4.50. Alvin Curran, electro-acoustic composition ‘Shofar der Zeit’ (1990)

Shofar for ram’s horns, computer live electronics, accordion and soprano clarinet (1990) was Alvin Curran’s third composition with a shofar. The first was For Julian (1988) for voices or chorus, shofar and saxophone, for which Curran was awarded the Ars Acustica International Prize 1988 by the WDR. *Westdeutsche Rundfunk (“West German Broadcasting”). The second was Crystal Psalms, a commemoration of Kristallnacht of 1938, in which the shofar is heard together with sounds of breaking glass, referring to the destruction of German synagogues and their ritual objects. *Chapter 4.47.

Curran’s interest in the shofar goes back to his youth in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, when he heard the instrument in synagogue on the High Holy Days blowing “a twice-a-year identity check, and awesome proof that the Jews were in touch with some deep stuff.” *Curran, Shofar Rags, CD booklet 3. All excerpts reproduced by permission of the composer. However, only in the early-mid 1980s did he consider the shofar a genuine experimental musical instrument, which fitted his interest in “natural” sounds and could bridge his dilemma of making music that was not only utterly simple but also modern and captivating. In 1988 he was invited by the WDR to compose a piece for the festival Musik der Zeit (“Music of Our Time”), that would take place in 1990, and on a visit to Jerusalem, he bought some shofarot:

When I was in Jerusalem in 1988 to record the sounds at the Wailing Wall on the Day of Lamentations (Tish B’Av) I went through the shofar souk on a morning buying spree for my upcoming WDR commission. I picked Muhammad’s stall at random and proceeded to go through dozens of horns—bins full of them—trying out each one until Muhammad, all excited, called out in Arabic to his buddies in the claustrophobic alleys something like, ‘Hey, come here and check out this guy, he really knows how to play these things.’ My brief informal demo-concert gained an audience, glasses of excellent mint tea came out of nowhere, we bargained some, and I left happily with about 5 instruments of all sizes and types—which later flustered the security detail at the airport, who gave each of them a shake and a puzzled look up the snout before I got to leave Israel, a confirmed shofar player blessed by the Palestinians. *Ibid. 4.

The result of this unusual preparation was Shofar (1990), that was premiered at the festival Musik der Zeit in Cologne, within the framework of “The Diaspora Meets Israel.” It is difficult to get a good, overall impression of Shofar, as the two extant recordings are far from complete and lack the improvisational and theatrical elements of the piece. One excerpt can be heard on the composer’s website, *Curran, Shofar. Duration 1:30. http://www.alvincurran.com while the other is a free remix of materials from the WDR recording, renamed Shofar der Zeit, *Curran, Shofar der Zeit. Duration 4:03. CD Shofar Rags on a CD with other shofar compositions by Curran. Fortunately, Curran rewrote the extensive manifesto-like comment on his composition and published it in the CD booklet.

At the beginning of his comment, Curran stresses the dual nature of concert music for the shofar, which “for all its universal mystique and divine expectations comes straight from the slaughter house – no matter what kosher prayers are said for each beautiful horn ripped from the head of its owner.” *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 1. Whereas the sacred character of the shofar receives much attention in the works of art discussed in A Tool of Remembrance, few artists consider the down-to-earth, animal nature of the horn, apart from the poets Yehuda Amichai in The Real Hero: “and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered” *Chapter 4.45 and Sarah Lindsay in Zucchini Shofar: “No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise[.]” *Chapter 4.69. The first performance of Shofar revealed that not all listeners were willing to accept the shofar as a secular musical instrument:

The 45 minute piece, which opened the festival, was an overstuffed bold and bumpy agglomeration of sounds and ideas—hovering chaotically between idolization and abomination—such were the “vibes” surrounding the presentation of things Jewish in Germany then. Cologne, with its own barren Judengasse (Jews’ Alley) just a few steps away from its imposing Gothic cathedral, was an appropriate launching site for this nascent piece of music-theater. To my dismay, the hearty applause was mixed with boos and foot-drumming from 2 irate and presumably observant Israeli composers present in the audience. *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 4.

To a number of concertgoers, the use of the shofar in a concert setting is problematic. The composers who listened to Curran’s Shofar showed their disapproval quite openly, whereas others, for example the persona in Geoffrey Hartman’s poem Elegy at the Bodensee, *Chapter 4.46 keep silent: “I had never heard the Shofar applauded, God have mercy[.]” Shofar blasts in the Bible and synagogue service are authoritative discourse, as Bakhtin puts it, in “a special (as it were, hieratic) language . . . akin to taboo.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 342. The Collegium Musicum Judaicum in Geoffrey Hartman’s poem presented the traditional shofar blasts in a secular setting, whereas Alvin Curran went one step further by turning the shofar blasts into an internally persuasive discourse, in which they did not remain “in an isolated and static condition,” but by means of electronic techniques were “developed, applied to new material, new conditions.” *Ibid. 345. The composer Judith Shatin, who also used amplified and manipulated shofar sounds in concert music, commented: “Some people think that it’s inappropriate to use it [the shofar] . . . in concert music. I have not been able to track down any place in the Torah that leads me to think that there’s anything inappropriate about it, . . . I view it as a way of creating a connection to the tradition.” *Shatin, in Gersten, “Playing the Shofar.” Chapter 4.55. Strange as it may seem, Alvin Curran was not prepared for the criticism from certain listeners:

The question of desecration and religious-correctness had not occurred to me before. I had been clearly invited to make music with strong symbolic content and I did that, as an atheistic Jew and as a composer of sounds from anywhere and about anything, including my own strong Ashkenazi roots. For me the very act of music making is itself sacred, in that it transforms any sound into a meta-language available to all people anywhere for their spiritual or secular illumination, ecstasy, and delight. . . . Talmudic scholars say the shofar and its sound aren’t intrinsically sacred, only its sound directly heard in religious contexts, which as far as I am concerned leaves my horn just as I want it, the voice of nobody and the whole world at the same time. *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 4.

This comment reveals that Curran considers the shofar as an ethnic instead of a religious marker; at the same time, however, he presents the shofar as a factor in spiritual illumination. His use of the term “meta-language” is problematic, as a “meta-language” is a language about language, whereas Curran refers to music which can be understood by listeners from over the whole world, so just to “language.” Curran’s assumption that the shofar in Jewish tradition is not intrinsically sacred is true to the extent that the rabbis in the Talmud discuss the question of whether “one who blows to make musical sounds fulfills his religious obligation,” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 33b which implies that the shofar was used as a musical instrument and that this practice was not judged negatively. That, according to Curran, “A complex body of divine injunctions and mitzvahs came to regulate why, when, and how this instrument would be sounded—without any mention of its quality of sound” *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 2 relates only to ritual and not to secular shofar blowing. The quality of sound is indeed mentioned only once in the Talmud, by the 2nd-century Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel, apparently not as a very important matter: “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.

After the first performance of Shofar in 1990, Curran decided to continue making music with the shofar, and at the same time, to reduce references to Jewish culture and religion in his shofar music:

I made a wager with myself that I could make a credible piece of new music with this horn—wedded to electronics—and that it would be simple, wholesome, and open-ended. I had no deep post-modern interest in collective memory, in lost spaces of childhood or Jewish folklore[.] *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 6.

As explained in the preceding chapter, Curran’s Shofar der Zeit was one of the first compositions to “wed” the shofar to electronics and to create the new paradigm of electro-acoustic shofar music with new technical and artistic possibilities. These new possibilities are described by the musicologist Thom Holmes, who sums up seven fundamental traits of electronic music, *Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture 154-7 which distinguish it from acoustic instrumental music and which all apply to Curran’s electro-acoustic Shofar der Zeit.

First, there are unlimited sound resources available to composers of electronic music. Curran’s electro-acoustic Crystal Psalms (1988) *Chapter 4.47 was a collage of existing musical fragments, concrete sounds, and shofar blasts, which remained recognizable in spite of their electronic manipulation. In Shofar der Zeit, however, the process is essentially different: “As electronic musical technologies evolved I sought support from . . . hard- and softwares featuring pitch detection, spectral reconfigurations, granularization, long delays, and triggered sampled sounds.” *Shofar Rags, CD booklet 7. Curran transformed the sounds of the shofar, the clarinet and the accordion so radically, that the original instruments have become unrecognizable and produce sounds which do not exist in nature.

Second, electronic music can expand the way listeners perceive tonality. In Curran’s collage-like Crystal Psalms there were still many musical “isles” with their traditional tonalities, whereas the concept of pitch in Shofar der Zeit is stretched toward the realm of noise and the separation between sound and noise is no longer valid. The musical material consists of shofar sound and noise-as-such, instead of the traditional shofar 4th and 5th.

Third, electronic music exists “in a state of actualization.” Shofar der Zeit was not fixed in a written score which can be performed by any musician; instead, it exists only at the moment of a performance by Curran himself, of which the CD was only a spin-off.

Fourth, electronic music offers a new view on the “temporal nature” of music. The recording of the shofar notes in Shofar der Zeit allows a reorganization in time, as a result of which the shofar blower can perform polyphony with himself.

Fifth, instead of melodies and chords, sound itself becomes the material of which compositions are made. The material of Shofar der Zeit consists of the sounds and noises of the shofar as such, the frequencies, colors and volumes of which can be manipulated endlessly.

Sixth, electronic music is not restricted by the physical limits of the human body. The shofar blowing in Shofar der Zeit exceeds the physical limitations of a shofar blower, especially of his lung capacity, and can sound both longer and louder.

Seventh, Holmes states that electronic music “often lacks a point of comparison with the natural world of sounds, providing a largely mental and imaginative experience.” Curran was already aware of the many possibilities of the traditional, acoustic shofar, as is apparent from his remark “Blowing the shofar, you can produce angelic tones or bestial schmutz with very little margin in between.” *Ibid. 6. The Yiddish word shmuts means “dirt” or “filth.” However, when he confronted the acoustic shofar with electronic technology, the archaic instrument seemed to become an anthropomorphic being with a will of its own. Curran attempted

to transform this stubborn horn into a modern, well-behaved digital Mensch. An obedient slave to my foolish egocentric fantasies and abiding Jewishness, to my wrongheaded dreams about becoming a famous composer; to my fortuitous birth under the sign of the Horn. . . . [T]his ur-instrument defies intelligence, whether artificial or human, and shows no native interest in partnering with cold digital chips. Both sides have lots of “attitude”—from arrogance to anarchy to autism. There could not be a better setup for mutual annihilation. Yet I demanded they love each other and through varied articulations of my breath enjoy this new coupled life. *Ibid. 7-8.

Curran was the first composer who attempted to transform the shofar into a well-behaved digital “mentsh,” a Yiddish term referring to a decent, responsible person. Whereas he wrote many more compositions for shofar, a selection of which was released on his CD Shofar Rags, his pioneering “educational” work was successfully continued by the composer Bob Gluck. The latter developed the eShofar, which premiered in Shofaralong (2001), *Chapter 4.60 eleven years after Curran’s Shofar der Zeit. The eShofar is the perfect realization of Curran’s “new coupled life” of the shofar and “cold digital chips”: it is not only blown but also played with the right hand of the player fitted into an I-Cube sensor glove with sensors, while finger movements on the horn control the filtering and signal processing by the computer.

Next Chapter