Monday, April 30, 2012

From the mailbag....

Psachya writes:
I enjoyed the video you posted on Joey Weisenberg's "table-top rhythms" for Shabbos singing. The guy is obviously a wonderful musician. At the same time, the video got me thinking: When does a tabletop cease being a tabletop and become a musical instrument - halachically speaking? And what's the difference between playing intricate rhythms on a shtender or on, say, a djembe?

Now I know the answer people will give me for my second question - because a djembe is specifically made as a musical instrument, whereas a table-top is more of a "found object". (I believe Mr. Weisenberg even used that term in the video.) However, I think the idea of something being a "found object" does not necessarily preclude it from being a musical instrument. Lots of fine music has been performed on, and composed for, found objects. Just ask Harry Partch. Or the cast of "Stomp".

Some might say that, to be a musical instrument, it needs to have the ability to be tuned. Two problems. One - there are plenty of indisputably musical instruments - a tamborine, say, or cymbals - that are not particularly tunable. On the other hand, as we saw in the video, it's possible to alter the sound of a shtender by putting pieces of paper on it, or putting things inside. How is that not tuning?

Another possible answer is that it has to be specifically set aside (muktzah) for the purpose of making music. Again, it seems to me that by sound-testing the "found objects" in advance (as he did in the video), perhaps Mr. Weisenberg is, essentially, "preparing" his found objects, thus making them "mezuman" to be musical instruments on Shabbos.

Again, I enjoyed the video - it was quite entertaining, and I hope I'm wrong in my speculations. But we're talking potential chilul Shabbos here, and we have to be careful. And as a habitual zemiros table-tapper myself, I may find myself sitting on my hands this Friday night.

Just some food for thought.