THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS VOLUME XXIV NUMBER 2 WINTER 2008
  
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An Interview with Composer Lawrence Siegel

Lawrence Siegel photo by Mark Corliss.
I mean to grab you by the heart and shake you up.

On Saturday, May 3, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond will host the world premiere of Kaddish, an original musical composition for voice and chamber orchestra. The Kaddish prayer is the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. This work of the same name by Lawrence Siegel does not flinch from the horrors of the Holocaust, yet culminates in a message of resilience and peace, expressed in the words and testimony of witnesses.

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 Siegel returned, he had the narrative arc and substance of his musical project.

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

Kaddish ends, "So here I am – look who is with me," 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, "I am here" – the voice of the perished.
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.

While my father was in medical school, our family went to live with my grandparents in Forest Hills, in Queens. The arts, especially music, were cherished and celebrated in their home, everything from classical music to folk songs by Burl Ives. I started taking piano lessons when I was 3.

We moved out West to Denver and then to New Mexico, where my father worked on the Crown Point Navajo reservation. I think my love of small towns comes from those childhood years in New Mexico. When I was 11, my mother moved back to New York with my two siblings and me to be near our grandparents again. I studied piano and cello, and as a teenager was profoundly influenced by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. I got a B.A. in music at City College and went on to Brandeis for graduate study in composition.

…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?

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. High culture, the way I studied it in graduate school, abstracts art as if it had no relationship to the world. Music was studied as a set of intricate skills.

After graduate school, I got fired up about the idea of music's relationship to society. This led directly to my Verbatim projects. I moved to New Hampshire while finishing up my doctorate in composition at Brandeis, where I was conducting the concert band and a Hebrew choir. With Valeria Vasilevski, I wrote "Village Store Verbatim," set in Westmoreland. We eavesdropped. We used words overheard in conversations at the diner, the post office, the town meeting, as a script or libretto. I set the words to music, verbatim. The common parlance has an authentic, elegant quality – you can't say it any better.

I had a 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. In some towns, 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.

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.

Kaddish is more intentional, but it is still a 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. Kaddish is a return to authorship, a work that is more fully mine. I have created the libretto as well as the music. I feel passionately involved with the people in the piece, but we did not create it together.

At a friend's 50th birthday party in 2004, through pure serendipity, I was talking to Jan Cohen about creating a musical work about the 20th-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 Vocal Essence in Minneapolis, to give the idea 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.

It sounds like chaos, and it should. The reality was chaos.

Kaddish is in three parts: life before the Holocaust; stories during the Holocaust; and the resolution, tikkun olam, "to repair the world." I had this frame before I went, so I was able to ask questions I knew I wanted the answers for. I elicited stories to fit the arc of the piece. We also filmed our interviews. It helps me to hear the words, and I annotate as I listen and transcribe, then start shaping the words into text. I start with the words, usually, then add the music.

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. 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 is a very intuitive process. 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.

If I get stuck, I take a walk. I try to figure out what I need to ask. I draw on my instinct, my education, come back to the piano, and just try something. 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.

For me, creating Kaddish is a way of making common cause with the survivors and with those who perished.

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, sounds harsh, bordering on atonality. The music for the arrival at Auschwitz is edgy, with all male voices. It sounds like chaos, and it should. The reality was chaos. The music is on the edge of playability.

The beginning of the third section, tikkun olam, is the most exotic, a spoken litany of names of victims taken from the Yad Vashem database. All perished in one of five extermination camps between 1942 and 1944. This section is conducted by pointing. It starts out discernible, then becomes a cacophony. It is the emotional dark heart of the piece, very intense. It is followed by a setting of the Mourners' Kaddish prayer, then ruminations on what it all means – how we, the survivors, go on.

Kaddish ends, "So here I am – look who is with me," 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, "I am here" – the voice of the perished. These words are 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, having an ordinary life is extraordinary. 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 this work, my community is the world, and the story is the biggest human story of the 20th century. It shows the fatal flaw of our species. Is it daunting? No – it's exciting. 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.

Holocaust survivor Naomi Warren