Arts & Culture

Barbez Frontman Adds Experimental Music to Paul Celan’s Post-Holocaust Poetry

Avant-garde musician Dan Kaufman fronts the band Barbez, who play a tangled and compelling web of experimental jazz, prog-rock, and Radiohead-and-Mogwai-influenced barely-pop. Force of Light, Kaufman’s breakaway solo debut, is surprising in several ways. For one thing, all the music … Read More

By / February 21, 2008

Avant-garde musician Dan Kaufman fronts the band Barbez, who play a tangled and compelling web of experimental jazz, prog-rock, and Radiohead-and-Mogwai-influenced barely-pop. Force of Light, Kaufman’s breakaway solo debut, is surprising in several ways. For one thing, all the music is played by Barbez. For another, it’s a mostly-instrumental album composed of covers of poems.

The record’s subject is Paul Celan, a poet born in Romania who, after surviving the Holocaust, lived most of his life in France. While being held in a Romanian ghetto, he finished a major translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In later years, he turned his attention inward, both as an artist and an activist of the Holocaust. As a contemporary of Heidigger and Derrida, he looked at humanity with a mixture of despair and hope. Ultimately, though, despair won, and he drowned himself in the River Seine in spring 1970.

On the album, you quote a line from Celan’s "Conversation in the Mountains”: "What does a Jew have that is really his own/that is borrowed, taken, and never returned?" Why make a record about him?

I made the album about Celan primarily to honor him, to sort of place my stone of remembrance and love on his grave. The music is just one person's impression of his words, one way to hear them. I think this music, like his words, avoids dogmaticism. Music, by its nature, honors multiple points of view…and Celan had a fierce point of view.

I also wanted to introduce his work to people who might not know of it. One of the most satisfying parts of making this record has been people telling me that they went out and bought his books of poetry.

Was there a reason you released Force of Light under your own name and not the band’s?

It came out under my name because it was a very personal project of mine. I wanted my dear friends and closest collaborators working with me, and their contribution was phenomenal. But this record felt like a very personal document and it was realized and conceived in a different way than previous Barbez albums.

Something about Barbez's sound—a mix of old European folk music and ultra-modern droning guitars and waily ambient theremins and violins—really compliments Celan's balance between his experiences during WWII and his fairy tale-like imagery.

How much of your sound was laid out from the beginning, and how much of it was evolution?

It was pretty much all evolution. We knew it was going to be dark from the beginning. But our sound grew out of who was in the band and actually deliberately not having any predisposed idea of what we were going to do or sound like. There's such a wide spectrum of influence within us, from Schnittke to Black Sabbath, and that all filters into our sound.

How did you meet John Zorn? At what point did the album materialize?

John came to hear us one night performing music for a John Jesurun play at LaMaMa. The album came about rather beautifully and simply. He asked me if I'd like to make an album for the Jewish series on Tzadik. I had wanted to do something about Celan for years and it turned out he's a huge Celan fan as well.

How did you find Fiona Templeton to read Celan's lyrics? Was there any compulsion to do it yourself?

I used to go out with Fionaa—that's how I met her—and she's a wonderful poet and performance artist in her own right. I think she's one of the best poetry readers I've ever seen. I love how she lets the words speak for themselves. There's no special pleading. And yet there's real passion and a fierceness, like Celan's fierceness.