Back in 2018, musician Alex Roth spent time as artist-in-residence at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, reconnecting with his Polish roots. With funding from the British Council, the focus of the residency was to explore his personal and cultural identity — what it meant and felt like, as a Detroit-born, London-raised descendent of Polish and Ukrainian Jews, to rediscover his ancestral homeland, where he now lives.
Roth’s uncle had traced the family tree as far back as he could, but it hadn’t been far enough for the musician who was jealous of those who know their lineage as far back as medieval times, revealing centuries of stories about their ancestors. So he decided to spend time in the place where his ancestors had lived.
After arriving in Poland, Roth began making field recordings at sites where the traces of the country’s Jewish history could still be felt: neglected cemeteries, forgotten monuments, former ghetto districts subsumed by evolving cities.
“The idea was just to listen to the kind of sounds they might have been hearing,” explains the musician, who divides his time between the UK and Poland with his wife, a choreographer, and their two-year-old daughter. “It was a way of embedding myself into my surroundings and also allowing my surroundings to filter into my consciousness, and a lot of it was just documenting these things that were new to me and caught my ear.”
One of those sounds that caught his ear was the “distinctive squeak” of the gates of a Jewish cemetery in a little town called Muszyna in the south of Poland on the border with Slovakia. On visiting the town, where he married, Roth discovered the cemetery hidden out of the town centre on a steep slope heading towards the mountains. Since there is no Jewish community left in Muszyna, Roth was expecting the cemetery to be completely overgrown. Yet it was immaculately maintained.
“There’s this phenomenon where local non-Jewish Poles take it upon themselves to maintain the Jewish cemeteries,” he says. “There are hundreds around Poland being maintained, every day they go to sweep the leaves. It’s incredibly moving to visit these places and know that there are people who try to fill the void that was left in their wider culture, decades after the war.”
The result of Roth’s residency, and the reason for our meeting, is Esz Kodesz (a Polish transliteration of the Hebrew phrase meaning “sacred fire”), an album of intense experimental, improv-heavy post-rock by his trio Cut the Sky. Although Roth has been making field recordings for years, this is the first project where they have played a central role in the music-making process, he says. The track titles include the names of cities the trio has played in, and places where Roth made recordings; his band’s five-year history is woven into the musical tapestry. Most of them end up in performance, and a few on the record, but often they feed into the musical process in a more abstract way.
“The default way that I process experiences is through sound and music,” Roth explains. “It’s just become the way that I make sense of the world and also a way that I try to express those experiences. There are things that I’m trying to do with the music that I find really difficult to talk about because they’re happening on such a subliminal, abstract level. And for me, music makes the most sense.”
He adds: “There’s a significance to the sounds that I hope comes through the music.”
There’s significance, too, in the ghostly atmosphere Roth creates in concert performances by playing often-unrecognisable recordings from his phone into his guitar pickup. The resulting white noise evokes the past with which Roth wants to connect, and the effect tallies with his aim for the project, “to try and listen through history and see if I could pick things up that you might not hear at first listen. There are lots of layers.”
His initial idea was to write a suite of music based around these recordings. And to make the record, the bandleader, composer and guitarist united with a duo of highly celebrated musicians: clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and percussionist Hubert Zemler. “There was no doubt about which musicians I wanted to work with,” he says of the names from the Polish experimental music scene that had long resonated with him.
He put together a “mental map” of the music he intended to write, loaded the field recordings onto his phone, and travelled to Warsaw for rehearsals. Within seconds of their first rehearsal, Roth realised that he had no need to compose music for this trio; the improvisational synergy of the group was instant. Without a word of discussion, the music he had imagined for the past year was happening organically. “It felt like a homecoming,” he says.
It was a homecoming in multiple senses of the word. The music formed a bridge between his own life’s transition from the UK to Poland, and his family history, as he reverse-traced the path trodden by his great-great-grandfather more than a century earlier. And also, having grown up making music with his brothers, the saxophonist Nick and drummer Simon, the reeds/guitar/percussion trio format felt comfortable (“I’ve been improvising in that format ever ever since I could hold a guitar,” he says) and is the instrumentation backbone of bands that have had “huge impact” on him. “All these contextual layers, personal, ancestral, musical, made it a very meaningful project right from the start,” he says.
The album’s closer “Lord, Have Mercy (Lviv)”, an arrangement of a Ukrainian hymn, is particularly poignant. Expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine, another of his ancestral homelands, it’s a reminder that we are all united in our common humanity.
“There are times where it’s really all you can think about,” he says.
Esz Kodesz by Cut The Sky is out now on Aion Records. The London album launch is at The Jazz Café POSK on Friday 26 January.