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.