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An Audio History of A Song So Ubiquitous, It Rivals Happy Birthday

SITU Studio and MTWTF designed an exhibition that showcases “Hava Nagila” and its myriad variations.

Located on a shady sliver of land at the tip of Manhattan, the Museum of Jewish Heritage has a quiet, dignified air to it. The mission of the museum, which opened in 1997, is to “educate about the broad tapestry of Jewish life in the 20th and 21st centuries–before, during, and after the Holocaust.” That’s a fairly broad statement, and this fall, it’s being broadened further with a colorful, raucous new exhibition about what might be the most famous Jewish song in history.

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Hava Nagila: A Song For The People traces the history of the infectious melody, which emerged from the Ukraine thanks to the efforts of 20th century musicologists, along its path to becoming a cross-cultural touchstone. Designed and fabricated by Brooklyn architects SITU Studio and their officemates, MTWTF, the show is an unusually clever portrait of a song with a complex history.

“‘Hava Nagila’ is one of those rare cultural artifacts that both grounds a tradition as well as transcends it,” says SITU partner Bradley Samuels. “It jumps beyond ethnicity, race, and continent.” Type “Hava Nagila” into YouTube, and you’ll get a sense of what he means. There are Indian versions, Polish versions, and Texan versions. U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman even set her Olympic floor routine to the song. Of course, there are plenty of Klezmer versions too. Despite its ubiquity today, “Hava Nagila” carries deep cultural meaning. For early Zionists, it was a symbol of the homeland. As a longtime fixture at Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings, it’s embedded with history and memories. Ensconced in a large, eight-sided room at the Museum, the exhibition traces the song along its evolution.


So, how do you design a sound-based exhibit in a single room without it becoming a cacophony? Samuels explains that acoustical engineering was “new territory” for his office, but that a solution quickly emerged in the form of five “sound domes,” each playing a different version of the song. The reflective domes direct noise to specific spots on the museum floor. Though it’s easy to buy sound domes online, SITU decided to fabricate them in their DUMO shop. The final domes were laser cut in aluminum on the studio’s in-house router, then folded into place by hand, allowing the designers to experiment with geometric faceting patterns that give the objects visual depth and texture.

A decidedly low-tech way of dampening sound–carpet–also plays a surprising role in the show. The team originally proposed tiling the room with FLOR carpets to reduce the noise level in the space. But after experimenting with a new type of laser cutter, they realized they could actually engrave images and text into the carpet squares. “In exploring the simple, practical problem of how to simultaneously and coherently play five landmark versions of the song within a single, relatively small space, we began to explore how geometries and materials can focus, reflect, and absorb sound,” adds Samuels. It’s a very cool effect, and a smart way to utilize otherwise wasted space.

For the Museum, Hava Nagila is a step in a new curatorial direction, thanks to its new Director of Collections, Melissa Martens. “From the moment its opening notes are played, the song calls listeners back to a communal place in the imagination,” says the young curator. But despite its broadly accessible content, the show is still grounded in Jewish identity, as it evolves alongside the tune. “It’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, and everyone knows it from Afghanistan to Argentina,” adds filmmaker Roberta Grossman, the director a documentary on the song on view in the gallery. “Yet it remains a profound haiku of Jewish history and identity.”

Hava Nagila runs through March 2013, after which the show will embark on a global tour. All images (c) Keith Sirchio.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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