When Dan Kaufman first read Paul Celan’s poetry, something clicked.
Having grown up Jewish in Minneapolis and briefly in Israel, Kaufman always felt strong ties to the Holocaust and its unknowable gravity, yet could never pin down why. But after his then-girlfriend exposed him to Romanian Holocaust poet Celan’s “Aspen Tree,” the pieces fell into place.
“I just thought ‘This is the greatest piece of writing about the Holocaust ever written,’” said 39-year-old Kaufman, calling from New York City. “Not only was he describing something so important, but the manner in which he did it is just visionary.”
It took Kaufman, a classically trained guitarist, years to fully express his love for Celan, and he did so the only way he knew: In 2007, Kaufman released Force of Light with his band Barbez. The album interprets Celan’s poetry through stunning, often haunting music, with most songs featuring a poem read amidst the quivering strings, thumping percussion and eerie atmospherics.
It’s an ambitious project, and a far cry from Kaufman’s roots — the guitarist grew up inundated with punk rock, citing bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minnesota legends Husker Du as musical cornerstones. As a teen, Kaufman began studying classical guitar, but his musical pursuits in academia “were very uncreative and rigid,” he said. “The music was great, but the structure of the institution didn’t work for me.”
That schism of loving classical beauty but itching for something less formal is apparent in Kaufman’s music with Barbez, which he formed in New York in 1997. Pounding cabaret piano and suave jazzy guitar clash with free-floating, ethereal theremin moaning and crashing, twisted rock percussion. But set alongside Celan’s austere poetry, with Scottish artist Fiona Templeton reading, the music sounds like the slightest bit of hope during the darkest night in Auschwitz — terrifying, but filled with life.
The project got moving with the help of avant-garde composer John Zorn, who released the album through the Radical Jewish Culture series of his Tzadik label, which specializes in experimental music. It was a perfect match, said Kaufman.
“John came to a show and heard us, and after the gig he asked if I’d ever thought of making a record for Tzadik,” said Kaufman. “He loved Celan; I loved Celan. It was an easy fit. [Zorn] has an interest in certain things, and if your interests coincide, you’ll do it.”
Kaufman’s work may not be radical, but it does reflect Jewish culture. Among his two new projects with Barbez, Kaufman is re-imagining ancient Roman-Jewish melodies with modern instrumentation for another Tzadik record; he’s also working on a political album reflecting war in the Middle East.
But it’ll be hard to top Force of Light for its poignancy to the Jewish people, not merely for its beauty, but its use of Celan’s crushing words. The poet famously escaped a Nazi round-up that snatched his parents, who later died in a concentration camp. Celan was later held in a Romanian labor camp for 18 months. In 1970, he committed suicide, leaving behind a trail of heart-rending poetry that often dealt with his guilt over survival and his parents’ demise.
In the 8-minute “Aspen Tree,” over slow, meditative guitar and swirling clarinet, Templeton reads, “My quiet mother weeps for everyone. Round star, you wind the golden loop. My mother’s heart was ripped by lead. Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges? My gentle mother cannot return.”
“A lot of people have problems with poetry. It can be very academic,” said Kaufman. “This project was successful in getting people to pay attention to the words and put them on a pedestal, if you will. I wanted to capture the visceral quality of these poems. Music can do that.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)