American Words, Israeli Songs

Serendipitous Album Sets Emily Dickinson's Verse to Music

Verse to Song: Efrat Ben Zur sets Emily Dickinson’s poetry to music.
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Verse to Song: Efrat Ben Zur sets Emily Dickinson’s poetry to music.

By Mairav Zonszein

Published June 01, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
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Listening to the new album “Robin” by acclaimed actress and singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur, you wouldn’t know that the songs on it were sung by an Israeli artist, or that they were composed to the poems of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. But it is precisely this serendipitous combination that makes the album so captivating.

“I didn’t plan this album,” said Ben Zur, a veteran theater and TV actress who previously made two albums in Hebrew. “It was a mystical experience; knowing that Dickinson’s poetry belongs to another era released something in me and opened my imagination.”

The album takes the popular Israeli tradition of setting Hebrew poetry to music — such as Arik Einstein singing Avraham Halfi, or Yehudit Ravitz singing Yehuda Amichai — but does so with the work of a prominent American poet, known for her bizarre and reclusive behavior. While Ben Zur is quirky, she doesn’t identify with Dickinson, who secluded herself in her Massachusetts home, caring for her sick mother and writing hundreds of poems that no one knew about until after her death, in 1886. Rather, she feels she has “stepped into her clothes and made them my own” — a fitting project for a versatile actress.

Emily Dickinson
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Emily Dickinson

Ben Zur first encountered Dickinson’s work in acting school, when she read the poems in a Hebrew translation. It was only a few years ago that she decided to order a collection in the original English, and once it came, she instinctively began composing music in her home with just an autoharp and two guitar strings. “I can’t really play any instruments. I found a way to compose on two guitar strings, and I like it,” she said.

The first song she wrote was to a poem called “Bee, I’m Expecting You!” which is a letter to a bee from a fly awaiting its arrival. The texts have philosophical underpinnings that are not immediately obvious from their subjects. It was only through composing that Ben Zur felt their existential heft. “I began grasping the texts more deeply through the melodies,” she noted.

Ben Zur is no stranger to setting music to poetry, having composed several songs to the works of classic Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg on previous albums; however, this is the first time she’s recorded in English. “Why English? Why not?” she said. “I’ve been listening to music in English since I was a child, and my love for the arts derives more from there than from here.” Indeed, Ben Zur’s daily life at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv is immersed in the texts of Anton Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Shakespeare, so it is natural for her to draw inspirations from outside Israel. She also found that singing in the original language was more organic and sounded better, even though English is foreign to her. “The Hebrew sounded too highbrow,” she said.


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