Shofar kavanah

June 18th, 2011

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.

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November 11th, 2010

Two weekends ago Matt and I drove out to the Red Mill to get lumber for a cover for the fire pit (he felt strongly that e should make an effort to keep the fire pit from filling up with snow.) We were on our way home, between downtown Casco and the house, when his phone rang. “Nope, we’re not going to stop to get what they’re asking for,” he remarked as he reached for it; even the general store in town was in the other direction, and any other grocery store was over five miles behind. But it wasn’t that, but a bird alert. Arlene was calling to say there was a bobwhite under the lilac bush, and that we should park at the bottom of the driveway and walk up quietly if we wanted to see it.

We spotted it when we were halfway up the driveway. I circled around to the back door and got my binoculars to get a good look, and m camera. The bird was amazingly cooperative. Matt hung around the front and took lots and lots of pictures. I took over 50 pictures myself, of which I like these the best:

It’s not what you would call a colorful bird, but look at how beautiful the colors are. I especially like those chestnut and white feathers under the wings.

Bobwhites aren’t believed to breed in Maine. We’ve been told that this is probably an escaped bird, possibly from a game farm. We would love for its chicks, grandchicks, and great-grandchicks to grow up on our land, but it’s not likely.

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Torah Trope

November 7th, 2010

So what else I’m doing these days (and you thought you’d never see anything new on this blog) is studying torah trope.

A couple of weeks ago I uncovered a book The Art of Torah Cantillation that I had picked up oh, maybe eight years ago, when the Temple Emanuel choir made a quick trip to a choir festival in the Catskills. Probably it was having relearned the tunes of the wedding blessings a month ago that made me decide to get to work on it, but I read the CD into iTunes and started to practice.

In a Jewish Saturday morning synagogue service there’s a reading from the Torah (5 books of Moses) and a reading from the prophets, the way many Christian services will have a lesson from the Old Testament and a lesson from the New Testament; except that firstly, the Jewish readings are much longer, and secondly, the Jewish readings are chanted rather than just read. If you’ve ever gone to a Bar Mitzvah service you’ve probably heard the Bar Mitzvah boy (or Bat Mitzvah girl) chant the reading from the prophets.

The chanting is done to a traditional tune, which has an ancient notation written right along the text as little dots and squiggles (in printed Hebrew texts of the Bible — not in the handwritten Torah scroll). The tunes for the Torah are different from those for the prophets (and there are other tunes for other books read in the synagogue, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations). They function as punctuation and almost an audible diagram of the sentence. That helps a lot in listening, because the Hebrew text itself doesn’t have punctuation except for a mark at the end of each verse. Also, there’s a special tune for the end of each reader’s section — very convenient in the unlikely event that you’ve dozed off or otherwise spaced out during it (or maybe you’re pondering the import of a previous verse), because when you hear it you can wake up in time to be part of the congregation’s response. Maybe a particular mark means “this word starts on the note ‘fa’, and at the syllable with the mark, jump to ‘la’ and stay there to the end of the word.” That kind of thing — short motifs, mostly three notes or so but sometimes a lot longer, that are the building blocks for the whole tune.

At one time I was pretty good with the trope for the prophets, but I never learned the Torah trope, much less the tunes for the other books.

If you want to see what trope looks and sounds like, check I don’t like the voice on that site nearly so well as the recordings that came with my book, and the text in the book has a lot about the whole structure and philosophy of cantillation, so I’m going to stick with the book and iTunes. What that web site does have is pictures of hand signals for the trope, which the book only mentions.

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Arbor almost finished

August 25th, 2010

I can show you my garden arbor, looking almost the way it will when it’s finished. It needs more pieces cut and many pieces to be put on, and some finish on the seats (I think I’ll use a clear oil on them, because the paint I used for the rest of it will get chalky and could rub off on dark clothing). All the parts that aren’t there yet are in planes perpendicular to the picture, so they would be barely visible even if they were there; so this is what it looks like! And this is where it’s going to stay, as a sort of gateway into the woods. Hey! I’m pleased with it!

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Hyphenated Blues

August 24th, 2010

On our way home from Portland this morning we heard Hyphenated Blues by the Okratones on WUNH, the campus station from Durham, New Hampshire. It’s about last names. Just listen.

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Calligraphy memoir

August 17th, 2010

I started doing Hebrew calligraphy while I was working at Parke Math Labs in 1978, give or take a year. A born-again woman who worked in the same building said “I just found my name in the Bible, as a heading over a verse in a psalm.” I explained that her name, Beth, was the name of a Hebrew letter, and that psalm had one verse starting with each letter of the alphabet in order. The name of each letter was shown in her Bible as a heading over the verse. She asked me to write the Hebrew letters next to their names. I was embarrassed to find that I didn’t remember how to write them all, so I reviewed the alphabet (or in Hebrew we say alef-bet, for the first two letters, like saying ABC) and really practiced writing for a while.

In preparing to write a ketubah for Charley and Patsy I was going through a file folder from way back when, and was pleasantly surprised to find a xerox of the nicest piece of calligraphy (or at least most imaginative) I ever did:

You don’t need to know any Hebrew to see what’s going on here. The original was a bat mitzvah present for Arlene’s second cousin once removed Julie, who’s six years older than Charley, so I must have done it over 30 years ago (which would tally with saying I was into this stuff around 1978.)

Besides being a big party, a bar or bat mitzvah has some real ritual to it, mainly that the kid in question chants a part of the lesson from the Torah and/or lesson for the Prophets for that day in synagogue. Julie’s reading was, of course you guessed, the story of Noah, and all the text there is from it. Along the ridgepole it says, “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man of his generation.” The gunwale and sternpost of the ark are the verse with the dimensions of the ark. Along the top of the cloud, and descending from it, is “And the floodgates of the heavens were opened, and there was rain on the earth 40 days and 40 nights,” and because those weren’t enough words to show how hard it was raining I threw in “rain, rain, rain, rain, rain” in cursive script.  The story wouldn’t be complete without the rainbow and its text “I have set my bow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth.”

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Listening to chamber music

August 8th, 2010

I went to a concert last night, part of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, in a renovated carriage house on one of the old sea captain estates along the main road into the town. If the festival hasn’t changed its home page since I set up that link, the picture on the festival web site home page shows another concert in the same space.

Early last week a Facebook friend, who has been a knitblog friend for years before Facebook, posted “concert this Friday in my carriage house.” Since I drive past Newburyport on the way to Maine most every Friday, it sounded as though I might be able to get there.

There was no trouble finding the address. I had to take a kind of deep breath and walk down the path alongside the immense house towards where the carriage house would be, and then guess where the entrance was. I saw some people standing by the door, a tall woman (matches the description of my blog friend) talking to two men. When she turned in my direction there was no question, and I said, “Hi Julia!” She said “Dean!” and gave me a big hug, then introduced me to the two men, “This is an old blog friend that I’ve never met.” One of the men was the architect for the building renovation, the other, the artistic director of the music festival.

The festival web site listed the concert at 6:30, including a reception; so I was only a little worried about being late because of traffic. It took just under two hours from Newton to Newburyport, just about 50 miles and interstate highway all the way, because of rush hour traffic on the route 128 part. I got there at five to seven, and there was plenty of reception left. My supper was cheese and crackers, a slice of quiche, and raw vegetables (I can’t find the e-acute to write crudites properly).

I actually spoke to a few people besides Julia. I asked the architect if the white sail things suspended from the ceiling were for acoustics, lighting, or just to break up the space. He said, “you’ve got all three of the reasons they’re there,” and expanded on them. I love it when I can ask something that’s not a dumb question!

The musicians were three young women, the Trio Cavatina, playing piano, cello, and violin, joined for one piece by the artistic director of the festival playing the viola. Not just any viola; the piece he played on was by Brahms, and the viola had belonged to a friend of Brahms, who likely had played that piece on that viola when the piece was newly composed.

I have mixed feelings about wonderful, special musical instruments. Yes, they are wonderful and special. Playing on an instrument with a history can give the musician a feeling of channeling the other people who have played it and a feeling of participating with the instrument’s maker in producing art. That can undoubtedly add to the quality of the performance. But in the final analysis, it’s what the musician puts into the performance that matters. Two months ago I heard a piece by Yusef Lateef, “Love and Humor”, on the radio; it sounded as though one of the main instruments was a squeaking balloon, but it was fascinating music. I have to say, though, that the instruments the Cavatinas were playing sounded beautiful, and so did the viola. I particularly like a good cello sound, and that’s what we had. I’m sure that Priscilla Lee would sound better on my mom’s cello than I would on Ms. Lee’s cello, and I’m not sure that I could tell the difference between Ms. Lee playing those two instruments. Probably she could tell the difference, and that would make a difference in her performance, and I’d be able to hear that. So I’ll give up and say yes, it’s good for good musicians to have wonderful, special instruments.

What I like best about a classical music trio is that I can hear all three parts separately at once. When I’ve played or sung in musical groups with a really good director I’ve been amazed at how the director can hear all the parts at once, not just as a mass of music but as separate parts. You can tell that when the director says, “trombones, you didn’t come in on time,” or “altos, let’s go over your part, I think some of you aren’t sure of the notes.” I still don’t know how an orchestra conductor can keep track of fifteen or twenty different parts. Three is about the most I can do if I concentrate, which I was doing at this concert. I was doing fairly well with the Beethoven piece, though there were lots of times when the violin was near the bottom of its range and the cello was near the top of its and I couldn’t be positive which was which. When the viola joined, I was lost. Four lines is more than I can keep track of.

By the intermission I was ready for a bio break. Was there a restroom in the building? I knew who would be able to tell me — I asked the architect.

The End

Making musical instruments?

August 7th, 2010

I was starting on this story last night —

When I was in graduate school I got the notion that I’d like to learn to play “Turkey in the Straw” on the fiddle. Being a starving graduate student, I couldn’t afford to buy a fiddle. Maybe I could make one? While I was thinking about that, I happened to be in the Brookline public library with my roommate (who was from Brookline), and found a book about making violins. As I skimmed it, I saw the caution, “There is no such thing as ‘that’s close enough’ in making a violin! It has to be perfect.” I knew I wasn’t that good a woodworker, and put the book back on the shelf. But right next to it was a book about Appalachian dulcimers. It had a chapter about making dulcimers that said, “Sure! You can build yourself a dulcimer!” So I set about doing that.

I think I made five or six dulcimers while I was on that kick. Besides Jean Ritchie’s The Dulcimer Book I got a Folk-Legacy  record (vinyl — this was 15 years before CDs were invented) The Mountain Dulcimer – How to make and play it (after a fashion) by Howie Mitchell (I’m amazed that both of those seem still to be available, and that I remembered the names.) Two of those dulcimers looked like the picture on the cover of Ritchie’s book. I sold one in a consignment store in Harvard Square. The other of those, along with a double (courting) dulcimer that’s built as a duet instrument, to be played by two people sitting very close together on opposite sides of the instrument, and a mini dulcimer, sort of along the lines of a backpacking guitar, have been hanging up on our living room wall in Newton for decades. Two others are more primitive, made out of hollow-core doors as Mitchell’s book suggests.

I think the instrument I like the best of the ones I’ve made is a balalaika. The neck is made from a piece of wood that was originally bent to be part of the seat of a chair. Either my grad school roommate or I once leaned too far back in the chair and broke it — but the bend of that piece of wood looked perfect for the neck of an instrument. The front is wood from an orange crate. The top of a tin can keeps the strings from cutting into the wood. The frets were once paper clips. Overall, it looks like something a Russian peasant made out of wood left over after his barn burned down. It looks like a proper folk instrument.

While I was still in graduate school I used to demonstrate dulcimer, balalaika, guitar, and banjo in elementary schools and do a workshop on making a one-stringed instrument with a piece of wood, plastic milk jug, cotter pin (for the tuning peg – a really really big cotter pin, maybe 3/16 inch diameter) and length of piano wire. You could actually play a tune on those things, with a little work.

After a long long hiatus, I started making a cigar-box guitar a few years ago. It’s not finished yet. Besides being designed with a normal set of guitar strings, it has a music box built into the soundboard so that even people who can’t play the guitar will be able to play “Happy Birthday to You” on it by cranking the music box.

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Two New England Churches

July 27th, 2010

Last weekend (July 24 and 25) we were, uncharacteristically, in two picture-postcard type New England churches.

Being Jewish, of course I don’t go to church as such. Synagogue now and then, but not church; but when I was in college, I went to chapel services at the college enough to become comfortable with Protestant services. At least my freshman year, and I think sophomore year also, chapel attendance, at least half the time, was required. This was before the big student protests of the late ’60s, so the college could get away with that; but it wasn’t popular. Thinking about it, I can remember a song which showed up in a stack of mimeographed copies in the student union one day in the spring of freshman year. I think the people who wrote it included some people active with the chapel, too, like Paul Valliere and Scudder Parker (I’m just saying, so that if they google themselves they might find this post and be surprised that anyone remembers. Although Scudder ran for governor of Vermont a few years ago and will find zillions of internet references to that). After a few days of thinking about it, I can remember this much. I think there were other verses:

At 10 o’clock each Sunday morn we hear the chapel bell
Calling us to worship there with it’s familiar knell
Seven each semester, or you all will go to hell
So let’s all go to chapel now!

refrain: Glory, glory, what an easy way to go
Glory, glory, well, it’s better than chapel pro [bation]
So let’s all go to chapel now!

Once upon a time there was a thing called ‘chapel pro’
But lots of us were on it, so the trustees all said, “No,”
“If you should miss a chapel, why then, out’s the place you’ll go.”
So let’s all go to chapel now!


Our chapel here at Williams is beset by many foes.
The chaplain is against it, although every week he goes.
But God is strongly for it, which th’administration knows,
So let’s all go to chapel now!

[refrain, with extra gusto!]

You didn’t have to go to the college chapel. If you went to some other church service in town, you could hand in a card with your name to an usher, who would deliver the cards to the college so you could be credited. We Jewish students ran our own services on Friday evenings (I led my share of those) and handed in our attendance cards for that; but I liked to go to the college chapel occasionally.

Back to the present!
First, on Saturday night, we went to another in the summer music series at the Windham Hill church:

This one is a small building, as I probably said last week. I counted more carefully this time, and got 32 pews that each hold four people comfortably. It’s old enough that it doesn’t have running water; the restrooms are in the community hall, which is a separate building.

The concert was by the Denny Breu trio. Denny is one of the best guitarists we’ve run into, and not bad as a songwriter. We’ve heard him three times at the Tom Rowe memorial concerts in Lewiston and once before at Windham. His wife played various flutes — regular soprano C flute, alto, and a Native Americal flute that looked a little like mine but, unlike mine, plays in tune.

There was a monster traffic jam on Route 302 when we drove down. We had left in time, we thought, to get some frozen custard (that was supper) and stop at a hardware store for more paint for that arbor; but shortly after the frozen custard the traffic was backed up. I took the side road through Raymond Village, but the traffic was backed up on 121 getting onto 302. I turned around there and took Mill Street over to 35, hoping that the hangup was between 121 and 35, but it wasn’t. We got onto 302, but it wasn’t moving. There was no northbound traffic at all, which made us think the road was completely closed somewhere ahead. Well, of course eventually traffic did start moving. We got to the concert just in time — in fact, with several minutes to spare. We never did find out what happened, but it was probably an accident.

Sunday afternoon we went to the Bell Hill Meeting House for the annual service there. This one is more picturesque, though my picture suffers a little from those fluorescent traffic cones. To be fair, the picture of the Windham church would be better if I had taken it with my good camera instead of the iPhone camera and if the lighting were better. But I think this is a particularly graceful building.

Bell Hill Meeting House is in Otisfield, four or five miles north of our house. We stumbled across it one day, just “let’s see where that road goes, there might be a ince view from the top of the hill” — and there is, but the building is entirely unexpected up here, far from any town center. In previous years we’ve seen newspaper announcements of an annual service there, but have never had a chance to go. I’ve wanted to see what it’s like inside. This year the paper said there would be an open house and tours from 1 to 3 last Sunday. It also announced a service — but the article about that didn’t have a time or date! We decided to try to get there promptly at 1. There were several cars parked when we got there — other times we’ve driven up there we were the only car — and people were walking to the building carrying three-ring binders that looked suspiciously as if they held choir music. The service was going to be that day, at 2:30, and the choir was rehearsing in between.

We explored the area a little in the hour and a half we had. First, we looked around the cemetery across the road. Most of the stones dated from the late 1800s.

We walked a couple of hundred yards down the road, and then took a right on Peaco Hill Road, just because we had never driven down it. There was a gorgeous view from the side of it; maybe not as impressive as the view from Hacker’s Hill in Casco, but maybe. It’s certainly not like scenery in the West, but for New England this is very impressive.

It turns out that in 1837, when the meetinghouse was built, Bell Hill was the center of Otisfield. There’s a brick one room schoolhouse, which was also open for the afternoon, next to the meeting house. Someone was going to reenact classes there later in the afternoon. We just poked in. I wasn’t all that interested in seeing a lesson, because my sisters and I had spent a real school day at a one room school in Vermont one fall when we were kids — it was probably in 1955 plus or minus two years. We did notice that the desks are different sizes, smaller towards the front so the younger kids can see the blackboard.

I took a couple of pictures inside the meeting house after the choir rehearsal and before things really started. First, looking toward the front. The flowers are all from a local garden.

Then, looking toward the back. The pillars were added after lightning struck the tower and weakened several posts that held up the bell tower.

Besides some prayers and hymns (but no lessons from scripture) the service included a brief history of the church in the form of an imagined letter from a town resident in the 1840s to her sister, read by the woman who was going to re-enact the one room school class, and a talk about recent structural repairs to the building, by a local barnwright who does timber framing and other structural work. He said he had done long-term temporary repairs to the building, by which he meant they weren’t permanent repairs, which under historical preservation guidelines would have to be with materials similar to the original, but structural steel added in such a way that it could be removed, but that should last for a good 100 years.

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July 27th, 2010

I’ve been working on a garden arbor for our place in Maine. It’s one of those gateway arches with trellis sides and benches on the inside of the gates, so you can sit down under the vines that are supposed to grow up and around the thing, if you want to and there aren’t insects hanging around. I bought the lumber at Red Mill several weeks ago — maybe back in May, in fact — and had been working very gradually on it unt the weekend before last. At that point I got out the saber saw and cut out the arch parts. Once that was done I started to really believe in the project. Before then end of that weekend I dipped the ends of all the wood in some clear preservative, some kind of Cabot’s oil, and stacked them to dry for a week:

This past weekend I put a coat of primer on all the pieces — well, most of the surfaces of all the pieces. I ran out of time before I got to the end. Even just with the primer you can see why I’m getting more and more to believe that the project will get done:

After looking at that picture, I figured I could do some photoshop work to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. First of all, I need to flip that picture upside down, to get the arch the right way up. Then, I’ll sketch in the vertical supports and some of the trellis parts — dum de dum de dum — and erase a little of the pieces of wood that are going to be the verticals. You’ll have to imagine the rest of those pieces being erased, because I got bored doing it before finishing. If you can put up with the lawn being upside down, this should give you a very rough idea of what I’m after:

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