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The Piece of the Week is Illuminating Aleph, for cantor, choir and instrumental ensemble (2005)

(Program Notes Below)

Illuminating Aleph (music: Vanessa Lann / text: Chaim N. Bialik, The Pond, 1908)

- performed here by Alberto Mizrahi, Cappella Amsterdam and an instrumental ensemble* under the direction of David Porcelijn

* ud, guitar, harp, violin, cello, double bass, piano, percussion


Aleph is the first Hebrew letter. It is the only letter that makes no sound of its own in a word, as it only takes on pronunciation when a consonant or another vowel is attached to it. Jewish mystics have called the Aleph the "breath of God," which existed before sound, itself. In the Kabbalah the Aleph is the outward energy that precedes any act. It is the primal force of Creation that exists before any form can even be visualized. The first letter in the Bible is Beit. This is meant to indicate, Kabbalists say, that before God created the world, He still existed. If the first moment of physical creation is embodied in the Beit, the eternal and inexpressible realities of God are embodied in the Aleph. The Zohar, or mystical Jewish book of Splendor, teaches us that each person possesses some of this Aleph potential. We must, however, find the silence within ourselves in order to truly listen to the universe and to find higher meaning in our daily activities and rituals.

Aleph represents the number one, and while the letter's shape resembles an individual ready to act in the world, it also begins the word for Divine Unity, Echad. Furthermore, it begins the first of God's holy names in the Bible, Elohim, as well as the traditional, esoteric name for God - the Ein Sof (the Infinite, whose supernatural vastness and strength lie beyond all comprehension). In the Kabbalah it is written that the human world was created as this infinity was penetrated by a beam of unending light, or illumination. In mathematics the concept of "infinity" has been symbolized by the sign of the Aleph ever since the work of the mathematician and Kabbalist, Georg Cantor, in the 1880's. Infinity, nothingness and continuity are concepts which have intrigued mathematicians, as well as Jewish scholars, throughout history. In many religions and philosophies it is believed that one must reduce one's mind to a state which approaches "nothingness" before one can begin to grasp the infinite knowledge and the divine connection between all things. Even in the description of the first major card of the Tarot, the Fool, we find this reference to the Aleph concept of the eternal and potential wisdom that is present only in the absence of obvious practical knowledge.

This piece, Illuminating Aleph, and the poem, The Pond, by Chaim N. Bialik, are both about the concept of "knowing." They focus on simplicity and silent reflection as the means to attaining awareness. The Hebrew phrase, "ani iodea," or in English, "I know," is central to the poem and to the piece (the word "ani" also begins with the Aleph). When we are quiet and at our most silent (like the Aleph), and when we truly listen, we receive the wisdom and light of the Divine and, finally, understand how we fit into the universe. In The Pond Bialik describes the act of reflection as he sits in wonder by the side of a pond, a ritual he has done many times since his youth. By repeatedly coming to the woods to listen in silence and to observe nature, he begins to know the entire cosmos, as well as himself. Through this silent connection to the world around him, the things he has so often seen and studied begin to take on layers of deeper meaning. This is, in effect, what Kabbalah is all about: the path to deeper levels of understanding - of awareness of the patterns and connections inherent in all things - through contemplation, devotion and action. The word "Kabbalah" comes from the Hebrew root word "k-b-l" and means "that which is received." Kabbalah is the received light, wisdom, and tradition of esoteric knowledge believed to have come from God.

Bialik was one of the foremost mystical Jewish poets, and The Pond is based on his interpretation of the Kabbalah, as well as the other most important Jewish writings. This epic poem is divided into two parts; the first part is further subdivided into descriptions of the pond as it appears in the morning, on a moonlit night, during a storm, and at dawn. In the piece the four voice types that make up the choir serve to express these four states of nature, using recognizable patterns based on note combinations of the overtone spectrum (the ascending series of sympathetic vibrations almost imperceptibly sounding alongside each fundamental, or written, tone). The members of the choir begin and end the piece whispering, speaking and singing about the pond. They sound like the natural world, itself, in that their words are not always clearly discernible, but come across more like the wind in the trees, or a secret language not understood by human beings. At a certain point, when they come to the phrase, "ani iodea / I know," they begin to chant more strongly, joined by the instrumental ensemble in fuller chords no longer based on overtones, representing the realization of the "I," or identity of the individual.

The second half of Bialik's poem is concerned with the poet's thoughts, as he sits by the side of the pond and quietly reflects upon life's beauty and meaning. This is the role of the cantor in the piece; he represents the poet - the interpreter of nature who must situate himself in nature and understand how he relates to, as well as mirrors, it. The cantor is silent for the first four minutes of the piece, illustrating the importance of the listening and the quiet contemplation that precedes action (like the Aleph). In mystical Judaism one must be silent before one can "receive the light." When the cantor does begin to sing, he first acknowledges the placement of the pond in the forest. This attention to nature's detail eventually leads to his first statement of "I know," which is repeated throughout the piece and develops more layers of meaning. The cantor proceeds to bridge the gap between the individual and the forest as he describes the poet's own actions and his learning of the universe's secrets. In keeping with the traditional role of the cantor as "messenger of God," the cantor functions in this work as an intermediary between the individual and the infinite "Oneness" of all things. Throughout the piece there is very little interaction in a conventional manner between the cantor and the choir, but as they repeat their simple, recognizable patterns, they see their reflections in each other.

The secrets of the universe that the poet discovers in the poem are revealed to the listener by the voice of an inner, knowing soul, which emerges at the beginning and the end of the piece from within the instrumental ensemble. This whispered/spoken part is given to the ud player, who demonstrates that the answers to our universal questions are already a part of us, are already known to us, and will become clear to us (or "illuminated") if we listen quietly enough.

Recognizable patterns are also repeated by the instrumentalists throughout the piece; after hearing each musical gesture over and over again, the listener gradually comes to understand its meaning. The instrumentalists play fragile harmonics for much of the piece, each of their pitches emanating from the same source, or fundamental tone. This represents the mystical and basic "oneness" that connects us to God, nature and each other. The number of repetitions of each musical gesture in this piece is also significant and relates to the Jewish practice of gematria, or the relationship between the numerical values associated with each Hebrew letter in a particular word. For instance, the Divine name of YHVH is made up of the letters yod, hay, vav and hay, which have the numerical values of ten, five, six and five, respectively. Therefore, the total value of YHVH is 26. Using the approach of sacred geometry, 26 is taken as the sacred mean between 13 and 52. The number 13 connects to the thirteen lunar months and 52 to the solar weeks in a year. Thus YHVH is at the center of the year and the essence of the Sun and the Moon, which light up our world. This makes YHVH the essential source of all light. The repetitions of musical material in this piece, therefore, are all based on numerical patterns of 13*, 26** and 52 (heard, for instance, in the repetitive solo sections for piano and guitar). The ratios between these numbers further serve as the basis for the overall structure of the musical composition.

The conductor serves a special, additional role in the piece. In several places, there are extended silences. In the same way that the letter Aleph is silent, but it affects the sound and meaning of every other letter around it, the conductor must hold these silences in the piece for as long as it is necessary changing with each performance until he feels that an understanding of the material which came before has truly been reached. These silences will allow the listener to interpret that which has come before, as well as that which will follow (like the Aleph, often referred to as the "energy of silence"). Of course, there is no such thing as actual silence we bring with us our experience of what we've heard, our expectations of what we'll encounter next, and the sound and energy present at all times and all spaces in the world around us. But by paying attention to the silences in this piece, and by seeing where they fit into the overall context of the otherwise simple repeated patterns, one can understand the meaning behind the Aleph the potential, the complexity, and the wisdom of that which surrounds us all the time but can not be heard, itself.

* The number 13 is also the total of the letters in the word for "love" in Hebrew, ahava (aleph-1, heh-5, beit-2, heh-5). The love that passes from the infinite source of light to the world, plus the reciprocal love that passes back to the source, equals 26!

** The number 26 can further be found in one of the most famous theorems of the eighteenth-century French mathematician, Fermat. He noted that 26 lies between two numbers, one a square (25 = 5x5), the other a cube (27 = 3x3x3). He then sought out other numbers that were positioned between a square and a cube, but could find none, and he asked himself whether 26 was, in fact, unique. Kabbalists agreed that this uniqueness had to do with 26 containing a dimension other than an area and a volume a fourth, and as of yet, indescribable dimension!

We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.
- old Talmudic saying

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