Symphony: Songs of the Soul
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This piece (1986–87) is transparently emblematic of Amram’s lifelong passion for diverse ethnic music—in this case all within the boundaries of world Jewish cultures. In its juxtaposition of folk elements that are usually assumed to be foreign to each other, Songs of the Soul: Shirei n’shama represents the composer’s highly personal perception of potential synergies among otherwise disparate musical traditions and styles.
Songs of the Soul was born in an environment of American Jewry’s recently heightened awareness of, and fresh interest in, the so-called Jewish Orient—the many non-Western ethnic Jewish communities and cultures—which was sparked in the late 1960s following the Six Day War in Israel and continued to grow throughout the 1970s. Such expanded geographic-cultural consciousness had been kindled much earlier (in Europe as well as in America) by the Zionist movement itself—well before the establishment of the Jewish state, when the very notion of historical cultural ties among the various communities of world Jewry reinforced Jewish national objectives and thinking beyond the more circumscribed and accepted bond of common religion. That awareness, however, had applied more narrowly to attuned Zionist circles.
Following Israel’s brilliant military victory in 1967 and its accompanying euphoria, greatly widened ethnic-national identification and pride among American Jewry ignited a new cultural curiosity among broad cross sections of its population. American tourism to Israel also increased vastly, now including many who possessed little knowledge about Israel or its constituent ethnicities. Many of those tourists returned enthusiastic about what they perceived as exotic: the sounds, rhythms, and customs of the Jews who had come from such places as Yemen, Persia, Bukhara, Syria, and North Africa, as well as the indigenous Jewry of pre-state Palestine.
Synagogues, Jewish schools, and community centers in America began presenting programs and festivals devoted to those musics. Recordings of those traditions became commercially available in American outlets, and film and television references proliferated, leading to a new level of popular fascination with Oriental—viz., Near Eastern, central Asian, Indian, African, Arabic, and other non-Western/non–European-based—Jewish traditions. This amounted to an American “cultural discovery” of the Jewish Orient, often with a sense of virgin wonderment. European musical traditions also benefited as part of that rediscovery, as many American Jews encountered those traditions for the first time either in or via Israel—at concerts, festivals, synagogue visits, and tours of religiously concentrated neighborhoods. Ironically, many of those same European traditions could be found in the United States, but it was the travel experience that often brought them to life for American Jews. The allure of personal historical identification provided a potent additional dimension vis-á-vis the 1960s and 1970s hunger for “roots.”
This attraction to musical exotica was also a function of the broader American interest at the time in “the other”—Eastern musics, religions, folkways, and philosophies—which manifested itself in the emergence of audiences for such artists as Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar or Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
Songs of the Soul was commissioned by the United Y’s (YMHAs/YWHAs—Jewish community cultural centers modeled in part on the YMCA) of Long Island, New York. It was premiered at the fifth annual Jewish Arts Festival of Long Island in 1987, conducted by the composer. “This time I wanted to do a piece that reflected the polycultural nature of the Jewish people as a nomadic people,” he said.
The first movement, Incantation, is based on a traditional chant employed by the Ethiopian Jews (Falasha) at their Passover seders. Amram used only a part of the actual chant and constructed the movement freely around it—alternately fragmenting and expanding it. Its most prominent three-note motive is stated at the beginning and permeates the movement in various guises. There is an equally arresting rhythmic figure in the percussion.
The second movement, Niggun (lit., melody), was conceived by the composer as a “song without words,” after a typical Hassidic definition of niggun. Its overall melos stems from eastern and central European liturgical traditions—Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Romanian, with even a hint of a well-known synagogue composition from Berlin by Louis Lewandowski. The principal melody, transformed and mutated through imaginative orchestral colorations and variations, is present throughout. Though the melody is original, its modal flavor suggests age. It could just as easily be a mystical Hassidic niggun as a cantorial lament, or even a Yiddish folk tune, combining features and moods of all three types. “Actually, it is a series of melodies of my own,” Amram explained, “but which came out of the eastern European Jewish folk melos, secular as well as sacred.” Typical of Amram’s music, emotion is paramount. “I tried to capture some of the feeling of the great cantors of eastern and Central Europe and their atmosphere.”
The third movement, Freilekh—Dance of Joy, is truly polycultural, fusing eastern European klezmer inflections with a Yemenite sacred tune and a Sephardi secular song, all under a Yiddish title denoting a typical high-spirited dance. The Yemenite tune here is a traditional version for the kabbalistic liturgical text of the preliminary service on the eve of the Sabbath (kabbalat shabbat—welcoming the Sabbath) — l’kha dodi (come, my beloved [Sabbath bride]). This tune was brought to Israel by Yemenites who were airlifted from Yemen in 1948 in a rescue operation known as marvad haksamim (magic carpet). Amram learned it from Sephardi singer-guitarist Avram Pengas, who was born in Greece but grew up in Israel in the Yemenite community. The two met in New York, where they played together in a Near Eastern trio periodically over twenty years. This tune was one of the many upon which they improvised during those sessions. The Sephardi melody is a Ladino folksong, Morena Me Llaman, which Amram learned from the Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian, with whom he also played for many years. The movement is in the form of a rondo, at whose conclusion all the themes from the previous movements return as a type of recapitulation.