Four Ways Improvisational Music Helps Me Appreciate Chassidus
I’m not sure how many people who became attracted to the chassidic way of life as teens and young adults spent their youth following the Grateful Dead, Phish, or whatever their particular taste in improvisational music might have been. But I do wish I had a dollar for every one of them. Somehow, their summers in RVs and muddy festival campgrounds, listening to transcendental guitar and bass lines, helped prepare them to one day travel the windy pathways of Chassidus.
Chassidus has its own tradition of awesome music and song. Undoubtedly, it is chassidic melody that is the most conducive complement to the study of Chassidus and to the implementation of its teachings in daily life. In my band, Chillent, we improvise with chassidic music too.
Before you get the wrong idea, let me explain what I mean by “improvisational” music. In its usual sense, the word “improvise” might mean “make it up as you go along,” but that is not what I’m referring to here. To the skilled musician, “improvisation” is a discipline to be learned and practiced, an art to be honed and carefully cultivated. Perhaps more than anything else, improvisation is about a set of intricate relationships: between the music and each individual musician; between each musician and the other musicians he or she is playing with; between the collective jam and the new/old music that they are continually (re)creating.
Also, when I talk about “improvisation,” I am not talking about a specific type of music, but about the way the music is played—an approach that combines disciplined receptivity with personal creativity, requiring the musician to submit to a greater whole, merge with it, and give it new voice while preserving its authenticity.
I began immersing myself in chassidic texts back when I was in college. Within those cascades of Hebrew letters, which at first looked like funny shapes pointing in the wrong direction, I slowly discovered a conceptual framework that completely changed the way I viewed the world and other human beings. But it isn’t just the profound ideas that continue to blow me away. The very composition of a chassidic discourse—its structure and flow, the way you approach it, enter it and experience it—seems perfectly calculated to inspire exhilaration and self-transcendence simultaneously.
I love learning Chassidus, and I love playing music. When I learn, or when I play or jam with my band, I’m often struck by the similarities between these two disciplines and the way they seem to mirror each other—with a similarly exhilarating, meaningful and transformative impact. The best way for me to explain what I mean by this, and to explain how this works, is by sharing my observation that a chassidic discourse has all the elements of a great improvisational jam session:
1. “The Head”
This is the thematic part of a song that is not played improvisationally, but sets up everything to come, including tempo, chord progression and the overall feeling of the tune. It’s the recognizable melody that makes you say, “Hey! I know that song!” It’s the solid ground on which to build the improvisation that follows.
In a chassidic discourse (maamar), the opening line is known as the dibbur ha-mat’chil, and it is usually a passage from a canonical text like the Torah, the Talmud or the Zohar. The first paragraph invokes a series of existing discussions and themes related to this passage, and asks a series of questions that have been similarly asked and answered many times before. This opening sets the tone and outlines the motifs that will be explored in depth—with great originality, virtuosity and individuality—in the following paragraphs.
One particularly spectacular example of this is the series of chassidic discourses that begin with the words Basi le-gani (“I came to my garden”) from King Solomon’s Song of Songs. This was the title of the last maamarpublished by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, before he passed away in 1950. A year later—and in each consecutive year for the next four decades—the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, began his discourse with the same words, quoting his predecessor’s explanations verbatim before illuminating them with stunning conceptual originality, and in a striking style unique to him.
In an improvisational setting, there’s something transcendent that happens when a musician stops thinking about the notes he is playing, and instead allows the entire collective to flow through him. Scientists have studied this, using electroencephalography to measure the brain activity of improvisational musicians, and found that their brains waves actually synchronize, so that they can mirror the actions of the other group members in their own performance. Let me repeat that. Their brainwaves literally synchronize.
When this happens in a good session, the jam takes on a life of its own. This ability to improvise in synchrony and somehow know where unplanned changes are going to happen can take place only if everybody listens to everyone else. When everybody is in a state of receiving, it’s as if the instruments know what to say on their own. The moment one of the players shifts his focus to his own playing, the magic is lost. At that moment, the music becomes earthbound.
For the Rebbe, saying a maamar was preceded by a deeply meditative preparatory melody, called a niggun, which was sung by the assembled chassidim. The Rebbe would close his eyes, and then deliver the discourse in an even singsong tone that was far removed from his usual animated manner. He wouldn’t look around the room and engage the audience, as he would during his more informal talks, called sichot.
When he would say a maamar, it seemed that the Rebbe was firmly attached Above, “receiving” new chassidic insight from a more supernal realm. He would wind a handkerchief tightly around his hand, as if to retain some connection to the earthly realm into which he was drawing this new revelation. Like an FM radio (to invoke a more familiar example), the Rebbe was transmitting without interference. The Rebbe was engaged in a paradoxical process of self-effacement, so that his self became a conduit for the supernal flow he was tapped into.
But the work of receiving isn’t just for the Rebbe; it’s also for all of us who want to receive something that transcends our own finite selves. To study amaamar is to make sure we understand what’s actually being said. We must constantly be wary of plugging in our own interpretation based on our own biases and pre-existing frames of reference. If we ever think, “I know this already,” that’s the biggest sign that we’re doing it wrong. Cultivating a willingness to listen and to get beyond self-imposed preconceptions is hard work. But it is also immensely rewarding, opening us up to entirely new conceptual vistas, transforming us as individuals, and enabling us to better relate to other people and to the many-hued perspectives they bring to the table.
Although there is a huge collective component to most improvisational music, there is also a focus on the expressiveness and technical mastery of each individual musician. When one player is soloing, the others “lie back” and focus on taking a supportive role while the soloist develops his idea. Although the soloist is given a great deal of freedom to express himself, he must remain within strictly defined parameters set up during “the head.” The greatness of a soloist is in his ability to find multiples means of expressive improvisation within this tightly defined framework, displaying knowledge of the musical tradition by quoting or referencing well-known phrases and melodies from other songs, even as he gives new expression to his own musical voice. Another component of soloing is knowing when to “take the horn out of your mouth”—developing the sensitivity and finesse to say much in as little as possible, and leaving space for other jam partners to tell their own musical stories.
In terms of Chassidus, one aspect I equate with soloing is the way a maamarweaves together quotations and themes from the whole tradition of chassidic learning—which also includes Tanach, Talmud, Midrash and classical Kabbalistic texts—into something that’s strikingly new and innovative. Familiar quotations from well-known sources get flipped on their heads when juxtaposed with one another, and opposing perspectives collide to form new syntheses.
As students and teachers of Chassidus, people inevitably draw upon their own knowledge base and frame of reference to explain complex concepts to themselves and to others. That’s how people make sense of everything they encounter. It’s essential that we “solo,” that we integrate Chassidus into our own lives and use it to reframe our own way of seeing and living in the world. But it is equally essential that we don’t fall into the trap of letting personal biases and preconceptions steer us away from the central purpose and message of the maamar. It’s essential that in interjecting our own voice, we don’t obscure the original point that the maamar is making.
However innovative we are in our own thinking and development of the ideas and themes that emerge—using our personal knowledge and skills to emphasize, articulate, communicate, amplify and build—we must always stay within the framework that the maamar is setting up. The true skill of “soloing” is to make sure that we are getting and channeling what the maamar is actually saying, and that Chassidus itself stays the star.
4. “There are no mistakes”
One of improvisational music’s central tenets is that nobody ever makes a “mistake” in his playing. If one of the musicians does accidentally play a “wrong note,” the other musicians use that as an opportunity to take the music into new and unforeseen territory. In fact, it’s often the accidents that lead to new discoveries. The moment the other musicians intervene to correct a “mistake” is the moment when the ball gets dropped. Instead of reacting negatively to unforeseen situations, a good musician embraces them, so that the listeners won’t even know that something has gone wrong.
Chassidus similarly teaches us that everything that happens is orchestrated by hashgachah pratit—Divine Providence. Every moment of time is a brand-new note in the flow of existence, specifically designed as a unique opportunity in the grand scheme of creation. A person is always in the right moment at the right time. But it is up to us to make the best of it. Sometimes we may encounter people and situations that don’t resonate with our preferred inner rhythms, and on many occasions we make mistakes ourselves. But we should look at these as Divinely prescribed opportunities, not as inconveniences.
We need to stay tuned to the broad flow of hashgachah pratit, and welcome the sudden, unforeseen twists along the way. We need to be able to see beyond the smallness of our own perceptions and aspirations. We need to be willing to participate, to catch the ball and innovate, so that the grand jam flows onward, and ever upward.
Written by: Sruli Broocker, Mayanot Men's Learning Program Alum, as seen on Chabad.org