The notion of creating a musical album around the works of a poet, any poet, is a contentious one, whether the music is composed by the writer, or, as it is here, a posthumous homage and affirmative response to one of the most enigmatic, mysterious, and brilliant poets of the 20th century, Paul Celan. Guitarist Dan Kaufman and his collaborators have undertaken a mighty effort because Celan's body of work, though emotionally loaded with images of separation, death, and an unnameable, even unspeakable loneliness and anguish, is a quiet one. His poems speak slowly, deliberately, and more often than not, indirectly. They are, nonetheless, razor sharp at getting through to the small root that opens into a vast abyss at the center of language; where it doesn't hold meaning captive any longer. In Celan's work, it breaks down instead, allowing the reader to fall headlong into the space generated by its broken bits and pieces; it leaves nothing to hold onto, even though his lines are taut, spare, skeletal. They leave no room for the reader escape from what they reveal, and draw tears from the pit of the belly.
Born in Romania, Celan was a Jew who, along with his parents, was rounded up by the Nazis and sent into the labor and concentration camps. Both his parents died there: his father contracted typhus; his mother was executed. Almost in direct response to Theodor Adorno's notion that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, Celan wrote the most beautiful and haunting poetry from the very root pot of that poisonous plant. Celan and Edmond Jabes (another Jewish poet, in this case exiled from Cairo during the Suez crisis) wrote consistently and totally from the place of the wound caused by the Holocaust and historical exile of the Jew, and neither was didactic. In Celan's case, that wound was so great that it finally consumed him; he committed suicide. While literary critics debate the deconstruction of meaning in Celan's (and Jabes') work, the rest of us have merely to open the book and consider it, to allow it in and to let it change our worlds.
Kaufman has done just that. Far from stringing along musical phrases to underscore poignant points in the writer's text, he understands that every pause is poignant. His job lies elsewhere, to reveal the ready meaning in these poems, to allow the listener to hear the way a human voice can utter them, and with his music, accompany them along into the depths of the human heart and its own mystery. Kaufman plays both electric and nylon-string guitar and, on occasion, lap steel. His collaborators include Pamelia Kurstin on theremin, Danny Tunick on vibes and marimba, Peter Hess on clarinets, Dan Coates and Peter Lettre on basses, and drummer John Bollinger. Other musical guests include Julia Kent on cello and Catherine McRae and Sarah Bernstein on violins. The voice reading these poems is no less than Fiona Templeton's. On the first track, Kaufman offers up one of Celan's most famous works, "Shibboleth." His nylon-string guitar fills the space very carefully as Templeton reads: "Together with my stones/Grown big with weeping/Behind the bars/They dragged me out into the middle of the market/That place where the flag unfurls/To which I swore no kind of allegiance/Flute, double flute of night/Remember the dark twin redness of the enemy and Madrid/Set your flag at half mast, memory/At half mast today and forever/Heart, here too reveal what you are/Here in the midst of the market/Calling Shibboleth/Call it out into your alien homeland...."
Kaufman's dramatic tension rises even as Templeton's voice remains steady, the music revealing the calling out of "Shibboleth" into the "alien homeland," where both speaker and spoken ring incessantly in the hollows of history. It may have been Madrid, invoked by the excruciating memory of the author, but it rings inside all of us and without us, forgotten but ever a reminder in our world, shown almost daily on television; when passively agreed to, this place approaches the same possibility as the former Yugoslavia, or Darfur. Kaufman is no autodidact. In the music of Celan's skeletal poems, he hears that there can be no symphonies to adorn them, only sonic appendages to his "Force of Light." The title track that follows this opening is loaded and no words ever come from the mouth of the reader. The terrain where "force" happens -- painted by electric guitars, cello, vibes, marimba, an electric bass, and drum kit -- is a fragile one, so one must approach cautiously. And this band does -- slowly, every slowly at first but gaining ground and momentum even as this field of sound is broken -- wrangling itself through counterpoint and dynamic changes with angles not measured so much as simply manifested, almost to shake off the meaning of the previous poem, but instead underscore what it means. Consequently, the tune doesn't end; it just ceases a frame at a time.
Kaufman follows no formula on this album. Some pieces have poems within them and some are purely instrumental tracks, such as "The Black Forest," in which off-kilter marimba and guitars call out for the violins and drums to answer. Basslines point a way into the tangle, but Kaufman's indirect, emotionally taut composition digs ever deeper into the mass of sound for 14 minutes, allowing listeners to experience glimpses of sunlight through the shadows. There is a repetitive theme, but it's the pulse of itself, insistent on its existence as the instruments engage one another and give way from one thematic concern to the next, always with klezmer and Yiddish folk music in equal tension with jazz and modern classical music; they are in turns quizzical, ambiguous, humorous, and nearly aggressive. The solos by theremin and bass clarinet to this restated theme are some of the more remarkable moments on this already quite stunning record. Elsewhere, "Voice in the Mountains" is an extended meditation on what it means to be a Jew: the other to others, to oneself, and to other Jews, who are united so deeply under the skin by history yet wholly other to the cultures of the world -- and as spoken of in the world, even in the mountains, where one "Jew recognizes another Jew." There is that space of acknowledgement through thousands of years, and that space of aloneness and singularity lying in the heart that cannot be answered in earthly tones. The text opens by itself, is drawn in and out by a composition that takes into account ambient soundscapes, jazz, folk themes, and klezmer, and then fades out, in, and out again, drawn in ever widening circles by Kaufman's varied and brilliant harmonic interplay, accents, colors, and textures, which feel lush but with hidden sharp edges.
Celan gave a speech to a German audience in the '50s, speaking to them in their native tongue, and likened the poem to starting a dialogue, but knew not with whom, as "a message in a bottle, sent out in the -- not always greatly hopeful -- belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land." Kaufman writes in his liner notes that "these are songs washed up on land." This is the response to that opening dialogue, set in song no less, one that carries on with volume and vibration long after silence appears to have overtaken it. Kaufman's Force of Light is among the most profound settings for poetry in music. It is musically so rich, varied, and poetic in its own right that it can not be separated from the poems -- nor can it contain them, and he understands this implicitly. Nor can the language in the poems contain this music; it speaks out from the land not into the sea, but into those mountains where not only does "Jew recognize Jew," but anyone human being can, should he or she desire it, see another. Kaufman's recording is among the best of 2007; it is sophisticated yet accessible to anyone, heartbreaking in its articulation, and provocative in its assertions because its speaks gently enough for the moral authority of both spoken and musical text to be not only heard and assented to, but grasped for its context in history and in this present future moment.