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Restoring Spirituality To Music –– And Life

When Daniel Asia began composing music in the early 1970s, he was, like many of his generation, intent on turning his back on what came before out of a belief that he was part of a revolutionary movement forging a radical future. This went for everything: music, culture, politics and religion. He was part of a vanguard that believed that, as he put it, “there really wasn’t [much] use to knowing a lot of the older music because what we were doing was too new, too different and sprung from nothing.”

Over time, the award-winning composer — whose works have been performed by major orchestras throughout the world — grew to see things differently. “No matter what I do, there are only so many ways of approaching the world that people have done for centuries and there are only certain questions that are important,” said Asia, the founder of the New York-based contemporary ensemble Musical Elements, in an interview with the Forward. “And ultimately you realize many have done this before you.” In musical terms, this meant going back and embracing elements that he had discarded as old-fashioned or worse — tools like melody and tonality, and structures like symphonies and concerti.

More was shifting than just his musical outlook. For Asia, who grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Seattle, restoring traditional elements of form and content to his music corresponded to his embrace of traditional Jewish worship practices. And the two began to fuel each other, so that over the course of the last 25 years, a significant portion of his work has been inspired by Jewish themes.

On the occasion of his 50th birthday this month, the last quarter-century of Asia’s musical output will be celebrated in a series of three concerts, beginning at Merkin Concert Hall in New York on January 17. Among the artists presenting the retrospective of Asia’s work are the American Brass Quintet, the Cypress String Quartet, tenor Robert Swensen, guitarist Benjamin Verdery, pianists Tannis Gibson and Jonathan Shames and poet Paul Pines. Subsequent concerts will take place on February 16 at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where Asia teaches composition, and on March 31 at the South Bank Centre in London.

It was his introduction to the chasidic niggun, a wordless vocal chant, at an Upper West Side minyan in the late 1970s that steered Asia back toward the old-fashioned idea of viewing music as a means to connect with a higher power. The intense davening of the shtiebl-like minyan opened up a wellspring of creativity for Asia that imbued the very act of composing with spirituality.

“For me, writing music generally tends to be something of a sacred experience,” said Asia, who is a lay-leader of a small, Conservative minyan in Tucson. “Those of us of a religious nature know that when you’re ‘in the zone’ artistically you’re doing something that’s not just you. As a religious person I call that a religious experience. I don’t know what non-religious people call that; maybe they don’t want to make that connection.”

While Asia, a graduate of the Yale School of Music, composes out of a spiritual impulse, he doesn’t consciously employ recognizable elements of cantorial melodies, niggunim, or ersatz klezmer tunes, as can be found in the work of contemporaries like Paul Schoenfield and Osvaldo Golijov.

Rather, as heard in his moody, heraldic “Symphony No. 2,” the “Celebration Symphony,” whose movements are named after parts of the morning prayer service, Asia’s Jewish music is both more personal and emancipated, drawing as much on the tradition of great 20th-century Jewish-American composers as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein as on the likes of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen.

While not all of his music explicitly references Judaism, Asia’s work is occasionally inspired by specific Jewish texts. He wrote “Your Cry Will Be a Whisper” in 1993 for guitarist Verdery — who will perform the piece at Merkin Hall — based on a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He composed new art-song settings for voice and chamber ensemble for “Oseh Shalom,” the final line of the Kaddish, and “Shiru L’Adonai,” Psalm 96, both of which appear on “Songs from the Page of Swords,” one of eight CDs of his music, most of which are available from Summit Records. “Breath in a Ram’s Horn,” a five-song cycle found on the album of the same name, fuels the poetry of frequent collaborator Pines, whose work is infused with memories of Jewish family life and the biblical figures of David and Job.

But to these ears, Asia’s most profoundly Jewish work may be his most atypical and experimental. “Sacred and Profane” is an electro-acoustic cycle of five works of astonishing texture and dimensionality. One of the pieces, “An Awesome Silent Fire,” seems to do nothing less than imagine what it would sound like to be in the presence of the Almighty, with the sound funneling toward and away from the listener as if being sucked into a black hole. “Cry,” another part of the cycle, seems to follow the course of a worshipper’s prayer as it ascends toward the heavens, as if sped along through a hydraulic chute, perhaps one of the sefirot, or divine emanations.

For Asia, music permeates all of Jewish life. “If you’re in a situation where people are really davening and you get out of yourself enough to really hear what’s going on around you, hearing the Amidah being said intensely in an undertone, you get a chorus of whispers and sibilants, which is absolutely astounding,” said Asia. “The ecstatic quality of prayer is ultimately a musical experience, with every individual bringing their soul to the group, and the larger group magnifying it and bringing to it a deeper quality. That’s why we have a minyan — there’s an additional neshama created.”

In some sense, Asia’s work is the creative analogy to that additional neshama, or soul—the product of a musical minyan whose prayers are channeled through the composer’s art.

“I see Dan’s Jewish music as particularly compelling and poetic because it’s written by someone who obviously has a very deep spiritual connection with his religion, and it’s all the more powerful because of that,” said Robert Beaser, artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra. “There is a devotional quality about the music and tone which can make it even more personal in a way—and potentially more revelatory.”

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