Zahava Seewald has contributed substantially to the exploration and excavation of Jewish poetry, music, and art over the past 20 years. As a child growing up in Israel, she learned how to make distinctions that extended beyond the boundaries of vocabulary and grammar within the languages she speaks. They are used in her recordings, and they include French, as her mother tongue; Yiddish, as a language seated in the Orthodox tradition; and Hebrew, which is associated with “the brighter light” of her childhood.
Through combining her presentation of heritage as a curator with her love of poetry and the arts, Seewald’s music has taken on a most exquisite design. On last year’s extraordinary From My Mother’s House, she worked with regular collaborator and composer Michael Grébil to craft one of the most inspiring, personal, and experimental albums of her career.
TMT spoke with Zahava over the phone from her desk at the Jewish Museum of Belgium about the role of poetry, language, and field recordings in her work.
I know that you have worked a great deal with John Zorn through his Tzadik imprint. From what I gather, it differs substantially from the last album you release for Sub Rosa.
Yes, that’s right. For Tzadik we released Scorched Lips as Zohara, then I worked on a series with Sasha Argov, and then there was The Unknown Masada, which was for John’s 50th birthday celebration. From My Mother’s House was really different; Michael and I like to explore things a bit differently. He is also somebody who knows lots about music… He likes to explore every possibility with sound. So it was nice to work together on this very personal album, which is very dark — we know it’s very dark — and it’s quite sorrowful. But here in Belgium, world music is usually very happy music, and we don’t like this concept of… We are just not in that space.
But this wasn’t the first time you had worked with Michael Grébil, was it?
No, we worked together on the Zohara project, and then we also worked together on some traditional music. He has also worked with Jordi Savall, so he can play some really interesting instruments in the Judo-Spanish tradition.
His arrangements on From My Mother’s House are incredible, but I wanted to start by asking you a very surface-level question about the album. It’s striking as to the number of languages you have on there. I’m interested to know how many languages you speak and how that impacts your creative process.
Well the only language that isn’t on the CD that I do speak is Dutch. I didn’t use that language, not because I don’t like it — I like all languages very much, even the ones I don’t speak — but we just didn’t get to Dutch. Next time there will also be Dutch. But yes, I speak all of the languages I use (Yiddish, Hebrew, German, French, and English). I don’t speak them all very well, but I speak them.
When you are writing or you are composing a piece, how do your thought processes alter depending on what language you are working with at the time?
I think language is very important because when you speak, you enter into a different world, and this influences everything that happens around you. It also influences the voice you use to express it and so I think these things are linked, but we don’t think about it consciously. Michael and I worked in a very intuitive way, we just let it happen whenever we had the inspiration. We didn’t work with a plan beforehand about what languages we were using, we just thought about how it sounded as it happened. So the recordings were not planned and written like modern composers are used to doing. It was the function of the day, along with the mood and the inspiration.
I’m interested in how these different compositional ideas work through the languages. So even when you were communicating with each other, you must have been speaking in different languages. Did you find that affected the results of your work?
Your question is very interesting. I should listen to the CD again to maybe [analyze] these things. Michael, of course speaks English and he understands German, but he doesn’t speak Hebrew and he doesn’t speak Yiddish. He doesn’t understand those languages but I think he is very sensitive to the sound — so I can’t really explain what happened in terms of the creative process from that respect.
The feedback I’ve received from people who have enjoyed the album has been that knowledge of the languages you use are not essential, and I would agree with that. What were your intentions for your audience when you were recording in those languages?
I think some people get into it. Even if they don’t understand, and some people don’t get into it because they don’t understand, or they don’t feel the link between all those small pieces and all those references. I don’t know how to answer that because for me, even if I listen to somebody speaking or somebody doing a spoken-word project in a language I don’t understand, I’m fascinated. Because even if you miss something, the sound is so interesting. It depends on the sensitivity of each person, and this is very personal and subjective. I suppose that you don’t understand Yiddish or Hebrew, or maybe you don’t understand German but maybe you felt something or you perceived something that is beyond understanding, and this is important. Of course, not everybody thinks it’s interesting, but it’s not only about reaching the biggest audiences so instead, let’s do the things we like and that we believe are true — because this is the most important.
That makes perfect sense. I don’t speak any of the languages you use on the album there…
…Except for English, yes?
I think language is very important because when you speak, you enter into a different world and this influences everything that happens around you.
… With the exception of English. But that’s what drew me into the music, because it’s fascinating to listen to these poems, even without that understanding. It’s possible to appreciate the sound, the phonetics of the words you are speaking and the interplay that exists within the compositions.
That’s right, and I also think that when you speak another language or when you sing another language, you enter another space. It’s like you are another person, and this is very interesting. I don’t have the same feeling when I sing, it’s really when I am talking or when I am doing a spoken-word project that I enter into another realm each time. I’m in another language. So this is fascinating for me. Even when you speak another language your face is different, and the mouth is different and the sound is different because you move other muscles in your face to pronounce something and so you enter in another dimension, you enter other physical references. I think linguists speak about it more eloquently.
How many of those languages would you say are ‘other’? Perhaps not necessarily languages that you learned from a young age?
Well, English. When I speak English I enter into another world because it’s not a language I heard at home. That’s not the case with Hebrew and Yiddish, which I’ve known since my childhood, but even the Yiddish is linked to another world because it’s linked to the world of Orthodox Jews. It’s a little world, it’s a very closed world, so for me, when I speak Yiddish that’s where I am transported to. When we are dealing with poetry, though, that is very different again, because then you are outside the ghetto world, you are outside the very religious world where poetry has no place, at least not this kind of poetry. This poetry has been written by people who are not religious. But the language has a link with this Orthodox, very religious world which I don’t especially, I wouldn’t say that I don’t like it, but I don’t belong anymore to that and I don’t want to belong to that — but the language stays… So I’m a little bit ambiguous when I’m in this Yiddish zone, but when I speak the language or when I’m busy with poetry, I think even if I know those languages since my childhood, I think I enter another dimension. And with Hebrew also, because I lived in Israel when I was very young and all of my memories about my childhood are linked to Israel. So when I speak Hebrew, it’s tied to those things, which are very personal of course, they are part of a Jewish modern world and another culture. French, on the other hand, is my mother tongue. So French is me.
When you choose to read a poem for a recording, do you find that you will read in the language it was written in, or will you translate it?
Some of the poems are translated because I liked the French translations a lot. For instance, I discovered Rose Ausländer in a book about Pina Bausch, a dancer, and I loved her poetry very much. I found some books with German and French translations of these poems and I liked them both. And, as my daughter is also in this project, I asked her to take part in this exercise. So I use her voice for the French translation and she also tried to speak some English. I used her way to pronounce the English in fact because she can’t speak that language, and this makes it interesting when you are trying to pronounce and read, you try to get closer to the sound and it has interesting results.
What effect did this translation exercise have on your appreciation of the poetry?
Well, different languages have different colors. So yes, I think it has an effect. I think that the poems are brighter in French than in German.
The music you are making is often said to fit under the term ‘Jewish Music,’ which seems like a broad term to me…
… Of course it is, but why not use that term? Yes, we can say it. Because I’m Jewish, because being Jewish is important, because Jewish culture is interesting and because I like to deal with that as an integral part of my world.
It just seems like a very encompassing term. I mean, depending on where the music was written and how it was performed, there are so many different types of Jewish aren’t there? The subjects that you embrace on From My Mother’s House relate to being Jewish, but it certainly doesn’t sound like music that comes from that tradition.
I would say that From My Mother’s House is the most personal project that I have done. I would say that it’s an experimental project around poetry, with links to the Jewish world and links with personal experiences, and that’s it. I would not put it in a box of “Jewish Music,” but if somebody wants to call it that, then why not? Jewish music is very broad. One hundred years ago somebody said that Jewish music is made by Jews for Jews but I don’t think it’s so restrictive — I would be broader in that case. I think that if it’s dealing with the Jewish subject it could be Jewish. If the authors are Jewish, then the work could also be Jewish — I have no problem with this.
What about the poetry you were using specifically for this project, how did you go about selecting it?
Well, Abraham Sutzkever is a great Jewish poet, so I was familiar with his work and I wanted to include some of that. I also discovered a book that was made up of Yidish poetry translated by an American author. I loved the translation in English and I loved all of the authors he chose, and so I found a Sutzkever poem from that book. That book also included poems by Rose Ausländer — I came across those by reading the book I mentioned about Pina Bausch. Then there is also Celan of course. Some of the poems I wanted to use are too heavy, so I tried to find perhaps the lighter ones that don’t refer extensively to World War II.
Charlotte Delbo is also included. She’s a fantastic French author who was deported to Auschwitz. I worked on a project about her and I found her style of French to be so, so; how do you say it? In French we say “juste.” The work is like Samuel Beckett writing in French, he simply uses the words that he should, with no adjectives. It’s all very precise, particularly when Delbo talks about her experiences during the war. I adore what she wrote and find her to be one of the finest authors.
Then there is Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet who has no links with the Jewish world, I don’t think. I haven’t discovered any links at least. But I have been to Greece on many occasions and I’m very passionate about it. When I was at school I studied Greek history and ancient Greek, so I love this subject. When I discovered Cavafy, I also came across a narrator who interprets that author vocally, he reads in a very low voice in a poem about the barbarians and it’s so beautiful. I’m currently studying the Greek language, so this is also part of things that were happening when we were making the CD.
In addition to that, I asked some friends for ideas because I enjoy their commentaries about certain books, so I invited them to also share some works. I asked my daughter to contribute and Michael also brought the sound of his house and his children to the recording.
It sounds like you also have personal ties to a lot of this poetry.
Yes, certainly. Leo Goldberg’s Hebrew poetry I discovered by way of a very good book edited in Great Britain. I think it’s called “Hebrew Poetry From the Ancient Times to Today,” and Leo Goldberg is a fantastic poet from Israel, so I wanted to also put something Hebrew and something contemporary and this is the last song on the CD. It’s more lyrical than the rest.
Because the selection is so personal, then, how does it feel to present the work publicly on a label like Sub Rosa?
Well, Sub Rosa is very open to the project. I was happy they said yes, because everybody knows that CDs are very difficult to sell these days and their distribution shows some commitment. So the label is taking a risk, and Sub Rosa is one of the good labels here in Belgium working with very interesting artists, so I’m very happy that they accepted. It’s not my first project on their label, I also worked on a production about traditional Yiddish songs, then about Judo-Spanish songs. I also did something on revolutionary songs from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century in Yiddish. All of these were released on Sub Rosa.
How did you go about finding the right composition or musical accompaniment to the poetry? I guess that is where Michael comes in?
Yes, certainly. He has a lot of ideas and he plays a lot of instruments. He would like to play everything I think. We composed the last song together, for example, but his input was very important on all of the CDs, I think without him this couldn’t have happened. All of the instruments and compositions on From My Mother’s House were written by him.
Did he find that an easy way of working, by creating compositions to preselected poetry?
Well it wasn’t easy for either of us, because we worked once a week on this project and it took one year to do it. It took a lot of time and we were not inspired every week, but it was not difficult for him to love those poems or to appreciate them. What was difficult however, was to find something on each of these specific, personal projections that suits our mood — I think that was the hard part, that the CD would not just be a long sad song, but it would have something that was a little bit different within the varying atmospheres.
You also decided to record the field recordings.
Yes, he made some field recordings and I made some as well. I made recordings with a very small, nonprofessional recorder, and he used a very good recorder, and we tried to mix those very different sounds.
So what was your process for recording them?
When I was tired, during the night, I read poems out loud and I tried different things. I was trying to record the environment as well as my own voice, or record certain atmospheric noises or even the sea. Michael also took his recorder with him everywhere — there were no plans beforehand.
On From My Mother’s House you can hear the waves crashing on the beach and there is some childhood laughter in there as well — were all of these unplanned and spontaneous?
Yes, we are both like that. Michael doesn’t like to plan too much, he likes to be lifted by his inspiration and to do things when he feels like he is capable. That’s how it worked. Next time it will be something about… I don’t know… I would like to work on something that would be in the continuation of this, but we shall see. Perhaps something more masculine.
It’s quite sorrowful. But here in Belgium, world music is usually very happy music, and we don’t like this concept of… We are just not in that space.
Where does the title come from then, in this respect, From My Mother’s House?
Its the title of the poem from Leo Goldberg, in fact. We thought the title was very personal and it’s very right. From My Mother’s House is something that’s close to the world we try to create.
Sub Rosa describe the album as “haunting” as well…
I would not say that it’s haunting, but it’s one of the only CDs from myself that I can actually go back and listen to. I don’t listen to the other CDs I do, but this one absolutely. The more you listen to it, the more you get into it. Because sometimes when you create something, you are not aware of what you are doing, and by listening to it again and again, you become aware of what happened in that moment.
Why is it that you don’t go back and listen to the other albums that you have made?
No, I never do this. I think everything is bad. No, not really, I just… It’s very difficult to listen to what you do, you only hear the faults and defects. I’m glad I don’t have that with the new album.
I wanted to ask you about improvisation. We talked a bit about the field recordings and how they were spontaneous, but what about in the reading of the poems and the order that you used — how much of that was improvised?
Well the instrumentation was not improvised. The instrumentation was composed. All the electro-acoustic effects are very composed and Michael thought a lot about placing them. But the voice was more improvised. In the moment it was, “OK lets try this and let’s try that,” and when it was field recording then it was really improvised. When I asked my friends to read a poem, it was very improvised. So it was a bit of a mixture.
There is one fragment on the album where there is like a… It sounds like a burst from the radio, a disco burst…
Yes, it’s terrible! We fought about it because I didn’t like it at all. In fact it’s Yiddish, it’s very kitsch, it’s 80s and Michael wanted to put something in there that would break the atmosphere a little bit because otherwise it became a little bit heavy. On reflection, I think it’s a good idea; I’m not disturbed anymore by this terrible disco sound. This is sometimes a problem when you share a project, you have to negotiate — sometimes somebody wants to put something in it and you don’t like it… but at the end everything worked well. It was just a novel disagreement — it was the only disagreement in fact!
What about other collaborations then, because we talked about Zorn before, and the Tzadik/Sub Rosa connection — how would the collaboration with Michael compare with some of the other joint works from the past?
Well, I have worked with other musicians from the improvisation scene here in Belgium. There is an Italian man who is very talented and there are other people, but we never recorded together. I did some work with them and for me it was a new world, this improvisation world. I started four or five years ago to explore this field, but it did not end in a recording, only in concerts.
Have you performed From My Mother’s House?
Not yet — because it is a very different project to put on a stage. And we should really think about something with more sonography. Not really a concert, but something — I think we need some means, not to be dry with the decorum. We thought about having some visuals also, but if we have the visual things then we don’t need the sound, and I think we should be careful about it, because if you put images over sound then the sound interferes with the images. Maybe it could be possible to have images without the sound for one performance, but we are still thinking about it.
What you could tell me about the Zohara project, which I’m not so familiar with. Could you tell us something about that and about any material you might have planned for the future.
Well, the Zohara project was a project I wanted to do around the Hebrew language. Exploring the Yiddish language was quite heavy for me in fact, because it also has to do with the Ashkenazic world, with the religious world where I grew up, and I didn’t want that. I have an ambiguous relationship with this world, and there is also something very dark there linked to my father to deportation, to this very dark history of the War, so I wanted to get out of that. I wanted instead to explore this Hebrew language, which is more linked to something brighter, the bright light of Israel and my childhood, and that’s why I did the Zohara project. I did this with musicians I enjoy very much, it’s also with Michael and with a very good drummer, and somebody who plays clarinet and electro-acoustic is Stephan Dunkelman, who is really brilliant with composition and very musical in his melodies, which is not always the case with electro-acoustics. Well, I used religious poetry and also non-religious poetry, which was all in Hebrew. We had some Zohara concerts, but not very many unfortunately. I’d still very much like to work on that. And, as for the future, I don’t know. I’m sure there will be the chance to explore new things as I’m always looking forward to working on a new project.
[Photo: M. Grébil]