BIMA ArtsCE Projects: Creation, Improvisation, Collaboration, and Text

By Shira Wallach, BIMA 2011 Community Educator

When we think improvisation, we tend to think first of improvised music or theater or dance; but beyond their own delights, such art forms are doors into an experience that constitutes the whole of everyday life. We are all improvisers. The most common form of improvisation is ordinary speech. As we talk and listen, we are drawing on a set of building blocks (vocabulary) and rules for combining them (grammar). These have been given to us by our culture. But the sentence we make with them may never have been said before and may never be said again. Every conversation is a form of jazz. The activity of instantaneous creation is as ordinary to us as breathing.

Excerpt from Free Play, by Stephen Nachmanovitz,
from the chapter entitled “Inspiration and Time’s Flow”

The art of improvisation informed my identities as educator and as artist this summer. I’d always been drawn to collaborative art-making; the sound of voices coming together in explorative harmony is different each time, many dancers join forces to communicate a collective message. However, Nachmanovitz taught me that collaborative art-making is similar to conversations that chevruta partners share as they react to the text and to one another, or how an educator responds to participants in group discussion.

My experience this summer also helped me hone two messages that I hope to convey through my teaching. First, it behooves the learner to study classical, traditional texts alongside (more) modern pieces of literature, music, and art. The interaction among sources from different points in time illuminates motifs that connect human curiosity from generation to generation. Similarly, participating in text study helps to engage with communities, both horizontally (over space) and vertically (over time), as a seminal experience of being Jewish.

For my project, I collected three sources that inspire my view of creation:

  • Genesis 1:1- In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
    • Whose beginning? Was it the beginning for God as well? How did God come into being?
  • Psalms 33:9- For He spoke and it was; He commanded and it stood.
    • I am incredibly compelled by the idea that language was the first creation; Genesis doesn’t read “God formed ___ out of the chaos,” but rather “God said: Let there be light!” God created the universe with language.
  • Genesis 1:26- Let us make man after our image, in our likeness.
    • I wonder to whom God speaks. The Midrash suggests that God is addressing other heavenly hosts, but why does God ask for assistance? What is the difference between image (צלם) and likeness/character (דמות)?

My goal was to present the texts in a way that echoed my educational messages while invoking the studious hum of a beit midrash (house of study). I wrote a melody for the first verse of Genesis that deviated from musical modes usually used in Torah cantillation but instead reflected a major, proclaiming tone. Then, I assigned a general chord progression to use when singing the other Tanakh verses simultaneously, but mostly improvised. At times, I wanted the verses to come together in beautiful harmony, and at others, I wanted the listener to hear an uncomfortable clash among voices. Such is the nature of text study.

If I had the opportunity to continue working on my project, I would introduce different voices to join the study and improvisation (male, female, old, young), and add more recent texts, such as Sanhedrin 37a (a beautiful midrash on the difference between human and divine creation) and Madeleine L’Engle’s “Be!” (a poem that calls the symphony of creation into being). For now, it is a work in progress that I am delighted to share.

Shira Wallach and Josh Mocle learn together during the Artists Beit Midrash for staff

To listen to Shira’s recording, click here.

For an overview of the BIMA ArtsCE Projects, read this post.

Shira Wallach was a community educator at BIMA in 2011. She is a third year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she is also working to complete an MA from the Cantorial School in Sacred Music. Shira loves learning about the intersection between Judaism and music. For as long as she can remember, she has pursued filling her repertoire with as many modes of nusach, trope, and niggunim as possible to further understand the rich Jewish musical tradition. Shira hopes to incorporate the intersection between Judaism and music into her rabbinate. 

2 thoughts on “BIMA ArtsCE Projects: Creation, Improvisation, Collaboration, and Text

  1. Jonah Rank

    I really like the sound of “the studious hum of a beit midrash.” Most times that I’m in a beit midrash, I hear that “hum” that Shira’s talking about–the resonance of chevruta partners reading a text out loud, sometimes in a sing-songy kind of way.

    Thinking outside the box and trying to expand what is and isn’t a beit midrash, I’m inspired to imagine the sound of a “hum” in a less typical beit midrash (a dance class, a writers’ room, etc.). That “hum” will sound very different in a room where two filmmakers are editing a film, or in a studio where two musicians are sitting at a piano. That “hum” will not sound like a literal “hum” in most situations, but I really like Shira’s word-choice.

    I want to re-imagine what a “hum” is, and I want to listen more closely for that melody in the future.

    Thanks Shira!

    P.S. Shira’s a cappella work here is gorgeous!

    1. Amiya

      I completely agree with Jonah!The other thing I like about bayit mommy’s recording is the way she “deviated from the modes usually used in Torah cantillation” to produce a major tone that to me felt….well, fun, almost jazzy or spiritual-style. I look forward to hearing some more psukim being added! 😀


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