4.55. Judith Shatin, electro-acoustic composition ‘Elijah’s Chariot’ (1996)

Elijah’s Chariot, for String Quartet and Electronics by the American composer Judith Shatin (born 1949) is an 18-minute composition for string quartet and shofar. It is an electro-acoustic composition, in which the string players perform live, while the shofar part with both acoustic and electronically manipulated sounds and with monophonic next to polyphonic passages, was recorded on a CD.

The composition was inspired by biblical and post-biblical legends about the prophet Elijah. In the Program Notes to the score, Judith Shatin explains her fascination for this prophet. He loved children, and worked wonders, for example by punishing idolaters with a long drought, and let it rain again only after their conversion to God (1 Kings 17-18). The end of his earthly existence was a miracle, because he did not die, but was taken to heaven, according to 2 Kings 2:11: “a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one [Elijah] from the other [his disciple Elisha]; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” There are many legends about Elijah, who always stood by his people; during Passover seder, a seat is provided for Elijah, a cup of wine is poured for him and the front door is left open, that he may come to take part in the meal. Most importantly, Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah (Mal. 3:23), and according to certain medieval writings, for example the 10th-century Persian-Jewish apocalypse Maʿaseh Daniel, the Messiah will command Elijah to blow the shofar. *Cf. Patai, The Messiah Texts 225-6. This is probably the reason for the prominent function of the shofar in Shatin’s composition. According to the composer, “the scoring for string quartet and electronics symbolically suggests the source of inspiration”:

the four instruments represent the four wheels of the chariot, the vehicle that moves between earth and heaven; they also represent the dialogue between Elijah and Elisha, the follower who does not wish to desert Elijah despite Elijah’s pleas and forewarning; and they represent the voice of the people in prayer. The electronic portion represents Heaven’s call to Elijah, includes the sound of the shofar associated with Elijah, and intimates the ascent to Heaven. *Shatin, Elijah’s Chariot, Program Notes in the score.

Whereas the utterances of both Elisha and the people—the string quartet portions—can be regarded as internally persuasive discourse, half the prophet’s and half their own discourse, the shofar and the electronics represent the authoritative discourse of Elijah’s heavenly calling.

Elijah’s Chariot consists of an introduction and four sections of approximately equal length, separated by interludes. The composition has no narrative set-up and the score contains only two programmatic indications, at the beginning and the end of Elijah’s earthly appearance: “Elijah is called” in the introduction, and “Think of the music as prayers rising” in Interlude 3. The tone material is supplied by both the shofar and the string quartet.
The introduction is a 20-second shofar solo and the blasts provide the four structure-defining elements in the composition:

1. the minor 2nd (in the introduction: D5-E♭5 or E♭5-D5);

2. the glissando;

3. the roughness of the shofar timbre;

4. the tone repetition at different speeds.

At the beginning of section 2, the string quartet provides the remaining tone material, which consists of the first eight bars of the well-known song Eliyahu Ha-Navi (“Elijah the Prophet”). The shofar blast (D5-E♭5 or E♭5-D5) and the beginning of the song (E♭5-D5-C5-C5-B4-G4-C5) have the minor 2nd in common, and the assumption that this interval is the most important structure-defining element of the composition was confirmed by the composer. *Shatin, e-mail to the author, April 3, 2010: “You are correct regarding the minor second, which is both typical of the shofar calls (which come from the ones used on the High Holidays), and it is the first interval in Eliahu, HaNavi.”
 
The shofar sounds are recorded on CD. On the one hand, this may be a makeshift solution, as it could be difficult to find a shofar with the exact pitch of D5; on the other hand, it could be a fundamental decision, to separate the authoritative discourse of the shofar from the internally persuasive discourse of the strings. Bakhtin’s observation: “Authoritative discourse . . . remains sharply demarcated, compact and inert” applies to the shofar sounds, just as the following words: “it demands, so to speak, not only quotation marks but a demarcation even more magisterial, a special script, for instance.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 343. Not only is a CD recording “sharply demarcated,” the shofar passages in the introduction and the three Interludes are notated proportionally, in “a special script” of square notes, with the duration per fragment indicated in seconds, without measures.

 

Charriot

Ex. 11. Judith Shatin, Elijah’s Chariot: introduction and mm. 1-8. “CUE 1” indicates the start of the recording with the shofar. Reproduced by permission of the composer.

In the 20-second introduction (Ex. 11), “Elijah is called;” the shofar blows a TaShRaT, which is imitated by the string quartet in mm. 1-11 of section 1 (mm. 1-96); the dissonant A♭ provides the characteristic roughness in the consonance C2/G2/D3/G3/D4/A♭4/D5, and just as in the shofar blast, every D goes up to E♭. A passage with rhythmic variations on this “shofar chord” is followed by a passage with equally strong dissonant sustained chords. An increasingly agitated passage leads to the partly improvised Interlude 1 (between mm. 96 and 97, duration 68 seconds), dominated by the shofar motif D-E♭.

In section 2 (mm. 97-150), the shofar motif is inverted to E♭-D, as a result of which it coincides with the beginning of Eliyahu Ha-Navi. “With great gentleness,” the strings vary the first eight measures of the song; they alternate in pairs—perhaps as an allusion to the dialogue and the separation between Elijah and his disciple Elisha—and lead to an increasingly volatile passage with quarter tones and rising tetrachords, built of tones from the song, to Interlude 2 (mm. 151-168). String tremolos and polyphonic shofarot in this Interlude suggest unrest, wind, and a glowing fire, while the tone repetitions in the shofar suggest the neighing of the horses from 2 Kings 2:11: “As they [Elijah and Elisha] kept on walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared[.]”

Section 3 (mm. 169-232) begins with a dynamic passage, composed of both the minor 2nd of the shofar and elements from Eliyahu Ha-Navi; a quiet passage with quotations from the song is followed by rhythmically vigorous measures, leading to Interlude 3 ( between mm. 232 and 233, duration 1:05). This literally and figuratively high point of the composition with electronically multiplied shofarot and improvising string players (“Think of the music as prayers rising,” “Dance on the fingerboard,” “Rise into the stratosphere and fade as the Shofar sounds end”) gives a suggestive impression of the chronotope of the fiery chariot taking Elijah to heaven.

This authoritative discourse, which almost reaches the upper limit of the audible range, is followed in section 4 (mm. 233-306) by an internally persuasive discourse, expressing intimacy; Eliyahu Ha-Navi is played and hummed simultaneously by the string players and accompanied by a drone. In essence, this passage with its intimate and devout character and wordless humming is a niggun, a wordless Ḥasidic song, while the rest of the composition, from m. 257 to the end, is a dance niggun, first played in four-four meter in a “frenzied” and “dancing” pace and finally in a slow, brooding memory of Eliyahu Ha-Navi.

Elijah’s Chariot is a hybrid composition with a simple song (Eliyahu Ha-Navi); elements from East European Ḥasidic music like the niggun (section 4); passages resembling Arvo Pärt’s diatonic harmonies (section 4); and the improvisation blocks that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s (Interlude 2). The above-mentioned authoritative discourse of the shofar with its four structure-defining elements creates the necessary coherence.

According to the 8th-century “midrash” Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, which retells and comments on biblical stories, *Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 230 the left horn of the ram sacrificed by Abraham was blown on Mount Sinai, whereas the right horn will be blown at the end of days, as is said in Isa. 27:13: “And in that day a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and they who were lost in the land of Assyria and they who were dispersed in the land of Egypt, shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” According to the above-mentioned Maʿaseh Daniel and other medieval writings, Elijah will blow the shofar three days before the coming of the Messiah. Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Military Rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces, offered a politicized supplement to this tradition when he blew the shofar on Mount Sinai during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and on the Temple Mount in 1967 during the Six-Day War. *Chapter 4.40.

There are some marked similarities between Elijah’s Chariot and three other shofar compositions discussed in A Tool of Remembrance. First, a thematic similarity between Elijah’s Chariot and Berio’s Shofar, *Chapter 4.54 which have the minor 2nd as their determining interval—many shofar blasts in the synagogue service end with a quick, ornamental, upward glissando over a minor 2nd. In both compositions, this minor 2nd occurs in two forms: first, in a powerful version blown by a shofar (Shatin), or trombones representing a shofar (Berio); and later in an intimate version, played by a string quartet and an accordion respectively.

Second, there are similarities in the “dramaturgic” setup between Elijah’s Chariot and Fleischer’s Symphony No. 5. *Chapter 4.63. Both works combine live instrumental and vocal sounds with recorded and manipulated shofar blasts; both compositions contain vocal religious elements in the form of sung prayers (Fleischer) or a hummed niggun (Shatin); electronic techniques are used to suggest heavenly spheres: in section 3 of Fleischer’s symphony, the cantor’s voice enters as white noise at the upper limit of the audible spectrum, to descend to normal frequencies, whereas manipulated shofar sounds suggest the ascension of Elijah’s chariot; finally, both works end with a “frenzied” and “urgent” dance in an idealized past (Shatin) or a utopian future (Fleischer).

Third, there is a similarity on a narrative level between Elijah’s Chariot and Gluck’s Jonah under the Sea; *Chapter 4.56 electronically manipulated shofar blasts suggest the ascent—the turn in both stories—to the surface of the sea and to the Temple (Gluck), or to heaven (Shatin).

The musicologist Michael Slayton’s comment on Shatin’s explicitly Jewish compositions applies as well to the above-mentioned compositions by Berio, Fleischer, and Gluck: “These works are not religious in the sense that they espouse a belief or serve a ritual function, rather, the stories and places provide opportunities for reflection on ideas and issues that have current cultural relevance.” *Slayton, Women of Influence in Contemporary Music 418-9. These relevant issues are the Jewish voice in the commemoration of World War II (Berio); the need for mutual respect between the opposing groups in Israeli society; and man facing nature and the almighty God (Gluck).

Of all the composers discussed in A Tool of Remembrance, Judith Shatin and Alvin Curran *Chapter 4.50 were the only ones to comment on the use of the shofar in a secular context. Whereas Curran did so in an offensive way, Shatin explained in a defensive way how the Present of her Elijah’s Chariot was directed by the Past of traditional religious texts and shofar blasts:

Some people think that it’s inappropriate to use it [the shofar] for a setting outside of the High Holy Days – for its use 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.”

Rabbinical tradition does not object to the use of the shofar as a musical instrument: as stated in Chapter 4.50, the rabbis in the Talmud discuss the question whether “one who blows to make musical sounds fulfills his religious obligation,” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 33b which would not have made sense if they judged this practice negatively. In another, indirect way, Elijah’s Chariot is connected to the transition from the sacred to the profane. The quoted song Eliyahu Ha-Navi with the lines “may he rescue us from the lions’ mouth; / may he herald good tidings for us; / may he gladden children with parents at the departure of Sabbaths[,]” *The Complete ArtScroll Siddur 629 in many Siddurim is part of the Havdalah, the prayer that concludes Sabbath and marks the distinction between the holy day of rest and the beginning of the profane week.

 

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