There is nothing quite as perplexing as immersion in an unfamiliar language, particularly when it encroaches on personal space, reaches into daily routine, and tampers with that proverbial “furniture of the mind.” When the language diverges, cracks, and splits into another, spiraling across families and dialects, one’s immediate reaction is to try to connect the dots. But because of its diversity and the inextricable patterns formed within, such measures become increasingly tricky to untangle throughout Zahava Seewald and Michaël Grébil’s spectacular new album, From My Mother’s House — that is, unless you are fortunate enough to be sufficiently versed in Hebrew, French, Yiddish, German, and English.
In collaboration with a host of artists and composers loosely affiliated with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, as well as Seewald’s own Zohara project, comes a record that revisits a fascination for Jewish history, familial analysis, and experimental composition. From the tragic memoirs of Aushwitz prisoner Charlotte Delbo to the Hebrew poetry of Leah Goldberg and the Greek Orthodox writing of Constantine P. Cavafy, From My Mother’s House approaches the artistic passion of an individual through a unique historical tapestry. Intrusion is due in most part to the mesmerizing aesthetic qualities that permeate through each piece; for once the album’s layout has been familiarized — with its blurred picture postcards, crumpled memos, distorted 35mm microfilm, and Semitic graffiti — it’s difficult to let go. Every song is a scene, a poem, or a dialogue, swirling unassumingly in and out of its own fractured narrative.
This makes for an extremely voyeuristic listen. It not only feels like you are peering in and looking at a stranger’s sonic scrapbook, but also feels as though you have broken into an artist’s home, dressed yourself in their clothes, and spent the afternoon swanning about their pantry, gawping at all they hold dear. Make no mistake, this is a private collection, a discrete and humble assembly of aural components that discloses secrets about family, friendship, and strife within a marginalized demographic, along with the seaside vacations that come with it.
Clearly, then, from the perspective of someone unacquainted with the languages at hand, the listening experience can also feel isolating and obscure. As a native speaker of English, emphasis is unconsciously placed on the tracks that expose content in that language (“Radiant Core” and “Who Can Look At The Beauty Of An Ocean”). The first of these pieces builds on layers of industrial drone, which lean on slipped and repeated vocal sketches to penetrating effect; the second follows sampled family conversations, braiding echoic voices with traditional folk music and a wonderful piano sonata. Both pieces sit comfortably in the context of the album, despite the distinctive linguistic elements they embody and the harrowing nature of their subject matter, which says a great deal about their surroundings.
Not only are those two tracks representative of the gripping nature of this release, but they also put a twist on the way that phrases are heard as aural fragments, and of language in general terms, which in this case can be heard as both a means of communicating messages and an aesthetic construct within the sound of, say, a sentence. The flip side to that perspective is nestled in the importance of the vocabulary being uttered, regardless of whether it’s understood. The text from “Who Can Look” is presented on the back of the album cover; it’s a beautiful and reproachful poem that debunks the notion of words as mere artistic fragments. No, these are feelings, tender and full of sensibility, painted somewhere inside a sonic soundscape of hashed radio frequencies and thumping disco snippets:
Who can look a the beauty of an ocean?
Who can look into the light of your eyes?
And not feel his heart torn from joy.
And not feel his heart torn from sorrow -
you, my restlessness. You.
Why do I long for you? Oh, tell me.
Not a single night goes by, a single day,
when I don’t think of you, dream of you,
of you, you my life, you the heart of me -
you, my restlessness. You.
When Seewald speaks those words, a heartfelt reading of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, her voice is cut with the contorted phrases of a child and some distant piano keys. Yet despite such casual interjections, that voice is still incredibly affecting; she lifts each syllable off the page with an astounding delivery that demonstrates the incredible spectrum of her talent — this particular track is embedded in the album’s later half, after delightful demonstrations in both opera and traditional folk.
Diversity has always been one of the most enchanting traits of Seewald’s vocals, which were perhaps most famously optimized by Zorn for the third edition of his Masada project. On From My Mother’s House, she enters the album with a strained purr on “Fadensonnen/Entre ciel et ici.” Her lyrics creep into some distorted transmission of musique concrète, French dialogue, and tape hiss, illuminating the artist’s presence, which is felt from that moment on, a tantalizing specter shaping the very memories and personal stories so gracefully explored here.
Meanwhile, the sonic world around that voice writhes, twists, and crumbles, a consequence of the scuffed samples and the lo-fi aesthetic lens through which they are framed. On “Contrechamp I,” the sound of waves crashing against a shoreline collides with high-pitched choral blasts and background discussion, which then plays into the unrestricted, static, seizure-introducing “Soleils Noirs - Rentrer.” The track opens out into Grébil’s chamber violin fragments and disconnected conversations: a woman singing in some sepia setting; a smoke-filled café on a cobbled street, drenched with the morning summer air. As each vignette unfolds, they transform the multilingual poems and melodies that accompany them; each recital takes on the role of a spiraling narrative that is unknowable outside of the dimension in which it was created, but that nevertheless remains fascinating to witness.
For over 20 years, Seewald has been tapping into the most personal confines of her heritage and cultural intrigue, but never has the presentation of her findings felt as enthralling as it does here. Not to sell Grébil short — for he offers an often jarring assortment of string accompaniments and piano sequences that beautifully unravel his curiosity in Medieval instrumentation and experimental practices (see “Antiphona” and “Concentrechamp II,” in particular) — but this is truly Seewald’s domain, and she occupies it with the most sincere intent. Sub Rosa describe the album’s sound as “haunted,” but I don’t find it to be that exactly; I hear trust. The listener is placed in a situation that unveils the deepest secrets and stories, no matter how widespread they might otherwise be, and reframes them in a new, compelling context. All that prevails for these artifacts is for them to be nurtured anew, with each and every spellbinding listen.