Dan Kaufman has an unlikely success mixing rock music and the Holocaust
Dan Kaufman’s new album, Force Of Light, issued by American avant-garde composer John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is a pensive yet powerful response to the work of post-war poet and Romanian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Paul Celan.
The leader of the leftfield rock group Barbez, Kaufman uses to mesmerising effect extracts of Celan’s poetry, read by Scottish poet Fiona Templeton, and a variety of musical styles from experimental jazz and post-rock to Eastern European folk and classical.
Force Of Light provides an insight into the mind of a man who, in his 20s, spent two years in labour camps in southern Romania, saw his parents deported to a concentration camp where his father died of typhus and his mother was shot, and committed suicide by drowning himself in the River Seine in 1970, having been wracked for years with guilt at having evaded Hitler’s Final Solution.
The music that Kaufman and his players have created is moving in its slow stillness, quietly disturbing, with corrosive, angular passages to evoke the horror of the period in question. Overall, however, there is a sense of the transcendence of the human spirit — hence the title of the record. It is by no means harrowing or daunting, as Kaufman and Barbez deploy their unconventional Theremin-marimba-vibes-guitar-bass-drum ensemble in a curiously engaging manner.
On a lunch-break from his job as fact-checker for the New York Times, Kaufman says: “I was very conscious of trying to honour Celan with a certain restraint because I felt that that typified his poetry; a kind of restrained anger or fury. But there are a lot of different moods and qualities on the album, from the deeply meditative to more exuberant and chaotic sounds.
“I hope that the horror and tragedy of the Holocaust and Celan’s life are evident in the music, but I also hope that there’s something in there representative of Celan trying to overcome, or at least reckon with, what happened to him. I was just trying to explain it in a musical way. The record is an homage to Paul Celan, but the Holocaust wasn’t his total life. Most of the work that I chose [for the voiceovers] was related to the Holocaust, but he would have been a great poet regardless. It wasn’t just the war that made him great.”
Kaufman, exactly 50 years younger than Celan, was born in 1970, in Madison, Wisconsin, a “pleasant hippie town and hotbed of ’60s radicalism”. His upbringing was “religious mixed in with a kind of liberal politics”, he says. “My mom was very into Jewish culture, religion and civilisation. Growing up, we were Conservative, which is between Reform and Orthodox, but there’s a type of Judaism that’s tiny called Reconstructionist, which is now what my folks are, and probably what I am closest to, too — which is a sort of hodgepodge.”
Because his father, a university professor, took a job in Israel, when Kaufman was 13, he moved to Haifa, where he learned to speak Hebrew fluently. He enjoyed the life but hated the school and culture, which he found “militaristic and more macho than I was used to in the States. I just didn’t fit. It seemed like a rigid society: you’d have to stand up and salute your teacher when he or she entered the room.”
Having been in Israel during the Lebanese war, Kaufman’s family returned to America, where he sought out Jewish music and culture. His mother was a harpist and his grandmother a pianist.
“My grandfather had a huge collection of Jewish music, and Jewish arts in general, and that gave me a deep background in Jewish music and art.”
Two years into a classical-guitar course at the University of Wisconsin, Kaufman switched to Hunter College in New York, where he majored in European history. He discovered the US variety of punk rock, bands like Swans, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, “a big force in my teenage years. I was very rebellious and always contrary. It was like that line in the The Wild One, where the girl asks [Brando], ‘What are you rebelling against?’ and he replies, ‘What have you got?’ I was trying to find my own identity, and, influenced by existential philosophy, I began challenging the preconceived wisdoms and politics of the Reagan era.”
In the late ’90s, he formed Barbez, planning to marry rock noise and classical sonorities; not for nothing has the band been described as Eric Satie meets The Stooges. Force Of Light, the fifth album, is the result of Kaufman’s serious immersion in Celan’s life, and involved his moving to Berlin for a month.
“The ambience there is wonderful,” he says, “but also deeply disturbing.” Did he retrace Celan’s steps? “No, he was only ever in Berlin in passing; he was born in Romania, then went to Vienna and finally to Paris. But I did feel like I was in his steps without literally being in his steps, if you know what I mean.”
It was in Germany that Kaufman became depressed. “I had a feeling of a connection to him, and a feeling of protection towards him. He obviously suffered so much, and I wanted to honour him, like wanting to give him a gift or something. Not to be pretentious, but I feel like I owe him a lot. But it was in Berlin that the weight of it got to me. There’s an exhibition underneath the Holocaust Memorial that I found extremely poignant. The whole place was full of ghosts.”
The spectre of the Holocaust doesn’t just haunt Kaufman’s music; it is a galvanising force. Is one of the intents behind Force Of Light a radicalisation of Jewish culture? “Well, that’s Zorn’s rubric, but I think it is a radical kind of reinterpretation of Paul Celan and an homage, as well as a subversion of preconceived ideas of what Jewish culture or Jewish music is; that it can only be klezmer or cantorial. I think this record fits into that spirit of subversion.”
Does Kaufman imagine Force Of Light to be a record that Celan might have appreciated, even made himself?
“I don’t think so, although I like that question a lot. I don’t know what music he might have made. I would hope that he would have been a fan of bands like Swans or The Stooges. He captured certain realities so well artistically, but he was also trying to reinvent language in a way that all experimental musicians can understand. So, yeah, I have a feeling he might have been open to that.”
Force Of Light is out now on Tzadik, as part of the Radical Jewish Culture series