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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With this album, Ben Zur has joined the recent trend of Israeli musicians — such as Asaf Avidan, HaBanot Nechama and Ivri Lider — making albums in English. While Israeli musicians composing original songs in English can fall into the trap of sounding unnatural, Ben Zur, a native of Nahariya, manages to incorporate Dickinson’s Victorian American poetry into her own distinctive indie-folk-pop sound. When performing onstage, she shares her passion for the texts by reading some of the Hebrew translations aloud before singing them in English.

Ben Zur describes the nine Dickinson poems she selected for her album as “snippets of unorganized thoughts” that are simple and childish, yet full of emotional depth, touching on the nuances of everyday life. Some are comical, like the song “I’m Nobody,” which cynically asserts how “dreary” it is to “be somebody /… public like a frog.” After singing that line, Ben Zur belts out a “ribbit” sound. This whimsical approach evokes the paradox of Dickinson’s poetry: at once unsettling and charming.

But Ben Zur also tackles grim and introspective poems like “Till the End” and “Remembrance,” which feature death, loss and loneliness. The music throughout the album — co-produced by guitarist Omer Hershman and featuring lyrical string arrangements by pianist Assaf Shatil — is both minimalist and rich; at certain times haunting melodies are juxtaposed with wistful lyrics, and at others, haunting lyrics are contrasted with harmonious riffs. Known for her childlike voice, Ben Zur executes vocals that are at once playful and serious, morbid yet uplifting.

The recent show in Tel Aviv to launch the album was packed with well-known Israeli actors and musicians, a few of whom volunteered to read the poems aloud in Hebrew during the show. Not only did the performance take the concept of a poetry reading to a whole new level, but it also pioneered a style in Israeli music culture, one that cuts across languages, centuries and continents.

With “Robin,” Ben Zur has infused the “midnight frosts” of Dickinson’s Amherst landscapes with the “lonesome wind” and “morning’s sun” of Nahariya, the northernmost coastal city in Israel. She has transformed the nursery-rhyme sound of the poems into coherent, 21st-century Israeli indie rock, while breathing new life into the works’ deceptively simple depths.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist and translator based in Tel Aviv and a writer and editor with +972mag.com

Listen to Efrat Ben Zur singing the title song of the album, “Robin.”


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