kaddish, i am here, songs of mourning and celebration


composer interview

my grandmother's voice

Composer  •  Interview with Lawrence Siegel

Creating Kaddish - An interview with composer Lawrence Siegel
by Susan Peery

Who are the witnesses to the Holocaust? They are the survivors, the bystanders, the rescuers, the perpetrators. In the largest sense, we all stand as living witnesses, for who has not been touched in some way by the worst cataclysm of a cataclysmic century?

In the summer of 2006, a Holocaust research group led by Paul Vincent, then director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies at Keene State College, and Lawrence Siegel, composer and musician, left Keene for Poland and the Czech Republic. It was a pilgrimage to holy ground; an immersion in the geography of genocide. When Larry Siegel returned, he had the narrative arc and substance of his musical project.

In a 2007 interview at his home in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, he described the creation of Kaddish.

I was born in Boston on March 14, 1952. My father was a senior at Harvard, an English major who went on to become a doctor. My paternal grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania and Poland in the 1920s, came through Ellis Island, and met and married in New York. My grandfather was considered a scholar, an important role for a Jewish boy, and he became a dentist. My grandmother had a beautiful soprano voice, and she sang Jewish folk songs in Russian, Hebrew and, especially, Yiddish.

Kaddish is the intersection of most of the major influences in my life. The first is my heritage. My grandparents were Eastern European Jews who were fairly secular but had an affectionate vision of Jewish life as something special. There was lots of ethnic pride. Passover was for getting together and singing - I still remember the songs my grandmother taught us.

The second of those influences is my deep interest in the relationship between music and society, the idea that art is influenced by society and represents it, and also can influence it. Particularly after graduate school I got fired up about the idea of music's relationship to society. This led directly to what I call "Verbatim Projects."

In 1986, I moved to New Hampshire while finishing up my doctorate in composition at Brandeis. A few years later, with Valeria Vasilevski, I wrote "Village Store Verbatim," set in Westmoreland and other small towns in New Hampshire. We eavesdropped. We used words overheard in conversations at the diner, the post office, town meeting, as the libretto to this "folk opera." I set the words to music, verbatim. It was then that I came to be so inspired by common parlance. It has an authentic, elegant quality - you can't say it any better.

I had this revelation that I could go to other communities and facilitate the Verbatim method to create musical works grounded in a sense of place. I did this in Minnesota, West Virginia, Vermont, and several towns in southwestern New Hampshire - 25 Verbatim projects in all, and counting. Also with organizations, such as the American Boychoir and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. In some of these projects, people jumped in and their participation was total; in others, I did more of the creative work. I used my own creativity to help people unleash or recognize theirs. I was a facilitator as much as a composer.

Kaddish has my own authorship in both words and music, but it uses the Verbatim method of gathering raw material. It is "found" text. Most of the words were spoken or written by others. I got them from testimonies, conversations, lines from the Bible, quotes from archives. I give the words a musical setting, arrange the order, remove what is not needed.

At a friend's fiftieth birthday party in 2003, through pure serendipity, I was talking to Jan Cohen about creating a musical work about the twentieth-century Jewish experience. The work would help the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies raise its profile. I had an idea about "the cup" - die Becher, or the beaker - from a song my grandmother sang, in which a child asks his mother about a cup filled with tears that is placed in front of God. According to the song, when the cup is full, the messiah will come. The child asks, Have there not been enough tears? At Brandeis I had started writing a cantata for Hebrew choir on this theme but never finished it.

Jan liked the idea. I reached out to friends in the world of choral music, especially Philip Brunelle, director of VocalEssence in Minneapolis, and the idea quickly gained some legs. Then Jan and I got the idea to make a pilgrimage to Poland and the Czech Republic to ground the work. We needed to get visceral information, feelings, the heart, the gut of the experience. Poland offered important relationships with places and people. It was an experience to see Jewish graveyards 1,000 years old. This is where my people came from. The food is what I knew. The people looked like my grandparents.

In Poland, we met no Jewish survivors. There were none. After the trip, I got testimonies from survivors here, following leads in Springfield, Hartford, Houston, even from my neighbors. I studied the extraordinary Fortunoff Archives at Yale University, and got permission to adapt a few stories from those videotapes. Almost all of the words in Kaddish are the survivors' words. I didn't have to invent the awful parts. The words are their own poetry.

Composing, for me, combines a very intuitive process with an analytic mode. To bring some shape to the text, at some point I try to find a vocal line. I might sing it, a phrase that is a fragment of a song. Then the music starts to ask for certain words. There are songlike structures in the piece - choruses, bridges, repetition. I use patterns, certain tropes - common artistic devices. My job as the composer is to use powerful words and stories to cause a visceral, emotional experience in the audience. If I have done my job well, the music will amplify those feelings.

At the beginning of Kaddish, you'll hear a bit of a Yiddish folk song. "The World Before" starts out gentle, bucolic, lyrical. The second section, the Holocaust, is, of course, harsher. The music for Arrival at Auschwitz is edgy, with all male voices, and many competing textures. It sounds like chaos, and it should. The reality was chaos. The music should be on the edge of playability.

The beginning of the third section, Tikkun Olam, begins with a spoken litany of names of victims taken from the Yad Vashem database. These people came from all over Europe. All perished in one of five extermination camps between 1942 and 1944. This section is improvised by the conductor. Its text starts out discernible, then becomes a cacophony. It is the emotional dark heart of the piece, very intense both for the audience and the performers. It is followed by a setting of the Jewish Mourner's Kaddish prayer, which gives its name to the entire work. The Kaddish closes with ruminations on what it all means: how we, the survivors, are able to go on.

Kaddish ends: "So here I am. Here I am! I survived, look who is with me!" These are the words survivor Naomi Warren spoke on her return to Auschwitz with her children. They are words of triumph, anger, grief, and perseverance. The chorus also sings, over and over: "I am here" - the voice of the perished. These words are so personal. They are about survival and resilience, the importance of daily lives and simple details. For the Jewish people, that has never been a given. For survivors, life since the Holocaust has been about carrying on the lives that were lost. Survivors say, "I choose to carry these people on my back" - and this is what the piece itself also means to do.

For me, creating Kaddish is a way of making common cause with the survivors and with those who perished. My music adds to the power of their words. I believe action will come from it.

In my many Verbatim projects, I would make community with whatever group had brought me in to facilitate and direct their work. With Kaddish, my community is the world, and the story is the biggest human story of the twentieth century. It shows the fatal flaw of our species. I hope it also shows the human capacity for transcending this flaw, through empathy, and through attention to the simple virtues of day-to-day living.

Was it daunting to focus attention on genocide? No - it has been incredibly rewarding. You might as well wrestle with a big story as a small one. I mean to grab you by the heart and shake you up.

Susan Peery is the Interim Director of College Relations at Keene State College.

The Kaddish Project  •  128 Paine Road  •  Westmoreland, New Hampshire 03467