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An Interrogation of Language: “Radical Jewish Culture” on New York City's Downtown Music Scene


In April 1993 the Knitting Factory, a small nightclub in Lower Manhattan, hosted a five-day music festival titled “Radical New Jewish Culture.” This event was part of a multifaceted creative endeavor undertaken during the 1990s by composer/improvisers on New York City's downtown music scene and dubbed “Radical Jewish Culture” by its main protagonist, saxophonist John Zorn. RJC brought Jewish music and heritage into the purview of a polycultural experimentalist scene shaped by jazz, rock, free improvisation, and avant-garde concert music. Artists downtown also engaged in an animated “conversational community” that spilled over into interviews, program notes, liner notes, and essays. RJC was especially productive as a conceptual framework from which to interrogate the relationship between musical language and the semiotics of sound. Two pieces serve here as case studies: “¡Bnai!” an Israeli “pioneer song” as interpreted by the No Wave band G-d Is My Co-Pilot, and “The Mooche,” a Duke Ellington/Bubber Miley composition as interpreted by pianist Anthony Coleman's Selfhaters Orchestra.

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