New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene. Tamar Barzel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015. ISBN 9780253015570.

Reviewed by Jeff Janeczko

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On February 29, 1940, the composer Stefan Wolpe addressed a meeting of the Jewish Music Forum on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a talk titled, “What Is Jewish Music?” While he did eventually offer a vague answer, his opening statement pointed out the ineluctable ideology of the question itself: “The question of Jewish music conceals the questioner,” he remarked.  “[T]he answer is needed by the unclear conscience of those who would have the clear conscience that they are Jewish composers.” [1] Which is to say that those who ask the question are seeking to define a field in which their own work is included.

Fifty years later and five miles south of where Wolpe spoke, a coterie of musicians on the “downtown” scene took up the same question. Their answers, often offered in musical form, were similarly pointed. For, like Wolpe, they were not looking to clear their consciences. They were challenging a prevailing point of view, propagated from various corners of the organized Jewish community, that Jewish music had a particular sound (i.e., klezmer). In the process, they created a vibrant scene of performances and recordings that came to be known as Radical Jewish Culture, or RJC. Tamar Barzel’s New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene beautifully chronicles RJC’s emergence, outlines some of the issues it confronted, and provides meticulous analyses of some of its key early works.

RJC largely orbits around the composer, improviser, and provocateur, John Zorn, and his record label, Tzadik. Activity has ebbed and flowed since the phenomenon’s emergence more than twenty-five years ago, but a steady flow of recordings has been maintained. Zorn’s profile and business acumen have provided the scene with a global reach and encouraged scores of younger and non-New York-based musicians to follow suit. While RJC is widely available on recordings, the phenomenon’s early developments were not always documented, and as a result, the details have been unclear Thanks to Barzel’s intervention, this is no longer the case.

If the founders of RJC were not seeking validation, they were engaging with the idea of Jewish music in specific, if idiosyncratic, ways. “Jewish Music: The Art of Getting It Wrong” (Chapter One) illustrates how some RJC artists approached the Jewish music question by turning away from klezmer, and by “striving to make music that signified, in personally compelling ways, on the particularities of their Jewish experiences” (55). Through discussions of some of the klezmer-oriented, avant-garde ensembles and important musical works that circulated on the scene prior to RJC (e.g., Gary Lucas’s “Verklärte Kristallnacht,” Shelly Hirsch’s “I Am a Jew”), Barzel contextualizes RJC’s emergence as a gradual process within a multifaceted zeitgeist.

 

Aside from historical details, the introduction and first chapter lay out a couple of key concepts that guide the book’s narrative. Barzel qualifies the timeframe the book covers (1992 to 1998) as the RJC “moment,” a period “during which downtown artists grappled most intensively with the work of writing music that was both experimental and Jewishly relevant” (3). “Moment” is used as an alternative to “movement” (a term occasionally invoked in discussions of RJC), as the latter implies a concerted effort involving shared social and/or political goals she feels RJC never obtained. The second concept, “Jewishly usable music,” is less cut-and-dried. It does not refer to any kind of functional or gebrauchtsmusik, but rather to raw materials (“memories, texts, or melodies”) used to make “new [music] that could not have been created otherwise” (16). If the term is a bit awkward, the author uses it successfully to demonstrate her point.

“Breaking a Thick Silence” (Chapter Two) relates the paradigm shift by which downtown Jewish artists went from hiding or obscuring their Jewish identities to presenting them openly. While in other chapters of the book, the inclusion of quotations from the author’s interviews can be a little clunky, here they are very effective. We get an excellent sense of the post-WWII culture in which the majority of the artists were raised—one where fitting in with and contributing to American culture took precedence over one’s individual religious or cultural identity, and where children were taught to fly Jewishness under the radar in order to avoid discriminatory treatment. Many artists featured in the chapter recall the first Radical Jewish Culture performances as seminal events for their “outing” of Jewish artists that formed a significant part of the downtown scene. A separate discussion of Jewishness and masculinity in rock and punk culture is particularly insightful. But what the chapter provides in ethnographic detail it lacks vis-à-vis the broader American context. The 1990s was the dawn of an era in which many minority groups were beginning to bring identity to the fore. If this coming out was a revelation for many of the artists who had grown up hiding their Jewishness, it seems important to view it in the context of the times.

Chapters three through five comprise roughly two-thirds of the main text. And in contrast to the broader scope of the introduction and first two chapters, they are highly focused case studies of particular artists and works.

“From the Inexorable to the Ineffable” (Chapter Three) is the book’s longest and most ambitious chapter, and Barzel really shows off her analytical chops with critical analyses of John Zorn’s two most important Jewish music endeavors: Kristallnacht and the Masada project. Her work on Kristallnacht includes a detailed formal analysis that extracts and maps out a dizzying array of thematic material, from the piece’s most abstract sounds (e.g., samples of burning paper and Nazi voices, sine tones) to tone row fragments from Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron and allusions to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” Contrasting Kristallnacht with the Masada project, Barzel finds a peculiar “retreat from historical particularity,” which she attributes to Kristallnacht’s difficult attempt to “marry concrete allusion with conceptual freedom” (121). The chapter also includes a pointed critique (“Doubly Alienated, Doubly Chosen”) of how Zorn has constructed identities of both Jews and artists as societal outsiders (132).

But if the progression of Zorn’s Jewish-identified music can be viewed as “retreating from [concrete] historical particularity . . .  to free-floating signification,” inexorability and ineffableness can also be seen as two poles of a conception of Jewish identity that drives much of Zorn’s artistic work, as well as his views on other artists whose work he presents (87, emphasis mine). When viewed from this broader perspective, between (inexorability) and (ineffableness) might be more reflective of the push-pull nature of identity than from–to. It has even been argued that such antinomies are at the heart of modern Jewish identity. [2]

Though a punk aesthetic held little presence in RJC’s later years, it was more pronounced in the early period. “Rethinking Identity: G-d Is My Co-Pilot’s Queer Dada Judaism” (Chapter Four) outlines how this No Wave band (also known as GodCo) developed a “working theory of RJC that was uniquely their own” (146). By positioning themselves between punk, folk, and RJC, GodCo, Barzel argues, “intervened into monolithic conceptions of nature and culture . . . in order to articulate the in-between spaces in which lived culture . . . rather than imagined, national culture—is created” (155). In other words, like many other RJC artists, engaging with Jewish music was an attempt to weave together multiple strands of identity and experience into some kind of coherent whole. “Rethinking Identity” includes extensive quotation from the author’s interviews with the band’s founders, delves into the group’s use of Jewish linguistic and iconographic symbols in their concert programs and recording liner notes, and teases out some of the issues and semiotic implications in their appropriation of Yiddish, Zionist, and Hasidic songs.

Selected works by Anthony Coleman and Shelley Hirsch are the topic of “Music and Memory from the ‘Nowhere Place’” (Chapter Five). Through multilayered analyses of Coleman’s album Jevreski by Night, his jazz-based Selfhaters ensemble, and Hirsch’s performance piece, O Little Town of East New York, Barzel looks at musical composition as a critical encounter with the gap between cultural and individual narratives of identity and experience. That is, by mining experiences both personal and foreign, and by looking at Jewish music and identity in terms of disconnected and dislocated fragments, Barzel relates how Hirsch and Coleman created Jewishly inflected music in which “representations of memory function as simulacra” (204) and “indeterminacy [serves as] a unifying trait” (207). It’s a fascinating look into the creative processes of two of RJC’s most compelling artists.

At the end of chapter four, Barzel asserts that GodCo addressed what she calls “the central project of the RJC moment, stepping outside the frame of both authenticity and convention in regard to the notion of Jewish music.” And further, that, “The band’s ingeniously arranged Jewish songs are not meant as emblems of the Jewish people as a whole, but as testaments to the complex inheritance that has shaped Jewish American identity in the late twentieth century, one person at a time” (181).

The problem with these assertions is not that they are untrue, but that they are applicable to much of the music that falls under the RJC umbrella, including other artists in New York Noise. And it is here where the book’s many considerable strengths belie what I think is its only significant weakness: its sample size is too small. Although many other musicians (i.e., Marc Ribot, Joey Baron, Gary Lucas, and Roy Nathanson) appear throughout the book, in the end we really only get to know the four she has chosen to present to us. Even if we accept that the six-year period the book treats was the most intense period of activity (which is never fully justified), there are many artists and recordings from that period that are left out.

Because we only delve deeply into a few pieces by a few individual artists, we are left with a narrow perspective that leaves many unanswered questions. How does the Jewish-identified music of these artists relate to their diverse oeurvres, and how might they approach Jewish music differently than their other work? How does their music relate to that promulgated within RJC more generally, within the organized Jewish community, and within other Jewish music microscenes? Who listens to it? And does the way they hear it amount to a Jewishly inflected way of listening “resonant with Jewish discursive and textual traditions” (46)? If the question of Jewish music conceals the questioner, we need to hear from more questioners. The small sample size, combined with the paucity of ethnographic detail beyond the individual artist interviews, makes it difficult to draw out the larger trends and issues that appear when the scope is widened beyond the RJC “moment” and its somewhat insular downtown art world. [3]

In its aim to chronicle and critically engage with the six-year period of RJC’s beginnings, New York Noise is eminently successful. It is an exceedingly well written book, soundly argued, and full of insight. But by restricting the book to such a narrow focus, it falls short of its claim to evaluate “RJC’s lasting presence in the musical and cultural landscape” (13).

Shortcomings aside, New York Noise is a highly valuable contribution to the study of Jewish and improvised/experimental music, especially as it intersects with issues of identity. One of the book’s strengths is Barzel’s ability to convey these artists’ and their work with both a close and wide-angle lens. The extensive collection of supplementary audio and video material available on the publisher’s website is not particularly easy to access. But it is well worth the effort to do so and highly recommended for readers not familiar with RJC.

No book can tackle any single topic exhaustively, let alone one as multivalent, and polysemic as RJC. We should be grateful to Tamar Barzel for deftly navigating a complex cultural and musical landscape, and for relating it to us in an eloquently written and discerning monograph. As the first book to tackle RJC in a closely studied manner, Barzel has provided an excellent foundation for future studies, as well as a very high bar by which they will be judged.

[1] Wolpe, Stefan. 2008.”What is Jewish Music?” Preface by Austin Clarkson. Contemporary Music Review, 27:2-3, 179-192.

[2] Lang, Berel. 1993. “The Phenomenal-noumenal Jew: Three Antinomes of Jewish Identity.” In Jewish Identity, edited by David Theo Goldberg and Michael Krausz, 279-90. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[3] Janeczko, Jeff. 2009. “Beyond Klezmer: Radical Jewish Culture and the Performance of Identity.” Ph.D. diss. University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Jeff Janeczko, Milken Archive of Jewish Music