It's no secret that poetry and music are incredibly effective vehicles for creative expression. Combine the two, though, and the results can vary widely. So it's with pleasure that I report that Dan Kaufman's new solo album smoothly melds his avant-garde chamber music with the words of Jewish-Romanian poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. It's the perfect new addition to the Radical Jewish Culture series of recordings on John Zorn's Tzadik label.
Ostensibly a solo album, Force of Light includes all the current members of Brooklyn-based collective Barbez, for which Kaufman is the leader, but the music is generally more restrained and evenly tempered than that band's sometimes-wild excursions into funky punk, Balkan jams and cabaret music. The instrumentation includes Barbez's guitar, bass, drums, clarinet, theremin, vibes and marimba, as well as strings by guest musicians. Scottish poet and theater director Fiona Templeton reads snippets of Celan's poetry in English.
The hypnotic, otherwordly melodies of "Aspen Tree" make it one of the album's moody highlights. It is based on a poem about the murder of Celan's mother. Templeton recites, "Round star, you wind the golden loop / My mother's heart was ripped by lead."
But the hypnotic dirge of the title track, with spooky vibraphone and violin escorting the melody through an intoxicating build, is way cool, as is "The Black Forest," which reportedly was inspired by an infamous 1960s rendezvous between Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger and Celan. Musically, it's full of piss and vinegar: off-kilter Latin dance grooves, Ethiopian jazz and surf beats.
Often haunting and dark, Force of Light is also beautiful and humane.