Contemporary compositions and traditional Jewish chants – A concert tour through former and new synagogues in Germany and Poland with new compositions by Amit Gilutz, Bnaya Halperin-Kaddari, Eres Holz, Sarah Nemtsov and Amir Shpilman

»Especially in smaller towns in Germany there are numerous former synagogues. They have endured the night of November 9th, 1938, for different reasons, being built close by neighboring houses, because the local Jews had already left, or other reasons. At times, these are impressive buildings, with a notable – dark or bright – history. After World War II, the synagogues were turned into depots, storages, restaurants or dwellings. However, in many places initiatives started to campaign for a more appropriate use of these buildings. It is due to this commitment that many of these former synagogues – that where diverted from their original purpose and often decaying – are now museums and meeting places. They are living reminders of the history of the respective synagogue and the local Jewry. Still, these buildings aren’t used for their actual purpose. No services are helt. They are no centres of a Jewish community, as only few or no Jews live in these smaller places. The synagogues are places of remembrance.

From this backdrop, the idea of Orte—Mekomot was born: It intends to bring new life into the old buildings, Jewish life in the form of sound. Music is a central element of Jewish worship. Traditional Jewish chants and prayer, performed by a Jewish cantor (chasan), are weaved together with new contemporary compositions written by young Jewish composers who live in Germany.

The idea came to me during the Chanukka celebrations in 2013. Several (temporal) layers intertwined here for me: the history of the temple in Jerusalem, destroyed twice; Jewish life in mediaeval Europe and the Jewish enlightment (Haskalah) in 18th century; the often evoked German-Jewish symbiosis; and the more recent history of synagogues in West and East Europe in 20th and 21st century. This timeline has not only seen decay but also positive strength.

The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Roman Empire caused the diaspora and also the ban of instrumental music from divine service (that was no Temple service anymore). All diaspora synagogues everywhere are oriented towards Jerusalem. In Europe therefore, the Thora ark are at the eastern wall of the building. Therefore also all abandoned synagogues face east.

The selection of instruments for Orte—Mekomot stretches similarly largely through time: instruments that are mentioned in the Bible are translated into contemporary instruments. The modern instruments symbolise the antique ones: flute – chalil (a wind instrument), trumpet – chazozra (a silver or copper natural trumpet), harp – nevel (a kind of harp, stringed instrument picked with fingers), (electric) guitar – kinor (a kind of lute or lyre, instrument of king David, played with a plectrum), oboe – ugav (similar to a shawm), drum set – tov and others (drum) and zelzelim (cymbal). There is no account of the Biblical instruments, only vague ideas of how they and the music of the temple might have sounded. Only one archaic instrument endured since biblical times until today: the shofar (ram’s horn). It is still played in the synagoges at certain Jewish holidays. The shofar joins the modern instruments from the times before the destruction of the temple.

The five new pieces by Bnaya Halperin-Kaddari, Amit Gilutz, Eres Holz, Amir Shpilman and myself, Sarah Nemtsov, integrate the instrumental ensemble; the traditional Jewish chats though are a capella. Thus the traditional chants create links and distance at the same time, a space between the contemporary compositions. A multi-relational musical constellation emerges from the different parts coming together. A comprehensive structure is given by the Minchah, the afternoon prayer. Interestingly, these traditional chants often sound as much archaic as modern, and might seem to some listeners as exotic as contemporary music. A chance for a twofold discovery!


Another question of great importance for me was whether it was possible to create – today in globalised 21st century – a kind of new liturgy, modern Jewish music as a collective prayer, which is doubting, both secular and religious, recent and aware of the history, through the subjective eye of the composer, of whom every single one has their own aesthetic profile. Music, consciously dealing with the past, but as a positive statement for the future.

Here we are. With a clear sign of tolerance of openness towards other cultures. Ich hope, this project can contribute to a mutual understanding as well as to transcultural communication, and that it will enrich different regional and European landscapes.«

Sarah Nemtsov — Artistic director