Force of Light
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.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com