A Musical Midrashist
-- Adena Potok
On Wednesday night, December 13, Uri Caine played to a full house of alumni and supporters of Akiba Hebrew Academy at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. This incredibly gifted jazz composer-musician, a member of the Academy’s Class of 1973, came onto the stage, greeted the audience telling them how proud and happy he was to be playing for Akiba, and, dressed casually in black, took his seat at the piano. From that moment on, the evening was his.
Within moments, he and the audience were experiencing a musical universe that was both recognizable and at the same time radically new. His range stretched from Fats Waller to Mahler, Caine to Sousa to Mozart with an encore of Joe Hill, all reshaped in a jazz syntax that kept the audience enwrapped. The piano sang and roared from pianissimo to fortissimo with a lyricism not always familiar, but thoroughly engaging. He owned the entire keyboard, as well as the piano frame. No voice was out of range.
During the denouement of the evening’s work, something became liquidly clear to this listener: Caine is a musical midrashist.
This became evident during his modified statement of the opening theme of Mozart’s piano sonata in C Major. It is a theme familiarly known by its romantic title “In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room,” and it is commonly played by beginners. The more I listened, the more obvious it became: Caine was creating a musical realm in the style and tradition of our people’s literature. Uri Caine was creating musical midrash.
What does this mean: musical midrash? And why is it worth mentioning, especially in a column devoted to Living Judaism? To me it is a vital insight and is worthy - even necessary - of attention, especially in our day, when there is a rather strong inclination among people, even those of not insignificant learning and education, to look for fixed forms, for certainties, and to not disturb the past.
Midrash is a kind of literary interpretation of mostly Biblical text, though that same process is found in explorations of Talmudic thought and decisions. It explores questions that arise in the study of text, questions that tend to disturb our sense of certainty, our sense of coherence. It is a kind of commentary, and as it explores meaning, it suggests other ways to read a text. But it does not abandon the text. In fact, the text is the scaffolding, or theme, which provides the springboard and original framework for exploration. Stated differently, Midrash is the articulation of the researchers’ puzzlement with the text and themes stated in the researchers’ contemporary language. It is the imaginings of those for whom the text is precious and of essential meaning, but also elusive. It is the recasting of the “story” in more contemporary terms, in a more contemporary setting, but in no less serious a cast.
In the auditorium of the Ethical Society on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, in front of an audience of mixed generations, Uri Caine - as part of his remarkable concert - presented musical “midrashim” on works and themes in the oeuvres of classical, jazz, and ragtime music. He took these themes and interpreted them in the musical language of contemporary jazz, presenting a concert that engaged everyone in the room. We would do well to adapt that pattern to the texts we read regularly - or at least that we know are read regularly - and make them our own texts and stories. Let us puzzle and retell in contemporary terms and language the stories that have moved us as a people over the centuries. Let us struggle. And then let us make them our own with our own contexts. And let us keep the melodies recognizable in their new, or not so new, harmonics.
We welcome contributions to this column of material that
illustrate the above thesis, or that argue with it.
-- Adena Potok
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