The Electronic Shofar

AE interviews Composer/Improviser Bob Gluck
December 29, 2006

On February 3, EMF presents Bob Gluck and Alvin Curran, both composers who work with acoustic instruments and electronics, both engaged in different ways with the Judaic tradition. We're particularly interested in the general issue of how to preserve and re-interpret traditions in the context of our contemporary, technology-based world culture.

We asked Bob Gluck to speak on those issues. Specifically, we asked: What was your idea in combining electronics and shofar? Do you think that combinations of tradition and modern technology are a good thing?

Here's what he said:

The shofar is a raw, purely emotive instrument. It commands attention and demands that you listen. In fact, to listen closely. Well, this encouragement of attentive listening is, for me, a core reason why music is so valuable, and so the shofar inherently interests me as a composer.

Personally, shofar blasts are among the first musical sounds that I can remember. There was a mystery and a mystique to the shofar that I experienced first in my grandparents' synagogue in the Bronx. I felt its sound to be timeless, utterly alien to anything modern, and so unlike anything that I later experienced at Juilliard!

I consider shofar sounds to be akin to a Rorschach Test. For those who like me grew up with its sounds as part of my sonic wallpaper, the shofar calls to mind an array of associations from the historical to personal, from biblical narratives to more complex religious yearnings. I've found that when people freely associate while listening to the shofar, they often draw from this vast reservoir of referential qualities that have breadth and depth.

About five years ago, when I returned to live performance after many years away from it, I became interested in electronically expanding acoustical instruments. This desire was sparked by my love for the sonic richness of acoustical instruments and the excitement that I experienced in spontaneous invention. Now, fast computers and new electronic technologies are able to keep up with how fast a performer thinks and creates. I find it fascinating to use these possibilities to bridge the old and the new, to revisit that which is ancient through a new, very personal lense. With computers, I can focus more closely and combine sounds in new ways, and I find that I enjoy listening in detail to the ins and outs of the shofar's sounds.

I feel fortunate to sense no conflict between the ancient religious nature of this instrument and its usage as part of a contemporary performance interface. When expanded with electronics, the shofar becomes a new instrument, a hybrid standing between the traditional and the modern. The shofar is not a museum piece, nor is it an object that cannot be used respectfully in new ways. Making music, with or without new technologies, remains a human expressive act, ever unfolding and never frozen or objectified.

A personal anecdote: As a child, I always aspired to play shofar. All of my male peers felt this way. But for some reason I was afraid to try. It seemed so difficult to make a sound and I didn't want to be seen failing. Now I've found a new way to channel the unpredictability of the outcome of blowing into a shofar by walking an even more fragile tightrope of fickle electronics. Now I think: "how interesting!"

© 2006