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Imagined Harmonies

Two musicians find inspiration in the idea of Jews and non-Jews living side-by-side

Alexander Gelfand
August 05, 2010
(Courtesy Matt Herskowitz)
(Courtesy Matt Herskowitz)

In the introduction to his influential book Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson took mild issue with the work of a colleague, Jewish intellectual Ernest Gellner. Gellner, whose family fled to England from Czechoslovakia just before World War II, had famously claimed that nationalism “invents nations where they don’t exist.” But Anderson thought that Gellner—who, to be fair, had good reason to be wary of nationalism—was wrong to suggest that only some nations are dreamt into being by the people who inhabit them. “Communities are to be distinguished,” Anderson himself wrote, “not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

And that, my friends, would make an ideal inscription for a gift box containing the latest releases by cellist Maya Beiser and pianist Matthew Herskowitz. Both were inspired by places where Jews and non-Jews have lived side-by-side in relative peace and harmony–places that either ceased to exist a long time ago, or might never have existed in quite the way we like to imagine.

For Beiser, that place was medieval Spain, where Jews, Muslims, and Christians are said to have lived together in a spirit of tolerance for centuries. Over the past several decades, historians have challenged that rosy picture, though even those who point toward the persecution of Jews under Moorish rule admit that their coreligionists in Christian Europe had it far worse. Beiser came to the so-called Golden Age while searching for the nearest thing to her own childhood, which was spent on a kibbutz in a part of northern Israel dotted with Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

“One of my earliest musical memories was hearing the muezzin call to prayer at 5 a.m.,” says Beiser, who attended weddings and other celebrations in a nearby Bedouin village. “I grew up only performing Western classical music, but through my career as an artist, I’ve been trying to find those roots.” (A student of Isaac Stern, Beiser later attended Yale University and helped found the new-music ensemble Bang on a Can.)

Beiser spent time in Andalusia with composer Douglas Cuomo, searching for traces of a Judeo-Islamic musical landscape. But 1,000 years is a long time, and ultimately, she had to build the thing she was looking for from scratch.

She named it Provenance, and it may be even more diverse than its historical model, incorporating as it does new compositions by an Iranian Kurd (Kayhan Kalhor’s “I Was There,” based on a melody by a Persian musician in the Ummayad court), an Armenian duduk virtuoso (Jivan Gasparyan’s “Memories”), an Israeli-American composer (Tamar Muzkal’s “Mar de Leche,” which incorporates a Ladino song text), and two guys from an island in the North Sea (Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s “Kashmir”). The recording features Middle Eastern hand drums, an oud, a lone vocalist–and, most important, Beiser herself.

As much as I enjoy Beiser’s improvised exchanges with the remarkable oud player Bassam Saba, and as much as I thrill to the impassioned singing of Sephardic song specialist Etty Ben-Zaken, I am happiest when I have Beiser all to myself, as when she takes an extended solo over a drone on “Mar de Leche” or electronically loops and layers herself on Cuomo’s “Only Breath.”

Her playing is striking not only because it captures so much of the feeling and even the distinctive nuances of Arab music, but also because it sounds so much like singing. In part, this is due to the range and sonority of the cello—“one of the reasons I was attracted to the instrument is that it’s closest to the human voice,” she says—but a lot of it has to do with Beiser. She moans, she sighs, she rumbles and keens; she does everything that a singer can, with nothing more than a piece of wood, some metallic strings, and a horsehair bow. The land she sings into being with those basic materials might be imaginary, but it feels real to me.

The same goes for the city that stands athwart Herskowitz’s “Jerusalem Trilogy,” a three-movement work that appears on the album of the same name. Commissioned by the Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York to write a piece for a program of music by Jewish composers, Herskowitz—a native New Yorker who now lives in Montreal—focused on “the idea of Jews, Arabs, and Christians all living together, if not always getting along.” He didn’t consciously set out to mirror the notion of Jerusalem as a multicultural mosaic in music, but that’s pretty much what he got.

“I realized halfway through the first movement that it was an integration of Jewish and Arab styles, and it surprised me,” he says.

For the better part of the past decade, Herskowitz has been hammering out a personal synthesis of jazz and classical music. But a recent collaboration with the Absolute Ensemble brought him into contact with a number of Arab musicians. “They taught me a lot about their music,” he says, “And there’s a lot to learn; it’s very sophisticated, and there are a lot of layers.” Meanwhile, an ongoing project with Yiddish singer Theresa Tova—Herskowitz played piano on Tova’s 2006 release, You Ask Me Why, a collection of songs by Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman—exposed him to European Jewish music.

All of that comes out in “Jerusalem Trilogy,” and in several other tracks, as well. There are hints of klezmer-tango on Herskowitz’s arrangement of “Gottingen,” a ’60s-era hit for the French chanteuse Barbara; and polonaise rhythms vie with Arab ones for the soul of “Polonaise Libanaise,” a rearrangement of Chopin’s “Polonaise in F# Minor.” Bassam Saba pops up again too, playing both the oud and the nay, an end-blown flute with a pleasantly nasal timbre.

As with Provenance, however, the album belongs to its primary architect. Herskowitz is rightly praised for his prodigious technique, but like Beiser, he’s expressive rather than flashy. Whether he’s playing power chords at the piano, executing a dazzling run, or working through a dense bit of improvised counterpoint, he never seems to be showing off; instead, everything has some narrative logic or emotional purpose. And while the musical world he constructs from all of those gestures—some jazz, some classical, some Jewish, some Arab—might not appear on any map, it’s well worth a visit.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.