January 12, 2015

Meet the composer: Q and A with Lawrence Siegel

Lawrence Siegel
Credit: Mark Corliss
When you are in the business of classical music, it's a rare (and exciting) thing to perform the work of a living composer. This week at the RPO, we are pleased to not only present the work of a modern-day composer, but we also are honored to have the composer in town for a series of outreach and community events throughout the week. Award-winning composer and musician Lawrence Siegel has composed for concert music, traditional music, theater, puppet-theatre, and community arts. This Thursday in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre at 7:30 p.m., the RPO will perform Siegel’s Kaddish, an evening-length work that draws its libretto from the actual words of Holocaust survivors.

To learn more about Kaddish and Siegel’s process as a composer, we asked him to participate in a Q and A for the blog. Stay tuned tomorrow for the second part of this interview!

1) What does “Kaddish” mean, and how does the title fit the composition?
Kaddish is an Aramaic word meaning “holy.” In Jewish prayer services, there are a number of Kaddishes. The most well-known, which is colloquially called the Kaddish, is the Mourner’s Kaddish, said by the bereaved as part of their ritual following the loss of a loved one. An interesting thing about the Mourner’s Kaddish is that its words are full of praise for God’s creation. In spite of loss, the focus is on the richness of life.

To call a composition about the Holocaust “Kaddish,” is, of course, to mourn for those who perished in the Holocaust. To do this even though they are not personally known to me, in their millions, is meant to “claim” them, and somehow endeavor to give them peace.

2) Why did you feel compelled to write an original work that draws from the words of Holocaust survivors?
Creating Kaddish represents a confluence of two important factors. Being Jewish, with grandparents who emigrated from the Poland/Lithuania/Russia, I naturally feel a link with the survivors and perished of the Holocaust, even though my family had left a couple of decades before.Whoever they left behind was clearly caught up in it, and although our family did not focus on this, that in itself is an aspect of Jewish life in the 20th century that has had an impact on me. Secondly, for about 25 years, I have written an extensive series of works whose texts are adapted from interviews, oral histories, or listening in on ordinary conversations. These pieces form what I call the Verbatim Project. Kaddish is a verbatim project whose focus is on themes which have been central to my history: a centrality which I only fully have come to recognize in the making of this work.

3) How many survivors and/or their families were interviewed?
I personally interviewed 16 survivors and their families. I shaped the content with specific questions, designed to get at experiences before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and how these survivors were able to carry on after the Holocaust. I also listen to testimonies housed at the Fortunoff Archive at Yale University.

4) Were you worried about how the survivors would react to hearing their stories represented?
Yes, naturally, I was concerned about their reactions most of all. They had let me hear very difficult and intimate aspects of themselves. I felt honor bound to try to portray them lovingly.

5) What was your goal in representing their stories?
I think that hearing a few individual stories of the Holocaust is more poignant than hearing a recitation of the horrific statistics. Without exception, those whose stories I have told have been energized and moved by the telling, and this is one of my greatest sources of pride.

Tuesday on the RPO blog:
Siegel on writing music to fit the text, musical influence in Kaddish, and his dream to see Kaddish become a call to action. Stay tuned...

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