The Vessel of Song

Lonnie Firestone

The Rising Song Institute is reinventing Jewish spiritual life through song. Writer and activist Lonnie Firestone spoke to Joey Weisenberg, founder and co-director of the Philadelphia-based institute.

“How do you create a melody? What happens?” a participant asked. 

“The hardest part is not making a melody,” Joey Weisenberg replied. “It’s declaring or finalizing it as a melody. There’s a never-ending river of notes flowing through the head. As a musician, you’re trying to dip your cup into it and bring it out. That’s the kli zemer or klezmer — the vessel of song.”

In Joey Weisenberg’s Open Studio Sessions, a weekly online music-making event, songwriting is interspersed with dialogue and questions. More than interludes or pleasant distractions, these conversations are themselves building blocks to the compositional process. 

Weisenberg, founder and co-director of the Rising Song Institute, is a musician, singer, and performer. He is also, like his Rising Song collaborators Batya Levine and Deborah Sacks Mintz, a composer rooted in the tradition of blending song with prayers and psalms. These melodies — niggunim in Hebrew — are elastic, able to be sung wordlessly or to fit elsewhere in liturgy, leading to exponential musical moments in synagogue. 

The mission of Rising Song, therefore, is nothing less than to craft an emotional response to prayer. At the Institute, every original music composition corresponds to lines of Jewish prayer. The intention is to foster a melodic and joyous encounter with liturgy, an auditory refresh on familiar text. (Rising Song is under the aegis of Hadar, an organization dedicated to Torah learning, prayer, and service.)

The creative output of Rising Song Institute takes many forms: concertsalbumsthe Rising Song Fellowship, and Open Studio Sessions — an interactive platform in which Weisenberg composes in real time.  

Open Studio Sessions, occurring weekly and accessible to subscribers, illustrate the central premise of Rising Song’s identity: that music-making be a communal endeavor, even in the earliest stages of composing.

Weisenberg says, “I like to put myself in an awkward position of composing on the fly. I start trying to channel melodies. I’ll sing it and everyone sings it back. Online that’s harder to do, but if the melody takes hold among people, then I know that there’s something there.” 

The impulse to compose and perform was ever-present in Weisenberg’s adolescence, and during our conversation he casually mentions playing in blues bars as a pre-teen. At Columbia University, he majored in music and as a performer he picked up methods of instrumentation from myriad sources: blues, jazz, African music, and bluegrass.

These sources of inspiration pop up unexpectedly in his compositions. One example is Weisenberg’s Lincoln’s Nigun which evokes a hymn from Civil War-era America.

“In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, she talks about how Lincoln would come to inspect the troops. They lined up for miles to touch his horse or shake his hand, and they would split to left and right to let him pass through. I wrote a melody inspired by that image and the words of L’cha Dodi, the prayer that welcomes the Sabbath, Yamin u’smol tifrotzi — ‘to the right and to the left you part.’”  

While Weisenberg places high demands on himself as an artist, he recognizes the need to meet people where they are. Open Studio Sessions are accessible to attendees of all levels, the intention being to “craft the intersection of virtuoso music making with grassroots musicmaking,” he says. 

Even with Weisenberg at the helm, the experience is intentionally collaborative, drawing on a multiplicity of participants. It goes better when it’s communal, much like Judaism itself. If you’d like to experience the Open Studio Sessions community, sign up here

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