New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene

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Coined in 1992 by composer/saxophonist John Zorn, "Radical Jewish Culture," or RJC, became the banner under which many artists in Zorn's circle performed, produced, and circulated their music. New York's downtown music scene, part of the once-grungy Lower East Side, has long been the site of cultural innovation. It is within this environment that Zorn and his circle sought to combine, as a form of social and cultural critique, the unconventional, uncategorizable nature of downtown music with sounds that were recognizably Jewish. Out of this movement arose bands, like Hasidic New Wave and Hanukkah Bush, whose eclectic styles encompassed neo-klezmer, hardcore and acid rock, neo-Yiddish cabaret, free verse, free jazz, and electronica. Though relatively fleeting in rock history, the "RJC moment" produced a six-year burst of conversations, writing, and music-including festivals, international concerts, and nearly two hundred new recordings. During a decade of research, Tamar Barzel became a frequent visitor at clubs, post-club hangouts, musicians' dining rooms, coffee shops, and archives. Her book describes the way RJC forged a new vision of Jewish identity in the contemporary world, one that sought to restore the bond between past and present, to interrogate the limits of racial and gender categories, and to display the tensions between secularism and observance, traditional values and contemporary concerns.

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Introduction · Radical Jewish Music in Manhattan

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Radical Jewish Music in Manhattan

THIS BOOK BEGAN WITH A GIFT, CASUALLY BESTOWED BY A friend who worked at our local record store. In those pre-Internet years, he had enviable access to all kinds of under-the-radar music, and I hardly knew what to make of this particular find: a CD entitled Jewish Alternative Movement: A Guide for the Perplexed (1998).1 I was dimly aware of the Guide for the Perplexed, a medieval talmudic treatise with an amusingly modern name. But I was stumped by the phrase “Jewish Alternative Movement.” The liner notes to the recording told me that “J.A.M.” was a new imprint for recordings held by the Knitting Factory—the scrappy, subterranean club, familiarly known as “The Knit,” that was the nerve center of Manhattan’s cutting-edge downtown music scene. In college in the 1980s, I had heard about an underground art world on New York’s Lower East Side that was the stomping grounds for my most intimidatingly hip peers, known as PIBs—People in Black. But, as I had gathered in bits and pieces over the years since then, the downtown scene was far more than that. In fact, it was one of the most innovative and multifaceted art scenes of the twentieth century.

 

1 Jewish Music · The Art of Getting It Wrong

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The Art of Getting It Wrong

IN HIS EPILOGUE TO THE BOOK JEWISH MUSIC AND MODERNITY, ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman describes several narratives by which musicians and observers frame the character of Jewish music in Central and Eastern Europe today. Each of Bohlman’s narratives functions as a conceptual lens one looks through to bring “Jewish music” into focus in a unique way. That is, each lens constructs a particular notion of Jewish music, and each of these notions is based on a selective interpretation of contemporary music-making. Bohlman’s subject is dramatically different from that of RJC, and the site of Europe as the near annihilation of Jewish musicians and musical culture creates, in one sense, a chasm between the two contexts that cannot be bridged. But in a less contextually determined sense his insights are extremely useful in conceptualizing the Radical Jewish Culture moment.

Among the mostly non-Jewish performers and audiences Bohlman addresses, one narrative lens renders contemporary Jewish music exotic. A quality of exoticism inheres not only because the music is Jewish per se, but also because Jewish culture carries a “patina of pastness,” denoting both something ancient and something gone. Like other exotic artifacts, this lens makes Jewish music, and by association Jewish culture and history, easy to consume.1 As ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin has observed, in the 1990s klezmer filled a complicated niche in Europe on the level of the exotic, offering Europeans “a vision of [Jewish] Americans as representing a romantic, faraway musical tradition” that has had little to do with the concerns of present-day Jews in the European body politic.2 Indeed, a perception of Jewish music (and Jews) as “exotic” has played an important role in the creative lives of downtown musicians when performing in Europe, just as it has with their colleagues in the klezmer revival. As artists have attested interviews and in writing, their perceptions of this attitude have influenced the way they have presented themselves and their Jewishly identified work. But audiences, both Jewish and not, bring many different stories to their encounters with Jewish music, and the presence of one narrative lens does not preclude that of another, seemingly contradictory one. Thus, alongside the lens that construes Jewish music as exotic, another construes it as something not to be assessed as “other” but to be adopted as one’s own—an object of neglect that should be embraced and reanimated with as much fidelity as possible to the original. This view, which is typical of musical revivals in general, has resonances with the outlook of the early klezmer revivalists in the United States (with the obvious difference most revivalists were Jewish, whereas most of Bohlman’s subjects were not)—just as it does with the mostly middle-class urbanites who instigated the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s, adopting rural idioms and championing the values they associated with rural communities, in a process one historian has memorably called “romancing the folk.”3 There is yet another lens that corresponds closely not to the viewpoint of strict revivalists but to that of their colleagues in the neo-klezmer scene. This lens focuses contemporary Jewish music into that which is not revived but rather revitalized. Artists who frame Jewish music in this fashion are driven by a “desire to discover the vitality of a tradition that can live in the present rather than an urge to salvage one that had already died in its own day.” It is just such a view that led klezmer historian and musician Henry Sapoznik to argue for the term “renaissance” rather than “revival” to describe the surge of interest in klezmer music in the United States in the late twentieth century.4

 

2 Breaking a Thick Silence · A Community Emerges

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A Community Emerges

IN AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 1992, THE MUNICH ART PROJEKT CAME to the Gasteig, Munich’s grand arts center. The Projekt was two weeks of music with a rotating roster of curators; that year, they included John Cale, Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Paul Hillier, Gidon Kremer, Arto Lindsay, and John Zorn.1 True to form, Zorn chose a provocative name for his two evenings at the Art Projekt: the Festival for Radical New Jewish Culture. This two-day festival stands as a watershed moment on the downtown scene. Rather than being simply one more gig in a busy touring schedule, the festival turned out to be transformative for many artists. It made them suddenly aware that they shared a heritage with many more of their peers than they had realized; it made startlingly evident the personal impact of social and historical currents that had caused that heritage to remain hidden in plain view; and it held out the exciting prospect that flowing beneath all this might be an untapped source of great creative potential.

 

3 From the Inexorable to the Ineffable · John Zorn’s Kristallnacht and the Masada Project

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John Zorn’s Kristallnacht and
the Masada Project

THROUGH HIS PROLIX CREATIVITY, HIS LEADERSHIP AND management skills, and a seemingly tireless dedication to his cause, saxophonist John Zorn played as decisive a role in shaping the RJC moment as he has on the downtown scene as a whole. In addition to commissioning a great deal of new work on the Tzadik label, Zorn, with his particular gift for composing music that challenged notions of tradition and genre, pushed RJC into compelling creative territory. From his work in Kristallnacht (1992), which engaged viscerally with themes of destruction and survival in Jewish history, through the Masada project (1993–present), which has framed Jewish music as a site for spiritual healing, Zorn created new landscapes for imagining and engaging Jewish heritage through music. His vision for RJC looms large, a result of his high profile on the downtown scene, his role as a producer at Tzadik, his own prolific musical output, and his attention to iconography and packaging. Although he was less involved than some of his colleagues in the writing and talk that developed around the RJC idea, Zorn’s interpretation of “radical Jewish culture” is as particular as that of any of his peers.

 

4 Rethinking Identity · G - d Is My Co-Pilot’s Queer Dada Judaism

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G - d Is My Co-Pilot’s Queer Dada Judaism

IN 1994, JOURNALIST ROEE ROSEN PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE IN the Jewish community newspaper the Forward, in which he shared his impressions of a musical performance he had heard at the Knitting Factory:

On the stage of a downtown Manhattan club, G - d Is My Co-Pilot, an aggressive, rough-edged hardcore band, is producing its trademark sound, a spasmodic noise whirlwind supported by two drummers. Soloist Sharon Topper starts off with a series of short, sexually suggestive songs like “Smooch” and “I’m in Love With a Girl.” Then she segues into “Ha-Tikvah,” Seder favorites like “Khad Gad Yo” and even a few Hebrew musical relics of socialist Zionism. . . . Ms. Topper descends the stage to offer the crowd Halvah bars and other Lower East Side delights—along with a pamphlet titled “Haggadah of G - d Is My Co-Pilot,” a hybrid of Xerox art, personal reflections on gay sexuality and ruminations on things Jewish.1

 

5 Shelley Hirsch and Anthony Coleman · Music and Memory from the “Nowhere Place”

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Music and Memory from the “Nowhere Place”

RADICAL JEWISH CULTURE, EMBEDDED IN ITS GEOGRAPHIC locus and indebted to the people who lived and worked there, was also a function of a particular moment in history, one shaped by an ever easier access to music that crossed boundaries of genre, nation, and era. As the site for a creative scene that trafficked in pluralistic references and non-tonal abstraction, the Lower East Side’s present, more than its turn-of-the-century Jewish past, informed the music of the RJC moment. Given this presentist orientation, it might seem implausible that RJC should have played a productive role as a “memory space”—a conceptual space for remembering, or for engaging the notion of memory.1 And yet, downtown artists were able to put some very strange music to work in developing RJC into a peculiarly useful Jewish memory space. They aimed not to engage historical memory so much as to make sense of their own, Jewishly complicated landscapes of recent memory. Like GodCo, vocalist Shelley Hirsch and pianist Anthony Coleman used music to mull on lived experience, on the encounter between memory and history, and on being Jewish in the world. Through their music, these artists staged an encounter between individual subjectivity and the larger entities—Jewish history, religion, heritage—that shape it without fully constituting it. If their Jewish experiences had not engendered a thorough familiarity with Jewish texts and traditions, this was a quality they shared with many other Jews of and beyond their own generation and milieu. And that was just the point. Their creative and conceptual forays added a new dimension to the notion of Jewishly usable music: such music, they contended, could reflect imperfect cultural transmission, cultural and national in-between-ness, or simply personal ambivalence. But in their efforts they were not always well understood. Among the misconceptions they encountered, one of the most productive—that is, one that spurs us to consider RJC, and the relationship it posited between music and Jewish identity, in a new way—was that they were coming to Jewish music from a “nowhere place.”2

 

Epilogue

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IN 2009, I RETURNED TO NEW YORK CITY FOR A YEAR. AS EVER, the city was in flux. Big changes had been building on the Lower East Side for decades, but New York’s densely settled neighborhoods reshape themselves on their own peculiar time, with old institutions and new arrivals rubbing shoulders, sometimes for years on end. I did the initial research for this book from a home base in Brooklyn that had yet to see its first artisanal cheese shop, crossing the East River to spend many of my evenings in some of the less well-traveled pockets of downtown Manhattan, which were then on the cusp of a major transformation. Since leaving in 2004 I had been traveling back and forth from Boston to see concerts and exhibits, meet with artists, and continue collecting materials for this study. During my visits I had seen the gleaming towers of the W Hotel rising on Allen Street, one of the Lower East Side’s central arteries, but at the same time the punk-activist collective ABC No Rio, which had hosted GodCo and many other No Wave stalwarts, had marshaled its forces and managed to stay planted a few blocks away in the building where it had originally squatted in 1979. But although the Lower East Side’s creative scene had been undergoing a slow shift for decades—over the years I had been away, many musicians who lived there had decamped to Brooklyn—just as I was settling back in to the city, a recent economic crash was giving the final push to many of the people and venues I had been writing about. During the year, my comings and goings confirmed that the Lower East Side, like my old Brooklyn neighborhood (which now had newly paved sidewalks and more than one farm-to-table eatery), was well on its way to becoming a hive of upscale shops and condos.

 

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