“They told me to go do my thing,” said Avner Dorman about a 2011 commission by pianist Orli Shaham, violinist Gil Shaham and the 92nd Street Y to write a composition for their Hebrew Melodies project. “They wanted something related to their project, but they didn’t want to impose any specific idea on me.”
The 38-year-old composer did indeed go off and do his thing, with “Nigunim,” the title track on the Shahams’ new “Nigunim: Hebrew Melodies” album as the result. The piece, with four movements, is inspired by traditional Jewish music, but not in the usual way. “It’s not the weepy Eastern European, Ashkenazi thing you’d expect,” Dorman said.
Instead, the composition is inspired by the intervals and modes that Dorman found through ethnomusicology research on Jewish music from all over the world. The first movement is inspired by North African, specifically Tunisian and Libyan, cantillation. The second is inspired by Georgian wedding music, the third by “sort of” Western music, and the fourth by Balkan dances.
Although none of the movements sound like a nigun, their melodies are circular, like those of traditional Jewish songs. “All the melodies start and end with the same note, so in that sense they work like the tunes one hears in the synagogue or at the Passover seder,” Dorman said. “The rhetoric of the nigun is in there. I guess you could call it a shadow of a nigun, many generations removed from the source.”