Sacred Sounds Reborn
A Nusach based project with Beth Styles, producer, composer, and gifted musician.
For years I have listened to lots of new music for the synagogue. I can appreciate the many new composers out there writing with music that moves them and speaks to them. Something was missing for me.
Why can’t we use real nusach to create new Jewish music for the synagogue? My grandfather was a pioneer in the world of nusach based synagogue music. His Thesaurus of Cantorial Liturgy was hailed as the first complete book of nusach for the modern cantor by Hebrew Union College in l951. He reworked the elaborate motifs from his European background and composed every phrase and prayer a cantor needed using the authentic Jewish prayer motifs- nusach that is still taught today in cantorial schools.
I wanted to use his music, fragments of it to keep the sounds in our ears, hearts, and souls. The authentic nusach for Shabbat will be lost if we don’t use it in our newer music as well. Many cantors use nusach for the occasional hatimah , the ending or seal of the prayer. Why not use some of the beautiful motifs for an actual piece that uses English as well to help bring the meaning of the prayer into our lives?
For years I dreamed of doing this project. It was the loss of my professional singing voice that compelled me to begin. After a wonderful experience teaching and singing last November 2022 with cantors from all over the world in Budapest for the European Cantors Association, I returned home with a bad case of COVID that left me with a paralyzed and nerve damaged vocal cord. I have not been able to sing professionally for a year and have been on medical leave from my beloved pulpit in Ridgefield, CT and on disability.
Without my singing voice as I once knew it, I realized I could still make music and make a difference. Creating these new liturgical pieces based on the classic nusach of my grandfather is a dream come true. With the help of my friend Beth Styles, she has worked her magic in the studio to create something very special. We included the voice of my dear father of blessed memory, Cantor Theodore Katchko, who taught me everything his father, Cantor Adolph Katchko taught him.
I feel it is my responsibility to see which prayers can be reworked for our contemporary synagogue, using the old motifs with a new fresh interpretation.
Adonai Malach has always been a favorite prayer. I studied it with the master cantor of all cantors, Cantor Jack Mendelson. This is a favorite of his too. It begins with the nusach, called Adoai Malach. How cool is it that the prayer Adonai Malach, begins with the actual nusach called Adonai Malach? Beginning with a recording of my father which I then added harmony to years after he passed ( Thanks Natalie Cole for the idea!), the prayer begins with the majesty and history it deserves.
It then moves into a fresh and prayerful personal plea for strength and peace for Israel. We included the phrase “Am Yisrael Chai” as we both felt it was the time to show our faith and support for Israel now and forever. With the rise of antisemitism and the war in Gaza, it feels right to use the phrase in a prayer that states the power and majesty of God in our lives. We need the strength of God more than ever, and we need to be supportive of Israel, “Am Yisrael Chai”.
L’chu N’ran’na is an opening prayer for many Friday evening services. I was thrilled to hear a recording from Central Synagogue where they opened with my grandfather’s nusach composition, L’chu N’ran’na and then went into an Israeli version of the prayer. I loved hearing the combination. It inspired me to think of ways to include that opening motif and keep using it in a new way, a new composition that kept the original nusach throughout. L’chu N’ran’na literally says, “ Come let us sing joyously to God” This was an easier prayer to interpret and find new words to bring it to modern ears and hearts Beth added a joyous new niggun that has become an ear worm for me. Thankfully it is replacing 1-877 Kars for Kids in my head.
This is only the beginning. There are so many wonderful phrases of nusach that I believe should be part of the service and not just an antique little ending to a prayer. It is my hope that these new nusach based prayerful songs find their way into the cantorial world and synagogue music worship.
(Music is on all streaming platforms, sheet music at oysongs.com. )
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray