Archive for June, 2008
just a little note to say that recording has begun. i offer another glimpse into the world behind the songs:
this is what ‘magpies’ looks like on the computer – kind of looks like a flock of . . . magpies!
i am dressing the studio salad – in an apron – photo by andy cotton
producer, tucker martine, is smiling
mark spencer, in shades, surrounded by all sorts of stringed things – photo by andy cotton
andy cotton smiles
tony leone loves to play the drums with spatulas – photo by andy cotton
more pictures here.
i spent the summer before my senior year in high school at the sewanee summer music center in sewanee, tennessee. orchestra camp. instead of band geeks, we were classical music geeks. of course, we didn’t think of ourselves as geeks . . . classical music is cool!
anyway, the summer of ’92 was actually a pretty important one for me on at least two levels. first, it was then and there that i met my first germans who were not part of my grandparents’ demographic. and on one of these germans – a beautiful cellist from the southwestern corner of germany- i developed a long-lasting infatuation. in part because of this crush and how it directed me towards my own connection to the vaterland, i decided to spend my time in college learning german, studying german cultural/ intellectual history, and spending a year+ in germany digging through my family history there.
(for those of you clamoring to know how things turned out between me and the beautiful german cellist, well . . . we sent letters back and forth over the atlantic for a few years and then finally met up again a few months after i arrived in germany in the fall of ‘95. we had a lovely time, but i handled myself poorly, to say the least, and i have seen/ heard neither hide nor hair of him since.)
but the point here is not to dwell on my thwarted romance with the german cellist. rather, in thinking about my last post, jew-y/ jew-ier/ jew-iest, i remembered another important experience from my time in sewanee. each summer, while 200 or so aspiring classical musicians are practicing under the magnolias, the sewanee writer’s conference gathers ‘a distinguished faculty to provide instruction and criticism through workshops and craft lectures in fiction, poetry, and playwriting.’ every once in a while, one of these faculty members gives a talk that is open to the public.
william styron was a member of the faculty during the summer of ’92. and one day, by some strange lapse in my usual lack of attention to such things, i noticed that styron was giving a lecture – open to the public. i hadn’t read or seen sophie’s choice at that point, but i knew all about it. okay. that’s a stretch. i knew that it was a book about the holocaust. or at least, that’s how i identified it. i had to go. i was particularly curious to listen to a non-jew talk about his motivation for writing a book about something that i then considered quintessentially jewish – despite the fact that so many victims of the holocaust were not jewish, including the heroine (if we can call her that) of sophie’s choice.
to paraphrase what i heard (and i’ve had enough therapy to know that what i heard was not necessarily what was actually said): william styron had not set out specifically to write a book about a polish victim of the holocaust. first came a theme, a question of the human experience: the moment of a choiceless choice and that moment’s deep and far-reaching implications and repercussions – both on the players and those around them. only then came the setting, the historical and social structure within which to ensconce this set of human experiences.
and suddenly, writing made sense to me in a way that it never had before. i understood what moves me when i read a book or listen to a song. beyond the essentials of plot and language which draw me in, lies the emotional and psychological experience, the internal struggle that resonates on a deep and fundamentally human level.
and so i began to write. and so i do still.
perhaps it is a given that this still untitled collection of songs chronicles more than the historical upheaval experienced by my jewish grandparents and great grandparents. i don’t mean to say that the ‘jewishness’ or the historical background of this project are simply foils. they are no more foils than the setting and circumstances of sophie’s choice. theme, setting, language, and narrative are inextricably linked and intertwined. and, here it seems relevant to add, so is the identity of the artist/ creator. but it seems to me that what these extreme moments both in history and in art do is expose the rawness of what it is to be human, force us to feel and act in ways that test both our limitation and our boundlessness.
i debuted the first 6 songs of this series at a show last week at the museum of jewish heritage in downtown New York.
the show was my first billed specifically as a jewish singer-songwriter.
the press release from the museum read as follows:
‘this eclectic line-up of brooklyn-based musicians will showcase a new generation of female Jewish artists.’
one blog promoting the event referred to the three performers on the bill as ‘brooklyn jewesses.’
seth kugel recommended our show as a cool jewish culture event in his new york times article from may 18th, loosen your borscht belt and raise your highbrows .
my initial reaction to all of this was that yes, i’m jewish, and yes, i’m a singer-songwriter. i am happy to be both, privately and publicly. a jewish organization is funding the writing, recording and performance of this collection of songs. and these songs certainly explore jewish stories and themes.
or do they?
when i applied for the six points fellowship (for the record, this is an incredibly unusual grant, both in the art world and the jewish world – a sizable chunk of change to be dispersed among 12 individual artists over the course of 2 years), what most captivated me was not the prospect of creating a body of work around the stories of my grandmothers. suprisingly to me, that idea did not really surface until well into the funding period. what excited me most was pushing the envelope in terms what is considered to be ‘jewish’ music.
was it possible to be taken seriously as a jewish artist if i wasn’t playing klezmer, singing in yiddish, hebrew, or ladino, or referencing jewish texts? could my work be considered jewish if i continued to make the music i had been making for years (something akin to ambient americana without the twang – with a few torch songs thrown in for good measure) but wrote songs about shabbes dinners at my grandparents’ with fried chicken, my grandfather’s hebrew pronounced in his thick southern accent, the complexities of interfaith relationships, or, the emotional and psychological tremors of the holocaust filtered down through the generations. in telling these stories, i wouldn’t use the words ‘hebrew’ or ‘prayer’ or ‘shabbes’ or ‘holocaust.’ from my perspective, the experiences expressed in my songs, without these ‘jewish’ signifiers, could be just as easily understood as those of non-jews. i liked that. and still do. i was and still am excited to play with the particulars of my jewish experience as a way to approach the broader human experience.
it seems seth kugel (from the nyt) and i are on the same page – at least in terms of questioning what defines jewish culture as such. in his article, he writes, ‘Jewish arts in New York City. What, exactly, does that mean? A 19th-century Austrian menorah? D.J.’s from Tel Aviv playing Prospect Park in Brooklyn? Jackie Mason cracking up an Off Broadway crowd with jokes that would not be funny — and would be offensive — from the mouth of anyone else?
‘Yes, yes, and for better or for worse, yes. The large, ancient and ever-changing Jewish population of New York defies definition, from secular to Orthodox, from the Upper West Side to Borough Park, from Ashkenazi to Sephardic to adopted Asian, from the mayor’s office to newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The art scene is hardly less diverse.’
seth is not alone in embracing the diversity of ‘jewishness.’ he is joined by the movers and shakers behind the six points fellowship (the jewish federation, jdub records, the foundation for jewish culture, and avoda arts), reboot, and heeb magazine, to name a few. my father is actually involved in a group that is looking specifically at the diversity of diaspora jewish identity as a way to understand the place of israel in the world.
which somehow brings us back to the show at the museum of jewish heritage.
there were two other jewesses on the bill – each currently making names for themselves within the jewish world with more explicitly ‘jewish’ content.
after the show (which was a lot of fun, despite the somber nature of performing in a ‘living memorial to the holocaust’), i started thinking about why someone previously unacquainted with any of the performers would come to a show billed as a ‘showcase [of] a new generation of female jewish artists.’ which descriptor/s would draw them in? female, artist, or jewish? what is the relationship between these different identities? specifically, what is the difference between a jewish artist and an artist who is jewish? does it come down to whether art is in service of one’s religion/ culture or whether the religion/ culture is the experience informing the art? or can we even draw such categorical divides?
i am certain that there was at least one person in the audience who was disappointed with my songs. even within the context of my family’s ‘jewish’ journey from eastern europe to the united states, the jewishness expressed in my work is decidedly cultural, secular, and not spiritual.