force of light reviews
“As a member of experimental New York band, Barbez, Kaufman has released two fascinating albums, but this solo work was recorded for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, as part of an ongoing Jewish series. Interpreting the life and work of Holocaust survivor, Jewish poet, Paul Celan–his words read by Scottish poet Fiona Templeton–this is a truly incomparable listening experience. Yet, 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. Mixing sparse rock and Eastern European folk, the result is melancholic, mesmerizing and uplifting” Uncut (Five stars)
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This may be the most challenging, but also one of the most rewarding releases, in Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series history. Art-rock Barbez’s Dan Kaufman’s musical realization of the poems of the late Jewish/German poet Paul Celan(1920-1970) is a courageous act. Celan, whose parents perished in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II while he was sent to forced-labor camps, wrote poetry torn between deep solidarity with the tragedy of Jewish people and loyalty to the rich German language; poetry where negation becomes a positive force, that seeks for salvation in every act of life and death (he committed suicide in 1970). His poetry is obsessed with language, hoping that the poetic language can manifest itself as the highest form of communication, but fully aware that it may form a screen between itself and actual communication. Celan’s poetry is virtuosic and singular in its use of language, but also compacted into short enigmatic fragments. How can one translate such multi-layered, rarely decipherable images into a satisfying and intelligible musical form?
Kaufman was first transfixed by Celan’s poetry a decade ago. When Tzadik’s John Zorn — another Celan admirer who dedicated his own “Shibboleth” to Celan on From Silence to Sorcery (Tzadik, 2007) — invited Kaufman to record for the Radical Jewish Culture in 2005, the guitarist decided to dedicated three years to preparing for the project. He augmented Barbez with three string players and asked Scottish playwright and poet Fiona Templeton to read the poems, which she does excellently with a quiet, almost restrained delivery that only intensifies Celan’s images. His arrangements of seven Celan poems and one instrumental don’'t attempt to enhance musical images of Celan’s language, but wisely offer a solemn emotional resonance of these magnificent poems.
Kaufman’s Spanish-tinged string guitar on “Shibboleth,” lightly references lines that hint to opposition against rising Fascism in civil war Spain by La Passionara, but this is an exception. None of the other arrangements surrender easily to obvious references, but succeed in transmitting a mysterious aura that calls for repeated listenings, just as Celan’s poetry demands constant readings. Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin is central to Kaufman’s musical setting, stressing the almost wailing human vocal characteristic of this vintage instrument. The gentle use of theremin, together with Kaufman and Peter Lettre’s distant, resonating guitars and Peter Hess' sad clarinet envelope “Aspen Tree,” where Celan mourns the loss of his mother, implying the intense imagery while never trying to force it.
The theremin merges beautifully with the strings in a spare and slow arrangement of another poem that addresses Celan’s mother’s death, “Count the Almonds.” It uses the bitter almond — a repeating motive in Celan’s poetry—as a powerful metaphor for Jewish fate. The fifteen-minute sober and modest arrangement of an excerpt from the only prose text that Celan published, Conversation in the Mountains (1959), a cryptic meditation on Jewish identity, is also impressive. Long, sustained guitar lines fuse with the peaceful theremin’s singing, and minimal touches of vibes and drums, all echoing Templeton’s straightforward and unpretentious reading.
A Haunting and possessing release. All About Jazz
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Guitarist Dan Kaufman creates a moving homage to the works of poet Paul Celan on Force of Light, his debut CD for Tzadik. Celan (1920-70) is best known for works that eloquently eulogize victims of the Holocaust. By assembling a talented host of collaborators and creating arrangements of tremendous sensitivity, Kaufman manages the delicate balance of creating music that embodies the emotional gravity and variegated inflections of Celan’s work without ever seeming to oversell.
Perhaps the most inspired choice in terms of collaborators is spoken word performer Fiona Templeton. No matter how much the music swells around her on “Shibboleth,” Templeton keeps her tone level and her declamation muted. This provides an objective counterweight to the instrumentalists’ explorations of the poems’ dramatic arcs. The prevailing demeanor on works such as “Sky Beetle” is mysterious, often sotto voce, creating an intriguing ambience
Kaufman is a versatile guitarist, spinning beautiful nylon-string arpeggiations on “Shibboleth” and pensive chordal inquiries as a counterpoint to soaring violins on the title track. He takes an edgier approach on “Conversation in the Mountains,” interjecting electric guitar stabs over vibraphone ostinati and undulating strings.
Elsewhere, his colleagues take center stage. “Aspen Tree,” a poem discussing the murder of Celan’s mother, is particularly wrenching. Templeton’s subdued reading is accompanied by a dirge-like funeral march, while Pamela Kurstin’s theremin and Peter Hess’s clarinet take up a mournful keening.
Force of Light, in the spirit Tzakik’s best releases, transcends genre, incorporating elements of jazz, concert, and klezmer styles. One hopes that Kaufman records much more chamber music for the label in the future. Sequenza 21
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Dan Kaufman, of the band Barbez, has recorded a quiet, haunting album of rock songs after the astringent poetry of Paul Celan that is admirable in its unpretentious literariness. Celan, who was born in Romania in 1920, saw both of his parents killed in the early part of World War II and later, while living in Paris, embarked on a singularly torturous poetic path into the heart of the atrocities of that war. Fiona Templeton recites poems spanning Celan’s career over Kaufman’s quiet compositions, which, along with the usual instruments (bass, guitar), deploy theremin, vibraphone, and marimba. It’s a no-frills affair — and all the better for it. New York Magazine
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The notion of creating a musical album around the works of a poet, any poet, is a contentious one, whether the music is composed by the writer, or, as it is here, a posthumous homage and affirmative response to one of the most enigmatic, mysterious, and brilliant poets of the 20th century, Paul Celan. Guitarist Dan Kaufman and his collaborators have undertaken a mighty effort because Celan’s body of work, though emotionally loaded with images of separation, death, and an unnameable, even unspeakable loneliness and anguish, is a quiet one. His poems speak slowly, deliberately, and more often than not, indirectly. They are, nonetheless, razor sharp at getting through to the small root that opens into a vast abyss at the center of language; where it doesn’t hold meaning captive any longer. In Celan’s work, it breaks down instead, allowing the reader to fall headlong into the space generated by its broken bits and pieces; it leaves nothing to hold onto, even though his lines are taut, spare, skeletal. They leave no room for the reader escape from what they reveal, and draw tears from the pit of the belly.
Born in Romania, Celan was a Jew who, along with his parents, was rounded up by the Nazis and sent into the labor and concentration camps. Both his parents died there: his father contracted typhus; his mother was executed. Almost in direct response to Theodor Adorno’s notion that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, Celan wrote the most beautiful and haunting poetry from the very root pot of that poisonous plant. Celan and Edmond Jabes (another Jewish poet, in this case exiled from Cairo during the Suez crisis) wrote consistently and totally from the place of the wound caused by the Holocaust and historical exile of the Jew, and neither was didactic. In Celan’s case, that wound was so great that it finally consumed him; he committed suicide. While literary critics debate the deconstruction of meaning in Celan’s (and Jabes’) work, the rest of us have merely to open the book and consider it, to allow it in and to let it change our worlds.
Kaufman has done just that. Far from stringing along musical phrases to underscore poignant points in the writer’s text, he understands that every pause is poignant. His job lies elsewhere, to reveal the ready meaning in these poems, to allow the listener to hear the way a human voice can utter them, and with his music, accompany them along into the depths of the human heart and its own mystery. Kaufman plays both electric and nylon-string guitar and, on occasion, lap steel. His collaborators include Pamelia Kurstin on theremin, Danny Tunick on vibes and marimba, Peter Hess on clarinets, Dan Coates and Peter Lettre on basses, and drummer John Bollinger. Other musical guests include Julia Kent on cello and Catherine McRae and Sarah Bernstein on violins. The voice reading these poems is no less than Fiona Templeton’s. On the first track, Kaufman offers up one of Celan’s most famous works, “Shibboleth.” His nylon-string guitar fills the space very carefully as Templeton reads: “Together with my stones/Grown big with weeping/Behind the bars/They dragged me out into the middle of the market/That place where the flag unfurls/To which I swore no kind of allegiance/Flute, double flute of night/Remember the dark twin redness of the enemy and Madrid/Set your flag at half mast, memory/At half mast today and forever/Heart, here too reveal what you are/Here in the midst of the market/Calling Shibboleth/Call it out into your alien homeland...”
Kaufman’s dramatic tension rises even as Templeton’s voice remains steady, the music revealing the calling out of “Shibboleth” into the “alien homeland,” where both speaker and spoken ring incessantly in the hollows of history. It may have been Madrid, invoked by the excruciating memory of the author, but it rings inside all of us and without us, forgotten but ever a reminder in our world, shown almost daily on television; when passively agreed to, this place approaches the same possibility as the former Yugoslavia, or Darfur. Kaufman is no autodidact. In the music of Celan’s skeletal poems, he hears that there can be no symphonies to adorn them, only sonic appendages to his “Force of Light.” The title track that follows this opening is loaded and no words ever come from the mouth of the reader. The terrain where “force” happens — painted by electric guitars, cello, vibes, marimba, an electric bass, and drum kit — is a fragile one, so one must approach cautiously. And this band does — slowly, every slowly at first but gaining ground and momentum even as this field of sound is broken — wrangling itself through counterpoint and dynamic changes with angles not measured so much as simply manifested, almost to shake off the meaning of the previous poem, but instead underscore what it means. Consequently, the tune doesn't end; it just ceases a frame at a time.
Kaufman follows no formula on this album. Some pieces have poems within them and some are purely instrumental tracks, such as “The Black Forest,” in which off-kilter marimba and guitars call out for the violins and drums to answer. Basslines point a way into the tangle, but Kaufman’s indirect, emotionally taut composition digs ever deeper into the mass of sound for 6 minutes, allowing listeners to experience glimpses of sunlight through the shadows. There is a repetitive theme, but it’s the pulse of itself, insistent on its existence as the instruments engage one another and give way from one thematic concern to the next, always with klezmer and Yiddish folk music in equal tension with jazz and modern classical music; they are in turns quizzical, ambiguous, humorous, and nearly aggressive. The solos by theremin and bass clarinet to this restated theme are some of the more remarkable moments on this already quite stunning record. Elsewhere, “Conversation in the Mountains” is an extended meditation on what it means to be a Jew: the other to others, to oneself, and to other Jews, who are united so deeply under the skin by history yet wholly other to the cultures of the world — and as spoken of in the world, even in the mountains, where one “Jew recognizes another Jew.” There is that space of acknowledgement through thousands of years, and that space of aloneness and singularity lying in the heart that cannot be answered in earthly tones. The text opens by itself, is drawn in and out by a composition that takes into account ambient soundscapes, jazz, folk themes, and klezmer, and then fades out, in, and out again, drawn in ever widening circles by Kaufman’s varied and brilliant harmonic interplay, accents, colors, and textures, which feel lush but with hidden sharp edges.
Celan gave a speech to a German audience in the ’50s, speaking to them in their native tongue, and likened the poem to starting a dialogue, but knew not with whom, as “a message in a bottle, sent out in the — not always greatly hopeful — belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land.” Kaufman writes in his liner notes that “these are songs washed up on land.” This is the response to that opening dialogue, set in song no less, one that carries on with volume and vibration long after silence appears to have overtaken it. Kaufman’s Force of Light is among the most profound settings for poetry in music. It is musically so rich, varied, and poetic in its own right that it can not be separated from the poems — nor can it contain them, and he understands this implicitly. Nor can the language in the poems contain this music; it speaks out from the land not into the sea, but into those mountains where not only does “Jew recognize Jew,” but anyone human being can, should he or she desire it, see another. Kaufman’s recording is among the best of 2007; it is sophisticated yet accessible to anyone, heartbreaking in its articulation, and provocative in its assertions because its speaks gently enough for the moral authority of both spoken and musical text to be not only heard and assented to, but grasped for its context in history and in this present future moment (5 stars). Allmusic.com
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What should be profound can so often become annoying when composers reach to adapt poetic oeuvres to music. The concept has become a recurrent strategy for nabbing grants and scoring gigs on the performing-arts circuit, even when the work rarely lives up to its inspiration.
The new album (and tour) featuring Dan Kaufman and his outfit, Barbez, marks a strong exception. The ensemble has found beautiful ways to tease out the themes of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s spare and elegant poems, rich in tragic resonance and rhythmic nuance. Barbez features an unusual instrumental array of reeds, theremin, marimba and vibes in addition to guitars and drums, and here adds special guests on strings (Julia Kent, Sarah Bernstein and Catherine McCrae). The accent of Scottish poet Fiona Templeton, who reads from Celan’s texts, adds another distinct texture to these pieces, which usually unfold in a dreamlike swirl.
The effect shifts, however, from piece to piece. “Count the Almonds” opens with the suspended animation of vibes and ethereal female vocals as Templeton recites, “Count the almonds / count what was bitter and kept you awake/count me in…” A violin throbs in passionate melancholy, redolent of Eastern European airs, and then the band slips into a highly organic kind of jazz-rock jam.
“Sky Beetle,” announced by the beat of a timpani, feels like 1960s modernism, leading into a mournful violin solo and words that Celan wrote before leaping to his death in the Seine in 1970. “Conversation in the Mountains” contemplates wooded isolation over 14½ minutes of lonely lap-steel guitar. This is far from easy listening, yet Barbez succeeds in making Celan’s words powerfully transporting. timeout
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Fasciné par la puissance évocatoire et le mystère d’une langue dont les heurts rythmiques et les inventions formelles lui semblent trouver un équivalent musical dans le dodécaphonisme, le guitariste et fondateur du groupe Barbez de Brooklyn, a caressé pendant dix ans le projet de traduire musicalement quelque chose de la trajectoire de Paul Celan, sa poésie et sa vie, toutes deux profondément liées à l’expérience de la Shoah, et articulées autour d’interrogations sur l’être au monde, par la langue, par le lieu, et par la possibilité pour une langue de devenir un lieu pour ceux qui n’en ont plus.
Accompagné des musiciens de Barbez et de quelques Johnsons (ceux d’Antony) tels que Julia Kent ou John Bollinger, Dan Kaufman a estompé les références les plus slaves de son cabaret punk théâtral et expressionniste pour jouer avec distinction la carte de la distanciation et de l’écart pour ce disque construit comme une monographie. Évocations de moments de la vie de Celan comme sa rencontre avec Heidegger ("The Black Forest") alternent en effet avec l’illustration sonore de quelques poèmes aux résonances autobiographiques ("Aspen Tree"). La musique de DK peut jouer la carte du mimétisme ou du figuratif : un accord grimaçant de seconde mineure porté par une danse trépignante pour traduire ce que pouvait représenter pour un juif roumain au lendemain de la seconde guerre mondiale le geste d’investir la langue allemande ; quelques guitares flamenco pour répondre aux « Estremadure » et « No Pasaran » prononcés d’une voix blanche par Fiona Templeton dans "Shibboleth". Mais Force of Light surprend par son caractère lumineux et caressant, ses allures simples presque anodines, à l’instar de "Conversation in the Mountain" : morceau de post-rock à la linéarité nonchalante, enveloppé de pedal-steel comme chez Lambchop et parsemé d’éclats de vibraphone ou de clarinette, de reflets de guitare et travaillé par les inflexions et les déformations subtiles produites par le toujours très brillant theremin de Pamelia Kurstin. Entêtantes, sinueuses et mélancoliques les compositions ne révèlent leur étrangeté et leur parenté cachée avec l’œuvre de Celan qu’après plusieurs écoutes. La lumière y a cette qualité ambiguë : violence froide et crue, beauté et présence insistante du monde. C’est seulement en fin de parcours, sur le magnifique "Sky Beetle", que se révèle l’abîme et la désolation d’un paysage nocturne fait de silences, de vibrations, scandés par des percussions sourdes et ces mots : « Chargé de reflets chez les/scarabées du ciel/dans la montagne/La Mort/dont tu me restais redevable, je/la porte/à terme ».
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In Europe, the Second World War is remembered with two-minutes of silence at eleven o’ clock in the morning on the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year. Marking this occasion in his own way, guitarist Dan Kaufman’s contribution to Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series interprets the life and work of the poet Paul Celan, whose first poem, “Mother’s Day,” was penned as a gift to his mother who had been shot by a guard in a Ukraine concentration camp. Staying true to Celan’s style of using silence as a means to contemplate language, Kaufman’s instrumental arrangements personify the anguish felt in the poetry, while the grave tone to Fiona Templeton’s recitation delivers a sort of gravity that verges on aching. Before my first listen, I was concerned that the album would succumb to the macabre, given the theme and untimely end to Celan’s life; however, the use of cello, violin, clarinet and Theremin manifest thoughts of loneliness and mourning, rather than complete devastation. Contrary to what might have been a dark and heavy-handed work, Dan Kaufman and his ensemble succeed in creating a compelling piece that touches on many emotions; Force of Life is at once accessible, engaging and thought-provoking. Other Music
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The distinguished literary critic George Steiner once described the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan as “almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945.” That pronouncement has been repeated often over the past decade, as Celan’s poetry has come to greater attention in the United States through a fresh clutch of translations from the original German — translations that have inspired musical settings by various composers.
The most recent of these, “Force of Light” (Tzadik) by New York guitarist Dan Kaufman and his band, Barbez, calls to mind something else that Steiner once said: “The most important tribute any human being can pay to a poem or a piece of prose he or she really loves is to learn it by heart. Not by brain, by heart; the expression is vital.”
By that standard, “Force of Light” is an exemplary reading of Celan’s dark and deeply allusive work. And that is true even during those instrumental passages, when Celan’s words are left unspoken and Kaufman’s notes do all the talking.
First, some background: Celan was born Paul Antschel in Bukovina, a Hapsburg province that passed first to Romania and then later to the Ukraine. Both of his parents died in the camps — his father of typhus, his mother of a gunshot wound — where Celan himself spent nearly two years. After the war, he traveled to Bucharest and began publishing poetry in German under an anagram of his Romanian surname. He eventually settled in Paris, where he married and, in 1970, drowned himself in the Seine.
Celan was quickly recognized as one of the leading German-language poets of the postwar period. Yet his work remained relatively unknown in North America for many years, in part because comprehensive translations of his oeuvre were late in coming, and in part because of the notoriously difficult nature of his poetic language.
Despite his early work’s references to concrete objects and to historical events, there is also a great deal of wordplay and abstraction. His most famous poem, the chilling “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), explicitly evokes the Holocaust. Yet Celan was extremely prolific, and much of his writing — especially his later poems, which grew increasingly spare and enigmatic — remains obscure.
All this appealed to Kaufman as a composer. Introduced to the poet in the 1990s by a former girlfriend, Scottish playwright and poet Fiona Templeton, Kaufman became transfixed by Celan’s work and began imagining a musical language that might capture the emotional wallop of his poetry.
In 2004, saxophonist and composer John Zorn invited Kaufman to produce an album for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. Kaufman proposed a Celan homage, and Zorn, who had dedicated his own 1997 composition “Shibboleth” to the poet, readily agreed.
The resulting CD bears all the hallmarks of a classic Kaufman/Barbez production. There are starring roles for theremin and mallet percussion, rapid shifts in tempo and energy, and an enviable balance between compositional rigor and hard rockin’. But it is, understandably, more austere than anything the group has previously committed to disc.
“That wasn’t an intellectual choice,” Kaufman said in an interview with the Forward. “I wasn’t necessarily thinking of honoring the pain and suffering in a particular way, but it sort of came out that way. There are moments of straight rock, but there are other tracks that are very quiet. In a way, I think that was Celan’s last step — reaching toward silence.”
Given the ambiguity of Celan’s language, Kaufman decided to focus on the emotional resonance of his poems rather than trying to represent specific images through musical means. The result is a pervasive solemnity that runs like a dark thread through the entire album, from the elegant flourishes of classical guitar on the opening, “Shibboleth,” and the sober instrumental colors of “Corner of Time” to the coruscating theremin line on “The Sky Beetle.” Kaufman has Templeton herself declaim Celan’s verses sporadically throughout the CD, and deploying the poet’s terse images so sparingly only intensifies their impact. There is no singing per se — vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina is no longer with the band — but Pamelia Kurstin’s quavering theremin more than fills that gap. The ethereal, otherworldly quality of her instrument — what Kaufman calls its “human wail” — perfectly suits the mood of the material.
Capturing the essence of Celan’s writing was not easy. “Force of Light” took three years to complete, and even now, Kaufman regards Celan’s poems as inherently resistant to any final or decisive interpretation.
“The more you come back to them, the more you can see them from six different angles,” Kaufman said. “I’m sure I’m misunderstanding things, but that’s the nature of art.” The Forward
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Force of Light, songs that washed up on shore after Jewish poet Paul Celan let himself out onto the waters of the Seine, are full of tantalizing clues to the vitality and breadth of the latter’s memory. Dan Kaufman (aided by a good many others, including Pamelia Kurstin, Danny Tunick, Peter Hess, Dan Coates, Peter Lettre, and John Bollinger) carves out composed spaces for poems from Celan that evoke the spirit of his mother and the sense of life that was absorbed by the black hole of Auschwitz. Spawned from such events that no one wished to peer at, Celan’s poetry often deals with memory, with retaining something of what one seems to interrupt, with internalizing those whose death one must endure. In this manner, Celan brought out an awareness of self through concern for death.
Much as life issued forth from his poems on account of this living with death, so too this recording is something darkly resonant, positively shot through with lighter sonorities. The instrumentation, which consists of violin, cello, theremin, marimba, clarinet, bass, electric guitar, and lap steel guitar, is used sparingly and artfully. Once things have time to settle, it becomes apparent how skillfully Kaufman and the other players have this music under their fingers. The music swings with a tightness and breathless momentum; inspired as they are by the matter at hand, there is a sense of almost instant recognition to the pieces, as the players dig into the subsections in a nearly gleeful manner.
In addition to the vivid and zealous escalations in volume and density, the players spill out from staid pieces of litheness and harmonic control onto rambunctious, festive pieces, thus canvassing a variety of Jewish musical traditions. For certain pieces, however, the security of technique becomes overtly apparent ... none of this translates into compositions of especially academic leanings. Force Of Light remains an accessible formulation of a convincing and highly personal vocabulary. Squid’s Ear
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It is really impossible for me to imagine the collective tragedy of the post-war eastern European psyche. Grand cities bombed to rubble, people herded into train cars for the unlikely goal of cleansing the gene pool, death everywhere, on every corner, in ever word and breath. How do you ever recover from something like that? Paul Celan was a Romanian poet who endured the camps and wrote about them with tremendous, powerful sadness in his key poem Todesfuge (“death fugue”) where he expressed his guilt of survival and, according to many scholars, took aim at the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who as rector of the University of Freiburg under Hitler in 1933 and Nazi party member until after the war, lent considerable intellectual credulity to the worst of mankind. It has been said that Heidegger greatly informed Celan’s work, which is understandable, considering Heidegger has arguably informed everything, but the sting of having one’s inspiration being part of the machine which sought to destroy him only increased his guilt. Later in life, Celan accepted an invitation to the great man’s famed hut in Todtnauberg at the rim of the Black Forest, where the dasein of us all was meted out, and that meeting resulted in a poem bearing the village’s name.
Celan’s power, like the only true power in us all is in persistence. He once said “There is nothing on earth that can prevent a poet from writing, not even the fact that he’s Jewish and German is the language of his poems.” This sense of dogged nagging existence in a world that seemed bent on destroying him eroded Celan’s early eloquence to a pulse in his later poems, often monosyllabic stabs in and at the language of his oppressors. The tragic guilt of being a survivor of horror, of being haunted by the great thinkers he admired and what atrocities in which they did not denounce strongly enough or even worse, were complicit in, likely became too much to bear.
Dan Kaufman is a long-time reader of Celan and crafted a song cycle, a mood poem Force of Light that mirror’s the poet’s brutal rhythms and intricate melancholy. His band Barbez swoons and cries, as vibraphones and drums toll out the relentless passage of time. Fiona Templeton intones Celan’s words with a maddened hush, like they are escaping through clenched teeth. The songs flow into each other, lapping against the shore in a black tide of clarinets and strings and Theremins. Think Tortoise with a wellspring of sadness burbling through it. Post-rock is usually good at manufacturing a mood, but this music is deeper in its demon conjuring ambience.
The title track sets the pace for most of the tracks here, beginning with raindrop guitars building slowly up into a maelstrom big enough to trap us all. “The Black Forest,” based on that very meeting between Celan and Heidegger, however, erupts with turbulence, mirroring the conflicted feelings Celan must have experienced in this dubious honor. History has that they walked the woods speaking of botany and chatter about the profession of publication. Celan sent Heidegger “Todtnauberg” and received a terse thank-you in return. This incident is what kills me. It’s one thing to experience life atrocities but to have their history live on unatoned, to meet the stone face of the thinker that could have reshaped history but chose not to, is heartbreaking.
And this heartbreak is translated perfectly into the Balkan melancholy of Kaufman’s music. In “Conversations in the Mountains”, the 14-minute culmination of the album, Templeton mutters Celan’s words almost inaudibly under the leaden swoon. It’s the agony of trying to be heard, and then the futile hope of making a difference when one is heard. Like the other music on Tzadik’s Radical jewish Culture series, Force of Light is a piece of music that explodes the complex history and traditions of the Jewish people to cosmic proportions. The final track “Sky Beetle” boils this down to echoes of suffering, tympani standing in for the plodding persistence of man in the fog of death that surround him. It is achingly beautiful music wrought from the deepest sorrows. Celan himself went on to become one of the more respected voices in poetry, continually chipping away at the German language to either excise or expose its guilt in lines like “The death you still owe me, I still carry it out” Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine in 1970.
Much of the material about Celan and his relationship with Heidegger were collected from their respective Wikipedia entries. outsideleft.com
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With his New York-based instrumental post-rock/Balkan ensemble, Barbez, guitarist Dan Kaufman has straddled the line between Brechtian cabaret, klezmer and 20th-century neo-classical music. His own instrumental style boasts a clean, mathy quality, like Nels Cline or Slint’s David Pajo.
But with Force of Light, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Barbez takes things one discipline further by incorporating verse from acclaimed poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan (read by Fiona Templeton). Apparently, both Kaufman and Zorn were devotees of Celan's work, and Kaufman spent quite a spell in Berlin delving into the mindset of an artist who grew up in the death camps and witnessed his parents perish by disease and gunfire. (“My mother's heart was ripped by lead,” Celan writes.)
Barbez’s intense, understated bombast — sometimes mournfully dark, other times shimmering with luminosity — successfully evokes Celan’s painful memories of youth. Not since the Godspeed You Black Emperor klez-offshoot Black Ox Orkestar (which was considerably more leftist in political stance) has there been such a hopeful dirge set to a topical Jewish background, laden with poignant Middle-Eastern modalities on pieces such as “The Black Forest” and “Shibboleth.”
Though the contributions of clarinetist Peter Hess (Balkan Beat Box) and drummer John Bollinger (Antony and the Johnsons) round out the quintet’s sound in a live setting, the secret weapon is theremin player Pamelia Kurstin. If you’re looking for the melancholic side of chamber-rock (a little Rachel’s here, a little Beirut there), she and Barbez will get you what you asked for. Pittsburgh City Paper
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It’s easy to see why Eastern European folk has been an influence on the avant-garde, cabaret-punk music of Barbez. The Brooklyn band is led by Dan Kaufman, who grew up in Madison but lived in Israel for a year when he was 12. His paternal grandparents are Russian. His maternal grandparents are Romanian.
“My father, as a boy, before his voice changed, sang as a professional for the high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah,” Kaufman says. So it’s not surprising that in 2006, Kaufman was approached by John Zorn, founder of the New York experimental world-music label Tzadik. Zorn asked him to consider recording an album for the Radical Jewish Culture series Tzadik was planning. The request gave Kaufman the idea of making a concept album built around the works of the late Romanian-born poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. That album, Force of Light, was released on Tzadik last month. Barbez will perform selections from it on Nov. 8 at Gates of Heaven, 302 E. Gorham St.
“I had always venerated Celan,” says Kaufman.“A former girlfriend turned me onto his poetry, and he became a hero of mine. I felt very close to him.”
Celan committed suicide in 1970 at the age of 50. He’d been haunted for years by the guilt of having survived the German labor camps that killed both his mother and father. His father died of typhus. His mother was shot dead because she was considered unfit for work.
Kaufman embraced the challenge of setting music to Celan’s visceral words. “The poems are read,” he says. “We didn’t want to lose the words. But the album is mostly music. You see this progressive pattern in Celan’s work of reaching toward silence. There are few words in his later poems, and they’re very abstract.”
The songs on Force of Light incorporate classical guitar, strings, horns, bass drums and the wails and howls of a theremin. The music includes grieving meditative dirges that brim with pain and anxious swings of tempo that suggest madness. “Aspen Tree” is full of swirling, circular sadness that never resolves. The words are read by British performance artist Fiona Templeton: "Aspen trees, your leaves glance white into the dark. My mother’s hair was never white.” The title track is less brooding, but equally dark. It’s rock’n’roll cacophony with a nervous pitch that’s ultimately pierced by a screeching theremin.
Kaufman’s talent for classical composition is evident throughout. “I grew out of the punk-rock world and just gravitated toward classical over time,” he says. It was a comment that got us talking about his years growing up in Madison. Kaufman, 36, is the son of UW urban-planning professor Jerome Kaufman. “I graduated from Malcolm Shabazz High School,” says Kaufman. “I joined my first band when I was in eighth grade. We were called Wanda & the Bushmen, and for a while, we played at the Wilmar Center every Friday night. We were very influenced by the tail end of the Minneapolis ’80s scene, and our local heroes were the Appliances.”
Kaufman says Barbez has only performed a few songs off Force of Light at a couple of live shows. “[Our Madison performance] will be different than typical Barbez shows,” he says. “We’ll be talking a lot about the poetry. It will be interesting to see how this turns out live.” Isthmus
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Force of Light is not so much a work in a musical sense, but a work in a poetic sense. Dan Kaufman and Barbez do not have an ear for that which strikes them as “good” in Force of Light, neither do they make music that “appeals” to them. As I’ve come to know Force of Light, it is an album that searches for a connotation that doesn’t strike me with a sense of liking or of enjoyment in a usual sense, but of trepidation, anticipation, of building to something eerily unknown, a paranoid sense of caution that is never completely substantiated, which only augments the feeling even more.
Force of Light is said to be inspired by the poems of Paul Celan, a Jewish poet born in 1920 in Romania, survivor of the Holocaust, though many that he knew and loved were not survivors. I myself am unfamiliar with the works of Celan, so I can offer little in the realm of interpretation of his works by themselves. However, when melded with the music of Force of Light, the raw regularity of Celan’s words spoken as lyrics add to the unidentified looming sense, the danger that pervades the album. The consistent words are disconcerting, contrasting so defiantly with the anxiety of the music, making the paranoid only more so, questioning all as if every question mark could save me from danger, when really it would only reaffirm that things are certainly disquieting, certainly uncertain, but at least that’s certain…
The slow quavering music aggravates the anxious for the first five songs of the album, tramping unsure staggered tracks throughout outer, middle, and inner ears, then middle again, outer, inner, outer, middle, inner, inner, outer, inner… And finally the build stops. The screaming climb to skies that are always out of reach stops with the sixth song, “The Black Forest.”
And suddenly everybody's doing a conga. The percussive beat is alarming not only because of its disruptive break with the rest of the album, but also because a xylophonic spree with theremin and drums is an unseemly mixture for a dance party; unfitting… right?
The incongruities brought in “The Black Forest” are joyful ones, light ones, things that stand out from dark of “The Black Forest.” But the dark context of the light is what gives the light its strange force, a warped force, as if that is not the proper place to be viewing such light things, joyful things. “The Black Forest” is where the light has mutated to survive in darkness, and this disruption of light and dark into mutated-light and dark now befits nothing. If light is not quite light anymore, is dark not quite dark anymore? Has the once eerie darkness, this looming sense of the unknown that has provided such disconcerting feelings of anxiety and trepidation, this eerie darkness… has that changed too?
But the trepidation trudges on, so whatever provides it is neither light nor dark… right? treblezine.com
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Dan Kaufman = godspeed you! black emperor + Masada + Paul Celan
Force of Light, three years in the making, is Dan Kaufman’s deeply personal tribute to the life and work of renowned poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Performed by his band Barbez, Kaufman’s compositions are sweeping, cinematic post-rock epics, similar in vein to godspeed you! black emperor and Do Make Say Think, but with a distinct Yiddish and Eastern European flair. While at first glance it may seem like this is nothing new, closer listens reveal this to be a work of considerable intensity. Guitars and clarinets intertwine melodies with theremins and violins. Against a backdrop of guitar, clarinet, theremin and violin, the isolation, displacement, fear, and rage of Celan’s words are highlighted to powerful effect. This is a strong, hypnotic work, a must for fans of moody post-rock and another worthy entry in John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series. Slug Magazine
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All odds are against the survival of a poem. The chance of being completed, the chance of being saved, the chance of being shared, the chance of being appreciated — none of these are to be taken lightly. And yet, for some tortured souls, poetry is the one thing that sustains and affirms their existence. Consider Paul Celan. Though it’s not hard to find his work, both in the original German and translated into English, he’s not a household name. His life isn’t studied in schools along with Dickinson and Whitman. His words don’t appear on inspirational posters or greeting cards.
No, Celan was a product of his time and place. Born in 1920 on the Romanian-Ukrainian border, he escaped the deportation that sent his parents to a concentration camp, where they met their deaths. He did time in labor camps, but his survivor's guilt followed him onto the page and into the Seine. At the age of 49, he drowned himself, on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday. He'd suffered many disappointments in his career and in his marriage, but his mind seemed to forever cycle back to the Holocaust.
New York guitarist Dan Kaufman and his band, Barbez, have given new life to Celan on their album “Force of Light,” which comes out Sep. 25 as the latest entry in the Tzadik record label’s Radical Jewish Culture series. To prepare for the undertaking, Kaufman spent a few years immersing himself in all things Celan, and he’s come up with a haunting eight-piece monument to the poet’s work.
Scottish poet and playwright Fiona Templeton crisply recites Michael Hamburger’s translations of Celan’s enduring verse, including “Count the Almonds,” a bitter meditation on the lost multitudes, and “Aspen Tree,” the bereft son’s lament for his murdered mother. Templeton honors Celan’s craft by giving each word the gravity it deserves without getting too maudlin.
But “Force of Light” is no spoken-word tribute set against sonic wallpaper. Kaufman and his band aren’t content to accompany Templeton, but rather translate Celan’s words into music. I don’t understand German, but the sound of Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin on “Aspen Tree” tells me as much about Celan’s grief as any combination of syllables could. It sounds just like a woman’s voice in wordless mourning.
On the 141/2-minute “Conversation in the Mountains,” Templeton starts out alone, telling the story of a wandering Jew. Thirty seconds in, an eerie melody begins. Slowly, a heavy-hearted drum joins them. Then lap-steel guitar. Then vibraphone. Then theremin.
Templeton’s voice fades out around the three-minute mark, and the instruments entwine in a melancholy dance. By the time the narrator re-enters the song, it’s on a different road, and her speech is repeatedly subsumed by sound, as the band swells and ebbs to a graceful end. Not every track is quite so heavy and internalized; a couple of strictly instrumental pieces illuminate the close relationship between mania and depression, euphoria and despair. The guitar-driven title track starts to grow intense and frenzied, but it allows light to penetrate through a thicket of violin and marimba. “The Black Forest” alludes to Celan’s private meeting with philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1967, when both men had less than 10 years left to live. It reaches out with big drums and a climbing bass line, and gets surfy with the theremin. Who knew that a survivor’s encounter with a Nazi apologist could inspire something so playful? The closer, “The Sky Beetle,” is a sleepy instrumental until its steely end, taken from one of the last things that Celan wrote before his suicide. Laden with reflection, with the sky-beetles, inside the mountain, Templeton intones. The death you still owe me, I carry it out.
Drummer John Bollinger carries on a little bit longer, like a heartbeat fluttering to a halt as the body dies. But for Celan, unlike most poets, the sentiments remain long after his life was snuffed out. Dan Kaufman and his collaborators have done a mitzvah by transmuting his guilt-racked labor into such haunting music. Jewish Exponent
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What do you do after pioneering Barbez, a combination Slavic cabaret and Jewish New York punk band? If you’re Dan Kaufman, Barbez’s frontman, you set aside anything pop-oriented or melody-bound and fling yourself over the avant-garde bridge. “Force of Light,” a series of compositions reinterpreting Paul Celan’s poetry, makes no effort to be listener-friendly.
Paul Celan was the pen name for Paul Antschel, a Czernowitz-born Jew who survived the Holocaust in a labor camp and went on to become one of the 20th-century’s most renowned poets. By the time of his suicide in 1970, Celan had left behind a vast body of work concerned with being a Jew in exile, the Holocaust and the dislocations of modernity.
Kaufman has composed eclectic avant-jazz music to accompany Celan’s words. “Force of Light,” due out soon from John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture imprint, is generally minimalist, the instrumentation spare enough to keep the focus on Fiona Templeton’s haunting and disembodied voice — lips coldly reciting words until they cease to have meaning. Templeton’s performance is reminiscent of another avant-garde triumph — Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I.”
On tracks like “Conversation in the Mountain,” a rendition of Celan’s epic story of two Jews who meet in the mountains, or “Shibboleth,” which begins with the horrifying declaration: “They drag me out into the middle of the market — that place where the flag unfurls, to which I swore no kind of allegiance,” Kaufman (who also plays guitar on the album) successfully transmutes Celan’s work into a post-apocalyptic document. If there is anything to complain about, it’s only that “Force of Light” doesn’t tackle “Todesfoge” (“Death Fugue”), the most famous of Celan’s poems. Instead, we get “The Black Forest,” a wordless track, inspired by Celan’s “Todtnauberg,” a riveting number that would make an appropriate musical accompaniment for skeletons dancing through the night. Forward
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Any release from Tzadik is a treasured thing. Through the years, the label has released some of the most interesting and bold instrumental and non-instrumental releases ever. From the ever amazing John Zorn to the bizarre adventures of Mike Patton, the label is always about putting art before commerce. Their latest release by Barbez, is no exception.
Force of Light is homage to Holocaust survivor and poet Paul Celan. It was developed over a period of three years including several of just doing research on the poet himself. Barbez founder, Dan Kaufman went to Berlin to conduct this research and found him not only investigating Celan’s experiences but dealing with solitude and the Holocaust as well. The result of all this painstaking research and emotion is an album which is deeply moving.
With parts of Celan’s poetry scattered throughout the album, the album plays like a conglomeration of several scenes set by each mention of his poetry. The words and feelings set the tone for each piece and Barbez’s musical experimentalism takes over. The songs here are epic dirges and ambient moaning that covers a wide spectrum of music. From string laden ballads that feel like requiems to almost Latin flavored dirges, Force of Light is a very interesting sounding record.
Force of Light is eloquent, mournful, loving, and very emotive with out very much being said. The album is a stirring tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest poet. The songs and feelings on this record are crafted to the highest levels and the sounds that emanate throughout are haunting and persuasive. It’s as if Celan was sitting next to Barbez as they created this record. His spirit is all over the sounds of Force of Light, it’s as if he guided them as to how each song should sound. There’s no more fitting tribute than that. First Coast News
The most musically adventurous of the blooming “ethno-punk-cabaret” movement (think Dresden Dolls and Gogol Bordello), Brooklyn’s Barbez often swells to six or seven members onstage, but the version that played at DC9 on Sunday night was a tidy quartet.
Barbez usually features a Russian-born modern dancer, a marimba and someone coaxing squawks from a Palm Pilot, but the group (wrapping up a tour supporting its haunting third release, “Insignificance”) instead focused on its essential instrumental forces — guitarist Dan Kaufman and theremin player Pamelia Kurstin. Though it was hampered by equipment glitches and only afforded about 40 minutes of stage time at the end of the night, this version of Barbez still managed to toss an otherworldly musical fog over the crowd.
The group traded occasional vocals, but the real sparks came from the instruments: with whispering minor-chord patterns from Kaufman’s electric guitar or the alien frequencies of Kurstin’s theremin (which mimicked violin, synthesizer and sci-fi soundtrack with equal grace), the group adeptly shed musical skins. Tiptoeing into Marc Ribot avant-jazz territory, it took a freaky Transylvanian carriage ride, then built to a shrieking pileup that could’ve come from the Sun City Girls. Barbez’s neglect of its stirring vocal-based work — no sly cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” on this night — was disappointing, but its instrumental prowess compensated nicely. Washington Post
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Just before his death, Robert Moog came out as a Barbez fan, sporting one of its T-shirts in the documentary Moog. The appeal of this downtown septet to the electronic-music pioneer is easy to fathom, for, like the varied creations Moog’s synthesizers inspired (such as Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach), their music blurs distinctions between contemporary and classical traditions, and emphasizes timbres that hover between earthly and otherworldly.
Insignificance, the group’s third full-length, is notable for its inclusion of works by several 20th-century composers who have little connection to pop. Barbez’s arrangement of “The Portrait” by Alfred Schnittke unfurls as a lively folk dance; despite being driven by electric guitar, it still smacks of the Lower East Side circa 1900. Erik Satie’s gossamer “Gnossienne #3” takes on an eerie character when recast to feature theremin and marimba, while Brecht and Eisler’s WWII labor anthem, “Song of the Moldau,” is slowed to a solemn dirge, spotlighting guest performer Jeremy Jacobsen (a.k.a. the Lonesome Organist).
Yet Barbez wields much more than oddball instruments and Ksenia Vidyaykina’s syrupy, heavily accented vocals. On originals, including the percussive “Strange” and the title cut, the band members display a command of dynamics that rivals noise innovators Sonic Youth and Swans, while “Fear of Commitment” features abrupt time changes that could give seasoned jazz players whiplash. Celebrating fringe music and ethnic subcultures in an era of rising political and religious homogeneity? How very Weimar Republic. The degenerate-art revival starts here. Time Out New York
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Barbez may be the greatest bar-mitzvah band ever. Only their penchant for ghastly, dark cabaret jam sessions holds the cantankerous Klezmerites from owning the party circuit. When the Brooklyn quintet isn’t smashing Russian vodka anthems like “The Sea Spread Wide” asunder with shards of Kurt Weill-y ephemera, they’re rewriting dark indie rock for the post-Bad Seeds generation. Throughout their third album, insignificance, Russia-born singer Ksenia Vidyaykina spans an impressive range from bellowing baritone to glass-shattering dog whistles. Her voice is so versatile that when she duets with the band’s theremin player, it’s difficult to discern which is which. On the title song, Virdyaykina’s insurmountable intensity rivals Diamanda Galas as she swoops around frightening sci-fi cadences and plucky marimbas. While the band’s influences are vast, and that sometimes leads to musical rambling, it’s rare that a band as musically advanced as Barbez, or at least one willing to take broad chances, has such a clear vision of their art. CMJ New Music Monthly
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“Barbez, finds an enticing middle ground between Kurt Weill's cabaret, droning avant-garde rock and the twinkling perpetual-motion pieces of Erik Satie.” New York Times
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Unlike Barbez’s first two discs, Insignificance (out this Tuesday), again produced by New York noise stalwart Martin Bisi, feels like an adjunct to the group’s theatrical live shows than an accomplished studio work. It adds another bead to their string of Brecht interpretations, this time the anti-authoritarian “Song of the Moldau.” Other outside material includes two Slavic folk tunes and a spacious arrangement of Erik Satie’s third Gnossienne. But the real interest lies in guitarist Dan Kaufman’s originals, with tricky time signatures that could come out of 14th-century Macedonia or mid-’90s Chicago and are enhanced by the unusual control of theremin player Pamelia Kurstin. Both the title track and “Fear of Commitment” begin as poised Tortoise-and-Cake confections before breaking out into, respectively, staticky, disorienting electronics and hardcore — that is, if hardcore featured marimba solos. And St. Petersburg-born Ksenia Vidyaykina’s vocals are deep and rough-timbred as she threads a multi-lingual path through the 10-minute-plus “Pain.” If the Dresden Dolls are the gateway drug of cabaret rock, Barbez are the hard stuff. Boston Phoenix
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The music of Barbez conjures an imaginary place full of narrow, crooked streets that are paved with ancient, damp cobblestones. The Brooklyn-based ensemble looks to Eastern Europe for inspiration (the lead singer, Ksenia Vidyaykina, is from Russia), and its expansive rock draws on such composers as Brecht, Schnittke, and Satie. But Barbez is firmly lodged in the present. It employs electronic elements, such as the theremin (played by the virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin) and the Palm Pilot (turned into an instrument by the bassist Dan Coates), and its original compositions, written mostly by the guitarist and band leader Dan Kaufman, capture the angst, joy, and strangeness of life in the twenty-first century. New Yorker
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Try to forget how the music of Barbez is made. Sure, the avant-carnie instrumentation on the Brooklyn band’s third album is distinct, but the act of combining marimba, theremin and a modified Palm Pilot with a standard rock lineup isn’t nearly as important as how those instruments frame and deepen the claustrophobia of guitarist Dan Kaufman’s songs. Sounding like a far more austere Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Barbez dispenses its moody art rock with a Weimar-era cabaret sensibility and an ear toward eastern European folk traditions. In addition to Kaufman’s originals, the band offers its take on two Russian folk songs as well as a stunning cover of Brecht/Eisler’s “Song of the Moldau,” featuring the Lonesome Organist. Elaborately arranged as they are, pieces such as “Fear of Commitment” and especially the eleven-minute “Pain” seem ready to disintegrate at any moment. Intricate guitar/theremin duets collapse into free-form marimba freak-outs, sing-songy sections give way to perverted tangos, and expat Russian vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina’s warbling moves from merely unhinged to psychotically violent.
Barbez pulls off a remarkable trick on Insignificance: cobbling together hundreds of years of pan-cultural musical detritus and still sounding wholly contemporary, wholly its own. It’s a deeply disturbing record, to be sure, but a riveting one, too. prefixmag.com
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The war drums and Russian-gothic chanting at the onset of Barbez’s Insignificance set a tone for angst-ridden and shifty-eyed scowling — all for the sake of art. This ethno-fueled band of Brooklynites isn't churning out the standard fare of Williamsburg avant-garde hipster shit. The plunking and wailing contained within is the result of transcontinental, accomplished musicians shedding academics to plunge head-long into more than just a little night music.
Vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina’s guttural and alluring voice at once conjures the occult qualities of Siouxsie Sioux while adopting a traditional, Eastern European accent. Her bass-heavy bellow provides the perfect counter-weight to the twinkling procession of vibes, theremin, Palm Pilot and guitar that follows in her wake. “Fear of Commitment” snakes through moments of murky yearning before clusters of chaotic rhythm and percussion constrict with confusion and everblackening tension. And while songs like “A Melancholy Picnic” and the title track are bursting with textural spookiness and a supernatural timbre, there’s a rock element underlying it all.
To label Barbez a chamber punk ensemble not only encompasses the point; it also overstates it. Fans of straightforward classical music won’t find much appealing about Insignificance. Nor will enthusiasts of cut-and-dry punk and indie rock. Any and all sense of nihilism swelling up in these songs is eclipsed by a dark, Romantic resonance and a spirit of expression and experimentation that jumps the borders of these boundaries. Barbez's exchange of traditional and modern methods to push the music into compelling new territory is anything but insignificant. Flagpole
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As for Barbezs Strange, wow, Im not even ready to talk about it yet. One wants to say Lynchian. The first thing youll notice is the voice, that otherwordly and wonderfully overstated quality like Antony and the Johnsons, and as with Antony, Im stuck in the you just gotta hear this phase. According to their one-sheet, they’re a multi-culti ensemble named for an equally polyglot neighborhood in Paris. Their membership includes a theremin virtuoso, a Russian dancer, and a modified Palm Pilot player. Bob Moog wears a Barbez t-shirt through much of the documentary about him. The operatic peaks are chilling and sublime, a little frightening as well. I feel as if this music may be doing unnatural things in my brain without me realizing it, like acid that takes too long to kick in — you keep eating more and suddenly, you're a gibbering lunatic. Moistworks
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Shes the kind of singer with whom you could fall in love. So, too, is Russian-born vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina of Barbez, yet another great Brooklyn-based ensemble. Named for the multiethnic Paris neighborhood where founder and guitarist Dan Kaufman once lived, Barbez — which will hold a CD release party at Manhattans Tonic on September 10 — also draws on traditional Russian material, but to far different effect.
Vidyaykina and drummer Shahzad Ismaily transform the Russian tune As for the Little Grey Rabbit into a driving duet for voice and percussion that resembles nothing so much as traditional Native American music. On one glorious stretch of The Sea Spread Wide, which tells the story of a doomed Russian sailor, Vidyaykina alternates between stoic resolve and spittle-spewing rage. Elsewhere, as on Erik Saties Gnossienne #3, she sounds as ethereal as Pamelia Kurstins theremin, an exotic sort of synthesis whose notes rise like a specter above the thrash-punk thrown down by Kaufman, drummer John Bollinger and vibraphonist Danny Tunick.
Satie? Theremin? Thrash-punk? These are not words one would expect to find in the same sentence, let alone the same review. But Barbez is no ordinary band. In its willingness to combine classical rigor with a broad pop sensibility (broad here encompassing everything from Kurt Weill to The Residents), in its theatricality and willful eclecticism, Barbez most closely resembles such cutting-edge avant-garde chamber ensembles as Ethel and Bang on a Can. But while those groups reach out toward pop and rock from the stern shores of contemporary classical music, Barbez sounds as if its trying to move in the opposite direction, imbuing vernacular forms such as cabaret and punk with the austere formality of “serious” music. The results are sometimes comic, sometimes violent, and always fascinating.
Strange, a Kaufman original, veers wildly between a melancholy waltz for theremin, banjo and drums, and a full-out onslaught by the entire ensemble, each section in the variegated whole executed with more precision and intensity than most bands can summon over an entire album. As on many tracks, the dominant emotions are pathos, anger and postmodern irony; though there are times, as on Kaufman’s “Fear of Commitment” and Alfred Schnittke’s “The Portrait” (the latter an instrumental arrangement whose demented waltz rhythms make it sound like the world's eeriest carnival theme, music fit for a tiny car full of evil clowns), when the urge to dance is strong and clear. But nothing stays the same for long in this music. Moments of calm — a keening theremin melody, a gentle guitar arpeggio — are punctured by atonal freak-outs, which in turn dissolve back into darkly lyrical ensemble passages.
Most tracks defy easy description. “Song of the Moldau,” the Hatikvah-themed classic by the radical German composer Hanns Eisler, is given a spooky, spacey groove, shot through with eerie theremin and organ sounds — the theme from “Forbidden Planet” as interpreted by The Doors. And the scritchy-scratchy electronic effects that bassist Dan Coates produces with his modified Palm Pilot at the beginning of the title track, along with the space-gun sounds he conjures at the end, are just highlights in an ongoing pageant of the weirdly alluring. If any of this sounds laughable, it isn’t — though it is sometimes genuinely funny.
Barbez is a band with both brains and brawn, as well as the good sense not to take itself too seriously. You don’t really need to know anything about where its music comes from, or how it is made, in order to appreciate its dark humor, its uniqueness and the skill with which it is performed. Just sit back and marvel at the strange beauty of it all. The Forward
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“Insignificance” opens with a Russian folk song that may have you dancing around the living room in a loincloth. Track two, “Strange”, is a seven minute trip through all sorts of odd territory. And the ten minute “Pain” turns into a mesmerizing chant. It’s impossible to stop listening to what these seven musicians have conjured up with instrumentation including vibes, theremin, marimba and some pretty aggressive drumming. Singer Ksenia Vidyaykina is like a toned-down Diamanda Galas; not that she has Diamanda’s range, but there’s some craziness lingering behind the formalness of her vocals. If folk is part of the inspiration — there is a second traditional Russian tune on the disc — it is not the form of execution as this is no folk record. There’s something of the exotic, the nightmarish and the funhouse-like here. Like if Tom Waits screwed P.J. Harvey and she came away from it suddenly original and musically interesting. Rat Blood Soup
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“Barbez includes a brilliant theremin player who smokes cigarettes and a full-throated Russian singer who comes across like Joan of Arc with a sense of humor. They cover everything from Bertolt Brecht to Black Sabbath, but the real attraction is their melodically haunting originals. With a folk-music sound located somewhere between turn-of-century Eastern Europe and modern America.” The New Yorker
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“Some bands, intentionally or not, overwhelm the reviewer with talking points; one unfortunate side effect of this is that all their reviews sound the same. Allow me to illustrate: nobody has ever written 10 words about Franz Ferdinand without five of them being “archduke,” “assassination”, and “First World War.” Consider, then, Brooklyn's Barbez, a mainstay of the John Zorn-impacted downtown NYC scene and recent signees to Important Records: (1) Their frontwoman is a Russian avant-garde dancer, (2) They have a theremin, (3) The theremin is not used for whooshy space sounds but actually played by a cigarette-smoking waif virtuoso who makes it sound like an entire string section, (4) They cover Kurt Weill, (5) and Schnittke, (6) They lug around a monstrous marimba, and (7) A band member coaxes scratches and squiggles out of a Palm Pilot via a proprietary piece of software. As you may imagine, every attempt at describing Barbez devolves into ritual recitation of these factoids in random order, and before you know it, your allotted 500 words are over.
So let’s talk about the music, then. The songs oscillate from tra-la-la chanson to brief explosions of terrifying skronk, hitting everything in between. Although sometimes flamboyant with mid-song tempo and time signature changes, Barbez don’t come across as mathy: they’re going for controlled chaos, not athletics. The impression is that of a century's worth of vinyl disintegrating in a cellar — Satie melting into The Stooges — then somehow willing itself back together. “The Defiant Bicycle”, the centerpiece of the album and most of their live performances, is a gorgeous suite that takes so much time to build that the listener’s masochistic response (per Masoch’s definition of masochism, as delayed pleasure) almost becomes a counterpoint. “Wisconsin” — songwriter and bandleader Dan Kaufman’s ode to his surprisingly prosaic birthplace — is the closest Barbez come to a traditional lied (via the Residents, perhaps).
The band’s self-titled debut on Important is, in fact, their third album (before employing the blonde tornado named Ksenia Vidyaykina, they were fronted by a man with an uncanny Nick Cave bellow, which made the Weimar fetish come through stronger but shaved off some originality points). They’ve been playing some of the album’s songs since 1999; as a result, there’s a honed, easy dexterity to the entire performance. Producer Martin Bisi, who’s made his name recording Swans and early Sonic Youth, appears less to have produced the album than to have captured it; it’s recorded and mixed like a jazz LP — grounded in a well-defined, specific room, without dramatic panning and loads of what sounds like natural basement reverb.
All theremin-and-Weill trivia aside, what’s rather intriguing about Barbez is that a band like this would never come out of the Parisian neighborhood from which its name derives; it also couldn’t have possibly emerged from any of the countries whose music and perceived ambience it references/absorbs/bites — namely Russia, Hungary, or Poland. The sound of Barbez is driven by a distinctly American strain of Europhilia. In a cultural moment when thinking East Coasters are swept up in a bizarre cross-Atlantic camaraderie, borne of the shared November 3rd funk (one entry on sorryeverybody.com: “Apologies from Isle of New York, off the coast of Europe”), Barbez provide a pitch-perfect soundtrack to the intelligentsia identity crisis.” Pitchfork Media
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“Barbez’s postmodern panbohemian fusion nods to Eastern European music, klezmer, the French torch song, and pretty much everything in between. Instruments include guitar, violin, theremin, marimba, and vibraphone, as well as the lyrical, husky, and sometimes disturbing vocals of Saint Petersburg-born Ksenia Vidyaykina. This would have been a far better sound track for Moulin Rouge than the one it got.” Chicago Reader
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“Barbez, the sextext with the odd lineup (vibraphonist, bassist/palm-pilot operator, etc.) know what they’re doing-and what they're doing is writing songs that are nearly as eccentric and gripping as the Residents and Brecht/Weill tunes they cover.” Austin American-Statesman
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“If anyone knows the meaning of cultural detritus (and uses it in a daily application), it’s Barbez: New York’s chamber punk sextet. With a valiant pairing of sensibilities from past and future, the eclectic ensemble brings the feel of cabaret to their vagabond music...they include their own selection of Eastern European-influenced acoustic punk, lilting melodies with a sense of danger about them, songs sung in Russian by stellar vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina — who uses her profound gift for choreography to ‘pepper’ Barbez’s performances with a sampling of tango and other graceful types of motion, plus costume changes.” The Portland Mercury
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“The vaudeville veneer of their show thinly masks something more sinister and tragic beneath, something they never name but allow you glimpse nevertheless. Barbez is like nothing you’ve seen or heard before.” The Brooklyn Rail
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“Despite their Balkan-folk leanings, these players aren’t authenticity junkies: They use rock-band dynamics to give their music heft, while fleshing it out with all manner of instrumental antics from theremin howls to Danny Tunick’s clattering marimba. Barbez combines humour and grace as surprisingly as a low-budget circus troop.” Time Out New York
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“What makes Barbez so striking is its unique blend of music and theater, rock and puppetry, bicycles and birds, old and new, humor and sorrow...Barbez, this postcabaret/klezmer/tango/Slavic band is made up of old nostalgic instruments like theremin and marimba along with more typical and skillfully played ones like guitar, bass and drums...Their lyrics are as psychedelic as their music and a monologue from Chekhov never sounds out of place. Some of their songs have lyrics in both English and Russian, other songs have no words at all and Ksenia does the storytelling in dance, facial expressions and mechanical movements. To make a long story short, the band is so good they can some whatever and whenever they want.” Y.C.R.O.P. (Young Creative Russians Online Portfolio)
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Barbez have an odd sound. The band use instruments like the theremin and vibraphone to great effect. They are fronted by Ksenia Vidyaykina who sings compellingly in both English and Russian...It’s a rare album that is as unusual as it’s brilliant.” Collected Sounds
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