My Grandmother's Voice
by Lawrence Siegel
1. As far as I know, Frieda Siegel- Gai-gai- my grandmother, could not read music. but she had the most beautiful singing voice, a classic Eastern European soprano, lots of vibrato but not forced, a tone that was clean and absolutely true, had a bit of honey in the timbre. My grandfather- Pop-pop- sounded more like Falstaff. A character voice, not a pure singing voice at all, but still plenty of enthusiasm. My father was an inspired "Brumkeyer:" That meant improvising, instead of practicing. Gai-gai, to my father: "Stop brumkeying!"
Music was not simply in the home, it was essential to how the home felt. Newly created LPs on the record player dominated the living room and the basement: recordings of the Budapest Quartet playing late Beethoven, Toscanini leading the symphonies, Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin, etc. There was a hum and tumble throughout the house: the deedling along through the hall, Pop-pop's cheedle-dum-te-dum to himself as he pondered a chess move: singing to stimulate the brain. And the quality of the sound, in Gai-gai's singing, in the late Beethoven string quartets, in Richard Dyer-Bennet's folk singing that most caught me was poignant, ineffable, the unbearable sweetness, what I would later when I became passionate about Appalachian music think of as the "high lonesome sound." It was all there at once, transcending categories, not even taking note of them really.
Jewishness was a cultural or ethnic identity, not what we thought of as religion. But it was a fiercely proud cultural identity. I learned the stories of the bible on the arm rest of my grandfather's chair, but it was the story-telling that was the point, and the contact with my grandfather. For me the high point of the cultural year was Passover: Pesach. We gathered on the first two nights, alternately with my grandmother's extended family and my grandfather's. The story was told, the foods were tasted and discussed, but the event did not seem to me to be about a myth or set of guidelines to help to understand the world. Rather it was a body of rituals meant to celebrate ourselves. The high point was the singing after dinner. To see my grandfather and his brother and cousins punching the air with their fists for the chorus of Mani daber mani saper- ai, ai, ai-iddi-ai-ai is emblematic: a cathartic, triumphant setting of the words, "Who can say, Who can tell..."
2. By a circuitous route which needs no detailing here, I wound up as a graduate student in composition at Brandeis University. In the late seventies when I started there, Brandeis was known for its rigorous teaching of the modernist practice of composition. It is greatly over-simplifying to say this, but one of modernism's premises is that art can- and perhaps should is not too strong a word- be about only itself: its form, the manipulation of its technical elements.The techniques of such composition became a fundamental component of my compositional practice. But the high lonesome sound is easily lost in such a practice. Over the decade in which I began serious study of composition, two related opportunities came along which helped me to integrate my innate musical soul with the learned style of contemporary music as I found it at Brandeis.
The first of these was an interest in the study of the relationship between music in society, born of the recognition that the arts both reflected the world into which they came and could influence this world. A National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar with Richard Leppert at the University of Minnesota helped me organize this thinking, and put me in touch with a group of scholars who were leading this work around the world.
The second was a serendipitous encounter with theater artist Valeria Vasilevski of New York. Introduced by a mutual friend, we hatched a plan which in due course was awarded support from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. The idea was to go into places around my rural part of New Hampshire where daily life was experienced and discussed by ordinary folks, to record their conversations and create the libretto for a music-theater piece from this material. "The Village Store Verbatim", as we called the piece, went on to four full productions, including a special performance in 1994 in a tire garage for New Hampshire Public Television. In the course of making this work, it came to me that leading communities in creating such a work about themselves could make for a very effective arts residency, in which a group would share an experience of making art together, have some fun, and potentially bridge differences through this experience. Over the past nearly twenty years I have led more than twenty-five so-called "Verbatim Projects." Many participants have attested to the life-changing quality of this way of playing together.
3. All this has led naturally and seamlessly to Kaddish. The words in Kaddish are almost all adapted from interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, shaped and sometimes repeated but essentially used verbatim. The authenticity and authority of these words cannot be underestimated. And I believe they cause an empathy with survivors which is key to my effort to lead an audience to want to be part of making a better world. I don't think preaching to you will do it. It certainly doesn't work on me. What works is making common cause.