Dances of Atonement began its existence as an occasional piece. In 1976, in response to a request for instrumental music suitable for a television program devoted to Yom Kippur featuring violinist Joseph Silverstein, then concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I was unable to come up with any suggestions. In the absence of any available literature, the notion to create an appropriate music sprang to mind and I set to work at once. My first thought was to base a piece on the familiar Kol Nidre chant utilized by the nineteenth-century composer Max Bruch and unmistakably identified with Yom Kippur. But the very familiarity of this chant made it difficult to work with; every variation, every distortion abused rather than enhanced the original, and I felt myself trapped by the association.
I sought a solution by searching for material elsewhere and found an unfamiliar Kol Nidre in a collection of the music of the Jews of Morocco. From the style of the chant I inferred it to be of great antiquity. Its very remoteness stimulated my imagination. In a short time the piece was completed and first performed on Boston television Channel 5 by Silverstein and myself. But the piece was not complete. The vitality of the material seemed to enjoy an unsolicited life in my imagination and the Kol Nidre continued to expand, to elaborate, to transform. An additional group of themes, also from traditional chants reserved for Yom Kippur demanded a hearing as well. So while Kol Nidre expanded, a new movement, V'hakohanim —“and the priests entered”—was begun. Both movements were completed in November 1976 and Dances of Atonement received its first performance in New York shortly thereafter. Like much of my work, Dances of Atonement seeks to transform simple, even commonplace material into abstract, mystical, or otherwise unforeseen states of being.
1. Kol Nidre