Traditional and Contemporary Synagogue Services

From the curator

There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.

—Duke Ellington

Gebrauchsmusik. It’s one of those awkward German words formed by combining multiple distinct words without any breaks in between—German is known for that. Usually translated as “functional music” and defined in opposition to Kunstmusik (art music), Gebrauchsmusik is used to describe just about any music that accompanies some other activity as opposed to that which is purely for the edification of the mind and soul.

Because it is designed to accompany an event such as a sacred service or rite of passage, Gebrauchsmusik is often thought to be less artistic, and thus less emotionally impactful than Kunstmusik. But if we think about it, this notion poses a question: How can “functional” music—music that we employ in some of life’s most important moments—be less impactful?

In the book How Musical Is Man?, ethnomusicologist John Blacking introduces a different kind of dichotomy: music’s sound vs. its human content. As opposed to its sound content, music’s human content refers to the way in which it manifests, reflects, and speaks to the experience of individuals in culture and society. Blacking believed music’s power resided—via its human content—in its ability to enhance human consciousness. 

This notion of music enhancing human consciousness seems particularly important when considering the music in Volume 3 of the Milken Archive (as well as Volume 4 and parts of several other volumes). After all, as music designed for sacred and life-cycle events, it was composed specifically to accompany some kind of transformation of human consciousness. A weary worshipper enters the synagogue and exits spiritually reinvigorated. A boy goes into his bar mitzvah and walks out a man. Two individuals enter a marriage ceremony and emerge as a single couple.

The composer or performer charged with providing Gebrauchsmusik faces a daunting task: not only must he or she make something sound pleasing, the music must also achieve the desired result—enhancing human consciousness to the extent that it aids the sought-after transformation. For music to be effective in such contexts it must do more than simply provide a soundtrack. It has to enhance human consciousness. In other words, it has to be good.

What I’m trying to get at here is that music cannot function—cannot assist in achieving some rite of passage or spiritual pursuit—without somehow enhancing human consciousness, which is where the distinction between Kunst and Gebraucht in music starts to get murky and the dichotomy begins to break down. I’m not arguing that one type of music is superior or inferior to the other—just that the separation of the two ideas is more a result of ideology than reality, and that both speak to the fundamental human aspect of musical experience. For in the end, the only dichotomy that really matters is the one by which Duke Ellington abided, though this is an area in which reasonable people certainly disagree.

The services presented in SEDER T’FILLOT are composites meant to reflect typical musical practices of the different branches of Judaism at different historical moments in the American Jewish experience. As such, they represent a broad cross-section of composers aiming to achieve all that such Gebrauchtsmusik requires while adhering to—and shaping—the sacred musical sensibilities of the time. 

—Jeff Janeczko


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