Monday, November 20, 2006

From the mailbag... (Carlebach criticism edition)

Jordan's got my back:
I remember davening for the amud in Rinat Yisrael, my shul in Teaneck, and using the Shlomo nusach as I learned it off the record. A good friend who happened to be in town and was a close associate of Shlomo's came up to me afterward and said, Jordan, that was beautiful, but it wasn't the way Shlomo did it. I responded that that was the way Shlomo recorded it, and while I respect the need to be true to a composers wishes, I was within my rights to use the recorded version, and he should not get tied up in a knot about it. I am one of the most insistent musicians in NYC about playing Shlomo's tunes correctly, but having said that, I also acknowledge that Shlomo, whose formal training was spotty, often sang his songs differently. And I am a little tired of Shlomo neo chasidim try to tell me, who performed with Shlomo on a number of occasion, in a wide variety of settings, "How Shlomo tunes should be done." I think we are talking about a pretty amazing, prolific, heartfelt, generous, funny, learned folk song composer. We are not talking about the secret recipe for Coca Cola.

I agree wholeheartedly with Blog in Dm that the criticisms of Dachs and Williger are small minded, petty, nasty, and one reason of my own, a violation of the spirit of Shlomo's music.
Hear, hear!

"Sonoomee" comments:
I don't think Carlebach took vocal lessons either.
Yitz emails:
With regard to the recent discussion about the various versions, by today’s artists, of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s music – his niggunim – I’d like to add my 2 cents, or should I say, 2 agorot. We live in a world today where everything can be processed, packaged, and redone artificially, and music is no exception. We can now digitalize everything, to make voices sound like guitars; our modern-day electronic keyboards have drums, bass, brass, flutes, guitar and just about any other sounds coming out of them, besides the usual piano and/or organ sound.

There are many people that feel that things have gone a bit too far. I basically agree with your premise that “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it [or attend the concert, etc.].” But I also feel the pain of where FWQ [Frum with Questions] is coming from. There is a feeling that even Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who was so down-to-earth, “amcha” – a Rabbi, yes, but very much “with the people,” who reached out and communicated with them “ba’asher hu sham” – wherever they may have been, has been co-opted. FWQ is upset that even the Carlebach Shul has decided to use “commercialized,” if you will, versions of Reb Shlomo’s music, rather than those performers who actually knew him, played with him, and have a strong feeling of his music, which they can convey when they perform it. His feelings are legitimate and deserve better treatment than your critique here. Again, I agree with you that the response should be “don’t attend the concert,” but one cannot help but feel that somehow people have been betrayed, “sold out” as it were, for a bowl of lentil soup [see this week’s parsha].

Both you and Psachya cite Reb Shlomo’s recording of Mikdash Melech, or “In the Palace of the King,” as an example of how he used musical arrangers. Although I didn’t know Reb Shlomo when he made that recording, I’ve been told by those who knew him, that he was extremely dissatisfied with it. Not with his songs, however, but with the ‘muzak’-style arrangements. [Personally, at the outset and still today, I cringe at some of the ‘muzak’-sounding backdrops on this album, which remind me of either department store music, or Xmas songs. I bought this record in the early 70s.] Evidence that this was so is the fact that most of those songs were redone on later recordings. Another problematic recording, which wasn’t mentioned, was “Days Are Coming.” This came out when groups like “The Supremes” were very popular, and for some reason, his producer decided to use some ‘supreme-like’ background vocals on some of the songs, notably ‘Yachad.’ Again, I heard from those who knew him that Reb Shlomo was not happy with the results of this recording. Thank G-d that Neshama reissued this recording by removing these vocals, adding much better vocals and instrumentation, although at times the saxophone player got a bit carried away [methinks] in some of the interludes.

If you look at things, besides his very early recordings, with which he was launching his music, Reb Shlomo very often recorded live performances, or, as he did later, brought a live audience of his ‘chevra’ into the studio, to give it a live effect. His “Sweetest Friends” recording is a good example of this.

So to be fair to FWQ, let’s agree that Williger and his ilk are not as authentic as Ben Zion Solomon and Sons. Similarly, the Duo Reim’s recording of Modzitz niggunim is not as authentic as those of Ben Zion Shenker. And I’m sure there are many more examples of this. [There are Lubavitchers that hold that Avraham Fried’s version of Chabad niggunim are not as authentic as Nichoach’s]. But, as you correctly mention, you are free to buy or not buy the recording, to listen or not listen to them [when they come on the radio, for example], or attend or not attend the concert.
My challenge to Yitz, "FWQ" and the others. Produce your list of "authorized" Carlebach performers who "actually knew him, played with him, and have a strong feeling of his music, which they can convey when they perform it." Make sure it's all inclusive, as anyone not on the list will never be allowed to perform any Carlebach songs publically. As well, I'd like a specific list detailing the requirements for each of those categories. Specifically, the following:

1) How well did they have to have known R' Shlomo? Do they need to have known his favorite color? Favorite food?
2) How often did they have to have played with him? Is once enough? What about if they came and played on their own, but weren't invited to by R' Shlomo? What if they can't play well? What if someone never played with him, but has performed extensively with the Carlebach talmidim?
3) What qualifies as having a strong feeling of his music?
4) Similarly, what constitutes "conveying" it? Wishing everyone a "good Shabbos" on Tuesday? Parameters please!

Than we'll discuss the specifics.

Also, it's nice to assert that R' Shlomo allegedly was unhappy with the musical arrangements on "In The Palace of the King" and "Days Are Coming". However, he did record those albums, and he did choose/ work with the arrangers for those albums. Those were decisions that are impossible to reconcile with the perspective of his music some, like yourself, appear to be espousing. Even if he later decided he didn't like the results of those sessions.

Finally, I don't agree with your statement "let’s agree that Williger and his ilk are not as authentic as Ben Zion Solomon and Sons." (For the record, I tend to prefer Ben Zion's Carlebach to Williger's.) It's not comparable to an outsiders recording of music of any specific Chassidic group they are not a part of. Williger and his peers grew up with Carlebach music. It is sung in their shuls, yeshivos, at community events, and they bought, listened to, and sang his music for many years. You might not like the musical direction they've gone with it. But to represent it as "outsider music" is unfair. It has been the soundtrack to much of their lives.

Elsewhere, you've approved of Israeli jazz pianist Avi Adrian's treatment of Modzitzer nigunim. (A great album, BTW.) Adrian is not a Modzitzer and jazz is not exactly traditional to Modzitz. Why the double standard about Carlebach?

In sum, it's perfectly ok for "Carlebachheads" to critique Williger's Carlebach ouvre from a musical standpoint. If you don't like the commercial "Brooklyn" Jewish music style, that's legitimate. I don't muuch care for it myself. But these high-horsed comments are disrespectful, as Jordan noted, to the spirit of R' Shlomo.

Finally, I wrote previously:
The notion that only acoustic guitar players and J-rockers are "authentically" Carlebach is silly. That said, there is a "scene" of musicians who play events throughout the year for the Carlebach shul, often for little or no remuneration, and its a little sad that the Carlebach shul feels it has to go to "name" Brooklyn performers for their big events, rather than showcasing their own.
I think it appropriate for the Carlebach shul to use musicians from within their own community for their events. But that's not because I beleive Williger has no right to sing Carlebach. I'll explain more about my reasoning in the next of my "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? series.