JoelNothman.com

25 March, 2012

Reporting data with datatemplate

Filed under: Open software,Research,Technology by Joel @ 10:30 pm, 25 March 2012.

You have a lot of data, but you only need to show a little here, a little there. The data also might change, and you want to easily update a table in LaTeX or HTML. You could just format it by hand, but I see a lot of copy-paste, regex or shell hacking in your future… and you risk forgetting to update your table to match the changed raw data.

formatting the necessary data. It draws on three tools:

• Django templates
• An easy Python or command-line interface for loading common data sources (CSV, JSON, etc.) into the template context
• New template tags for using SQL directly in Django templates, plus the ability to import comma-delimited or tab-delimited data as a SQLite table for random access

Django templates are a fairly powerful way to include custom formatting and template control flow. Datatemplate is not limited to producing tables either, and might also be used to generate LaTeX \newcommand definitions from data.

Example

Say you have experiments.csv containing:

experiment,variable,precision,recall
e1,A,0.5,0.4
e1,B,0.6,0.7
e2,A,0.5,0.6
e2,B,0.4,0.6
e3,A,0.5,0.3
e3,B,0.8,0.7
e4,A,0.2,0.4
e4,B,0.5,0.6
e5,A,0.6,0.6
e5,B,0.4,0.5


You want to output a LaTeX table of F1 scores, with rows for experiments e1, e3 and e5, and columns for variables A and B.

Write experiments.tpl:

\begin{tabular}{l|*{ {{columns|length}} }{r}}
\hline
Experiment {% for variable in columns %}& {{variable}}{% endfor %} \\
\hline
\hline
{% for row_label, experiment in rows %}
{{row_label|texescape}}
{% for variable in columns %}{% select 2 * precision * recall / (precision + recall) AS f1 FROM data WHERE experiment = "{{experiment}}" AND variable = "{{variable}}" %}
& {{f1|floatformat}}
{% endselect %}{% endfor %} \\
{% endfor %}
\hline
\end{tabular}


This depends on:

• an SQLite database with a table called data loaded with the CSV content
• rows, a sequence of (row label, selected experiment value) tuples
• cols, a sequence of selected variable values

The {% select ... %} statement selects a single row from the database and places its results in context. {% forselect ... %}, which iterates over SQL query results, could have also been used. In loading the CSV data, columns are recognised as FLOAT or INT as necessary, so you can perform numerical select queries, or use Django filters such as floatformat.

We may then execute:

datatemplate --csvsql data=experiments.csv \
--json-var rows='[["Baseline", "e1"], ["Improved", "e3"], ["Best", "e5"]]' \
--json-var columns='["A", "B"]' \
< experiments.tpl


This generates the LaTeX code for the following table:

[Apologies, the data is nonsense.]

25 October, 2011

Translating creation

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 11:18 pm, 25 October 2011.

A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Bereshit, 22/10/2011.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

This line is so familiar and iconic, that you probably didn’t even notice when your own chumash said something else entirely. If you’re using the Hertz chumash, you’re excused; that’s precisely how it begins. Whereas:-

Artscroll says:

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep…

NJPS says:

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…

They both understand the opening verse in agreement with Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who both contend that here the word בראשית means “the beginning of”, not just “the beginning”. Still, these medieval commentators were potentially influenced by the science of their day, and certainly by the vowels on the Torah text, which were first written down only a few centuries before them. (Had the Masoretic scribes written בָראשית, the reading “In the beginning, God created…” would be clear. Instead, the Masoretic vowels seem to indicate “in the beginning of” or “in a beginning”, as the LXX translates.) Yet, it makes sense that the translation בראשית ברא אלהים is introducing the Bible’s whole first chapter, which concludes with ויכולו השמים והארץ (“the heaven and the earth were finished”).

We already see from this that a good translation takes account of fiddly grammar, textual context, and cultural context. Seeing as none of us are native speakers of Biblical Hebrew, translations are a very important part of how we understand the bible, among other essential Jewish texts.
(more…)

Filed under: Divrei Torah by Joel @ 11:00 pm, 25 October 2011.

For some time, over this blog’s long period of silence, I’ve intended to publish the few divrei torah (Synagogue sermons) I have given at Or Chadash. Having resolved to finally do so, I’ve realised that the fear of having to edit them is what stops me copy-pasting them.

Being speeches, they were only really designed to be read by me, with plenty of gesticulation if not performance; they’re short on citation and footnoting that I might put in a written work; they’re likely to have inconsistencies like presenting Hebrew terms alternately in Hebrew and in transliteration; and when I’m unsure whether the message was clear, I often expand my words as I read them. This is exacerbated by the fact that I often write these divrei torah in a rush, and I generally present them on days when I can’t put any last-minute changes in writing.

Despite all these faults, I don’t have time to properly edit the talks, or they’ll never get posted.

So I hope you enjoy my words, but take them with some salt.

2 March, 2011

How the anti-BDS protest jerked its knee and shot itself in the foot

Filed under: Current affairs,Jewish community by Joel @ 11:15 am, 2 March 2011.

The Jewish community is often accused of knee-jerk reactions regarding Israel, but I am embarrassed by how true it was in the case of a petition against Marrickville Council’s boycott of Israel. I do not know how many people added their names to the petition, but it was many more than the four family members who emailed it to me asking for my signature, and the 847 who shared the link with their friends on Facebook (five of them my Facebook friends).

Right from the moment I looked at the petition, I thought it too crude and propagandistic to even consider signing it, and I only expect the ministry that it is addressed to would think the same. After all, who would think a campaign entitled Reprimand the Terrorist-Sympathisers at Marrickville Council could succeed? It’s rude to call people names. Labelling someone a terrorist sympathiser shows that one has made no sincere attempt to understand their case, and would rather appeal to fear than to logic.

The petition preamble’s main argument continued along this fear-mongering line:

By this action, the ten councillors have formally aligned their municipality with terrorist organisations seeking to overthrow the State of Israel, the one free and democratic nation in the Middle East … In short, they have espoused totalitarian values over Australian democratic values.

What unconvincing nonsense! followed by references to “playing into the hands of the Islamist Global BDS Movement” and “supporting the worldview of totalitarian Islam”. Woah.

In its final paragraph, this preamble tries to ridicule the council’s departure from traditional local governance, which is much closer to the argument of Federal MP Anthony Albanese, and may be fair enough.

But perhaps the most ironic line of the petition preamble states that local governments “must never be seen to side with … totalitarian, anti-democratic religious fanatics”. The petition was written by an organisation called Q Society whose slogan is “Upholding Australian values”. I don’t know what Australian values are. We have borowed this term from the USA, but there they have a very different understanding of values as defined by their constitution and its Bill of Rights, patriotism to a flag representing those values, and modelling (as statues, for instance) their founding fathers and presidents as the ideologues of those values. I only know of “Australian values” being defined by labelling Australians and their actions as un-Australian, a term which can only be used by someone who has undemocratically divined what Australian means and where its boundaries lie. To me, use of the term un-Australian to label one’s political enemies is edging much closer to totalitarianism and anti-democracy than the political activism of Marrickville Council with the broad democratic-electoral consent of its constituents.

The mission statement of Q Society is summarised as “Pro-Egalitarianism + Pro-Freedom + Pro-Democracy + Pro-Western + Pro-Multi-Ethnic + Pro-Israel + Anti-Islam + Anti-Fascist + Anti-Totalitarian + Anti-Moral Relativity + Anti PC”. (I assume the petition preamble is an example of “Anti-PC” that means “fear-mongering is fine”.) But I don’t see how “Pro-Western + Pro-Multi-Ethnic + Pro-Israel + Anti-Islam” can be deemed anything but hypocritical, hateful, and a likely clue that Q Society are precisely what they claim to be against: religious fanatics.

Read Q Society’s mission statement and I hope you will agree that these are people who the Jewish community should fear rather than find affinity with, and certainly, we should not be running to climb aboard the petition bandwagon built by them.

The actual petition statement is written in very different terms to its preamble, which also makes it extremely suspect. Even if only that carefully-worded petition statement is submitted to the NSW Minister for Local Government, it is not hard for the recipient ministry to find the original fear-mongering nonsense that people read before signing it, especially after it has been so widely disseminated.

The foolishness that allowed this petition to be the largest campaign against Marrickville Council’s decision shot that campaign in the foot. How could anyone who saw that petition virally passed from inbox to inbox take it seriously, and consider its undersigned sincere, intelligent, discriminating people?

Boycotts do not work. If they have any impact at all on the target population, they harm the wrong people, affecting the poorest and disadvantaged first. (Academic boycotts are equally foolish, affecting the most critical voices within.)

But Marrickville Council is too small to make a difference on the ground, and they know it. Like many BDS campaigns, the Marrickville boycott’s main effect is to raise awareness in the community where the boycott is being made. The Jewish community response has brought it greater attention, and one could certainly argue that there is a lot that Jewish community members should become aware of and be thinking about before their automatic click-and-forward response.

18 November, 2009

Return us to you, o Music!

Filed under: Music by Joel @ 12:09 am, 18 November 2009.

This year, I have taken up a new hobby of writing music, among other things. This practice did not start out-of-the-blue this year; the first significant piece I arranged was a medley of Carlebach tunes (Hashiveinu Hashem, Uva’u ha’ovdim, Ki mitzion), contrasted with more traditional European synagogue music.

I wrote it as a 4-minute four-part choral piece while studying in Montreal, and always intended it for a medium-to-large community choir, like the Sydney Jewish Choral Society. Although I offered it to McGill’s New Earth Voices at the time, I then had little understanding of arrangement in terms of harmony and progression, and so the piece was littered with all sorts of musical “errors”.

I showed or played the score for a few people, but essentially it was shelved, aided by the fact that I lost the latest version I had worked on in Montreal. As of last last week, I’ve now gone through and brought the piece back to life, adding interesting texture, and removing problematic dissonance.

You’ll find Hashiveinu with Reb Shlomo among a growing collection of music I’ve recently composed and arranged on my new Music Page (all of which — so far — is Creative Commons-licensed for free reproduction, performance and modification).

I hope you enjoy them and would love to hear feedback!

17 November, 2009

Kohelet and the lost art of piyyut

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 10:34 pm, 17 November 2009.

A dvar torah given at Or Chadash on Shemini Atzeret, 10 October, 2009.

What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again, for there is nothing new under the sun.

Though often deeply profound, the words of Kohelet can be depressing.

Some have said that’s precisely why Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot; to temper its joy, and its famed frivolity the likes of which led to the institution of the mechitza in Second Temple times.

Others connect the book to the theme of transience and fragility we feel in our sukkah, not certain if we’ll be eating dinner with a garnish of rain; how we sit there despite the prefabricated hut convulsing around us, like it did during Thursday’s breakfast. We are vulnerable to the elements, and are forced to understand that the world is turning and life will pass quickly.

A poetic approach might say that the book was written in the autumn of Solomon’s life, and so its connection to sukkot is seasonal; a chassid could suggest a theme of letting the divine shine into the mundane.

I, a lover of words, will note that the common translation of Kohelet as “assembly” is a synonym for one translation of Shemini Atzeret, “the eighth, a day of assembly”. Now, the pedantic could point out that we read it on shabbat of Sukkot, not always Shemini Atzeret; I would point right back and say: that it’s always read on the eighth day by Yemenites, Italians, some Sefaradim and others.

The custom to read Ecclesiastes on this festival was a late one, first evidenced in the 12th century Machzor Vitry. As well as being the last book to join our festival rite, it was apparently the last book to join the Bible. The Mishna in Yadayim makes clear that there was debate regarding whether Kohelet was to be canonised, but Beit Hillel essentially forced the Sanhedrin to include it, against the will of Beit Shammai.

What makes Kohelet so controversial?

The Babylonian Talmud in Shabbat relates that the Sages wanted to destroy Kohelet because of numerous internal contradictions, but did not, for its beginning and its end are words of Torah; which presumably justifies the 11 chapters in between.

The Midrash complains about its heretical advice: “Rejoice in your youth, … and walk in the ways of your heart” is the opposite of the shema‘s “do not turn after your heart and your eyes.” Once people are given free rein to follow their desires, the midrash claims, “לית דין ולית דיין”, there is no law and no lawmaker! But Kohelet completes its passage: “for all these things God will bring justice.” And once again, it is redeemed.

The Tosefta brings the argument of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, that Kohelet is the unholy word of man, in contrast with the almost-as-controversial Song of Songs which was divinely inspired (written with רוח הקודש).

But Ecclesiastes isn’t the only thing we read today that has been criticised for its unholy authorship.

We recited the prayer of Geshem by Eleazar ben Kalir, instead of simply declaring: God is the One who makes the wind blow and the rain descend. This piyyut begins by introducing an angel named Af-Bri whose role it is to bring the rain, and whose name is derived from a midrashic reading of a verse in Job.
The Artscroll Siddur cites Rashi for the midrash, which makes little sense as the piyyut‘s traditional attribution precedes Rashi by centuries. For all we know, Eleazar Kalir may have come up with this interpretation himself.

Modern readers of such a piyyut may be worried by the latent polytheism in seeking an angelic intercessor whilst otherwise acclaiming the One God in the opening of the Amida. Medieval Rabbis were concerned just the same. Certainly, it is hard to tell in such poetry: what is authentic doctrine, and what is newly introduced by the poet who, Maimonides exclaims, was often not a scholar?

Piyyut, a cousin of the English word poem, can broadly refer to all Hebrew poem-prayers. They are often given purpose-specific names such as selichot, yotzerot, hosha’not, kinot, zemirot; they count among their ranks such distinguished members as Yigdal, Adon Olam, El Adon, An’im Zemirot, Vechol Ma’aminim, etc.

Piyut is certainly a poetic art-form, though quite different from the proverbs of Kohelet. For example, Solomon’s words: “a name is better than scented oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth”. This mini-poem condenses deep meaning into a single line with beautiful chiastic structure and alliteration. Listen to it: טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב; וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.

Though it retained some of these literary methods, the Kaliric piyut focused more on innovative allusions to text and tradition within witty patterns of rhyme, rhythm and acrostic, a little reminiscent of poetry in the Book of Psalms. In today’s Prayer for Rain, we asked to be blessed in the memory of each of our patriarchs, though none of them are named explicitly. Instead, the poet alludes to water in each of their lives, beginning each line with the next letter of the alphabet, and ending it with “מים”, water. The piyut was a new genre in which to transmit tradition, and a new form for Jewish poetic expression.

Yet this early genre of piyut came under fire, not only for its creation of divine intercessors; its out-dated world-view; and its anthropomorphism of God as is replete in An’im Zemirot, but also because its riddling language was often so obscure as to be unintelligible. Avraham Ibn Ezra was outspoken against Eleazar ben Kalir’s predilection toward rare words – even made-up words – and poor Hebrew grammar, which became the foundational prototype for many later paytanim. Admittedly, I do find Ibn Ezra’s poetry (e.g. Ki Eshmera Shabbat), much much easier to understand.

There are other reasons these poems were controversial; the Babylonian Geonim saw it as a custom of the Land of Israel, intruding into the space of the statutory, standardised prayer service.

Maimonides blames piyutim as “the major cause for the lack of devotion and for the lightheartedness of the masses which impels them to talk during prayer” (though I think the evidence disagrees with him). These additions to the prayer, coupled with a chazan basking in the spotlight, made the service unbearably long (much like my divrei torah). Kohelet was quoted at them: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools!”

Yet these poems brought creativity into the prayer service. In fact, they only became popular once the regular prayers became more fixed. A curious example: it was once common to use the texts of related berakhot interchangeably. So in the Cairo Geniza we find a siddur where the blessing “ולירושלים עירך” in the Amida is replaced by “רחם נא ה’ אלהינו על ישראל עמך”, which we know from birkat hamazon; after all, both end by blessing God, “rebuilder of Jerusalem”.

But the Amida text was eventually fixed, and the piyutim began to appear. The piyut library soon also settled; very few great piyyutim were composed after the thirteenth century. With printing, congregations could select from a wider choice of poems, but eventually certain songs found permanent homes in the liturgy, and others disappeared.

To expand on the Artscroll Machzor:

A few piyutim that are omitted by the vast majority of congregations have been included in an appendix which can be read with a magnifying glass, a dictionary of obscure Hebrew words, a PhD in medieval Hebrew literature and a two-week speed-reading course we call sliches (סליחות).

We have seen that there was a time when the bible was in flux, with books like Kohelet in question; later it was the regular prayer service, and after that, its poetic supplements. So it may be no surprise that the waning of piyut in 19th century Europe came with the flourishing of the cantorial and choral art in the synagogue, and the creation of a new song, vastly distinct from the previously chanted nusah. This change, too, has been hotly debated.

So history repeats itself. What will our next avenue of controversial creativity in public prayer be, when, somehow, the music stops?

Thus said Kohelet, “What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again.”

Perhaps it’s not so depressing after all.

23 August, 2009

Filed under: General,Technology by Joel @ 12:41 pm, 23 August 2009.

Many things have annoyed me about Facebook lately. I ranted at their representative at ACL the other week, but his job was natural language processing, not bug-fixing.

Things have become especially frustrating when dealing with two of their most under-baked utilities: Pages (whataretheyanyway?!) and Events (beentheresinceforeverandstilldon’twork) in order for my Page, Barefoot, to advertise its concert series.

Pages have confused people since their inception. They might be better titled Organisations. They are a bit like groups, but they have fans instead of members, and I think Facebook didn’t want them created quite so freely as groups are (were?). They’re also a bit like personal Profiles in that they have a wall and apps and everything, and they can be fans of other pages. And they’re publicly viewable (and crawlable) on the web, so they act as web sites, and can help bring in FB’s bread. Basically, they’re what groups should have been, but never were.

Events are very popular, but they’re impossible for something like a concert series. You can only state one start and end time, so people get confused by our concert being over 6 days long, or say they can’t come because they’re unavailable on the first evening.

In the intersection between Pages and Events is an abyss of madness. One of the neatest features Facebook ever added to Events was the ability to message groups of people, depending on whether they were attending, not replied, etc. But if you create the event through a Page, you can’t do that:

if an event is hosted by a Page, the Page admin will not see the option to send a message to event guests. Individuals may be added as event admins in order to have this option. (Facebook FAQ)

Oh, I just need to make myself an event admin! But I can’t because Page admins can’t be added as event admins if the Page hosts the events.

Yet, if I remove another Barefoot member from being a Page admin, I can add them as an Event admin. And indeed, then I can add them back as a Page admin.

So somehow, very dodgily, now a person is both a Page and Event admin and can (yay!) send messages to event guests.

Another frustration: after finally finding this hole in Facebook’s foolishness, I could no longer send to people who’ve replied Not Attending. I can understand that those not attending are probably not interested in hassle messages. But when people reply Not Attending because Facebook makes it seem like we only have one concert, not five, I’d like a way to send them a clarification…

End rant.

14 August, 2009

Moses the Interpreter

Filed under: Tanakh by Joel @ 1:59 pm, 14 August 2009.

Deuteronomy is literally translated as “second law”, just as is משנה תורה. In being a repetition, the book is of great interest as an interpretation of the preceding books of the Torah.

Its selection of laws to repeat and to add apparently shows different priorities to other books that have been noted by commentators since the time of its writing.

An act of intepretation which interests me is the placement of the commandment “thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deut. 14:21).

From earlier references (Exod. 23:19, Exod. 34:26), it is unclear that this law has anything to do with food. There, the statement is one in a list of laws which are not greatly connected one to another; its immediate context is pilgrimage, offerings and first fruits. (The second context is almost identical to the first, only occurring after Moses’ receipt of a second set of tablets.)

The Deuteronomy passage focusses on forbidden foods: only some animals are appropriate to be eaten; and carcasses of animals which have not been slaughtered are not to be. And then it states “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, just as it did in Exodus.

(Curiously, in all cases, the statement ends a section.)

From the Exodus context alone, one would not assume that this commandment had any real impact on diet. It may only relate to sacrificial ritual: perhaps it was a pagan or idolatrous practice; Seforno suggests that it was assumed to help one’s crops or flocks. It could have particular relation to pilgrimage: Ramban and Ibn Ezra suggests this was a time that young livestock would be present with lactating mothers; Rashbam suggests that the festive season was a time for meat. Or it may be a mere ethical matter: Rashbam and Ibn Ezra compare the law to not killing an animal and its offspring in one day, and to sending off the mother bird before taking her eggs.

Unsurprisingly, many commentators pick up on the law’s food context in Deuteronomy. Certainly, the rabbinic understanding of the law as a prohibition of eating or cooking meat and milk together is only really afforded validity by it’s citation here. Perhaps this also explains the famous statement that this law appears three times “once to prohibit eating, once to prohibit benefit, and once to prohibit cooking” (BT Hulin 113b, 115b; Rashi on Exod. 23:19); the Halakhic midrash could only take one mention to refer to food, because in Exodus this doesn’t seem to be the point.

In a way, Jewish approaches to the bible often treat it as a commentary to itself. The midrash constantly connects multiple passages in ways that may have not been obvious at first, and hence treats the relationship between two apparently disparate texts.

The interpretative act apparent in the text of Deuteronomy — as a repetition of the law — allows us to see these connections within the bible, without first applying the easily-distorted lens of midrash and later commentaries.

Happy birthday (belated), Singapore!

Filed under: Asia by Joel @ 1:48 am, 14 August 2009.

Suddenly, the food in Sydney (even in Newtown) seems extremely expensive; WiFi internet is frustratingly occasional; our city is congested with cars and many outrageously-overpriced taxis; it lacks in ethnicity, its streets are dirty, and it is simply cold.

At least that’s how it seems after a week in Singapore. Where else can you eat a meal for one dollar? access the internet (to find a bus stop, a restaurant, or a better price) for free on most street-corners? walk past buddhas, mosques, hindu temples, a variety of churches and a still-in-use 19th century synagogue in a 10-minute amble?

Singapore is an curious mix of cultures from across southern Asia, with a Western sense of security and East Asian technology thrown in. Quite a pretty city too, if you like the geometry of modern architecture and Singapore’s multi-colour take on it.

Though young as an independent country — it celebrated its 44th birthday on the day I departed — Singapore certainly has enough to be proud of.

The conference was also very good, and left me with many ideas, very few of which actually had to do with the direction I thought I was heading for a PhD, but still, nice to have some inspiration. Good to see again those people I had met at EACL; to meet others for the first time who I’d cited, who I’d seen cited, and who I’ll be likely to cite in the future.

Other highlights included (more-or-less chronological):

• The wonderful Jewish community there and their hospitality for the shabbat that opened my trip;
• Having at least one token vegetarian stall in most food courts / hawker stalls (at least four in the one near our hostel), and elsewhere on the streets;
• The entertaining restauranteur at Ci Yan on “Chinatown Food Street”, who had been recommended to us along with the food;
• The Night Safari (much better than Chiang Mai’s, and probably less cruel to the animals), its shows, and Nicky wearing a boa constrictor;
• Musical entertainment, unicycling polyglots and an academic dance-off at the ACL banquet;
• Riding bikes (and teaching Matt how to do so) around Palau Ubin;
• Running around Sim Lim Square looking for the few retailers with DDR3 RAM for my computer (ended up with 4GB at AU$125, which I think is a pretty good buy); • Ordering one of the most expensive menu items (a paper masala dosa) for dinner, and still paying only SG$2.50 (AU\$2.10);
• Some of the yummy Indian sweets from Chella’s, even if they each cost as much as a meal;
• Being woken by the call of the Sultan Mosque muezzin too early on Friday morning;
• Watching papers with my name on them being presented very well, but not having to present myself;
• Awesome fake meats in the herbal mutton soup at Eight Immortals in Koufu food court (the closest to the conference centre with a vegetarian restaurant, and yet somehow I managed to avoid it till the last day of conferring);
• Terrible cover-band music under the misnomer of “Gypsy” as a free National Day performance at the Esplanade;
• Playing around with Yefeng’s tripod on the last night (to my fortune, his camera ran out of space);
• Lots of green-bean, red-bean, sesame, and other Asian delights…

Somehow, food features quite prominently — even without chilli crab — doesn’t it?

And no, Sydney isn’t so bad. But there’s nothing like taking a holiday and intellectual inspiration at the same time.

31 July, 2009

To Sing

Filed under: General,Music by Joel @ 6:04 pm, 31 July 2009.

Music has become a rapidly growing part of my life over the past year. While I first soloed on stage singing Yerushalayim Shtot Fun Golt in year 1 with the Moriah Collage Yiddish Group, it was in June that I finally began receiving vocal tuition, with the wonderful classical teacher Sue Falk. Some do say that mid-twenties is the right time to start, but it’s common to begin much earlier.

Up from the first two choirs I joined as an adult in 2006, I’m now singing with five groups, each presenting different styles of music, ranges of talent and opportunities. Between the universal lack of confident tenors and my own curiosity, I just keep joining.

Most of my singing time is spent on Barefoot Musica Antigua, a small group (up to eight) singing early (up-to-17th century) music. Since our wonderfully successful March concerts, we’ve been focussing on the music of Salamone Rossi, a 17th-century Jewish composer of Mantua, Italy. Our concerts at the end of August will be well worth your while.

Rossi was controversial at the time for bringing polyphony to the Synagogue, and although it became accepted in 19-20th century European choirs, his Renaissance-Baroque settings of Hebrew prayers were a first and a last; no other composers seem to have followed up on his choral approach to the synagogue service. But his works are simply emotive, creative, beautiful to the ear (Dad always thought they were the best the Madrigal Society offered), and Barefoot will not merely be singing “white notes”; we intend to interpret and feel the music.

Our director Jenny’s attention to historical context has involved finding and identifying manuscripts of Rossi’s music and Rabbi Leone Modena’s poetry; reading an autobiography of the latter; and constant communication with Rossi expert Don Harran debating, among other matters, the significance of breaks in the music. In preparing other traditional Hebrew tunes for contrast, I have made my first attempt at arranging a full piece of music for the choir; I’ve had to get a grasp on the idea of maqam; and Jenny has lost much sleep listening to the wonderful library of music at piyut.org.il (and thus acquiring another 15 concerts of repertoire). We’ve unfortunately also dipped into controversies of Kol Isha, which will aid the Orthodox Jewish community in persisting to not hear Rossi’s works.

I do hope to see everyone and anyone at our concerts, entitled Songs of Ascents: Barefoot in Venice on the 28th and 29th of August, and the 2nd of September.

One down.

At the Sydney Jewish Choral Society, the tenors are the strongest in ability but the weakest in number. Our eclectic repertoire under Rose Grausman’s direction would be better served with a more proficient choir. The group has a habit of not learning the music until the last minute, leading to some stressful rehearsals. Hopefully we’ll do a good job of our next couple of concerts for the year, in which I’ll probably have a solo or two, and maybe next year I’ll consider asking the choir to sing some music I arrange… we’ll see.

The Sydney University Madrigal Society lacks men in general. In fact, the first rehearsal this semester indicates that almost all it has is altos. So if you know someone at Sydney Uni who’d like to sing, send them along! The Madrigals have been a wonderful group in the past, and our last concert under Jehan Kanga was a treat, so his upcoming Italian Tenth-Anniversary Spectacular has much potential.

I’ve also found myself singing with the overflow High Holiday choir at South Head Synagogue, which is a different experience altogether (no sheet-music, but little improvisation); and I am occasionally singing contemporary a cappella tunes with my friends Dan, Mud and Saritha.

Unfortunately, more time spent on music means less time spent on writing blog posts (among other things). So once again excuse my lack of recent insights into Bible, Judaism, Hebrew, linguistics, technology, society, or whatever else I might otherwise have had a moment to ponder and prosify.

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