Gerald Cohen on Music, Religion, and the Bridge Between

by Molly Sheridan

Westchester Prize-winning composer Gerald Cohen is a cantor at Temple Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, New York, and when I spoke with him, I have to admit that I was most curious about what that means with regard to his music. What it is to be a composer when work and art and religion overlap to such a degree in daily life. If your musical career (or at least part of it) is also your religion, is your religion inextricably tangled up in the music you create?

When I mention this, the 41-year old composer, father, and teacher laughs to himself in a way that signals he has asked himself this question a few times already. He explains with an easy openness, “I’m a cantor and the music that I sing there has it’s way of making it into my being so that everything I do in some way reflects that, but at the same time I’m as much influenced by the western classical tradition. The cantorial side and the Jewish side are very important to me, but then things like Beethoven or Mahler or Copland are also vital to my thinking.

“In a way what I’m trying to do is have that all come together, perhaps not completely consciously, but just that those are also different sides of me which I want to project into whatever I’m writing.”

The piece he will write for his Westchester commission will likely reflect that balance. In collaboration with the Canticorum Virtuosi, Inc./ New York Virtuosi Singers and their music director Harold Rosenbaum, Cohen will write a piece exploring the importance of elders, wisdom, the role of aging within a community, and relationships between generations—a subject that has long interested him from observation of both his synagogue’s congregation and of his Westchester community.

Though the texts for the piece have not yet been selected, he does expect to draw somewhat from the Jewish tradition “because that’s where I’m most centered, but I’m very interested, in this piece, in looking at different traditions. Maybe other religions, maybe just poetry and texts of various cultures, because I think lots of cultures have interesting things to say on this idea—both things which are common to all cultures and things which are perhaps unique to particular cultures.”

But a piece of this composition is also seated in his personal experience and memories of his first voice teacher. “I started with her when I was 8 and she was 85 and worked with her until she was 93,” he recalls. The experience not only set him on his musical path but also taught him a lot about a life. “Just seeing how things get passed from one generation to another, especially from someone who’s lived a very long life already.”

From those formative lessons, Cohen went on to received a B.A. in music from Yale University in 1982, and began his career as a cantor while pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University, where he received a D.M.A. in composition, with distinction, in 1993. His principal composition teachers included Jack Beeson, Mario Davidovsky, George Edwards, and Andrew Thomas; his cantorial studies were with Jacob Mendelson. These days, in addition to time spent composing and fulfilling his cantorial duties, he is also assistant professor of music at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Though he’s trying to stay clear of being pigeonholed as a “religious” composer, he admits that, as it happens, his current projects include a number of religious choral pieces. That’s partly due to the Faith Partners program he is participating in through the American Composers Forum, which connects religious institutions with a composer-in-residence. Cohen and Charlie Griffin will partner with Congregation Emanu-El, St. Bartholomew’s, and Saint Ignatius Loyola in New York. “This is the first time I’m going to be writing music specifically for a church setting, so I’m very interested in that—being who I am as a Jewish composer but still expanding to be able to write music of different faiths and cultures.”

As a Jewish composer, though, writing Christian music seems like it would be a conflict of interests on a number of levels, but Cohen seems to find a kind of inspiration in the challenge of it. “I’d say it’s important to find text and ideas where we can all feel very comfortable with it. And I think it’s something that, as I do it, I’ll sort of be learning more about what is most comfortable for me. I certainly have a very strong leaning toward having people of all different faiths feel comfortable with each other and be able to talk to each other and really understand each other. Tolerance is a beginning, but to then go far beyond that and to really have great respect for each other’s traditions. “I think music can be a great bridge in doing that while at the same time remaining true to your own traditions. It’s always interesting to figure out how to make that work.”

His current projects also include his first opera based on a story from the book of Genesis, “which does seem to also be on a religious topic,” he acknowledges, chuckling. But Cohen again reiterates that he does not feel his music is confined by the bounds of his religion. Referencing his CD of chamber music, Generations, released on the CRI label in 1999, he explains, “What’s on that CD in terms of the trio and the string quartet, those are pieces that are very close to my heart. I love writing chamber and orchestral music very much and I love writing music that is based on the Jewish tradition, but I don’t want to be thought of only as a Jewish composer, I want to be thought of as a composer. I have different sides and I love doing them all.”

So why be a composer, Jewish or otherwise? “I guess it’s just one of those things that once you get the bug, you’ve just got to do it,” Cohen says. “For me writing music—both the process of writing it and then the process of working with performers and making the piece come to life—is for me one of the greatest things. It combines sort of emotional and intellectual and sort of spiritual leaning all at once. It’s a wonderful craft that you can keep on working on all your life but at the same time it’s sort of a mysterious thing how pieces emerge, so it’s just for me a very fascinating thing.”