To say that you’ll never think of Lot’s wife the same way after seeing Maya Beiser’s “Elsewhere,” a new “cello opera” that recently played at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, would be a gross understatement. In the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife has no name — let alone speaking lines — and is primarily an example of the fate that awaits those who disobey divine instruction: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
In “Elsewhere,” Lot’s wife finds fine physical form in the magnificent, statuesque body of actress Helga Davis; chats across time through what Beiser calls an “imaginary ‘Skype’” with another woman facing her own apocalypse, and describes the way her morning cereal caught in her throat on the day she was forced from the home where she’d raised two daughters.
This stunning portrait of a reimagined biblical anti-heroine comes in the third and final segment of a 70-minute multimedia work that Beiser describes in her artist statement as “bearing witness” to the “particular suffering endured by women throughout the millennia and across the world.” Created with Robert Woodruff, who directs the piece, the collaborative project also counts among its notable contributors several prominent women artists, including composers Eve Beglarian and Missy Mazzoli, choreographer Brook Notary and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson.
Yet the most powerful voice in the production is unquestionably that of Beiser’s cello, which is every bit as expressive as a human voice but also does what a singer cannot — gliding effortlessly across four octaves, playing lush counterpoint and ethereal chords and, with the help of electronic effects like reverb and distortion, producing a host of unsettling otherworldly sounds. The success of the “cello opera” concept depends on the ability of a seated cellist, half hidden behind a bulky instrument, to enthrall in the manner of an elegantly costumed, angel-voiced diva striding out to center stage, and Beiser rises to the challenge. Even with dancers flitting about her, one’s eyes are drawn to her own graceful movement as music seems to well up out of her body. (Flowing chestnut hair to frame striking angular features and piercing blue eyes doesn’t hurt, either.) The New Yorker got it right when the magazine labeled the Israeli-born classical-music rebel a “cello goddess.”
Even without its clever premise, Jacob Garchik’s latest album would still make for great listening. This is the sort of music that makes you stop in your tracks and mutter, “What is that?” It’s not every day that one hears a trombone choir — let alone one augmented with sousaphone and slide trumpet — playing warm, enveloping tunes that sound like long-lost spirituals.
Garchik, a veteran performer and arranger for groups from the Kronos Quartet to Slavic Soul Party, has struck out on his own for this deeply personal project, a nine-part meditation called “The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album.” All the sounds heard on the disc, from the funny little slide trumpet on down, were recorded by Garchik himself, at his home studio in Brooklyn.
Garchik is a skilled brass player (and it’s dizzying to think of him laying down all those tracks one by one), but it’s the “atheist gospel” concept, of course, that’s his stroke of brilliance. Each piece in the elegant 30-minute suite is paired with a brief quotation — some biblical, others from secular saints like Stephen Hawking and Mark Twain — that raises a fundamental question about human existence and the nature of faith. As Garchik writes in the liner notes, “music and religion are both amazing reflections of human creativity,” and this album is an experiment in gospel music by a non-believing Jew. The happy surprise is that these musical-philosophical vignettes are as stirring and expressive as familiar religious works. Listening to them, you feel as though being all on your own in the universe might not be so bad, after all.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush up on Israeli history before watching “Gei Oni,” the new Dan Wolman film based on Shulamit Lapid’s novel of the same name. Set in the late 19th century, the story takes place during the first wave of European immigration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, when Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe arrived at the Port of Jaffa in search of new lives. While the film’s main characters are fictional, a few historical figures also make appearances. These include the British Zionist, author, Christian mystic and onetime member of Parliament Laurence Oliphant and the poet Naftali Herz Imber, best known for writing the lyrics to “Hatikvah” in 1878. The real-life Oliphant took Herz Imber as his secretary when he traveled to Palestine in 1882 with the aim of assisting Jewish settlement there.
But one need not know the first thing about Laurence Oliphant — or indeed much about 19th-century Palestine — in order to get swept up in a subtle, deftly told love story in which politics play only a minor part. Wolman has billed “Gei Oni” as a historical epic, but his focus is more intimate than that description suggests. The film follows Fanya (Tamar Alkan), a young Russian woman who, after having seen much of her family murdered in a pogrom in Ukraine, arrives in Jaffa with her infant daughter, elderly uncle, and an emotionally handicapped brother. Adrift in a foreign city, Fanya searches for work to support her dependents, but soon finds herself married off to Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi), a widower with two children. Yechiel takes his new wife to “Gei Oni,” a small settlement near Safed, where he and other Jewish settlers are engaged in the grueling labor of attempting to cultivate barren, rocky land they bought from local Arabs.
You might not recognize Raymond Scott’s name, but chances are that you’ve heard his music — and that it makes you anxious. That’s because Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937), easily his best known work, has been used to accompany scenes of mechanized peril in everything from the classic 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons to “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and a Visa check card commercial. As Warner Bros. animator, director and historian Greg Ford notes in “Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott,” a new documentary film by the composer’s son, Stan Warnow, the disquieting “Powerhouse” became the go-to choice for scoring animated scenes of panic on the assembly line. Raymond Scott (1908-1994) never wrote with animated films in mind (Warner Bros. simply licensed Scott’s back catalogue in 1941), but it’s fitting that he should be forever linked to the image of a swiftly moving conveyor belt — a contraption that makes its operators struggle to keep pace.
A technophile and jazz musician who was out of step with his time, Scott made a living writing for popular film and television of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but spent his free time experimenting at the frontier of electronic music. As he refined his inventions — early synthesizers and sequencers — Scott envisioned a future in which machines could make music all on their own.
Born Harry Warnow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Scott learned the piano by placing his fingers over the moving keys of a player piano in his parents’ house. Fascinated by gadgets, he planned to become an engineer, but was persuaded to attend the Institute of Musical Art, the school that would later become Juilliard. Hired as a staff pianist for CBS radio in 1931, Scott started composing original pieces that went over so well with the CBS audience that producer Herb Rosenthal let him form his own group, the Raymond Scott Quintette. After a Hollywood tour performing with the quintet in 20th Century Fox films like “Ali Baba Goes to Town” and the Shirley Temple vehicle “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” Scott returned to CBS in New York and formed a big band. Breaking the network’s rule, Scott insisted on including black as well as white members in the group, assembling the first racially integrated studio orchestra in 1942.
What’s your socialist bubbe got to do with the Queen of Pop? That’s the question at the heart of “The Material World,” the new Dan Fishback musical headlining this summer’s HOT! Festival at New York City’s Dixon Place. The setting for the show is a dream-world 1920s Bronx boarding house where a family of Russian Jewish socialists lives with Madonna, Britney Spears and a gay teenager plotting a Facebook revolution.
Though Fishback, a 30-year-old playwright, performance artist and 2007 recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, cautions that the play isn’t strictly autobiographical, “The Material World” draws inspiration from his family’s socialist roots. His great-grandfather was sent to Siberia after the 1905 revolution and, following a daring escape from Russia (hidden under a train car, according to Fishback family lore), found his way to the Bronx and became the chief compositor of the Forverts. As girls, Fishback’s paternal grandmother and her two sisters were members of the Young People’s Socialist League, and were raised in a household where the prominent socialist writers of the time stopped by to debate politics around the kitchen table.
A fourth-generation activist, Fishback demonstrated against the Iraq war as a college student in the early 2000s, following in the footsteps of his father, who was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ’70s. “I grew up thinking Martin Luther King Day was a Jewish holiday because we celebrated it in shul,” Fishback told the Forward in a recent interview. Political commitment was valued so strongly among his family members and their circle of friends, he said, that he grew up viewing the revolutionary spirit as more essential to Jewish identity than religious belief. “My grandmother sort of humored my parents by joining our synagogue,” Fishback said, “but she would turn to me in the middle of a service and whisper, ‘God doesn’t exist.’” (Her sister was Ruth Barcan Marcus, the noted philosopher and logician who died in February.)
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