4.60. Bob Gluck, electro-acoustic composition ‘Shofaralong’ (2001)

Musical wind instruments are usually divided into woodwind instruments and brass instruments. These two terms are misleading, because the determining factor is not the material, for example brass, wood, bone, or plastic, but the sound generation mechanism, and in brass instruments, this consists of the player’s lips. Brass instruments can produce a number of harmonics on any tube length, and this length determines the pitch of the fundamental. In order to play a diatonic tune, a pre-19th-century trumpet or horn player needed a long instrument, to be able to blow the eighth until the fifteenth harmonics, which constitute the only diatonic scale of the instrument. *A Baroque trumpet in D, as used for example in many Bach cantatas, has D3 as its fundamental and the following harmonics: D4-A4-D5-E5-F♯5-G(♯)5-A5-B5-C6-C♯6-D6. As a shofar blower in the synagogue needs only the second and third harmonics, technical innovations have always been superfluous, and moreover, halakhically prohibited.

Brass instruments in Western music have undergone three technical revolutions. The first revolution in the Middle Ages turned them into diatonic instruments. Finger holes were drilled in the instrument and by opening these holes, the air column was shortened, so that more series of higher harmonics could be blown. *For example, the Swedish vallhorn, a cow horn with three finger holes. And the zinc or cornetto, made of wood, with 6 or 7 finger holes. However, drilling holes in a shofar was prohibited, as the Mishnah tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:6 states that a shofar with a hole that affects the sound is “unfit for the commandment.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 168. Cf. also Chapter 3.1.

The second revolution in the first half of the 19th century turned brass instruments into chromatic instruments. Extra tubes, opened by valves, extended the air column; three valves allowed full chromatic playing and extended the low register of the instrument. However, a shofar with extra tubes and valves was incompatible with halakhah, because “shards of a shofar stuck together are unfit.” *Ibid. And since the liturgical shofar was not used in ensembles, standardization of pitch was not necessary. Problems arose only in the early 20th century, when Edward Elgar tried to fit a shofar into a modern symphony orchestra. *Chapter 4.5.

The third revolution at the turn of the 21st century provided brass instruments with digital technology, creating almost unlimited possibilities of pitch, timbre, duration, volume, polyphony, and memory. Digital technology did not necessarily affect the shofar and was not by definition in conflict with halakhah. Suddenly, the ancient ram’s horn could become an ultramodern tool in the Present, without forgetting its religious Past.

In his electro-acoustic composition Shofar der Zeit (1990), *Chapter 4.50 Alvin Curran connected the shofar via a microphone with a computer, thus giving the instrument a memory in the form of a computer program for recording, manipulating and reproducing shofar sounds. In Shofaralong for electronically processed ram’s horn and I-Cube glove (2001), the composer and Reconstructionist rabbi Bob Gluck went two steps further by extending the innovations to the shofar player’s locomotion and to the visual presentation for the audience. Gluck’s eShofar was not only blown but also played with the right hand of the player fitted into an I-Cube sensor glove, a glove with sensors, while finger movements on the horn controlled the filtering and signal processing by the computer. The next version of the digital shofar, the eShofar2 (2005), also used complex algorithms to create chaotic improvisation systems, based on the live shofar sounds. This ultramodern technique, in which “each recording is immediately looped and continuously replayed,” *Gluck, “eShofar1.” http://www.electricsongs.com is reminiscent of the ancient Mishnah tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:7 about hearing shofar blasts indirectly: “If one blows the shofar into a pit or a cellar or a barrel, / one who hears the sound of the shofar – / has fulfilled his obligation; / one who hears the echo – has not.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 168. Cf. also Chapter 3.1. Halakhic objections against damage to the shofar are superfluous, since the digital equipment of the eShofar can be removed without leaving a trace.

With regard to the evolution of musical instruments, the composer Luciano Berio *Cf. Chapter 4.54 stated:

Instruments take a long time to transform themselves, and they tend to lag behind the evolution of musical thought. The violin, for instance, virtually unaltered, has been inhabited by the history of music of the last four hundred years. It has an imposing legacy, and for this reason, whichever way it is played, it expresses that history and heritage—even if you tune it completely differently, or interface it with a MIDI system. The same thing may be said for nearly all the musical instruments we know. *Berio, Remembering the Future 26-7.

Though the shofar is much older than the violin, the eShofar no longer “lags behind the evolution of musical thought.” In Shofaralong, the point is the surprise effect of an ancient instrument being capable of modern technological accomplishments. The musical core of Gluck’s composition consists of rudiments of the shofar’s “imposing legacy”: the set of traditional shofar blasts. The notes in the first half of the composition are long, just as the traditional tekiʿah and tekiʿah gedolah, whereas the notes in the second half are short, like the shevarim and the teruʿah. In addition to unmanipulated shofar notes in a normal register there are sound clusters, electronically transformed to higher frequencies, up to the limit of the audible range.

In the electro-acoustic compositions by Alvin Curran and Bob Gluck, the traditional shofar blasts are heavily manipulated, and sometimes the animal horn is hardly recognizable anymore. Composers are no longer dependent on the shofar’s few usable harmonics; they can change tone frequencies, and instead of heaven, the sky is the limit. Physical limits of shofar blowers do not exist anymore: the eShofar is able to blow and endless tekiʿah gedolah; it can produce superhuman volumes and unplayable rhythms and perform polyphony with itself. Gluck’s revolutionary approach to tradition gives new meaning to a statement of Mikhail Bakhtin, which applies particularly to Gluck’s “sensor gloves”: “[T]he entire world and everything sacred in it is offered to us without any distancing at all, in a zone of crude contact where we can grab at everything with our own hands.” *Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” 26. Moreover, the artificial memory with its virtually unlimited capacity gives a new dimension to the shofar as a “tool of remembrance.” In Gluck’s composition, the acoustic Past is definitively altered by the digital Present.

 

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