Dr. Boaz Tarsi

Faculty Spotlight

What is your academic background, and how does it connect to your position at JTS? 

I majored in music theory, composition, and voice as an undergraduate at the Jerusalem Music Academy, and sang in the choir of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem while I was there. The music and the experience had this mesmerizing, captivating quality like nothing I had encountered beforehand. Thus began a dream about pursuing this territory both as a study topic and as a practice, which followed me as I went to Cornell University to pursue a master's degree and then a doctorate. I then received a fellowship that afforded me an additional year of study and research of my choice. I had already developed an initial idea of implementing music-theory models on traditional Jewish music, so I took this grant with me to JTS. From there to my present position is yet another story, too long and complicated to track here.

You mentioned composition and music theory. What role does each play in your work, and how do they reflect your personal take on Jewish tradition?

On examination of my repertoire, I think more than half of it contains some Jewish elements. I strive to maintain the Jewish component in the music I write, but always with a "twist" of sorts-I try to offer a new approach to how we may feel it, or how we may view the text, when it is involved.

To some degree, there is always a tension of sorts between the path of a composer and a scholar in academia. Yet while I have been active in music composition and performance, I have always been involved with scholarship. I have become more and more comfortable with representing both music composition and scholarly pursuit at JTS, and I feel that the institution has as well. I am lucky insofar as-unlike for most people in my field-my research area directly relates to what I teach and to the practical aspects of our students' professional engagements after graduation.

What do you consider to be your most successful compositions?

My music has been performed, recorded, and broadcast in the United States, Israel, and Europe. The most prominently performed pieces are Mediterranean Melodies for chamber ensemble; From the Song of Songs for chamber ensemble and singers; Consecration of the Court-Fanfare for double bass, shofar, and piano, which is important to me mainly because it was commissioned and performed by Gary Karr, one of the leading double bass players in the world today; Song, Dance, and Chorale Fantasy for piano solo; and Concert Aria for soprano and orchestra, which was performed by the Kiev Philharmonic and released on Masterworks of the Twenty-First Century, Vol. 14 (ERM Media, 2009), distributed by Naxos.

What is your main research interest?

It's fairly technical, and concerns creating a model with which to explain how the Ashkenazi traditional music for the liturgy works. Even though we know that there is some kind of a "system" to this music, establishing and clearly articulating how it really operates has never been properly done. Others' work so far concerns itself with where this music comes from, how it has evolved, why the traditional music is what it is, etc. In loose terms, I am interested in the how of this system, as opposed to the when, where, and why-or, basically, the "grammar" of this musical practice.

Since unpacking the entire system is probably a task for several lifetimes of many people, I am deciphering it one constituent component at a time. One category of such components is what we call a "mode," which in simplified terms can be explained as a stock of musical and extramusical organizing principles with which the musical material is put together so that it makes sense-and, in the case of our tradition, so that it sounds "correct" or "right" for the specific text and occasion. I have written on several such modes and on other technical aspects of Ashkenazi music.

How does this endeavor affect your view on the role music has in our liturgy?

This is where my particular model of research is most relevant and interesting. The two most prevalent opinions I hear from people about the role of nusah hatfillah (in itself a highly misunderstood term and phenomenon) is that its music serves to imbue or communicate feelings or atmosphere, or that it is important simply because it constitutes our tradition, which we ought to maintain. The latter might be a valid consideration, but is subjective. As for the former, it is interesting that, in my exploration of the "user instructions" brought into practice in Ashkenazi traditional music, I have not found any component that addresses feelings at all.

It is not that feelings are not important in this practice; quite the contrary. My guess is that, to begin with, invoking a feeling is one of the most intrinsic, effective, powerful, and immediate properties inherent in the very nature of music and how it interacts with the human brain. Yet the same music may invoke different feelings in different people, or even in the same person in different spatial or temporal settings. Moreover, any music or sound has this capacity, not only the type of music specific to the Ashkenazi synagogue. Therefore, though this music certainly can elicit multitudes of possible feelings, those are left to the individual as a choice; this particular system itself does not "get involved" or interfere with them. What it does involve is in fact "meaning"-not literal or extramusical meaning, but an autonomous meaning of the musical utterance itself.

This is a bit nebulous to those who are not music theorists. Compare, say, the famous beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, a line from the Beatles' "Yesterday," and the note collection we may hear when a cat walks on the keyboard of a piano. It is clear to us that each of these musical expressions "says" something that is qualitatively different, each of them "means" something-or perhaps in the cat's case, helps us understand the difference between such meaning and the lack of one.

Although what I am concerned with is the actual mapping of this system alone, the immediate implications of this process is the finding that this autonomous meaning can be quite specifically and accurately explicated using music-theory terms and concepts. Regardless, we humans "understand" this meaning even without the ability to articulate it in those terms. I believe that this meaning is the primary component by which music has the power to bring about a range of variables that shape, motivate, direct, and drive a very specific type of experience. When we consider that all of the dimensions of these autonomous "meanings" are then placed upon other meaning-carrying elements, especially text (but also ritual, choreography, artifacts, space, timing, human involvement, and many more), this results in a tremendously rich and multidimensional time-space entity that becomes this very distinct species of liturgical experience the Ashkenazi synagogue provides.

In this respect, I consider myself lucky because even my part-only the unpacking and identifying this phenomenon itself-has crucial implications for a living practice. Moreover, articulating all of the above in music-theory terms is precisely what a professional cantor needs to know. Particularly because this religious musical practice is extemporized and semi-improvised, and involves a great degree of freedom, this kind of "theory" or grammar of sorts, is in fact the practice itself.

This is also part of the reason that I do not view the musical aspect as separate from all the other extramusical factors I mentioned. Most of all, this music is inseparable from the text. This is why I am adamant that a deep and thorough understanding of the text of the prayer book is crucial. I strongly believe that it is not only a mandatory component of my research, it must also be crucial to and occupy a significant portion of the training of cantors as well as rabbis and educators. 

Speaking of publications, can you comment on yours? 

Most of my publications are listed in my faculty bio on the JTS website. I find that my particular realm of inquiry is hard to categorize because it concerns so many different disciplines: Jewish music, the cantorial world, Jewish studies in general, liturgy, general musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, religious studies, and circles involving the liturgy of the Church, among others. 

I would like to also mention that these days I am involved with a very interesting theater production, currently in workshop stages right here at JTS. I am working with the world-renowned stage director-and the leading one in Israel-Yossi Yizraeli on a theater piece that combines stories of Reib Nachman of Breslov with Beethoven string trios and piano sonatas. It involves singers, actors, narration, and a variety of staging media. It is a very original concept, perhaps even groundbreaking-stay tuned for more.