We cantors had this crazy idea – well, I had this crazy idea: a new machzor deserved new music. The process of creating a new machzor transformed the conversations about the narrative of the High Holy Days; that conversation should extend to the message and experience of its music as well. So two years ago, we convened a group of cantorial colleagues to study Mishkah HaNefesh, to delve into its new texts, layouts, and flow of prayer and song. This was truly an inspired combination of cantors with different backgrounds, experiences and talents; our study and dialogue was of great depth and excitement as we considered our current musical repertoire for the High Holy Days, where we wanted either a new musical expression of a familiar text or deliberating about what we would aspire to have for some brand new text.
The journey has been amazing. We approached a cohort of composers from the Reform Jewish world, our friends and colleagues who are members of either the American Conference of Cantors or the Guild of Temple Musicians, with a bold invitation – to donate their time and talent to us through the gift of a musical composition to be part of what we hoped would be a ground-breaking anthology of new High Holy Day music. Their generosity of spirit was overwhelming. Our committee then proceeded to commission each composer with a text and genre of musical direction, specifically chosen for each composer. And so, Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh was born, the newest music created by those who are called to express our deepest hopes and aspirations through music, the musical threads of Mishkan HaNefesh.
In the ensuing months, we spent time in dialogue with each composer as their creative juices flowed. Together, we tweaked and refined each draft of the composition, bringing the text to life through the musical notes and voices; this partnership helped to create the extraordinary musical expression that we envisioned and hoped for.
Fast forward to our recent ACC-GTM convention in Fort Lauderdale – the first copies of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh arrived! In keeping with the goal of honoring the generous contributions of the composers, the volume also contains short statements from each composer about their musical inspiration for their composition. We chose to present the entirety of its contents to the convention participants in order for everyone to have a more concrete experience of the music, and enable all of us to determine the ways we would use pieces in our services.
Of course, that presentation required rehearsal and preparation. What an experience it was, to sing and hear the notes come off the page, springing to life as we began to sing. The resonance of the piano, the soaring voice of each cantor, the blending of choral voices, the rising and expansion of sound and word: we had seen it on paper, heard it in our heads, yet the layers of sound and the diversity of expression were so much more moving than I even anticipated. As the Editorial Chair of the project, I had the opportunity to write some introductory words to the volume. Experiencing the music coming to life, I feel even more confident in the hopes I expressed there, that these beautiful musical expressions of our sacred texts will inspire all those who hear them, helping them enter into the Mishkan of prayer in the Days of Awe, with a sense of fulfillment and peace.
Cantor Susan Caro serves Northern Virgina Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia. She is also the Editorial Chair of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.