So when Jews first stood upright in the savannah they blew on their shofars, bobbed up and down, dropped stones, and praised lightning and thunder... everybody else ran for cover. It was a proto- avant-garde experience, resembling the beginnings of the Musica Elettronica Viva group in the mid-1960s when we proclaimed a new people’s music not far from the once busy Roman port on the Tiber river. In both cases the music was original, aboriginal, old, very old, yet very new.
Shofar is a form of petrified time, like dinosaur breath caught in a mass of frozen swamp muck, now commonly mined as natural gas—from back when things were all-natural and nobody had to carry ID, or Google anything. When noise, breath, speech and music were all the same. In those days c. 40,000 years ago, sea shells, human bones, animal horns and bamboo were the instrumentarium of the wind-section of the human big-band. On occasion they would jam in the great Rift Valley, or Nubian desert, in a club on the Nile or the Euphrates rivers or in some asteroid crater in Tajikistan. Roving groups of just a few, or hundreds, would meet by chance in these special locations—take out their beautiful ram, eland, kudu, gazelle, elephant, or argali horns and go for it. To this day people in evening gowns and tuxedos walk on stage and whack the hides of goats and scrape strings made from sheep’s intestines with hairs plucked from a horse’s tail ... music for all its universal mystique and divine expectations comes straight from the slaughter house—no matter what kosher prayers are said for each beautiful horn ripped from the head of its owner.
While the sounding use of animal horns is found everywhere on our planet it was the ancient Jews who manifestly took this instrument to be theirs—their hot-line to the un-name- able, their call to prayer, to battle, to liberation. A complex body of divine injunctions and mitzvahs came to reg- ulate why, when and how this instru- ment would be sounded—without any mention of its quality of sound. Commentaries endlessly debate the need for 101 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana or of 7 by 7 to bring down the walls of Jericho, but conspicuously ignore the haunting sonic attributes of this horn and the powerful emotions it can evoke.
The Shofar and the Ba’al T’qiah, the “master of the blast” who plays it, are like the holy texts they highlight—a preposterous instrument marks a lunar calendar of mysteries, an inexplicable call from nowhere for anyone who hears it to step out of time and become pure sound. Whether this act will be catalogued among the first or the last of human musics is of no concern to the celebrants. Without this sounding evocation the year would never start again, repentance would never end, the dead would never be buried, debts would never be forgiven.
When I was a kid the shofar was an unthinkable, even ridiculous instrument, simply not for me. But the primordial moment of its sounding in temple was a twice-a-year identity check, and awe- some proof that the Jews were in touch with some deep stuff. And when that thank-god moment of release came when we could all exit from this broiling, fainting, fasting den of all-day prayer, it was the sound of the shofar that would liberate us. We all held our breath for the nervous resident shofarist—will he make it?—and cringed when he’d end up blowing horridly twisted air-filled squawks that sounded like he’d farted out of his mouth. Nonetheless, we were out, it was over! Like a huge cage of freed birds—a collective wave of joy—handshakes, hugs, home and back to the Boston Red-Sox.
Not until the early–mid-1980s, as part of an archeological dig into my Jewish roots, did the shofar become for me a genuine experimental music instru- ment—one which not only was a per- fect fit for my “natural sound” aesthetic but which could bridge the compositional dilemma of how to keep the music bare-bones-simple and at the same time make it contempo- rary and captivating. Above all, it was a horn I could actually play. I had fol- lowed my father as a trombonist (the family were all brass players, my Aunt Adele played the cornet and my Uncle Bob the trumpet) and in the late ’60s MEV chaos I became a trumpet and flugelhorn player of sorts, so the move to playing shofar was no mere post- modern prank, it was relatively easy for me and utterly serious. True, my lips had to center an uncomfortably sharp-edged sunken mouthpiece- opening, and control over the few
tones was as best iffy. But if this fetid tube offered some challenges, its unstable rudimentary repertoire of notes was just what I needed for my reductionist music—a neo-primitive essentialism encouraged strongly by my dear friend Giacinto Scelsi.
I began to acquire some instruments, mostly in the dust-covered old Judaica shops in New York’s Lower East Side, for my very first Shofar work For Julian in 1988, which was awarded the Ars Acustica Prize in Cologne. My next major use of this instrument was in the second part of Crystal Psalms (the same year), where it appears together with ominous sounds of breaking glass.
When I was in Jerusalem in 1988 to record the sounds at the Wailing Wall on the Day of Lamen- tations (Tish B’Av) I went through the shofar souk on a morning buying spree for my upcoming WDR commission. I picked Muhammad’s stall at random and proceeded to go through dozens of horns—bins full of them—trying out each one until Muhammad, all excited, called out in Arabic to his buddies in the claustrophobic alleys something like, “Hey, come here and check out this guy, he really knows how to play these things.” My brief informal demo-concert gained an audience, glasses of excellent mint tea came out of nowhere, we bargained some, and I left happily with about five instruments of all sizes and types—which later flustered the security detail at the airport, who gave each of them a shake and a puzzled look up the snout before I got to leave Israel, a confirmed shofar player blessed by the Palestinians.
The occasion to really feature the shofar as a solo instrument was the 1990 Musik der Zeit series (WDR, Cologne) and their invitation to compose a piece for their “The Diaspora meets Israel” fes- tival featuring Ligeti, Kagel, Schnittke, Tal, Wolpe, Feldman, Teitelbaum among others. For this event I performed on the shofar alone, with midi triggered samples, and over two backup groups: one of broken accordion and soprano clarinet (Dreyblatt and Riessler), the other of five conservatory students playing shofars, and of course my usual counterpoint of taped sounds. The 45 minute piece, which opened the festival, was an overstuffed bold and bumpy agglomeration of sounds and ideas—hovering chaotically between idolization and abomination—such were the “vibes” surrounding the presentation of things Jewish in Germany then. Cologne, with its own barren Judengasse (Jews’ Alley) just a few steps away from its imposing Gothic cathedral, was an appro- priate launching site for this nascent piece of music-theater. To my dismay, the hearty applause was mixed with boos and foot-drumming from two irate and presumably observant Israeli composers present in the audience.
The question of desecration and religious-correctness had not occurred to me before. I had been clearly invited to make music with strong symbolic content and I did that, as an atheistic Jew and as a composer of sounds from anywhere and about anything, including my own strong Ashkenazi roots. For me the very act of music making is itself sacred, in that it transforms any sound into a meta-language available to all people anywhere for their spiritual or secular illumination, ecstasy and delight. Anyway, I always bought my shofars from the non-kosher bin... Talmudic scholars say the shofar and its sound aren’t intrinsically sacred, only its sound directly heard in religious contexts, which as far as I am concerned leaves my horn just as I want it, the voice of nobody and the whole world at the same time.
Over the next two decades I have done everything imaginable to make the 3–6 (on a good day 7) detuned tones of my preferred kudu horn in G transmute into music...including consecrating art openings, avant-garde theater works, films, political protests and funerals. These bestial foul smelling primal sounds, on their own, are a world of infinite sonic magnetism, instability and repulsion—at the very least an unequivocal reminder that less is more, that people, animals and music can smell bad, and that a curved tube of keratin with all its harmonic imperfections is not a Stradivarius, it is a chance system and can only do what it can do when made to vibrate audibly.
I got a long zipper photo bag just the length of my instrument, and took it everywhere to play acoustic shofar, from the Port of Oakland where I performed with Cenk ErgŁn who banged on the resonant steel of an abandoned ship, to the courtyard of Borromini’s Chiesa Nuova where I opened my dear late friend Edith Schloss’s last show of paintings, the huge circular plaza (“Largo Luciano Berio”) of the Parco della Musica, an artists’ rally at the occupied MACRO Museum, Huddersfield with their 300 strong Choral Society...
Blowing the shofar, you can produce angelic tones or bestial schmutz with very little margin in between. It ultimately depends on the force and duration of the breath and on the player’s abil- ity to skillfully control his/her embouchure (the vibrating lips against the mouthpiece).... All of this creates blood-boiling pressure in the upper body, face and head, and leaves the player little to do but breathe deeply, play, pause and repeat this again and again, hoping not to pass out in hyperventilation. The makers of such music are forced to face the limits of human breathing and the necessity, between sounds, of resting in silence. It is a confrontational challenge which begs the musician/composer to ask humbly: what is the very least I need to make an engaging piece of music for myself or others, whatever the occasion? A task which when confronted with equanimity can possibly guide the player to that primeval musical knowing that we are all born with. A Knowing that puts ego and bravura, chutzpah and mastery on the line, where the barest of essentials, blowing two tones a perfect 5th apart, is one of the most organic and satisfying ways to make music.
After that first performance of Shofar at the WDR I made a wager with myself that I could make a credible piece of new music with this horn—wedded to electronics—and that it would be simple, wholesome and open-ended. I had no deep post-modern interest in collective memory, in lost spaces of childhood or Jewish folklore, rather in the contemporary task of unlocking the sub-atomic particles of resonant animal gas, fusing them with my own spit and breath and hurling this damp ethereal mixture into space like sonic javelins. Yes waves of them, hurled as far and long and as loud and soft as I could—just to see, as one does in art, what might happen.
As electronic musical technologies evolved I sought support from gear like Proteus, Kontakt, Max Msp, Abelton-Live and Kyma, from hard- and softwares featuring pitch detection, spectral recon- figurations, granularization, long delays and triggered sampled sounds. I orchestrated at various times with everything from live tuba to a large Tam-Tam, a bull-roarer, ship’s trimmings and a children’s chorus. A defining moment came when I worked at the Freiburg Experimental Music Studio (2005/2006) with Reinhold Braig attempting together to transform this stubborn horn into a modern, well-behaved digital Mensch. An obedient slave to my foolish egocentric fantasies and abiding Jewishness, to my wrongheaded dreams about becoming a famous composer; to my fortuitous birth under the sign of the Horn.
The challenge I set myself, to morph the shofar’s archaic technology with the very latest software, remains an elusive post-modern dream because this ur-instrument defies intelligence, whether artificial or human, and shows no native interest in partnering with cold digital chips. Both sides have lots of “attitude”—from arrogance to anarchy to autism. There could not be a better setup for mutual annihilation. Yet I demanded they love each other and through varied articulations of my breath enjoy this new coupled life. I’ve performed versions solo in Tel Aviv, Berkeley, the Judson Church, Roulette, the synagogue of Ostia Antica, the Gaudeaumus in Amsterdam, in duo with percussionist William Winant in the New Jewish Museum of San Francisco where we bounced our sounds off walls that angled at a weird maybe 110 degrees, in my music for Trisha Brown’s recent I Toss My Arms... This CD documents this long struggle. The six fragments I have selected, edited and occasionally remixed are themselves a compositional notebook, the history of a 25-year musical story whose evolution is still in progress.
-- Alvin Curran