudic and Biblical times, you remember how many references there are to the shofar in ancient texts (and lest the shofar player has forgotten, a large section of the traditional New Years service is composed of Biblical verses about shofar.) Just check out the best known mention of shofar in the Bible, Joshua 6:4-20, to get an idea. If you’ve never heard a shofar, how well can you understand those verses? Unless you’re aware of them, what makes you think your sound has any content? Then you think of how those verses got there, and all the ancient battlefields where the shofar was the signal to charge, to regroup, or to retreat if necessary. There must have been many people who would get flashbacks of battle, post-traumatic stress, whenever they heard the shofar. You can imagine a grizzled veteran at the time of King David saying, “forty years later, and whenever I hear that I still look over my shoulder to see if the Midianites are chasing me.” When you’re playing shofar, you want a sound that would do that to that guy if he were around to hear it.

There’s one more interested party to consider: the animal who grew the horn in the first place. It deserves to be treated with due respect. According to the Bible, when Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac, he found a ram caught by the horns in a nearby bush and sacrificed it instead. According to Jewish legend, one of the horns of that ram is the shofar that will be sounded to announce the last judgement. Well, really, all that has to do with how I play shofar is to show that there is an awareness of the animal through shofar tradition. Sometimes when there’s a lot of saliva in my shofar mouthpiece I can get a faint whiff that reminds me of old-fashioned carpenter’s hide glue. At first that was off-putting, but now I remember that it’s the animal asserting its part of the process and letting me know that the sound is a tribute to it, too.

3 Responses to “Shofar kavanah”

  1. Andrea R Says:

    Dean, this was a wonderful post. I had carved a shofar image for a set of ATCs I made a few Septembers ago…I wish I had been able to read this piece, first. The carving probably would have come out the same, but it would have FELT different, and stamping with it would have meant much more.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. deanb Says:

    Thanks Andrea! I think your carving would have come out a little different. Art and music are both very subtle, I mean very subtle differences make a big difference in how people react, and how you feel about it when you’re doing it is a big part of what makes those subtle differences (and after all, that’s the theme of my post.)

  3. Meira Warshauer Says:

    Finally, had a chance to read this. Love your thoughts about the shofar. Hadn’t thought about the perspective of solder years later, still feeling to alarm of the shofar call. Powerful.

    This whole experience of composing for the shofar and understanding its significance more and more–from so many different perspectives–has been an amaaing and on-going journey.

    I found that, when listening to the concerto during the CD editing stage–many time over–I always felt cleared and renewed after the shofar passages. There is something purifying in this sound.

    Looking forward to meeting you and your shofar tonight at Pucker Gallery for CD release of LIVING BREATHING EARTH from Navona Records (NV5842), featuring my Symphony No. 1 Living Breathing Earth and Tekeeyah (a call), my concerto for shofar, trombone and orchestra. Performed by the Moravian Philharmonic, Petr Vronsky conductor, and Haim Avitsur soloist on shofar and trombone.

    Thanks, Dean.

    Meira