Bob Gluck: An electronic midrash in sound
(SHEFFIELD, August 07, 1998) -- For many years Bob Gluck's life ran on two parallel but independent tracks. On the one hand, he was an academy-trained musician and composer whose interests ranged from Bach to Cage to Hendrix to Stockhausen. On the other hand, he was a rabbi active in the Reconstructionist movement, first as director of national outreach and then as spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington.
While Gluck didn't keep his two interests entirely compartmentalized he studied and wrote about a wide range of Jewish music for the most part the sounds of the synagogue remained in their place of origin.
Over time, however, Gluck's two main interests have converged. Inspired on the one hand by a contemporary musical theory that embraces all sounds as the stuff of music, and on the other by the progressive views of Reconstructionism, which welcomes the integration of modern culture with ancient practice, Gluck began exploring ways in which he could combine his two disparate interests.
In particular, Gluck was obsessed with memories of his grandparents' synagogue: the sounds of the cantor's voice, the rhythmic prayers of the congregation, and the rustling of the prayerbooks, which all served as "aural wallpaper" in his mind.
A few years ago, Gluck finally took that "aural wallpaper" and made composed music with it. In 1995, he recorded "Some Places I Have Been: Sacred Electronic Landscapes," which in large part drew on the Sabbath liturgy for its raw material.
More recently, Gluck has recorded "Stories Heard and Retold" (Electronic Music Foundation), a 48-minute CD that fully realizes his attempt at "joining the musical sensibilities of Pierre Henry and Edgard Varese with the resonances of the sounds, melodies, and experiences of Jewish life," as he writes in the album's liner notes.
The release of Gluck's newest recording coincides with a period of transition in his life, and as such can be seen as symbolizing a new beginning. Gluck recently completed a five-year tenure as rabbi at Ahavath Sholom, and this fall he begins graduate studies in electronic arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
While Gluck, his wife, Pamela Lerman, and their seven-year-old daughter will be moving to Albany from their current home in Sheffield, they will be maintaining their strong connections in the local community. Gluck will continue to teach electronic music at Simon's Rock College, and Lerman will continue to base her practice as a dance therapist in the Berkshires.
But after years in which his life has been "two-thirds rabbinic, one-third musical," Gluck looks forward to reversing the equation, continuing to work part-time as a free-lance rabbi, but devoting more of his time and energy to music.
In fact, upon closer examination, Gluck doesn't see a clear delineation between his role as a rabbi and his role as a musician and composer. Speaking in a recent phone interview, Gluck said that he sees his particular musical approach as inherently Jewish.
"Judaism is very much a text-based religion," said Gluck, a native of Queens, N.Y., who studied at Juilliard Prep and received an undergraduate degree in electronic music from SUNY-Albany.
"The core text for Judaism is the Hebrew Bible, which has lasted as that core text for several thousand years because for every generation rabbis and more recently others have retold the stories, reading themselves into the stories, filling the gaps, in a process called midrash.
"For example, the way the Torah is chanted, in short little sound gestures that are then pieced together as in a puzzle. Those bring certain parts of the text to the foreground and parts to the background. The people who created that wanted you to listen to certain things in the text."
A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Gluck sees a similarity between what he does in his compositions, which manipulate ambient and found sounds such as a prayer service, and the work of the rabbis who expounded upon or manipulated the original text of the Bible through commentary or emphases.
"If the core of Judaism is midrash, what I do is midrash," said Gluck. "Furthermore, if the way in which ancient text is chanted is by taking short sound gestures and putting them together like in a puzzle, that for me points to the kinds of ways that I piece together a mosaic, as it were, of Jewish sounds."
The major difference between traditional, rabbinical midrash and Gluck's contemporary update is in form and technique. While the rabbi's tools were the sermon, the song and the written text, Gluck avails himself of the latest in state-of-the-art electronics.
Although trained as a classical pianist, Gluck said, "My primary instrument now is a large palette of electronic instruments, tape recorders and computers, alongside the keyboard and my voice."
On "Stories Heard and Retold," this comes across as a sonic mixture, an "aural landscape," as Gluck describes it, in which pre-recorded sounds are sampled, looped, filtered and altered, in order to create a kind of sound collage.
It is not music as most people are accustomed to thinking of it. "Many people aren't familiar with either electronic music or forms of music which are not predominantly about melody," said Gluck. "I encourage those people to think about it as if they were watching a film, and instead of seeing visuals, one is hearing an audio image."
Indeed, Gluck's compositions are very cinematic. "Yiddish Songs," one of three extended works on the CD, conjures for a listener the pre-war world of Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jewry, in a piece that serves as a kind of sound memorial for that lost civilization.
While Gluck's primary intention is to create a new Jewish art music, he acknowledges that his compositions, particularly those based upon traditional prayers, might have liturgical implications as well.
"For people who have a Jewish liturgical life, it might help them think about or listen to the prayers that they chant and the music they hear in a different way from an aesthetic point of view, and that can enrich their prayer life," he said.
For others, including those who might not be familiar with the specific cultural or religious references or allusions, the piece can work more generally as a soundscape or as a window into a particular world or vision.
"Once our ears become more attuned to a wider range of sounds that go beyond the melodic sounds that we're used to, then the palette that is available is vast, really endless," said Gluck, whose CD is available at selected, independent retail outlets in Southern Berkshire or on the Internet at www.emf.org.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 07, 1998. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1998. All rights reserved.]
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