4.49. Babette Koblenz, instrumental composition ‘Shofar’ (1989)

The German composer and painter Babette Koblenz (born 1956), who studied composition with György Ligeti, has written three compositions inspired by Jewish culture, representing three different periods: Schofar (“Shofar”) (1989) for an instrumental ensemble, inspired by the archaic ram’s horn; Amarti la awanim (“I said to the stones”) (2000) for voice and piano to a poem by the 10th-century poet Ezekiel Ha-Kohen; and Unkenntlich: Musik- und Bilddokumentation 24 ehemaliger Fränkischer Landsynagogen (“Unrecognizable: Musical and Pictorial Documentation about 24 Former Synagogues in Rural Franconia”) (2003) for accordion and violoncello, about modern history.

Schofar (“Shofar”) was written for an octet with the highly unusual instrumentation of cor anglais/oboe, heckelphone/oboe, soprano saxophone, wagner tuba, trumpet, violin, viola and percussion (1 player: cymbal, two drums, vibraphone, bass xylophone and small Javanese gongs).

In many parameters—pitch, dynamics, rhythm, articulation, and timbre—this composition is characterized by a strong “frayedness,” with strange deviations from the norms of euphony in classical concert music at first hearing. The two movements of Shofar with a duration of 12 and 7 minutes respectively, are harmonically very static and largely built on a kind of drone. Movement I consists of two sections: the first section (mm. 1-198) in E♭, that switches without modulation into the second section (mm. 199-292) in G, and in which the classical major/minor distinction does not apply. Movement II has three sections, a first in E♭ (mm. 1-94), a harmonically unstable transitional section (mm. 95-120), and a third section (mm. 121-158) in D. The harmonic feel of the piece is minor with occasional Dorian turns with a lowered 7th degree and a non-lowered 6th degree. An example of these Dorian turns is in Ex. 10 is the descending run A-G-F♯-E-A in the soprano saxophone (m. 150), viola (mm. 151-2), 1st oboe (m. 152), and violin (m. 152).

Ex. 10. Babette Koblenz, Shofar: movement II, mm. 150-152. Score in C. Reproduced by permission of the composer.

There are no themes, let alone thematic developments; instead, there are a wealth of motifs. Ex. 10 shows motifs resembling shofar blasts, for example those with upward 4th or 5th leaps in the soprano saxophone (m. 151, 2nd beat), the first oboe (m. 151, 2nd and 3rd beat), and the vibraphone (m. 150, 4th beat; m. 151, 3rd beat; m. 152, 1st beat). The typical shofar 5th is to be found in the violin (m. 152, 2nd beat) and the viola (mm. 150 and 152).

Meter and rhythm in Ex. 10 are atypical for Shofar. The larger part of the composition is based on Koblenz’s concept of the “autonomous, flexible beat,” *Koblenz, Shofar, introduction to the score which consists of two, three or four sixteenths; a few beats together make a measure, of which only the number of pulses is notated. M. 12 of movement I, for example, is not a “13/16” or “4+4+3+2/16” measure, but simply a “4” measure. The overall impression is that of a spontaneous, improvised dance with a strong offbeat character.

Of all musical parameters, timbre is the most important in Shofar, as is evident from Koblenz’s comment:

In large sections with very special instruments . . . and their delicate sound mixtures, Shofar pictures the archaic and very characteristic sound of a shofar . . . Although there are, in other works of mine . . . similar sound mixtures with a kind of shofar “imitation,” . . . Shofar is the piece in which this “tone space” [Klangraum] is the actual content. *Koblenz, letter to the author, February 9, 2010. Translated from the German by KvH.

The roughness of the shofar tone serves as an example to all eight instrumentalists, though it is more easily approachable for the wind players than for the string players and the percussionist. In Shofar, the classical ideal of a smooth, noise-free tone gives way to a tone production with a portamento attack and extreme noise; everything is permitted between a crystal-clear, vibrato-free tone production and the “extreme dirty-Spielweise” (“playing technique”) *Koblenz, Shofar, introduction to the score of jazz. Examples of this in Ex. 10 are the violin glissando (m. 150, 3rd beat) and the portamento of the 1st oboe (m. 152, 4th beat). The four strings of the viola are tuned almost a quarter tone sharp and the viola player should try to correct the difference in pitch with the other instruments, which will never fully succeed. Koblenz’s conception of timbre in Shofar is in fact similar to the statement in the Talmud: “If its sound is thin, thick or dry, it is valid, since all sounds emitted by a shofar can pass muster.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b. The instrument’s archaic character is not stressed by the use of a real ram’s horn or the traditional blasts, but by an unusual instrumentation and non-standard playing techniques. The Present is directed by the Past, as the sound picture of this complicated modern composition is determined by the primitiveness of the archaic shofar.

The improvisatory impression of the otherwise meticulously notated composition is reminiscent of oral music cultures. Certain motifs, such as the above-mentioned Dorian turn in Ex. 10: A5-G5-F♯5-E5-A4 (soprano saxophone, m. 150) with its trochaic rhythm are found in many traditional folk dances from Hungary and Romania. According to Koblenz, the “gestics” of Shofar extend from herbe, expressive Ruf (“bitter, expressive call”) to hymnische Anrufung (“hymnic call”), *Shofar: score with the latter referring to the domain of religion. Many unusual playing instructions are characteristic of spontaneous religious utterances, and these instructions aim less at playing techniques than at a certain atmosphere. For example: abgehoben (“exalted,” I, m. 108); erhoben (“elevated,” I, m. 109); seufzen (“sighing,” I, m. 138); singend, hymnisch (“singing, hymn-like,” I, m. 268); ekstatisch (“ecstatically,” I, m. 275); mit Ausdruck und viel deklamatorischer Ruhe (“expressive and with much declamatory serenity,” II, m. 12). Both movements end with a long section to which the term hymnische Anrufung applies: in movement I, it is played by the solo violin (mm. 267-292) and in movement II, by the whole ensemble (mm. 121-158).

Shofar is not program music; instead, it resembles a stylized soundscape, that would come into being during imaginary walks through a historical East European shtetl with shofar blasts, snatches of prayers from Ḥasidic synagogues and discussions from yeshivahs, calls from market vendors, klezmer sounds carried on the wind, the braying of a donkey and the cackling of hens. The chronotope seems that of the shtetl in Marc Chagall’s paintings, with figures and objects in unusual places in the air or on their heads and all in fantastic colors.

The thirty compositions discussed in this study can be divided into three groups. In the first group, the traditional shofar blasts are played by other instruments and in a stylized form, in which the characteristic tone repetition and the upward 4th and 5th leaps of the shofar are still recognizable. To this group belong Ernest Bloch’s Psalm 114 *Chapter 4.7 and Schelomo, *Chapter 4.9 Aaron Copland’s Vitebsk, *Chapter 4.15 Alexander Goehr’s Sonata about Jerusalem, *Chapter 4.43 Yehezkel Braun’s Festive Horns, *Chapter 4.44 Luciano Berio’s Shofar, *Chapter 4.54 Shulamit Ran’s Between Two Worlds, *Chapter 4.57 and Jeff Hamburg’s Tekiah. *Chapter 4.61.

The compositions of the second group, Babette Koblenz’s Shofar and Giulio Castagnoli’s Shofar, *Chapter 4.58 are inspired by the roughness and “out-of-tuneness” of the shofar sound, though they remain purely acoustic and the sounding results are achieved with new instrumental playing techniques or unusual instrumental combinations.

In the third group, the point of departure is also the shofar sound itself, but here it is produced by a real animal horn, and manipulated by digital electronic techniques. *Cf. Chapter 4.60 on Gluck’s electronic techniques. The first of these compositions was Alvin Curran’s Shofar der Zeit (1990), *Chapter 4.50 that was followed, among others, by Bob Gluck’s Shofaralong (2001) *Chapter 4.60 and Robert Normandeau’s Chorus (2002). *Chapter 4.62. Whereas most compositions of the first group have a narrative character and are based on a traditional religious or a modern literary text, those of the second group are non-narrative and at the most, suggest a soundscape. As we shall see, the works of the third group have an even more abstract character and distance themselves further from Jewish traditions.


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