Rebbe Nachman and the Tape Player

Album Art for the Breslover Tape

Suppose that I spent this Saturday afternoon copying music of the Breslover Chasidim from my dad’s old cassettes onto my computer. I say “suppose that” because by copying the tapes onto my computer, I might have broken the law; the Recording Industries Association of America (RIAA) doesn’t think I have a right to copy music from one medium to another. The Breslov Research Center, which copyrighted the recording in 1990, agrees: “Copying,” the tape liner asserts, “is prohibited by halakha [Jewish law] and law.”

Of course, the Breslovers have other concerns, for which the RIAA (I hope) cannot yet sue people. They’re not just concerned that I might cost them money; they want to control my experience of their music. I’d like to use that desire to talk about the idea of a “text” and to suggest that there is no such thing. In my second post, I’ll explain where the idea of a text comes from, and why it’s a problem, and what all this has to do with the RIAA and copying.

The tape liner also requests, “Please do not play on shabbos or yom tov,” presumably enjoining its audience not to break halakha by using electricity on these days. The Breslov Research Institute assumes not only that you are Jewish but also that you need to be told not to use a tape player on shabbos. The request becomes necessary when the music is sold freely and anonymously. The melodies on the tape are for poems traditionally sung at shabbos meals; before being recorded, they circulated through a (relatively) closed circle of such meals, either at the family tables of Breslover Chasidim or at larger tisches, communal gatherings. Mostly, they remained within this community (and communities adjacent to it); when the tunes are performed thusly, there’s no need for a warning about tape players, partly because those singing are assumed to be a pious Jews, but more because the instrumentation (a cappella singing), performance times, and rituals associated with the melody fit perfectly with halakha.

The Breslovers see their music as existing within that socio-cultural context; while cassette tapes can make the music accessible to those outside, they also change the music. The tape, which is just the physical record of a set of sound waves, lacks the context of the shabbos meal, the Breslov Chasidim in their gaberdine robes, the a cappella singing, etc. Not only that, they have another context—the industrial mass culture that produces cassette tapes and tape players—that is profoundly at odds with the music’s earlier context.

This gap causes anxiety. The worry about violating shabbos is not just a narrow halakhic problem; it stands for a broader anxiety. The liner notes provide genealogies for each track; “Reb Shlomo Vechsler of Jerusalem first joined the nigun to these words,” a typical entry reads, “in the Breslover community of the old city in the 1930’s, and it is still sung today.” By including this information (virtually useless to me), the Breslovers seek to include some context in the music, to broaden my experience. They don’t want me listening to sound waves; they want me to participate in their culture.

Unfortunately, they cannot have what they want. I listened to the tape on shabbos. Even if I hadn’t, there’s no way to escape the new medium: I am learning the songs by listening over and over to the recording, rather than by attending a hundred tisches. If I copy it to my computer, I can listen to it on shuffle on my ipod, right in between a lecture on literary theory and The Black Album. The Breslovers are right to be anxious: for them, the purpose and essence of the music has to do with its context. I am, in a very really way, listening to a different song than the one they learned as children.

In literary criticism, some use the word “text” to denote an interwoven structure of symbols independent of medium. The idea of “text” does a lot of work in defending literary theory. The idea allows us to treat songbooks, poems, novels, textbooks, contracts, pamphlets, love-letters, and newspapers as one class of objects, stripped of their materiality. Talking about “texts” means we interpret these objects as fundamentally similar. That’s the hidden premise within the idea of “literary theory” as a discipline in the first place: that at some level, the same rules govern all sorts of sign-structures. “Text” is an analytic concept, part of what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm, which allows us to pay attention to some things and not to others: it means we can ignore the cover art on The Sound and the Fury, or the introduction to a Norton edition, or where the paper comes from, or how the publishing industry is structured, or a million of other material questions.

The Breslover tape threatens that idea: even a niggun, a wordless melody, is not just an interacting and autonomous structure of signs. That structure means radically different things when sung at a shabbos table and when played on a tape player. There is no “original” text of the niggun, or of the poem to which it’s attached, that can be abstracted from a material context and interpreted on its own. As the Breslovers know, a song is never just sound-waves.

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9 Responses to Rebbe Nachman and the Tape Player

  1. invisible_hand says:

    so, suppose you were to send me these niggunim via email…

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  3. Pingback: Music Has Brought Us Together: Evolutionary Musicology? | Like Them that Dream

  4. Hi Raffi.. Ididn’t realize we had so many interests in common. I happened to see your link on my page and read this piece, which is very interesting. I mention in my book that Rabbi NAchman’s ultimate answer to the deepest sort of atheism is a pure niggun… no words, no arguments, just melody….

  5. Rodger–I’m so happy to see you found this post.

    I think you point to a great difficulty in thinking about niggunim (or God), which is that all the things I can write about are the accidental attachments, rather than the thing itself. Thus, I don’t believe in texts, nor in gods. But I still read the former, pray to the latter, and sing the niggun.


    Also, I really enjoyed the Huffpo piece on Kafka.

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  8. David says:

    Why is the experience radically different? When I listen to an African drumbeat, I still try to form a picture in my mind of the culture this came from (shallowly based on all the video I’ve seen in my life from concerts and Africa). Why is this different even though you’re not at a tisch? What did you have in mind? Music is still very cultural to me, whether it’s live or on CD. So is the Black Album for that matter.

  9. David–

    Thanks for commenting.

    I think we don’t disagree–that is, it’s not that mp3’s are “empty” of context, merely that they are not necessarily “full” of the context from which they originated. Your image of “african drumbeat culture” is, as you admit, pretty shallow, and does not necessarily have much to do with the actual culture in which this took place. Further, when I imagine the culture, I imagine something outside of myself which I am watching–but that’s not how people involved in such a culture experience it (though let’s not generalize about the music of an entire continent). Further, the music becomes susceptible to many different contexts being grafted on.

    So whatever you imagine, the actual context in which you experience the music will have nothing to do with the context you imagine (sorry if that’s abstract, but it’s tough to answer lots of questions quickly!) That’s what I find fascinating about the mp3–it seems not to require context at all. Thus, emptiness.

    I do think there’s something special about the mp3 that encourages us to think of them as “cultureless”–but that’s the second post, which I have not written yet.

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