ponedjeljak, 29. srpnja 2013.

Zahava Seewald & Michaël Grébil - From My Mother’s House (2013)




Following up on their 2005 Tzadik release Scorched Lips, Zahava Seewald Michaël Grébil have delivered a new collaboration, exploring more intimate spaces. From my Mother's House is haunted from within by a sustained breath that unfolds through Jewish poetry. This work can be experienced like a novel, a piece of prose, a Hörspiel... an introspective form of cinema for the ear.
The music unfolds in layers, like entangled photographic impressions. Field recordings, poems, film quotes, instrumental music, document archives, and concrete sounds are conjured up in a disorganized fashion, on a single plane of existence. Each element contributes to the whole, with the same basic intention: all these worlds coincide and exist in a single space, forming what could be called a sonic Menschmozaik.
Images emerge and intermingle to form deeper, more complex pictures, through a series of associations. And this flow of conscience carries a dialogue where the voice of the living answers the voice of the dead, sonic matter being their point of contact, a ferryman, an intimate landscape; a gleaner harvesting layers of memories buried in the past along with still-fresh layers deposited by the present. Sound becomes a receptacle for the word, and the voice becomes the contemplator of the landscape getting sketched.
Then, base lines get drawn, like so many themes developed by the poetry: the long thread of generations unfolding, parentage, the dialogue between a mother and her daughter, the daily life, the trite, the terrible, death, barbarism, beauty, innocence, the mother tongue.
Sehnsucht...- www.subrosa.net/

There is nothing quite as perplexing as immersion in an unfamiliar language, particularly when it encroaches on personal space, reaches into daily routine, and tampers with that proverbial “furniture of the mind.” When the language diverges, cracks, and splits into another, spiraling across families and dialects, one’s immediate reaction is to try to connect the dots. But because of its diversity and the inextricable patterns formed within, such measures become increasingly tricky to untangle throughout Zahava Seewald and Michaël Grébil’s spectacular new album, From My Mother’s House — that is, unless you are fortunate enough to be sufficiently versed in Hebrew, French, Yiddish, German, and English.

In collaboration with a host of artists and composers loosely affiliated with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, as well as Seewald’s own Zohara project, comes a record that revisits a fascination for Jewish history, familial analysis, and experimental composition. From the tragic memoirs of Aushwitz prisoner Charlotte Delbo to the Hebrew poetry of Leah Goldberg and the Greek Orthodox writing of Constantine P. Cavafy, From My Mother’s House approaches the artistic passion of an individual through a unique historical tapestry. Intrusion is due in most part to the mesmerizing aesthetic qualities that permeate through each piece; for once the album’s layout has been familiarized — with its blurred picture postcards, crumpled memos, distorted 35mm microfilm, and Semitic graffiti — it’s difficult to let go. Every song is a scene, a poem, or a dialogue, swirling unassumingly in and out of its own fractured narrative.
This makes for an extremely voyeuristic listen. It not only feels like you are peering in and looking at a stranger’s sonic scrapbook, but also feels as though you have broken into an artist’s home, dressed yourself in their clothes, and spent the afternoon swanning about their pantry, gawping at all they hold dear. Make no mistake, this is a private collection, a discrete and humble assembly of aural components that discloses secrets about family, friendship, and strife within a marginalized demographic, along with the seaside vacations that come with it.
Clearly, then, from the perspective of someone unacquainted with the languages at hand, the listening experience can also feel isolating and obscure. As a native speaker of English, emphasis is unconsciously placed on the tracks that expose content in that language (“Radiant Core” and “Who Can Look At The Beauty Of An Ocean”). The first of these pieces builds on layers of industrial drone, which lean on slipped and repeated vocal sketches to penetrating effect; the second follows sampled family conversations, braiding echoic voices with traditional folk music and a wonderful piano sonata. Both pieces sit comfortably in the context of the album, despite the distinctive linguistic elements they embody and the harrowing nature of their subject matter, which says a great deal about their surroundings.
Not only are those two tracks representative of the gripping nature of this release, but they also put a twist on the way that phrases are heard as aural fragments, and of language in general terms, which in this case can be heard as both a means of communicating messages and an aesthetic construct within the sound of, say, a sentence. The flip side to that perspective is nestled in the importance of the vocabulary being uttered, regardless of whether it’s understood. The text from “Who Can Look” is presented on the back of the album cover; it’s a beautiful and reproachful poem that debunks the notion of words as mere artistic fragments. No, these are feelings, tender and full of sensibility, painted somewhere inside a sonic soundscape of hashed radio frequencies and thumping disco snippets:
Who can look a the beauty of an ocean?
Who can look into the light of your eyes?
And not feel his heart torn from joy.
And not feel his heart torn from sorrow -
you, my restlessness. You.

Why do I long for you? Oh, tell me.
Not a single night goes by, a single day,
when I don’t think of you, dream of you,
of you, you my life, you the heart of me -
you, my restlessness. You.

When Seewald speaks those words, a heartfelt reading of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, her voice is cut with the contorted phrases of a child and some distant piano keys. Yet despite such casual interjections, that voice is still incredibly affecting; she lifts each syllable off the page with an astounding delivery that demonstrates the incredible spectrum of her talent — this particular track is embedded in the album’s later half, after delightful demonstrations in both opera and traditional folk.
Diversity has always been one of the most enchanting traits of Seewald’s vocals, which were perhaps most famously optimized by Zorn for the third edition of his Masada project. On From My Mother’s House, she enters the album with a strained purr on “Fadensonnen/Entre ciel et ici.” Her lyrics creep into some distorted transmission of musique concrète, French dialogue, and tape hiss, illuminating the artist’s presence, which is felt from that moment on, a tantalizing specter shaping the very memories and personal stories so gracefully explored here.
Meanwhile, the sonic world around that voice writhes, twists, and crumbles, a consequence of the scuffed samples and the lo-fi aesthetic lens through which they are framed. On “Contrechamp I,” the sound of waves crashing against a shoreline collides with high-pitched choral blasts and background discussion, which then plays into the unrestricted, static, seizure-introducing “Soleils Noirs - Rentrer.” The track opens out into Grébil’s chamber violin fragments and disconnected conversations: a woman singing in some sepia setting; a smoke-filled café on a cobbled street, drenched with the morning summer air. As each vignette unfolds, they transform the multilingual poems and melodies that accompany them; each recital takes on the role of a spiraling narrative that is unknowable outside of the dimension in which it was created, but that nevertheless remains fascinating to witness.
For over 20 years, Seewald has been tapping into the most personal confines of her heritage and cultural intrigue, but never has the presentation of her findings felt as enthralling as it does here. Not to sell Grébil short — for he offers an often jarring assortment of string accompaniments and piano sequences that beautifully unravel his curiosity in Medieval instrumentation and experimental practices (see “Antiphona” and “Concentrechamp II,” in particular) — but this is truly Seewald’s domain, and she occupies it with the most sincere intent. Sub Rosa describe the album’s sound as “haunted,” but I don’t find it to be that exactly; I hear trust. The listener is placed in a situation that unveils the deepest secrets and stories, no matter how widespread they might otherwise be, and reframes them in a new, compelling context. All that prevails for these artifacts is for them to be nurtured anew, with each and every spellbinding listen. - Birkut     

Opening up with a set of field recordings isn’t the ideal way to grab my attention, unless of course it’s going to lead to something spectacular.  For the first two tracks, this was the staple output and it set things off in a bad light.
However, things are turned on their head come track three, ‘Kristall’.  Female vocals, part sung, part spoken, harmoniously counteract each other over a light ambient drone and is such an oddity that it’s hard not to become engrossed in the story they’re telling (even if I couldn’t understand every word they were saying).
‘From My Mother’s House’ doesn’t contain that many actual songs if truth-be-told.  These are scattered throughout the album with clusters of mini tracks created with various natural ambient manipulations in-between.  It’s effective in its own way, proving a plethora of audio infused visuals reminiscent to the direct opposite of a silent foreign movie, where the footage has been replaced with sound alone.
There is a complexity to this release that shouldn’t be taken at face value; it would be all too easy to cast this aside and ask just what the hell is going on.  Given some time to bed in, this is altogether an interesting album, occasionally letting its hair down and providing some glorious vocal talents to make their way to front of house. - blackaudio.wordpress.com/

Forgive me this one.
1. A thought I once had about Camp Lo's Uptown Saturday Night (1997) and The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, two albums that at first would seem to have nothing in common, was that they both work like echolocation. They are albums made up of sounds that produce, or perhaps more accurately reveal, spaces. When I listen to “Sparkle (Mr. Midnight Mix),” Uptown Saturday Night's somnolent closer, an empty club is unearthed before me, each muted bass note boring deeper into its terrain, producing more information with every rhythmic cycle. With An Empty Bliss, the means are the same, the end result slightly tweaked; the prewar jazz which Leyland Kirby samples brings to mind and eye the now-abandoned ballrooms in which people surely once danced to that very same music. From My Mother's House, the brilliant new album from Belgian musicians Zahava Seewald and Michael Grebil, works in very much the same way.
2. Michael Grebil's name has been defaced by formatting limitations on this here website; there is a diaeresis over the “e” in “Michael” and an acute accent over the “e” in “Grebil”. I cannot help but think this holds some significance, especially when discussing an album that not only speaks (by someone else's count, not mine) five different languages but also interrogates the barrier these different languages construct between us. Or at least that's what I think it does; From My Mother's House goes so far as to obfuscate even this, constructing yet another barrier. It is in this environment that the name strikes me as pertinent. “Michael Grebil” is spelled differently and pronounced differently than the man's real name; they are two separate entities. How are we to approach with any honesty a multilingual work of art like this when we can't even get the name of one of its creators right?
3. From My Mother's House is most accurately described as a “sound collage,” I suppose. It contains excerpts of spoken poetry, ambient music, recordings of the surf, traditional Jewish music, and even at one point what seems to be dance music from the 1980s. These disparate genres are not arranged in discrete units but instead tend to overlap in revelatory ways. On “Herbst, Sagst Du,” a distant loop of piano and vocals gives way to three people's voices, now more intimate and close, heard simultaneously: a young boy speaking French, an older woman speaking in what seems to be labored, heavily accented English, and another young person humming Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe”. The joke here is that there is no joke, that this stripped-down rendition of “Call Me Maybe” is observed with the same solemn respect as the Moyshe-Leyb Halpern poem featured two songs later.
4. Could anyone--could you or I--make an album like this? I remember a few years ago recording a track called “Around the House” (named after a Herbert album I still have not listened to), holding up my Zoom H2 microphone to my dog's barks, the bathroom faucet running, a news story on TV about the closing of a restaurant. Listening to From My Mother's House, I wonder how much of it was recorded and edited casually, how much of it arose simply because someone left their microphone on. I think about that disdainful assessment I've heard many a time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: “I could do that.” And indeed, there's not much on this album that's out of my technical reach, no Hendrix-like displays of dexterity or formal skill. But I could not do this, and neither could you. This album is inextricably tied to the heritages and personal experiences of the artists behind it. Zahava Seewald is Jewish and was born in Antwerp. Michael Grebil's personal history is a little harder to discern from his website's cryptic biography--“moving on the edge between several sonic & poetic universes,” is he--but the album nonetheless makes manifest both their interests, Grebil's in ancient music and improvisation, Seewald's in Jewish identity and history. They are the only two people who could have made this album, and because of that, From My Mother's House acts as an exploration not only of space but also of people. By album's end, I feel like I know these two, even if I'm not sure how to pronounce their names.

5. If you're thinking “isn't this review sort of dancing around its subject?”, I agree and here's this for consolation: From My Mother's House is an incredibly beautiful and evocative work, my favorite album of the year thus far. “Antiphonia / Niemand (Psalm),” ostensibly Grebil's composition, is achingly beautiful, lent weight by the spoken word strewn over it and the rest of the album. “Soleis Noirs / Rentrer,” the track before it, is a masterpiece of musique concrete, gathering its dissimilar elements (French speaking, industrial noises, pinging piano, forlorn strings) into one beautiful landscape. This syncretism has been duly noted by the album's small audience, but often packaged with its apparent complement in “voyeurism”: this is their story, and we're just watching it unfold. This, I think, does the album a disservice; the real magic lies in how these two can make their story ours. We could not have made this album, but we can certainly participate and find solace in its storytelling, even when we don't explicitly “understand” what is being presented to us. Perhaps, then, the goal of this album is not to knock down linguistic and cultural barriers, but to show they were never really there in the first place. That such a lofty objective is achieved through seemingly random means--that the appeal of this album is almost democratic in “you could do this, too!” approach--makes it all the more beguiling and compulsively listenable. When all is said and done, this wonderful release's position in my year-end list may end up slumping a little (Drake and his Nothing Was the Same will surely give it a run for its money). For now, however, it's hard to imagine the release of a more redemptive and inspiring work of art--in any medium--than this wonderful, inscrutable thing. - Alex Robertson

Scorched Lips (2005)


One of the more overtly cultural/religious releases on John Zorn's self-described "Jewish music" label Tzadik, Zohara's Scorched Lips is a work of beauty and strangeness. One point of comparison is Diamanda Galás' Masque of the Red Death trilogy in its mix of the devotional and the carnal, but this is a far less confrontational and deliberately unsettling project. Singer Zahava Seewald has as huge and expressive vocal instrument as Galás, and as eclectic a set of influences; on "Then My Soul Cried Out," Seewald spits out syllables in a style reminiscent of Cathy Berberian's work with Luciano Berio, but on the very next track, "From Day to Night," her vocal melody sounds like it could have come from an old Yiddish folk song. Seewald's texts are taken from Hebrew poetry, both centuries old and contemporary, and they're sung against a similarly wide-ranging group of settings that combine folk, free jazz, ambient electronica, and experimental noise in ever-shifting proportions. Equally capable of passages of haunting beauty and violent aggression, Scorched Lips is a surprisingly easy album for even a casual listener to get his or her head around. - Stewart Mason   

On Charming Hostess's new recording, "Sarajevo Blues," a capella girl-group harmonies blend with hip-hop beat-box techniques and Bosnian war poetry. Zohara's new album, "Scorched Lips," finds common ground among ancient Hebrew love poetry, the Turkish oud and contemporary space music. Koby Israelite's "Mood Swings" is a dizzying blend of ersatz klezmer, blues and New Orleans marching-band funk. And John Zorn's latest work, "Filmworks XV: Protocols of Zion," is an eloquently personal protest against the resurgence of worldwide antisemitism in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, built on the acid-jazz stylings of jam-band Medeski, Martin and Wood.
What all four of these seemingly unrelated CDs have in common — besides the fact that they're all on Zorn's record label, Tzadik (really the only permanent home to creative new Jewish music) — is a dizzying cosmopolitanism, an engagement with contemporary culture and politics, and indisputably Jewish outlooks and melodies, characteristics that distinguish these new recordings in a fertile environment rich with possibilities.
More than that, these recordings speak to each other and to the modern, engaged listener in a language quintessentially of our time, with a multiplicity of voices suited to the reality of a global village — a village to which a several-thousand-year-old Diaspora culture and the distinctive outlook it has produced are uniquely suited to confront.
They are also, for the most part, recordings of new music inspired by texts — very much in the Jewish tradition of midrash — layering commentaries upon stories, and stories upon commentaries, both lyrically and musically. Thus, for example, Zohara's "Scorched Lips" takes as its leaping-off point vocalist Zahava Seewald's rendition of "Re'eh shemesh" ("See the Sun"), an 11th-century Hebrew poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol, which begins as a sinuous, Middle Eastern folk melody propelled by Seewald's soprano before opening up into a Casablanca-fried jazz jam, with Jean-Jacques Durinckx's saxophone blowing cantorially over Michael Grebil's multilayered oud playing. Seewald surrounds this centerpiece with other renditions of Hebrew poetry, ancient and modern, including more dreamy, experimental tone poems like "Al Tirah Yaldi" ("Don't Be Frightened") and "Miyom Lelaylah" ("From Day to Night"), which seemingly float above celestial, electroacoustic arrangements that evoke a haunting timelessness.
Likewise, on "Sarajevo Blues," Jewlia Eisenberg builds an entire song cycle around the writings of Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, whom Eisenberg met in a Bay Area bar in 2002. Mehmedinovic's moving poems and stories of life during wartime — which Eisenberg sets to original music that occasionally recalls the Bulgarian women's choirs that were all the rage about a decade ago — focus on the gray area where world news and personal lives intersect. Much as she did on her previous effort — the intoxicating, intellectually provocative "Trilectic," based on the love correspondence between Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis — Eisenberg finds pop melodies hidden inside poetic meters, and releases them in explosive bursts of female voices and harmonies courtesy of fellow singers Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor. The end result, in a song like "Death is a Job," is as catchy and virtuosic as Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." It even boasts a catchy, lyrical hook: "I'm not even sure who to hate/ The sniper or the monkey with a Nikon." Were the song not about avoiding a sniper's bullet in downtown Sarajevo, it could even be a radio hit.
Zorn himself gets into the act with his "Protocols of Zion." Ostensibly a soundtrack for a documentary by Marc Levin about the notorious antisemitic forgery that has once again gained purchase among those open to believing in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, the work captures Zorn, whose main instrument is saxophone, in a rare moment behind the keyboards, improvising with a trio including Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass and oud and Cyro Baptista on percussion. Having already spent much of the last decade and a half composing literally hundreds of new tunes based in Yiddish modes, the unique scales that organize and distinguish Jewish melodies, Yiddish modes with his Masada project, Zorn veritably breathes in a Jewish manner. His keyboard improvisations, alternately pensive and bubblingly propulsive, sing in a key familiar to any frequent synagogue-goer, although having gone far beyond basic klezmer, part of the tension inherent in Zorn's work here, such as "Mystery of the Jew," is how his music resists the temptation to break out into a freylekh or a niggun, on instrumental numbers with provocative titles like "Fighting Time," "Jew Watcher" and "History Repeats Itself."
It's not surprising that these disparate artists share much in their approaches. All but Zorn, a native New Yorker who still calls the Big Apple home, are uprooted from their homelands — Seewald and Israelite are expatriate Israelis living in Europe, and the well-traveled Eisenberg has traded her native Brooklyn for San Francisco. Their global wanderings and pan-cultural experiences give them an inordinately broad perspective, and the musical canvas on which they paint is suitably multi-hued.
What's most striking about their work, however, is the manner in which they draw from a palette that is part and parcel of the global village — call it the global shtetl — while creating works that are totally focused and coherent. This is due in part to the imprint of highly individual, stylized artists. Seewald boasts a crystalline voice that would probably be as suited to singing medieval chant or plainsong as it is to avant-garde Hebrew poetry; Eisenberg is the unique product of a Brooklyn upbringing, raised in an interracial urban commune, and all that implies musically; Israelite is a musical postmodernist, a multi-instrumental collagist filtering 21st-century sounds through a Jewish prism.
Zorn himself boasts an entire career as an avant-jazz saxophonist, bandleader and composer predating his overtly Jewish work, but what's most striking about his latest music is its generosity and how effectively it absorbs and reflects the influences of those whose music he has curated for the last decade as the overseer of the Radical Jewish Culture series on his Tzadik label — people like trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Greg Wall and Basya Schechter of Pharaoh's Daughter, whose recent solo album, "Queen's Dominion," explores territory equally intriguing and pan-global, albeit from a solidly Jewish point of view.
That is to say, among all these Jewish musicians and composers, most of whom are well under 50, there is a vibrant, vital and ongoing musical and ideological conversation. It's a conversation that gathers up the various strains of diaspora Jewish language and tradition — a veritable Babel unto itself, including Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrahic traditions, among others — and rewrites them with a new grammar and vocabulary that is distinctively modern, aware of the sounds going on all around them, yet one that speaks with a clear Jewish accent transcending that transcends time and space. In the end, this new, radical Jewish music does the conservative work of unifying a world and a history of disparate Jewish traditions. - Seth Rogovoy 

Zahava Seewald:

Year Album Label AllMusic Rating User Ratings

Ashkenaz Songs
1995 Ashkenaz Songs Sub Rosa

Abi Gezint
1999 Abi Gezint album review Tzadik Records

Koved: A Tribute to Martin Weinberg
2003 Koved: A Tribute to Martin Weinberg Tzadik Records

Unknown Masada
2003 Unknown Masada album review Tzadik Records

Ashkenaz Songs, Vol. 2: Work & Revolution
2004 Ashkenaz Songs, Vol. 2: Work & Revolution Sub Rosa

From My Mother's House
From My Mother's House Sub Rosa

Zahava Seewald & Psamim, Koved: A tribute to Martin Weinberg

an accordion and music onstage, a touching tribute to Martin Weinberg
Zahava Seewald & Psamim
Koved: A tribute to Martin Weinberg
Tzadik Radical Jewish Music, TZ7177, 2003
Web: www.tzadik.com

I'm not quite sure how to categorize Zahava Seewald. She has a lovely, trained voice, and has been singing Jewish music, primarily Sephardic and Ashkenazic folk music, for many years. I first heard her in a duo called "Mosaic" in the early '90s showing an awareness that Jewish folk extended farther than Eastern Europe that was far ahead of its time—at least, to an American audience. In Belgium, just south of the Netherlands, where refugees from Spain and Portugal found homes for centuries after 1492, that might be less of a stretch.
Seewald's arrangements take folk songs and bring them into art song or cabaret. The result is less "Radical Jewish Music" (despite being on Zorn's label of same name) but rather music that has more in common with the work of Adrienne Cooper or Mariejan von Oort. She is in good company. And as evidenced here, deserves to be better known. The accompanying band, Psamim, does an excellent job of shifting moods and accompanying her voice, whether it be the Judeo-Spanish stylings of "De edad de quinze años" or "Skrip klezmerl, skrip" from Eastern Europe; a wonderfully diva-ish "Had Gadya" (an especially delicious vocal pun when one considers that "Had Gadya" was apparently written only a few centuries ago in Eastern Europe, in Aramaic to give it "age" authenticity, and is here given a more "Sephardic" treatment, a double anachronism, as had the song been in written when Aramaic was current, it would have been set to music that was centuries earlier to "pre-Sephardic" traditions) or the stunning, pull out all the stops beauty of "Vetaher Libeynu" (purify our hearts) from the Sabbath service. The band's ability to soar on it's own is also notable, as in the instrumental "Hora" or "Roumanian Bulgar" which shows how complete is Estelle Goldfarb's mastery of the violin.
This program is also a tribute to Martin Weinberg, who worked with Seewald for several years and passed away in 2001. If such an affirmation of a man's life, and of good music makes Seewald better known, that, too, would be koved, a good tribute.

Zahava Seewald: Interview
“I think language is very important because when you speak, you enter into a different world, and this influences everything that happens around you.”


Zahava Seewald has contributed substantially to the exploration and excavation of Jewish poetry, music, and art over the past 20 years. As a child growing up in Israel, she learned how to make distinctions that extended beyond the boundaries of vocabulary and grammar within the languages she speaks. They are used in her recordings, and they include French, as her mother tongue; Yiddish, as a language seated in the Orthodox tradition; and Hebrew, which is associated with “the brighter light” of her childhood.
Through combining her presentation of heritage as a curator with her love of poetry and the arts, Seewald’s music has taken on a most exquisite design. On last year’s extraordinary From My Mother’s House, she worked with regular collaborator and composer Michael Grébil to craft one of the most inspiring, personal, and experimental albums of her career.
TMT spoke with Zahava over the phone from her desk at the Jewish Museum of Belgium about the role of poetry, language, and field recordings in her work.

I know that you have worked a great deal with John Zorn through his Tzadik imprint. From what I gather, it differs substantially from the last album you release for Sub Rosa.
Yes, that’s right. For Tzadik we released Scorched Lips as Zohara, then I worked on a series with Sasha Argov, and then there was The Unknown Masada, which was for John’s 50th birthday celebration. From My Mother’s House was really different; Michael and I like to explore things a bit differently. He is also somebody who knows lots about music… He likes to explore every possibility with sound. So it was nice to work together on this very personal album, which is very dark — we know it’s very dark — and it’s quite sorrowful. But here in Belgium, world music is usually very happy music, and we don’t like this concept of… We are just not in that space.
But this wasn’t the first time you had worked with Michael Grébil, was it?
No, we worked together on the Zohara project, and then we also worked together on some traditional music. He has also worked with Jordi Savall, so he can play some really interesting instruments in the Judo-Spanish tradition.
His arrangements on From My Mother’s House are incredible, but I wanted to start by asking you a very surface-level question about the album. It’s striking as to the number of languages you have on there. I’m interested to know how many languages you speak and how that impacts your creative process.
Well the only language that isn’t on the CD that I do speak is Dutch. I didn’t use that language, not because I don’t like it — I like all languages very much, even the ones I don’t speak — but we just didn’t get to Dutch. Next time there will also be Dutch. But yes, I speak all of the languages I use (Yiddish, Hebrew, German, French, and English). I don’t speak them all very well, but I speak them.
When you are writing or you are composing a piece, how do your thought processes alter depending on what language you are working with at the time?
I think language is very important because when you speak, you enter into a different world, and this influences everything that happens around you. It also influences the voice you use to express it and so I think these things are linked, but we don’t think about it consciously. Michael and I worked in a very intuitive way, we just let it happen whenever we had the inspiration. We didn’t work with a plan beforehand about what languages we were using, we just thought about how it sounded as it happened. So the recordings were not planned and written like modern composers are used to doing. It was the function of the day, along with the mood and the inspiration.
I’m interested in how these different compositional ideas work through the languages. So even when you were communicating with each other, you must have been speaking in different languages. Did you find that affected the results of your work?
Your question is very interesting. I should listen to the CD again to maybe [analyze] these things. Michael, of course speaks English and he understands German, but he doesn’t speak Hebrew and he doesn’t speak Yiddish. He doesn’t understand those languages but I think he is very sensitive to the sound — so I can’t really explain what happened in terms of the creative process from that respect.
The feedback I’ve received from people who have enjoyed the album has been that knowledge of the languages you use are not essential, and I would agree with that. What were your intentions for your audience when you were recording in those languages?
I think some people get into it. Even if they don’t understand, and some people don’t get into it because they don’t understand, or they don’t feel the link between all those small pieces and all those references. I don’t know how to answer that because for me, even if I listen to somebody speaking or somebody doing a spoken-word project in a language I don’t understand, I’m fascinated. Because even if you miss something, the sound is so interesting. It depends on the sensitivity of each person, and this is very personal and subjective. I suppose that you don’t understand Yiddish or Hebrew, or maybe you don’t understand German but maybe you felt something or you perceived something that is beyond understanding, and this is important. Of course, not everybody thinks it’s interesting, but it’s not only about reaching the biggest audiences so instead, let’s do the things we like and that we believe are true — because this is the most important.
That makes perfect sense. I don’t speak any of the languages you use on the album there…
…Except for English, yes?
I think language is very important because when you speak, you enter into a different world and this influences everything that happens around you.
… With the exception of English. But that’s what drew me into the music, because it’s fascinating to listen to these poems, even without that understanding. It’s possible to appreciate the sound, the phonetics of the words you are speaking and the interplay that exists within the compositions.
That’s right, and I also think that when you speak another language or when you sing another language, you enter another space. It’s like you are another person, and this is very interesting. I don’t have the same feeling when I sing, it’s really when I am talking or when I am doing a spoken-word project that I enter into another realm each time. I’m in another language. So this is fascinating for me. Even when you speak another language your face is different, and the mouth is different and the sound is different because you move other muscles in your face to pronounce something and so you enter in another dimension, you enter other physical references. I think linguists speak about it more eloquently.
How many of those languages would you say are ‘other’? Perhaps not necessarily languages that you learned from a young age?
Well, English. When I speak English I enter into another world because it’s not a language I heard at home. That’s not the case with Hebrew and Yiddish, which I’ve known since my childhood, but even the Yiddish is linked to another world because it’s linked to the world of Orthodox Jews. It’s a little world, it’s a very closed world, so for me, when I speak Yiddish that’s where I am transported to. When we are dealing with poetry, though, that is very different again, because then you are outside the ghetto world, you are outside the very religious world where poetry has no place, at least not this kind of poetry. This poetry has been written by people who are not religious. But the language has a link with this Orthodox, very religious world which I don’t especially, I wouldn’t say that I don’t like it, but I don’t belong anymore to that and I don’t want to belong to that — but the language stays… So I’m a little bit ambiguous when I’m in this Yiddish zone, but when I speak the language or when I’m busy with poetry, I think even if I know those languages since my childhood, I think I enter another dimension. And with Hebrew also, because I lived in Israel when I was very young and all of my memories about my childhood are linked to Israel. So when I speak Hebrew, it’s tied to those things, which are very personal of course, they are part of a Jewish modern world and another culture. French, on the other hand, is my mother tongue. So French is me.
When you choose to read a poem for a recording, do you find that you will read in the language it was written in, or will you translate it?
Some of the poems are translated because I liked the French translations a lot. For instance, I discovered Rose Ausländer in a book about Pina Bausch, a dancer, and I loved her poetry very much. I found some books with German and French translations of these poems and I liked them both. And, as my daughter is also in this project, I asked her to take part in this exercise. So I use her voice for the French translation and she also tried to speak some English. I used her way to pronounce the English in fact because she can’t speak that language, and this makes it interesting when you are trying to pronounce and read, you try to get closer to the sound and it has interesting results.
What effect did this translation exercise have on your appreciation of the poetry?
Well, different languages have different colors. So yes, I think it has an effect. I think that the poems are brighter in French than in German.

The music you are making is often said to fit under the term ‘Jewish Music,’ which seems like a broad term to me…
… Of course it is, but why not use that term? Yes, we can say it. Because I’m Jewish, because being Jewish is important, because Jewish culture is interesting and because I like to deal with that as an integral part of my world.
It just seems like a very encompassing term. I mean, depending on where the music was written and how it was performed, there are so many different types of Jewish aren’t there? The subjects that you embrace on From My Mother’s House relate to being Jewish, but it certainly doesn’t sound like music that comes from that tradition.
I would say that From My Mother’s House is the most personal project that I have done. I would say that it’s an experimental project around poetry, with links to the Jewish world and links with personal experiences, and that’s it. I would not put it in a box of “Jewish Music,” but if somebody wants to call it that, then why not? Jewish music is very broad. One hundred years ago somebody said that Jewish music is made by Jews for Jews but I don’t think it’s so restrictive — I would be broader in that case. I think that if it’s dealing with the Jewish subject it could be Jewish. If the authors are Jewish, then the work could also be Jewish — I have no problem with this.
What about the poetry you were using specifically for this project, how did you go about selecting it?
Well, Abraham Sutzkever is a great Jewish poet, so I was familiar with his work and I wanted to include some of that. I also discovered a book that was made up of Yidish poetry translated by an American author. I loved the translation in English and I loved all of the authors he chose, and so I found a Sutzkever poem from that book. That book also included poems by Rose Ausländer — I came across those by reading the book I mentioned about Pina Bausch. Then there is also Celan of course. Some of the poems I wanted to use are too heavy, so I tried to find perhaps the lighter ones that don’t refer extensively to World War II.
Charlotte Delbo is also included. She’s a fantastic French author who was deported to Auschwitz. I worked on a project about her and I found her style of French to be so, so; how do you say it? In French we say “juste.” The work is like Samuel Beckett writing in French, he simply uses the words that he should, with no adjectives. It’s all very precise, particularly when Delbo talks about her experiences during the war. I adore what she wrote and find her to be one of the finest authors.
Then there is Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet who has no links with the Jewish world, I don’t think. I haven’t discovered any links at least. But I have been to Greece on many occasions and I’m very passionate about it. When I was at school I studied Greek history and ancient Greek, so I love this subject. When I discovered Cavafy, I also came across a narrator who interprets that author vocally, he reads in a very low voice in a poem about the barbarians and it’s so beautiful. I’m currently studying the Greek language, so this is also part of things that were happening when we were making the CD.
In addition to that, I asked some friends for ideas because I enjoy their commentaries about certain books, so I invited them to also share some works. I asked my daughter to contribute and Michael also brought the sound of his house and his children to the recording.
It sounds like you also have personal ties to a lot of this poetry.
Yes, certainly. Leo Goldberg’s Hebrew poetry I discovered by way of a very good book edited in Great Britain. I think it’s called “Hebrew Poetry From the Ancient Times to Today,” and Leo Goldberg is a fantastic poet from Israel, so I wanted to also put something Hebrew and something contemporary and this is the last song on the CD. It’s more lyrical than the rest.
Because the selection is so personal, then, how does it feel to present the work publicly on a label like Sub Rosa?
Well, Sub Rosa is very open to the project. I was happy they said yes, because everybody knows that CDs are very difficult to sell these days and their distribution shows some commitment. So the label is taking a risk, and Sub Rosa is one of the good labels here in Belgium working with very interesting artists, so I’m very happy that they accepted. It’s not my first project on their label, I also worked on a production about traditional Yiddish songs, then about Judo-Spanish songs. I also did something on revolutionary songs from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century in Yiddish. All of these were released on Sub Rosa.
How did you go about finding the right composition or musical accompaniment to the poetry? I guess that is where Michael comes in?
Yes, certainly. He has a lot of ideas and he plays a lot of instruments. He would like to play everything I think. We composed the last song together, for example, but his input was very important on all of the CDs, I think without him this couldn’t have happened. All of the instruments and compositions on From My Mother’s House were written by him.
Did he find that an easy way of working, by creating compositions to preselected poetry?
Well it wasn’t easy for either of us, because we worked once a week on this project and it took one year to do it. It took a lot of time and we were not inspired every week, but it was not difficult for him to love those poems or to appreciate them. What was difficult however, was to find something on each of these specific, personal projections that suits our mood — I think that was the hard part, that the CD would not just be a long sad song, but it would have something that was a little bit different within the varying atmospheres.
You also decided to record the field recordings.
Yes, he made some field recordings and I made some as well. I made recordings with a very small, nonprofessional recorder, and he used a very good recorder, and we tried to mix those very different sounds.
So what was your process for recording them?
When I was tired, during the night, I read poems out loud and I tried different things. I was trying to record the environment as well as my own voice, or record certain atmospheric noises or even the sea. Michael also took his recorder with him everywhere — there were no plans beforehand.
On From My Mother’s House you can hear the waves crashing on the beach and there is some childhood laughter in there as well — were all of these unplanned and spontaneous?
Yes, we are both like that. Michael doesn’t like to plan too much, he likes to be lifted by his inspiration and to do things when he feels like he is capable. That’s how it worked. Next time it will be something about… I don’t know… I would like to work on something that would be in the continuation of this, but we shall see. Perhaps something more masculine.
It’s quite sorrowful. But here in Belgium, world music is usually very happy music, and we don’t like this concept of… We are just not in that space.
Where does the title come from then, in this respect, From My Mother’s House?
Its the title of the poem from Leo Goldberg, in fact. We thought the title was very personal and it’s very right. From My Mother’s House is something that’s close to the world we try to create.
Sub Rosa describe the album as “haunting” as well…
I would not say that it’s haunting, but it’s one of the only CDs from myself that I can actually go back and listen to. I don’t listen to the other CDs I do, but this one absolutely. The more you listen to it, the more you get into it. Because sometimes when you create something, you are not aware of what you are doing, and by listening to it again and again, you become aware of what happened in that moment.
Why is it that you don’t go back and listen to the other albums that you have made?
No, I never do this. I think everything is bad. No, not really, I just… It’s very difficult to listen to what you do, you only hear the faults and defects. I’m glad I don’t have that with the new album.
I wanted to ask you about improvisation. We talked a bit about the field recordings and how they were spontaneous, but what about in the reading of the poems and the order that you used — how much of that was improvised?
Well the instrumentation was not improvised. The instrumentation was composed. All the electro-acoustic effects are very composed and Michael thought a lot about placing them. But the voice was more improvised. In the moment it was, “OK lets try this and let’s try that,” and when it was field recording then it was really improvised. When I asked my friends to read a poem, it was very improvised. So it was a bit of a mixture.
There is one fragment on the album where there is like a… It sounds like a burst from the radio, a disco burst…
Yes, it’s terrible! We fought about it because I didn’t like it at all. In fact it’s Yiddish, it’s very kitsch, it’s 80s and Michael wanted to put something in there that would break the atmosphere a little bit because otherwise it became a little bit heavy. On reflection, I think it’s a good idea; I’m not disturbed anymore by this terrible disco sound. This is sometimes a problem when you share a project, you have to negotiate — sometimes somebody wants to put something in it and you don’t like it… but at the end everything worked well. It was just a novel disagreement — it was the only disagreement in fact!
What about other collaborations then, because we talked about Zorn before, and the Tzadik/Sub Rosa connection — how would the collaboration with Michael compare with some of the other joint works from the past?
Well, I have worked with other musicians from the improvisation scene here in Belgium. There is an Italian man who is very talented and there are other people, but we never recorded together. I did some work with them and for me it was a new world, this improvisation world. I started four or five years ago to explore this field, but it did not end in a recording, only in concerts.
Have you performed From My Mother’s House?
Not yet — because it is a very different project to put on a stage. And we should really think about something with more sonography. Not really a concert, but something — I think we need some means, not to be dry with the decorum. We thought about having some visuals also, but if we have the visual things then we don’t need the sound, and I think we should be careful about it, because if you put images over sound then the sound interferes with the images. Maybe it could be possible to have images without the sound for one performance, but we are still thinking about it.
What you could tell me about the Zohara project, which I’m not so familiar with. Could you tell us something about that and about any material you might have planned for the future.
Well, the Zohara project was a project I wanted to do around the Hebrew language. Exploring the Yiddish language was quite heavy for me in fact, because it also has to do with the Ashkenazic world, with the religious world where I grew up, and I didn’t want that. I have an ambiguous relationship with this world, and there is also something very dark there linked to my father to deportation, to this very dark history of the War, so I wanted to get out of that. I wanted instead to explore this Hebrew language, which is more linked to something brighter, the bright light of Israel and my childhood, and that’s why I did the Zohara project. I did this with musicians I enjoy very much, it’s also with Michael and with a very good drummer, and somebody who plays clarinet and electro-acoustic is Stephan Dunkelman, who is really brilliant with composition and very musical in his melodies, which is not always the case with electro-acoustics. Well, I used religious poetry and also non-religious poetry, which was all in Hebrew. We had some Zohara concerts, but not very many unfortunately. I’d still very much like to work on that. And, as for the future, I don’t know. I’m sure there will be the chance to explore new things as I’m always looking forward to working on a new project.
[Photo: M. Grébil] - www.tinymixtapes.com/

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