An Interview with Kol Tefilah

with eight musical examples using .
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I wanted to share with you news of a very exciting Jewish musical project called Kol Tefilah, and to play for you and your listeners tapes of some of the music. As far as I know, Kol Tefilah is unique.

What exactly is Kol Tefilah?

Kol Tefilah is a synagogue choir without a synagogue.  Kol Tefilah is a small ensemble specializing in Jewish liturgical music; that travels around, leading services.  There are five men in Kol Tefilah.  The members of Kol Tefilah take turns leading the different services.  At each service, the rest of the group sing as a choir.   Kol Tefilah travels around meeting new communities and people, davening in the beautiful style of classical chazzanut.

What do you mean by classical chazzanut?

At a traditional service, there is one person who is the congregation's representative and leader in prayer.  A person who does this professionally is called a "CHAzn" in Yiddish, or "ChazZAN" in Hebrew, or a "cantor" in English.  "Chazzanut" basically means: Jewish liturgical singing.  "Classical chazzanut" is a particular musical art form, with its own set of traditions and rules and heroes.  Classical chazzanut is mostly improvised music;  the cantor makes up the notes as he sings.  But there is a rigid framework within which the improvisation happens.

If the cantor improvises the music, how can there be a whole choir, like Kol Tefilah, singing along?

For each member of Kol Tefilah who leads services, there is another member designated as the "chord thrower".  The chord thrower listens to the cantor's improvisation, anticipates, makes musical judgements, and sends instructions to the rest of the choir by hand-signs.  The choir can actually be singing on the fly - each singer not knowing what their next note will be - but responsive to the hand-signs.  And Kol Tefilah only has one voice on each choir part, so the chord-thrower is also singing his own part at the same time.

Photo of Kol Tefilah at Congregation Eitz Chaim in Sharon, MA.  
Jeremy leading; Gil throwing chords; Gary, Sruli, and Jordan singing.

While the cantor is improvising, the choir can hum, change vowels between 'oooh' and 'ah', and can repeat key words after the cantor sings them.  All this can be done within the chord-thrower's improvisational framework.

EXAMPLE: a recording of Kol Tefilah dressing up the nusach with vocal effects.
From the Friday night service for welcoming the Sabbath. Jordan is leading, Gary is throwing chords and singing. Meir and Jeremy are singing. In major.
(duration: 0:53)

It's an exciting musical proposition that gives the cantor freedom.  Of course, over time each combination of cantor and chord-thrower develops sensitivity, each becomes alert to the needs of the other.

You said that classical chazzanut has its own traditions and musical rules. What are some of the musical rules of classical chazzanut?

Well, first of all, each type of service has its own particular sound --- its own musical scale with characteristic cadences and melodic gestures. So Friday night sounds different from Saturday morning, which sounds different from Weekdays, or Festivals, and so on. This tradition is called nusach, and cantors must sing in proper nusach for each service. There are even particular places in the same service where it is traditional to change to a particular nusach.

Can you give us an example of what you mean by nusach?

Sure. For example, if I improvise a chant on an ordinary weekday, it might sound something like this:

EXAMPLE: sing the first sentence of R'tsei in weekday nusach

But if I sing the same text on a Saturday morning, it might go like this:

EXAMPLE: sing the first sentence of R'tsei in Ahavah Rabbah mode

And on a Festival, it might sound like this:

EXAMPLE: sing the first sentence of R'tsei in festival nusach

On Saturday afternoon it could sound something like this:

EXAMPLE: sing the first sentence of R'tsei Shabbat Mincha nusach

What would happen if a Cantor didn't follow the right nusach for a particular occasion? Does it really matter?

Yes.  The nusach binds Jews together around the world.  Jews from opposite sides of the world can go to each other's synagogues and sing along, even though the specific notes will be different.  All because of nusach.

Most Jews actually know the musical rules of chazzanut, even if they don't realize that they know the rules!  We unconsciously absorb the musical traditions over a long period of time, just by going to synagogue.  So even though the particular sequence of notes selected by the Cantor is improvised, the congregation can sense the moment to respond, and how to respond, based on the Cantor's musical cues.  That is only possible because a shared tradition provides a framework, and the Cantor improvises within it.  That's why Jews around the world can improvise together.  

What Kol Tefilah does is fill in the implied harmonies, like this:

EXAMPLE: recording of Kol Tefilah harmonizing in Ahavah Rabbah mode.
From the Sh'ma section of the Shabbat Shacharit Service; Gary is leading, Gil is just throwing chords. Meir and Jeremy and Jordan are singing.
(0:50 duration)

Does the whole service sound like that? -- Like improvised chant plus background chords?

No.  Some of the services are quite long, so that could get tiring.  There are many places in every service where it is not required to follow nusach.  That's where cantors have the option to insert songs and congregational tunes.

What Kol Tefilah does is to slip in and out of nusach, punctuating each service with a bunch of inserted set pieces.  We call them "set pieces", because the cantor doesn't improvise them.

EXAMPLE: recording of Kol Tefilah switching from nusach to a composition for choir.
From the Shabbat Musaf Service. Jeremy is leading, Jordan is throwing chords and singing. Meir and Gary are singing.
(1:03 duration)
Note the delayed entrance. First we figure out the cantor's key, then  the chord-thrower can bring the choir in on the cantor's second phrase. Jody Weixelbaum wrote our arrangement of the set piece, Hodo Al Eretz, which was composed by Solomon Sulzer.

Some of the set pieces are actually composed out for the choir, but others are set only in the melody, with each singer ad-libbing some harmony.

What effect does Kol Tefilah's singing have on the congregants?

It's wonderful!  Many congregants are caught off-guard for the first few minutes because they're not used to it.  But soon they soak up the sound and get to know it, and then they find themselves praying with greater concentration on their prayers, because, as the chassidic masters say: "It is the song that makes the heart respond".

What we do is quite traditional.  We are not performing for a congregation -- we are praying to God.  We didn't pray the morning service by ourselves beforehand and then come to synagogue to give a concert.  When we are up on the bima we are actually praying.  That's why we don't repeat words or use sheet music and so on.  Everyone in Kol Tefilah is shomer shabbos.  Everything is according to traditional Jewish law.

This is quickly sensed by the congregants, who then find that their own kavannah -- their focus on their prayers -- can be enhanced by the way we lead the service.

How did you pick the name "Kol Tefilah"?

Well, it's a pun.  In Hebrew, "Kol Tefilah" could mean two different things.  It could mean "The Voice of Prayer", because that's what we do -- we lead services.  But, in Hebrew, "Kol Tefilah" could also mean "The Whole Prayer".  And that expresses the idea that, by adding the harmonies and countermelodies, we uncover more of what the sacred words contain.  Adding the music makes the prayer whole.  It brings out the congregation's ability to pray more effectively.

Where has Kol Tefilah led services?

We've led services at many different places, including some Young Israels, some Chabad Houses, some OU shuls, and some independent shuls.  We rehearse every week in Massachusetts, but we're happy to travel.  We've been as far North as Montreal and as far South as New Jersey.  We'll daven anywhere that has separate seating for men and women.  We can lead any of the services, chant Torah, and enhance the Sabbath meals with presentations of Sabbath Table-Songs, and other songs.  We can also provide music for celebrations, and so on.

Who are the Members of Kol Tefilah?

[ Transcript abridged --current information can be found at our Roster & Member Bios page. ]

I'd like to thank you for having me on your program, and to finish by playing one last recording.

EXAMPLE:  Ki Lekach Tov, by Joseph Rumshinsky, arranged by Jody Weixelbaum.
Sung by Gary, Jeremy, Meir, and Jordan.
(duration 1:25)
During the first 25 seconds (i.e., during the wordless chords), there was a VOICE-OVER as follows:

Josef Rumshinsky wrote a wonderful piece of music to accompany putting the Torah back into the Ark on Saturday mornings.  Kol Tefilah sometimes just uses the beginning and the ending.  In the middle, we put the popular congregational tune for 'Eitz Chayim Hi' so that the congregation can sing along. This recording is our introduction, and then our finale, to the congregational Eitz Chayim Hi, arranged for Kol Tefilah by Jody Weixelbaum.