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Adding a Touch of the Poet

September 20, 2007 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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New York guitarist Dan Kaufman
All odds are against the survival of a poem. The chance of being completed, the chance of being saved, the chance of being shared, the chance of being appreciated -- none of these are to be taken lightly.

And yet, for some tortured souls, poetry is the one thing that sustains and affirms their existence.

Consider Paul Celan. Though it's not hard to find his work, both in the original German and translated into English, he's not a household name. His life isn't studied in schools along with Dickinson and Whitman. His words don't appear on inspirational posters or greeting cards.

No, Celan was a product of his time and place. Born in 1920 on the Romanian-Ukrainian border, he escaped the deportation that sent his parents to a concentration camp, where they met their deaths. He did time in labor camps, but his survivor's guilt followed him onto the page and into the Seine.

At the age of 49, he drowned himself, on April 20 -- Hitler's birthday. He'd suffered many disappointments in his career and in his marriage, but his mind seemed to forever cycle back to the Holocaust.

New York guitarist Dan Kaufman and his band, Barbez, have given new life to Celan on their album "Force of Light," which comes out Sep. 25 as the latest entry in the Tzadik record label's Radical Jewish Culture series. To prepare for the undertaking, Kaufman spent a few years immersing himself in all things Celan, and he's come up with a haunting eight-piece monument to the poet's work.

Scottish poet and playwright Fiona Templeton crisply recites Michael Hamburger's translations of Celan's enduring verse, including "Count the Almonds," a bitter meditation on the lost multitudes, and "Aspen Tree," the bereft son's lament for his murdered mother.

Templeton honors Celan's craft by giving each word the gravity it deserves without getting too maudlin.

But "Force of Light" is no spoken-word tribute set against sonic wallpaper. Kaufman and his band aren't content to accompany Templeton, but rather translate Celan's words into music.

I don't understand German, but the sound of Pamelia Kurstin's theremin on "Aspen Tree" tells me as much about Celan's grief as any combination of syllables could. It sounds just like a woman's voice in wordless mourning.

On the 141/2-minute "Conversation in the Mountains," Templeton starts out alone, telling the story of a wandering Jew. Thirty seconds in, an eerie melody begins. Slowly, a heavy-hearted drum joins them. Then lap-steel guitar. Then vibraphone. Then theremin.

Templeton's voice fades out around the three-minute mark, and the instruments entwine in a melancholy dance. By the time the narrator re-enters the song, it's on a different road, and her speech is repeatedly subsumed by sound, as the band swells and ebbs to a graceful end.

Not so Heavy

Not every track is quite so heavy and internalized; a couple of strictly instrumental pieces illuminate the close relationship between mania and depression, euphoria and despair.

The guitar-driven title track starts to grow intense and frenzied, but it allows light to penetrate through a thicket of violin and marimba.

"The Black Forest" alludes to Celan's private meeting with philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1967, when both men had less than 10 years left to live.

It reaches out with big drums and a climbing bass line, and gets surfy with the theremin.

Who knew that a survivor's encounter with a Nazi apologist could inspire something so playful?

The closer, "The Sky Beetle," is a sleepy instrumental until its steely end, taken from one of the last things that Celan wrote before his suicide. Laden with reflection, with the sky-beetles, inside the mountain, Templeton intones. The death you still owe me, I carry it out.

Drummer John Bollinger carries on a little bit longer, like a heartbeat fluttering to a halt as the body dies.

But for Celan, unlike most poets, the sentiments remain long after his life was snuffed out.

Dan Kaufman and his collaborators have done a mitzvah by transmuting his guilt-racked labor into such haunting music.

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On a happier note, the kids of the Paul Green School of Rock have a few intriguing shows this month in West Philly. Later this month, they'll focus on the Clash and the Sex Pistols at Millcreek Tavern.

If you've been meaning to check out the young talent but were turned off by ponderous programs like Zappa and metal showcases, now's your chance.

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