The Milken Archive of Jewish Music: the American Experience is an exploration of the rich variety of musical expression born of, inspired by, associated with, or reflecting the full spectrum of Jewish life in the United States—the collective American Jewish experience.
The Milken Archive is organized according to a twenty-volume structure that combines generic and historical-thematic approaches. The order of selections within each volume has been carefully designed with a view not only to artistic balance, but also to historical sweep and the richness and diversity of the applicable repertoire. Rather than subdivide individual volumes into homogeneous sections according to stylistic, chronological, generic, or categorical criteria, we have often deliberately juxtaposed pieces of radically dissimilar or seemingly incompatible styles, eras, genres, or purposes. The resultant exercise in eclecticism can better demonstrate the fullness of the musical and of the historical narrative.
Of course, any undertaking in the field of American Jewish music raises important questions: Who is an American Composer? Who is a Jewish composer?
For the purposes of the Milken Archive, an American composer is simply a composer who is a citizen by virtue of birth or naturalization (émigré), or a foreign-born, non-naturalized composer who sojourned and worked in America for some meaningful time—perhaps long enough to have had an “American period.”
With respect to the somewhat more difficult question of who is a Jewish composer, our concern is with the music—its Jewish connection, subject, or foundation, and its cultural content. The personal identification or affiliation of a composer does not matter, except as biographical information and to the extent that this information sheds light on our understanding of a particular piece. Indeed, since it is the music and its Jewish relevance with which we are exclusively concerned, a work of Jewish connection need not necessarily be composed by a Jew. Several of the most interesting works in the Milken Archive are the products of non-Jewish American composers: Gates of Justice by Dave Brubeck, Yizkor Requiem by Thomas Beveridge, and some liturgical settings by Roy Harris, William Grant Still and others.
One important part of the Milken Archive’s educational goal is simply to expand awareness of the various constituent musical genres and repertoires. In many cases, their very existence, as well as their magnitude, will come as revelations to aficionados, professional musicians and the general public alike. Entire categories and individual pieces in this presentation can be of substantial significance for what they tell us about an array of historical, cultural, theological and other issues within the wider contexts in which that music arose and in which its composers worked. Or, it can invite our examination of its literary, religious, historical or other extramusical foundations. To this end, an important piece of the Milken Archive is the comprehensive, written analytical and explanatory apparatus. This comprises biographical essays, ethnological, historical, and musicological interpretations, and freshly considered, newly minted translations.
The music represented in the Milken Archive may be divided among the following broad categories: Liturgical and sacred music; Theatrical music; Folk music; Popular and commercial music; Classical, or so-called serious, cultivated, concert music.
The entire curve of American Jewish music culture and its interactions with its environment is itself a lesson in Jewish history, for it mirrors the not always untroubled path of American Jewry from its modest beginnings to its present place in American society: from tolerance to refuge, from hospitality to accommodation, from self-sufficient outsider to participating insider, from alliance to partnership, and, ultimately, to a Diaspora home.