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Choral piece inspired by Yiddish lullabies premiering across four continents

Swedish Jewish composer Jacob Mühlrad is a rising star in the international classical music community.

A new choral composition based on traditional Yiddish lullabies recently had its world premiere in Vancouver, Canada. Its Swedish Jewish composer, Jacob Mühlrad, is a rising star in the international classical music community.

The piece, “Ay li lu (somewhere in infinity),” was performed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir on April 2. Artistic director Karl Turunen conducted it as part of a concert entitled “Springtime.” After Vancouver, the composition will premiere in Singapore; Pretoria, South Africa, and in the cities Vaasa and Helsinki in Finland.

The phrase “ay li lu” or “lyu-lyu” appears often in Yiddish lullabies. The soothing sound of these syllables can help calm a crying baby, as “hush-a-bye” does in English. Many Yiddish lullabies include this phrase. Sholem Aleichem used it in the song “Shlof mayn kind, mayn treyst mayn sheyner” (Sleep my child, my only comfort). You also hear it in Leyb Yampolsky’s  “S’Dremlen Feygl af di Tsvaygn” (Birds are Dozing on the Branches).

Mühlrad’s composition is a creative interplay between his interpretation of a Yiddish lullaby and the chanting of the early numbers of the infinite mathematical ratio Pi. As the composer put it: “It feels incredible to do this project as a co-commission with four outstanding choirs across four continents. In a time of global disintegration, having the opportunity to make a truly global piece about something that transcends all borders feels not only exciting but also important.”

The poster for the premieres of the piece in four different countries Courtesy of Jacob Mühlrad

Muhlrad was first inspired by a cantor’s singing

The music begins appropriately with the lullaby sung by a soprano, much as a mother would sing to her infant. Its chorus makes an ethereal entry that evokes circularity — appropriate to the meaning of Pi. The accompanying material combines complex jazz-like chords with traditional classical harmonies as the music flickers and wanes. Toward the end of the piece, basses sustain a pedal point while sound waves are heard from the sopranos.

The entrance of bells at the conclusion provides a transcendent quality to the music. It’s almost as if the infant were communicating with the universe from which it came and to which it will ultimately return. In other words, it has elements of a mystical, transformative experience. The vocal soloists were Kiyomi Hori and  Emily M. Cheung, sopranos; Fabiana Katz and Maria Golas, altos, and Eric Schwarzhoff, tenor.

Mühlrad’s musical journey began as a young child in synagogue, when he heard a cantor sing for the first time. He said that this musical experience would actually color his life and persists in his compositions today.

His piece “Kaddish” is a tribute to his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor

Mühlrad’s initial plans to attend a yeshiva vanished when at age 15 he found an old synthesizer. His father repaired it, and Mühlrad taught himself to play piano and compose on it. “I have a Jewish background and being Jewish is a big part of my identity,” Mühlrad said in a 2015 interview. “I was by far the most religious member of my family and I had a very strong faith in God. That faith was never questioned until I found music. It was almost as if music overlapped with my faith in God. Evidently there was some sort of void that I felt needed to be filled, and if it was religion and spirituality in my younger days it is now music and art.”

Many of his works have Jewish titles and themes. Among them is “Anim Zemirot” (2012) — now a standard in the repertoire of many outstanding European choirs. He also composed the pieces “Nigun” (2014), “Tsurah” (2016), “Silent Prayer” (2016), “Shevah” (2017) and “Tefila” (2020). For his piece “Kaddish” (2017) he wrote the lyrics and music for an imaginary dialogue between himself and his late grandfather, Michael Bliman, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

A blend of classical, rock and electronic music

Mühlrad’s work is characterized by its remarkable versatility and unique borrowing from modernist and classical musical styles. He often blends elements of pop, rock and electronic music. His debut album Time (Deutsche Grammophon, 2021) received a five-star BBC Magazine review. His works have premiered at Carnegie Hall, the Norwegian Opera and Bamberg Hall in Germany. He has also collaborated with international classical artists including clarinetist Martin Frost, composer Olga Neuwirth and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. In 2019 he began a multi-year collaboration with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Three years later, he produced the album Burn All My Letters (Music For The Motion Picture). He now plans to release a new piano single each month between March and June 2023.

In the non-classical world, he’s worked with house-music supergroup Swedish House Mafia to reproduce their 2010 hit, “One (Your Name).” He collaborated with rap artist Silvana Imam. He even worked with visual artist Alexander Wessely on a video piece, “Cyclical Movements” for the textile recycling company Renewcell.

“Ay li lu (somewhere in infinity)” offers us an amazing window into Mühlrad’s creativity. We can anticipate a bright future for this 31-year-old composer and look forward to many more years of exciting music from him.


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