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.
Barbez plays Elastic Friday 9.