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Where Music, Language, and Spirituality Meet

June 10, 2008

The setting is as monumental as it is humbling. Inside the new Contemporary Jewish Museum’s huge Special Events / Yud Gallery, with its slanted ceiling extending upward to 65 feet at its apex, 36 diamond-shaped windows, and irregularly proportioned walls that converge at unexpected angles, the first phase of John Zorn Presents the Aleph-Bet Sound Project is open for contemplation.
The sound installation, curated by New York maverick composer Zorn, currently showcases sound installations by Lou Reed, Erik Friedlander, David Greenberger (Duplex Project), Marina Rosenfeld and Raz Mesinal, Z’ev, and two Bay Area composers, Chris Brown and Jewlia Eisenberg. Before the project closes on January 4, 2009, music by Zorn and Bay Area composers Terry Riley and Alvin Curran will join the mix. Yet another composer, Laurie Anderson, has an installation all her own, inside the 2,500-square-foot grand lobby, to the left of the entrance doors.

The motivation for Zorn’s project stems directly from the religious, cultural, and spiritual underpinnings of architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new CJM. The building, which recently opened at 736 Mission Street in San Francisco, is a literal coming together of the old and the new; it seamlessly unites the long-unused Jessie Street PG&E Power Substation building of 1907 with an entirely new structure whose external highlight is a huge, shining, blue, steel cube.

Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), Libeskind organized the building around the two Hebrew letters that comprise chai (living or life): the chet (the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet) and the yud (the tenth letter). Add them together and you get the lucky number 18, or chai. By unifying the disparate elements of the structure around the chet and the yud, Libeskind sought to symbolize not only the revitalization of Jewish art, tradition, and culture in the Bay Area and beyond, but also the continued revitalization of the Yerba Buena district.

When designing the Yud Gallery in particular, Libeskind drew on the knowledge that yud is the mystical letter that begins the Hebrew words for Jew, God, and Jerusalem. It is paradoxically the smallest of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, yet the only one that rises above the line.

I suspect Libeskind and CJM Director and CEO Connie Wolf wanted visitors to perceive yud as a positive, upward-directed force. Hence, the gallery’s design emphasizes the vertical, encouraging visitors to gaze upward, toward the heavens. To further symbolize the sense of life and hope that yud represents, the Yud Gallery has 36 windows, or double chai. Patterns of light from these windows constantly move across the walls and floor throughout the day, creating a living installation all its own.
Aleph-Bet’s Alphabet Metaphysics
When I asked Wolf about the genesis of the Aleph-Bet Project, she explained, “My motivation was to think about the Yud Gallery as an incredibly dynamic physical space. I knew I wanted to do sound and spoken word in there. So I approached John Zorn, whose thinking and ideas I greatly admire. He came up with the idea of having sound artists create installations that respond to the symbolic and spiritual meaning of letters of the Hebrew alphabet.”

Each artist has based their installation on the significance of a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Riley, for example, has chosen the first letter, aleph, while Z’ev has chosen the last, tav. As the curator who gave the installation life, Zorn has selflessly chosen the yud. Most artists, with the exception of Reed, explain why they have chosen their letter on the sole signage affixed to otherwise intentionally bare walls.

Although Zorn shares with Lou Reed a refusal to grant interviews — imagine the likes of Cecilia Bartoli and Hilary Hahn saying that they’re too busy or important to grant interviews — several other artists made themselves available for long-distance chats. Profiles on two of them, David Greenberger and Erik Friedlander, follow.

Less than a month before the museum opened, the artists were unsure how their work would be presented. As it turns out, the installations are played back consecutively, in alphabetic order, through less than state-of-the-art Tannoy speakers installed on beams hanging from the ceiling. Thanks to the room’s amazing ambience, the sound is far better than one might expect as long as the volume is not turned too high.

Before long, Meyer Sound will replace the gallery’s existing equipment with a custom installation. Assuming it does not add the same kind of metallic ring around voices and instruments that is an unfortunate “side effect” of Meyer Sound’s sound enhancement project in Zellerbach Hall, it should not only provide higher-quality sonics, but also allow for the 7.1 multichannel surround presentation that at least one artist, Chris Brown, has prepared.

The Entry to the Yud

Unfortunately, sound carries with disturbing clarity through the extremely resonant halls of the JCM, not only from the second floor on which the gallery is located, but also from the high-ceilinged main lobby below. On Press Day, until the sound system’s volume was turned up, the installation was sullied by the sounds of an Apollo Landing video display around the corner and heels clicking on flooring throughout the building. The contemplative atmosphere that artists, administration, and architect envisioned was severely compromised. In the end, I expect that museum staff will not only tame sound from competing displays, but also install double glass panes and perhaps even a double door in the large entryway.
The Anderson Curiosity
Inside the huge lobby, to the left of the long, glass panel of entrance doors and facing the PaRDeS wall, the observant visitor may discover the Hebrew letter kof engraved in black on the floor. High above it, affixed to one of the huge steel beams preserved from the power substation, is a black panel that conceals a speaker. When, and only when, you stand directly under that speaker, you can hear the work of famed performance artist Laurie Anderson. At its current low volume level, which I expect will be raised once the lobby fills with thousands of people, only a small, inconspicuous sign affixed to the wall alerts those with uncocked ears to the installation’s existence.

The speaker employs “holosonic technology” to function as an audio spotlight. Anderson requested that the piece compete with ambient sound and be placed in a trafficked area where some would experience it by accident, while others with advance knowledge (like you) would intentionally seek it out. Although the current setup sounds like mp3 hell meets the Crystal Cathedral from much too far away, Anderson is slated to provide a higher-quality sound file in the very near future. Tomorrow would not be too soon.
David Greenberger (The Duplex Project): Tell Me That Before
Known to NPR junkies from his personal commentaries that frequently air on “All Things Considered,” David Greenberger has spent almost three decades preserving his conversations with the elderly and those in decline. Many of his oral histories and personal insights are published in his periodical, The Duplex Planet, and online at www.duplexplanet.com. A veritable artistic enterprise, he has also created monologue performances, books, CDs, a comic book adaptation, two documentaries, a one-act play, and a short film.

Greenberger organized his installation, Tell Me That Before, around the Hebrew letter zayin. The seventh letter of the Aleph-Bet, it represents both the number seven and the first letter of zayin-khaf-resh, the transliteration of the Hebrew root word for memory. “Since both the acuity and erosion of memory play large parts in the lyrical quality of the vignettes I collect,” he says, “zayin speaks to what I do.”

Greenberger received inspiration from photos of the gallery space as it was being constructed. “I was glad to discover that it felt like an ideal contemplative space for listening,” he explained by phone. “While I’ve done a lot of installations that feature stories over music, this is the first time that a piece of mine is situated in a contemplative room in a public space that has everything I would ask for.”

Greenberger began collecting stories in 1979. Shortly after completing a degree in fine arts as a painter, he took a job as activities director at a Boston nursing home. The first day he met the home’s residents, he knew he had found his true calling.

“I didn’t initially intend to put my paintbrush down,” he explains, “but I found my artistic voice in a more complete way. The private process of getting to know people and incorporating their stories and poetry for an audience was a suit of clothes that fit me better. I didn’t want to have anything else fighting for my attention, so I decided to follow the work wherever it was going to go.”

After serving at the facility for a couple of years, Greenberger continued to pursue his craft in other environs. These days, he is often brought to cities to create specific art works. When we spoke, he was in the midst of a residency at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, visiting people in nursing facilities and private homes. He expected to record 30 hours of material over a period of three months, devoting the bulk of his time to shaping text into pieces that he would record.

If you were to listen to Greenberger’s installation without knowing anything about his background, you might at first think it is composed of disorganized, contradictory autobiographical entries in a psychotic’s diary. Instead, it consists of excerpts from conversations that Greenberger recorded between 1980 and 2005. The snippets have been woven into a sound collage animated by the oft-naïve music of Mark Greenberg, a Chicago-based musician and composer for cartoons and TV commercials.

“Most of the stories come from people in their 70s to 90s,” says Greenberger. “There’s one exception, Henry Turner, whom I met at a Salvation Army breakfast. Once sort of institutionalized, then left to fend for himself, he was probably in his 50s. He would walk through the streets of Schenectady and talk to himself while wearing too many layers of clothing.

“As with all my subjects, I delve behind the stereotypes of crazy people. These were once the same bright-eyed people we all were. There’s a dignity and humanity to them. Sometimes, the more maligned they are, the more important it is to find a dignified setting where their stories can say something to us about ourselves.”
Erik Friedlander: The 50 Gates of Understanding
Cellist Erik Friedlander, a Rockland County native, is a veteran of the New York scene who has collaborated with Zorn, Anderson, and Courtney Love. His indefinable music, which fuses classical, jazz, and the world according to Erik, uses the cello to create novel and compelling sonic landscapes.

Seeing the Aleph-Bet Project as an opportunity to get in touch with his part-Jewish heritage, Friedlander hunted through Lawrence Kushner’s The Book of Letters: A Mystical Alef-Bait, to find a letter that was right for him.

“The Nun really spoke to me about how I play music,” he explained by phone during a break from mixing his installation. “Kushner writes that Nun is a soulbird, ecstatic with melody, who hurls herself through laughter and tears. It’s almost an idealization of what performing and being involved in music should be.”

Friedlander’s installation consists of 50 miniatures inspired by the 50 Gates of Understanding. These are 49 aspects of character that the Israelites strived to achieve while they wandered through the Sinai desert, with the 50th being the revelation of prophecy. The installation is organized into seven groups of seven, with one farewell piece. Each group of seven is based on a 14-note theme. Recorded live in studio, some pieces last all of six seconds, others 12; the longest is a minute and a half.

“The music, which is kind of a reflection of my world, involves a lot of improvisation,” he explains. “I think of it as more meditational than spiritual. A lot of it is very atmospheric, very beautiful in an abstract but melodic way. Some pieces will envelop you in warmth and pull you in, while others will push you back. There are also some groovy things you could dance to. It’s a journey with a lot of ups and downs and variety.

“I’m trying to tell a story in a musical rather than literal way. My hope is that people will engage with the logic and underlying structure, and become rapt with anticipation about what comes next.”
The Best Is Yet to Come
Having spent close to an hour in the Yud Gallery on Press Day, I had the opportunity to experience music by Lou Reed and Chris Brown, first played at low volume (punctuated by a soundtrack of the Apollo moon landing that carried from down the hallway), then loud enough to override the considerable outside racket. When the volume was right, the experience was mesmerizing.

I also watched three different groups of the press enter the space in different ways. The first group basically stood inside the doorway and gawked; the second immediately asked questions; and the last walked all the way in, sat down, and absorbed everything in silence, as Zorn and his artists intended. I expect that, once everything is tweaked, and suggested modifications help create an ideally contemplative environment, the far-reaching Aleph-Bet Project will deliver many of the inexplicable, beyond-language rewards that only music can bestow.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.