Giving Voice to Hagar

Just before launching into the world premiere of her gorgeous new song “The Arrow and the Bow,” commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in connection with its exhibition Jacques Lipchitz: Hagar in the Desert, musician Alicia Jo Rabins invoked the young inter-disciplinary muse Miranda July: “Limitations are where art begins.”

In the case of Rabins’ song about Hagar, as well as the musical commentaries on biblical women from her band’s albums Girls in Trouble (2009) and Half You Half Me (2011), our limited access to the inner lives of these ancient women creates an artistic opportunity to radically re-imagine their psyches without departing from the confines of the texts. There is a name for this bounded creativity within Jewish tradition, and it’s called midrash–a strategy employed by ancient rabbinic commentaries desperate to understand the ambiguities of characters and events in the Bible. Contemporary midrash, looser and broader than its rabbinical model, has been energized by women inspired to reclaim the agency and contributions of biblical heroines, some of whom are almost unknown today. Rabins pushes the practice even further by couching her interpretive poetry in the musical language of pop, rock, punk and country.

After the CJM concert on November 17, 2011, Rabins joked that when she played at underground rock clubs, creating hypnotic violin and vocal loops in echo-y basements, no one cared about the words. And when she played at Jewish institutions, where the biblically-inspired lyrics were the main event, few asked about the melodies. Hopefully CJM listeners will come to Rabins’ work appreciating her genius for both.

Listen to this CJM interview with Alicia Jo Rabins.


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