Text by Yakov Glatstein. Performed by Shura Lipovsky-mezzo soprano, Ivar Berix-clarinet, Lis Perry-violin, Esra Pehlivani-viola, Timora Rosler-cello. Biografiye is the final 12 minutes of a documentary by Deborah van Dam about my trip to the Ukraine in search of my grandparents shtetls. The documentary about this trip can be viewed here.
The text of the poem by Yakov Glatstein:
Singing places surge in me, sorrow-stirred;
they arrange themselves and become the words
of recorded memory,
written in black on white
by a memory dipped in light.
I can’t even fool myself.
A life pieced together from scraps of geography.
Streets and houses,
lamps and beds,
faces and silhouettes
are the commas and periods
of my biography.
One of the direct results of my trip to the Ukraine, in search of my roots, was the opportunity to compose a piece inspired by the sights and sounds of the villages I visited. In the first instance, this sounds like a simple and self-evident project. But upon arriving home, I was confronted with thousands of impressions and an empty piece of music paper.
I started thinking about all these impressions I had during my trip, about the villages and the people I met, about the sugar factory where my great-grandmother worked and the countryside that she walked through, going back and forth from work. I thought about the musical impressions of which in the final analysis, there was but one – that of Vasali Baranovsky.
So I decided to turn to a different source of inspiration and started leafing through Yiddish poetry that had been written around that time. I had a large collection of photocopies that I’d made about sixteen years before when doing research for Zey… In one of the piles I found a wondrous poem by one of my favorite Yiddish poets, Yakov Glatstein. It was a poem about all the houses and streets of his youth, turned into the commas and periods of his poetry. It was almost as if he had written this poem especially so that I would be able to find it at this moment.
Poem of recently immigrated poet from the Ukraine
But as things go, I only had an English translation of the poem, and oddly enough, no bibliographical reference to where I’d found this poem in the first place. I started searching every volume of Yiddish anthologies in search of that poem or to any reference to it. I finally found a biographer of Glatstein, and he was able to scan a copy of the original Yiddish poem to me. It turned out to be a poem in one of his first poetry albums published in New York in 1921, eight years after my grandparents left the Ukraine for America.
Once I had the poem in front of me, it was almost as if the composition wrote itself. The commas and periods of Glatstein’s poem became the slurs and crescendos of my composition. It was also inspiring knowing that Shura Lipovsky was going to sing the piece – Shura being a well-known singer of Jewish music.
Tales of my trip
Deborah van Dam was making a documentary about my trip to the Ukraine and it was her idea to use this piece at the end of the film as a kind of summary of the trip. She had the brilliant idea of having the piece performed before a live audience while images from my trip were projected behind the performers. Of course, this turned out to be technically more difficult than anticipated and the afternoon of the recording turned into a long day for the live audience as well as for the musicians. Sometimes there was so much time between takes, that I decided to take things into my own hands by filling the time with tales of my trip to the Ukraine and about my family. It turned out to be an incredibly warm and memorable afternoon, and still today, three years later, people still come up to me to tell me how wonderful it was to be part of that afternoon.