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Kabbala Soul Music

Rabbi DovBer Pinson


Generally, it is maintained that there are two distinct styles of music. Let us term these, for convenience's sake, as "Western music", music which originates from Western society, and "Non-Western", music which is derived from all other cultures, particularly those of the East and Africa. Western music is usually recognizable as "goal oriented music". This means to say, music that is narrative in structure, consisting of a series of progressive "events", so to speak. The listener feels the progression of the music, and it evokes a sense of movement within him. It feels like the music has a destination, and it takes the listener on its journey.

Non-Western music is characterized by a prolongation of a single note, or a select group of sounds which continues in a set pattern throughout the entire melody. This type of music arouses a more contemplative state, evoking within the listener a sense of timelessness and inner space.

Appropriately, these moods of music reflect the essential theology of these two civilizations. In the West, the predominant belief is that Creation began at a period of time, as time is linear, culminating in a future: Creation, Revelation and finally Redemption. Reflecting this reality, the music the West produces follows this pattern. It begins, reaches a high point and climaxes. By contrast, in the East, where time is viewed to be cyclical, with no "beginning", "middle" or "end", its music, too, is cyclical and repetitive.

The Kabbala and Jewish mystical teachings, on some level, meld these two together. Yes, Creation began at some point in time, and time itself was created; nonetheless, Creation is continuous, moment to moment anew. Nothing is merely in the past, nor hoped for purely the future. Everything is within the eternal present. As such, the music that the Jewish mystics produced, especially the songs of Chassidim known as "nigunim", are reflective of both these musical spectrums.

There are some nigunim that are structured and progressive. These tunes are to the Western ear "sophisticated" tunes, consisting of a beginning, a body and a climax. There are other nigunim that contain repetitions of single, individual sounds with little or no words. And some contain both.

While Neitzsche suggested that the "fire magic of music" is to be found in its anti-rationality, and what he sought in music was its "ecstatic irrationality", the Jewish mystic looks to unveil within music its transcendence. Perhaps not the transcendence within the music itself, as some would argue that music is nothing more than "sonorous air" or, as Leibniz had it, "unconscious arithmetic"; rather the reaction to the music, the transcendence reached as one reacts to the music.

A wordless tune (as is much of Jewish mystical song, particularly Chassidic) is the way two individuals can communicate on a transcendent soul level. Any breakdown in the verbal communication mode can be repaired by creating a conduit that transcends words. When a person feels alienated from his Source, or for that manner, from his fellow man, a wordless tune which exists on a realm that defies distinctions, separations, and disharmony, is the most fitting remedy, causing a unity of souls.

[Reprinted with permission from www.iyyun.com - copyright The Iyyun Institute.]


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