4.56. Bob Gluck, electronic composition ‘Jonah under the Sea’ (1997)

Two key moments in the Yom Kippur service are the reading of the Bible book of Jonah and the tekiʿah gedolah of the shofar. In the book of Jonah, the prophet rebels against God’s command and attempts to sail away; during a heavy storm on sea, however, he falls overboard. After being swallowed by a big fish, he repents and prays to God, asking: “Would I ever gaze again / Upon Your holy Temple?” Yom Kippur is concluded by the Neʿilah service, in which one single tekiʿah gedolah on the shofar is blown, followed by the wish “Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt!” *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1200. The similarities between these two moments, the reading of Jonah and the blowing of the shofar, are the teshuva or change in the life of the faithful and the longing for Jerusalem.

These two moments are also crucial in Jonah under the Sea by the American composer and Reconstructionist rabbi Bob Gluck (born 1955). The album in which this 10-minute electronic composition has been released, bears the appropriate title Stories Heard and Retold. Moreover, Gluck labels Jonah under the Sea a “sonic midrash,” *Gluck, “On Composing Jonah Under the Sea as he sought the deeper meaning of the biblical story, though he expressed himself in sounds instead of words. While the Present of the composition is directed by the Past of the Bible book, the Past is also altered by the Present, because the composer fills in gaps in the biblical story. There are many of these gaps, as the author describes, “incongruous, distorted events” with “relatively little emphasis on plot or character development.” *James S. Ackerman, “Jonah” in Alter and Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible 242. The book of Jonah has often been considered a satire, and these are characteristics of the genre. *Ibid. 18, and Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud.

Gluck was intrigued by the gap between v. 1:15, where Jonah falls overboard, and v. 2:1, where he is swallowed by the big fish. The composer wonders what happened to Jonah; which kind of experiences he had; whether he learned anything; whether he felt that his death was near; whether his life crossed his mind; and whether the water frightened or comforted him. Gluck imagined how Jonah’s sinking into the sea seemed to last ages and brought many images and sounds into his consciousness:

He remembers earlier moments in his life near a port of call, especially the call of fog horns. Jonah notices how similar these sounds are to those of the whales that surround him now. The sounds also call to mind the ancient call of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The resonant qualities of sounds underwater also remind him of sounds of voices he has known, as they echoed in reverberant buildings and caves. *Gluck, “On Composing Jonah Under the Sea.”

The prayer, which covers almost the entire second chapter of the Bible book, can be read as an expression of Jonah’s emotions during his descent into the water. This text borrows many elements from the Psalms, and by modern standards borders on plagiarism, whereas by the standards of its time, it is rather an example of literary virtuosity with possibly a satirical effect. Gluck’s Jonah under the Sea is a dialogue with both Jonah 2 and the Psalms, though the musical building blocks are arranged differently, and stacked rather than put in succession.

Just as the prayer in Jonah 2, the composition is largely made ​​up of quotations, or in this case, samples: shofar blasts and natural sounds from sea waves and animals. In contrast, the string sounds produced by MIDI software sound very artificial: “The goal was to suggest the otherworldliness of Jonah’s experience, as he sunk [sic] free-fall into the sea depths.” *Ibid.



Fig. 10 shows how the Present of Jonah under the Sea is directed by the Past of Jonah 2; many sounds allude to verses of the prayer, although the order is different. The passages in which the shofar blasts appear are indicated in minutes and seconds. Jonah 2, for its part, is directed by the Past of the book of Psalms, many verses of which were simply reworded. *Cf. Ehud Ben Zvi, Signs of Jonah: Reading and Rereading in Ancient Yehud 47: “This psalm [Jonah 2:3-10] contains a remarkable number of textual allusions even to the point of direct quotations from a significant number of psalms.” Only someone well-versed in the Bible will read Jonah’s prayer as a collage, because the author has made efforts to achieve some kind of stylistic unity. In contrast, even an inexperienced listener to Jonah under the Sea will be able to distinguish musical instruments from natural sound sources and original sounds from manipulated sounds; moreover, he will notice the different layers in the composition as well as the abrupt changes between the episodes. In Bakhtinian terms, Jonah 2 tends towards stylization, whereas Jonah under the Sea tends towards hybridization. According to Bakhtin, stylization uses “someone else’s discourse for his own purposes, by inserting a new semantic intention into a discourse which already has, and which retains, an intention of its own. . . . In one discourse, two semantic intentions appear, two voices.” *Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 189. In this case, the different voices belong to the psalmists and to the author of Jonah 2. In contrast, hybridization is “an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation or by some other factor.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 358. Gluck uses sounds from different origins—the sea, animals, humans, musical instruments—without mixing them.

Though Jonah under the Sea gives an impression of the total field of sounds at a certain place, it is not a realistic soundscape, but an imaginary, mythical “seascape,” expressing Jonah’s subjective experience of the chronotope:

“Jonah under the Sea” is but a cousin of soundscape composition, since the geographical place depicted is an imagined pastiche, not a real place that I have known. What elements of representation are present relate to the sounds of places I have visited. My interest is less in the actual environment of the sea than it is in Jonah’s internal experience. *Gluck, “On Composing Jonah under the Sea.”

In A Tool of Remembrance, Bob Gluck is one of the two artists to emphasize the biological aspect of the shofar. The other one is Sarah Lindsay, in whose poem *Chapter 4.69 the shofar is a zucchini instead of a sawn-off ram’s horn. However, the role of nature in both works is very different: Lindsay’s shofar makes a “joyful noise” in the friendly chronotope of a fruitful garden, the “temple” of a newly-wedded couple, whereas Gluck’s shofar is connected to the dangerous chronotope of the sea and associated with the cries of sea animals and foghorn alarms. In both works, shofar blasts mark the temporariness of life, and whereas this temporariness is happily accepted in Lindsay’s poem, it arouses fear in Gluck’s composition.


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