While religion might have had a lot to answer for over the centuries, the millennia, one thing that it will always be able to put forward in its defence is the music it has inspired. Whether your mind’s centre of gravity is being shifted by the alien sounds of Hindu quarter-tones; whether your innermost self is weeping to a Bach Passion or leaping to some black American gospel; whether the history of everything you are is being wedded to the red earth by the drone of an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo – whatever it is, the human search for something bigger, something deeper, something universal, has always found, in music, a lush fertile ground in which to sink its roots.
Judaism is no exception. It, too, has found a place for itself in music – not least (as I discovered in a fascinating presentation a couple of months ago at my local music group) in the Eastern European tradition of “klezmer”, with its sense, in its wavering ornamentation, of always searching for a home. It is music that somehow seems to give a voice the tradition of Judaism, and to the culture of the Jewish people, in a way that is instantly identifiable as “Jewish”.
But the voice that Australian avant-garde post-punk Hasidic Jews, Oren Ambrachi and Robbie Avenaim, give to that tradition, and to that culture, is something that surely no one could ever have expected. Their 1999 album, The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun, produced under the unfathomably creative oversight of John Zorn, brings together what feels like a world of irreconcilable musical differences – free jazz, punk rock, Japanese noise and, somewhere in the midst of it all, klezmer.
The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is in four parts, and is based on the philosophical and ethical compositions of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 – 1813) who was known amongst his followers as ‘The Alter Rebbe’. The parts correspond to the four main stages in the ‘tzimtzum’ – a sort of Alter Rebbe version of the Big Bang: Atzilut (Emanation), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation), and Asiyah (Action).
With ‘Atzilut’ – the highest, most God-like, stage – the music opens with notes plucked out of timelessness and spacelessness, and yet with a tired, old, vulnerability, as if the music is being played on an ancient, priceless, but dilapidated music box. It gives way to heavy post punk guitars and drums that drench the music, and you, in a dark, imposing density.
It’s an arresting start to this strange, eccentric, cosmic musical journey. From it emerges the chaos of an unformed mass, with ‘Yetzirah'. There is a barren darkness here, but within it, and around it, you can hear light flickering, pulsating, in its birth-throes. The music is minimalist – just electronic notes stretched and throbbing in the middle of nowhere – and yet it has a sense of bigness about it until, right near the end, you could swear that a lullaby is being sung to lull the baby earth to sleep.
'Beriah’ bursts into life with a fanfare of sonic madness – brass-like sounds blustering out as if the whole universe is caught in a traffic jam, blasting a million horns. It’s a rallying cry and, after a few minutes, we hear the empty dark cosmos again, breathing, stirring in its sleep, woken, in spite of itself, by the alarm, as dissonant guitars and drums at last pound it into shape.
In the final and longest part, ‘Asiyah’, we hear, for the first time, the voice of Rabbi Yankel Lieder, narrating some of the Nigun text, underscored and punctuated by rumbling, trembling noise that slowly creeps in on the spoken word, giving it life and strangling it at the same time. The voice gives way to a kind of spectral, choral chant, with drums beating and tolling within it, driving it forwards into the unknown, the unknowable, until everything suddenly stops and is unexpectedly put to bed by an almost unsettlingly gentle, homely, klezmer ditty.
The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is an extraordinary piece of music – earnest, passionate and daring beyond all boundaries, creating a uniquely Jewish universe: ancient, oppressed, but strong and formidable and, above all, enduring. It leaves you shattered but resolute, and full of all the contradictions that music, and religion, do so well.
The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is released on Tzadik – one of those recording labels where you can pretty well pick anything, and it’ll be worth listening to.