So I want to start by sharing a story about attending the New Music Gathering in Baltimore two years ago. Baltimore is where I'm from and where I live now. At the start of 2016 I was, finally, twenty years after I wanted to, getting seriously started as a composer, and a gathering of composers had spontaneously fallen into my lap at Peabody. Now obviously, what the New Music Gathering needs most for its diversity is yet another Jewish composer, so unfortunately, it was also the weekend of my father's 70th birthday, and my presence was ordered, as it has been so many times before, to an orthodox synagogue for Friday Night Services. I knew I couldn't get out of it but I was still pretty livid, mostly at God I suppose for scheduling my father's 70th birthday just as I was meeting lots of composers for the first time in my adult life. But as it turned out, the surreality of going from the most avant-garde recitals to a bunch of Jews singing and dancing Chassidic melodies made me realize - the fusion of these two worlds is precisely what I wanted my music to be, and probably what it could never help being in any event.
This is a project that I hope, one day, will encompass all 150 Psalms or Tehillim - Stravinsky and Steve Reich can eat their hearts out. Is 150 too much to ask? Probably, but I hope to complete many more Psalms than Sufjan Stevens completed states. The reason to do this project is that I've been forced to listen to Jewish music all my life. Growing up as I did in Pikesville, Maryland, I didn't know a single non-Jewish person except my violin teachers until I was sixteen, and every Jewish musician eventually has to face the truth, which is that 'they have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel.' Over the years I sometimes sang in, and even conducted, choirs that did a lot of church music, and I realized both that all those motets and cantatas Christians get to sing was 1000x more extensive than the Jewish liturgical tradition, the standard repertoire of which is about a hundred of cantorial compositions. The other problem is that all this Christian sacred music is so outside the Jewish experience that there is something about the music that just doesn't 'feel right' when processed by my Jewish head. Jews don't believe in salvation and damnation in the way Christians do, I'm frankly not even sure that 'faith' as the Christian world understands it works as a concept in Judaism.
I wanted to hear more sacred music that 'felt Jewish', and since few other people were writing it, I would have to write it myself. I see the Psalm Project as a kind of Apollo program for Jewish Music that can hopefully raise the bar of putting the Jewish experience of metaphysics into music. Obviously, what the New Music Gathering needs most for its diversity is yet another Jewish composer... but in spite of the fact that I'm sure a good quarter or more of the musicians are Jewish and possibly another quarter are part-Jewish, I doubt there are too many Jewish musicians here who grew up truly religious. The Jewish experience is still terra incognita in classical music.
Ordinarily, at 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning I would be attending Beth Am, my highly social-justice oriented synagogue in Baltimore. My Rabbi is a good friend and a real thinker, and there's a particular concept he refers to quite a bit which he calls 'sacred space.' A 'sacred space' is different from a 'safe space.' Not just because in the realm of the sacred, on is not merely safe, one is also compelled to contemplate the reasons for one's safety.
I'm not a believer that artists should suffer overmuch for their art, but I am most definitely a believer that great art gives our suffering meaning and puts it in context. Christians believe that suffering enobles the soul. Matthew and Mark both say that 'the one who endureth to the end will be saved.' Judaism has no such belief - if anything it's the opposite. God's answer to Job is that Job would never understand God's ways, and the poet of Ecclesiastes even declares that 'he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.' Suffering in Judaism is an inexplicable force, something inevitable that must simply be endured. It's a whole religion in which the transcendent realms are deliberately minimized in favor of this world, where everything is about practical accommodation and compromise so that suffering can at least be minimized.
So in that sense, Judaism does not make it easy for a composer who wants to depict the sacred. The experience of the sacred in Judaism is almost secondary to the tactile practice of the religion, and the vast majority of philosophy in Judaism is devoted to the interpretation of Jewish laws, and there are six-hundred thirteen of them. Even the most religious Catholics only attend mass once a day, but like Muslims, Jews are called to prayer multiple times every day which they have to practice with a community. And even if Jews don't make it to what we call a 'minyan', we are supposed to chant at least 100 blessings every day, The sacred is just something that Jews - for 2000 years and until recently a completely homeless people - and pleeeeeease let's not bring Israel into this, carry with them into every interaction they have.
The closest we have to a philosophy that is part of our canonical text is Ecclesiastes, which predates Christianity for centuries, yet to the modern eye seems almost a response to it: “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun." In other words, the here and now is our reward, not the afterlife.
We don't have enough time to get into Jewish metaphysics, either the kind from Rambam which is a response to Plato in which he maintains that the world was created ex-nihilo, meaning 'from nothing' rather than the Platonic notion that the world was always here, or the now-endlessly discussed Kaballistic tradition, in which Jews try to imagine the limitless unknowability of God - I would imagine that the Kabbalah was an enormous influence on the paintings of Mark Rothko. But I think both of these concepts are very good inspiration for music; particularly the Kabbalistic concept of the 'ein sof', of God as a being 'without end.' And even if Judaism does not have nearly as much to go on in the way of incorporeal spirituality as Christianity does, Judaism does have a literary and poetic tradition that is literally second to none. We are the 'People of the Book', the text of the Torah and the Tanakh, the latter being roughly what Christians call the 'Old Testament', is still perhaps the greatest collection of literature and poetry and practical wisdom ever assembled.
I've always, for better or worse, been very interested in exactly these kind of esoteric intellectual that of course make a person tremendous fun to be around when he's eight years old. I tend to think of myself, not without reason I believe, as almost the inverse image of every other person who comes to the New Music Gathering. I didn't come to classical music the way kids come to their vegetables. I had so much passion for it that by the time I was fourteen or fifteen I had most of the standard repertoire committed to memory and could probably still write a good bit of it out in score - if anybody wanted to put money that I could do a reasonable approximation and call out a couple pieces I'd be up for choosing one... But while everybody else was getting ready to get serious about their music studies, I was at a point in my life where I was unable to study music formally at all. Coming here now, I realize I should have done a proposal on composing with learning disabilities. That's the perspective I really could have added to this gathering. As a very small child I had perfect pitch, could harmonize at the piano, speak three languages, solve algebra problems, read and memorize prodigiously, and yet I couldn't complete many of the most basic organizational tasks even by the time I was a teenager for which small children had no problem at all. Fortunately the details of that are for a different kind of talk...
There's the old saying from Voltaire that God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh - and I always thought of that when considering the path my music making took. The organizational discipline of a conservatory life was clearly not an option for me. I wouldn't have had to force myself to work up enthusiasm for the classical repertoire as so many conservatory students do, but the way I learned was ass-backwards for conservatories. Try as I might, I couldn't seem to identify the names of chords and forms to 'understand' progressions from pieces a number of professors admitted I knew better than they did. And we won't even get into the horrors of figuring out music software.
So since I was never going to be a workable candidate for an advanced degree, if I wanted any meaningful contact with music at all, I had to force myself to work up enthusiasm for popular music, the one thing every person in our generation except me does naturally and I have to admit that still do with some difficulty in spite of the fact that I can pretty near guarantee I've played more non-classical gigs than 75-90% of the people here. Except for a bachelor's degree in composition at a school where I was one of two music graduates in my year, I spent most of the next fifteen years doing relatively little in music except playing violin for various bands. I was pretty good at it at a local level, and there were a few years when I was recognized on the street fairly often in Baltimore and sometimes even in DC, but I again thought to myself that there must be a god with a sense of irony because I must be the one person in America who never dreamed of success with a band.
In late 2015, both the band I fronted and the band with which I achieved the most success as a violinist fell apart pretty much simultaneously. It was a terrible period, but I realized that this was the moment to go forward with what I thought was a way of composing I could do.
The inspiration behind it, believe it or not, was Larry David. For every Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, he goes in with a script that's a page long, and then gets great comic improvisors to riff off it until he comes up with comic gold. In the same way, I get the best musicians I can find, give them a page of basic ideas. I tell them to use that page as the cell of whatever they can come up with, the more embellished and improvisatory the better. I then take it with my engineer into what is basically a musical laboratory. We take the most intense cuts from the improv they give us - often just ninety seconds of an hour's worth of material, and then we perform acoustical/electronic experiments on it to give the music the most possible life.
I don't think of what I do as great composing. I don't think I'm a very good composer, and I didn't even ever want to be a composer, I just wanted to be a conductor; not just of Beethoven and Mahler but of new and early music too, and at that I know that in a different life I'd have been damn good at that. I was called from the earliest age to serve music the way clergy are called to serve God, and try as I did, I could never get away from it.
So I think of my compositions as more a kind of 4-dimensional conducting than any kind of composition in a true sense - or maybe what I do is closer to what a film director does. I take the best work of musicians and technicians more skilled than myself, and give it a better shape in a dimension that can achieve levels of energy which these musicians, however great, could never achieve in a live setting.