Reviews

POV magazine, spring 2010 pg. 1MACLEANS
April 30, 2009
Greyson’s Fig Trees is a virtuoso mix of documentary, opera, surreal drama, animation and text. It plays as a split-screen symphony, a swirl of images that move seamlessly from the eloquence of Stephen Lewis to interludes with a singing albino squirrel and an amputee busker. The documentary narrative focuses on AIDS activists Tim McCaskell of Toronto—and Zackie Achmat of Capetown, who refused treatment as a protest in the fight for universal access to anti-viral drugs. The opera itself, which Greyson co-wrote with composer David Wall, soars between wit and tragedy with sublime beauty, while riffing on Gertrude Stein’s subversive 1934 opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. Meanwhile, animated pills are choreographed like elusive magic regiments of Pez candy, and palindromes swim across the screen in a fantasia of text. To my mind, some of Greyson’s films that led up to this one felt incomplete and perversely oblique. But if this experimental masterpiece is what he was all leading up to all this time, it was well worth the wait.

EYE WEEKLY
May 11, 2009
Fig Trees
starstarstarstar
Visually sumptuous and audacious in every regard, John Greyson’s celebration of the struggles and achievements of two AIDS activists in Toronto and South Africa takes the form of an alternately giddy and graceful surrealist fantasia. Did I mention it’s an opera, too? Paying homage to Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s similarly daffy Four Saints in Three Acts, Greyson and composer David Wall have fashioned a vivid, affecting and wholly unique piece of 21st-century agit-prop.


NOW
April 28, 2009
Fig Trees
starstarstarstarstar
Who else but lateral-thinking indie maverick John Greyson could use the tropes of opera, rock video and cheesy docudrama to explore how governments and pharmaceutical companies have prevented patients from getting access to AIDS drugs?

Focusing on the inspiring stories of pioneering activists from Canada (Tim McCaskell) and South Africa (Zackie Achmat), Greyson layers in rich ideas about queer subversives in history. Opera lovers will devour his po-mo take on Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson and their opera Four Saints In Three Acts.
But anyone will learn from this challenging yet playful and fiercely intelligent film, which rewards multiple viewings on a big screen.

XTRA!
April 22, 2009
AIDS in the mirror at Hot Docs
AN OPERA DOCUMENTARY? / Delight in life meets outrage in John Greyson’s Fig Trees

One of the defining characteristics of John Greyson’s work — whether art videos, installations, short films or features — is the way his ideas develop within each piece. Some people take their entire career to expound on a single thought. In Greyson’s oeuvre the metaphors and the references come fast and furious, growing exponentially from a thought or an utterance. Watching his work is like watching the spread of a tree in time-lapse: a stalk quickly turns into a trunk, and branches shoot out upon branches until the sky is dense with foliage.

His latest opus is no exception. The feature film/opera/documentary Fig Trees, conceived with composer David Wall, receives its North American premiere at Hot Docs. Originally a vast interactive installation exhibited at the Oakville Galleries in 2003/’04, in its new incarnation as a film, Fig Trees concerns the parallel tales of South African activist Zackie Achmat and local writer, educator and activist Tim McCaskell. This is a history of AIDS activism like you’ve never seen before. Fig Trees just won the Teddy (Greyson’s third) at the Berlin Film Festival for best queer documentary.

“It’s all Gertrude Stein’s fault,” jokes Greyson of the project’s origins. He and Wall share a mutual love of Stein and Virgil Thompson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. This affection for Stein, and where to channel it, was percolating while Greyson stayed with Achmat in South Africa shooting his last feature, the historical drama Proteus. That was when Achmat became a worldwide media sensation: From 1999 to 2003 the HIV-positive Achmat publicly refused drug treatments to protest the lack of access to expensive antiretrovirals for all but the richest South Africans.

“We had this kitchen table moment at one point, where he was being featured in a profile in the New York Times,” says Greyson, “and we were teasing him about it, saying, ‘Watch out, they’re going to start calling you St Zackie, and before you know it someone’s going to write an opera about you.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good idea.’ So those were the elements: Gertrude first, and Zackie second, and that collision of taking two things which should never be brought together and forcing them together and seeing what happens.”

The film is markedly different from the original installation piece. “The biggest change was deciding to make it tell two stories,” says Greyson. “One, the story of Zackie, which was in the original Oakville installation, and the other, the story of Tim and the story of AIDS Action Now. And so we became interested in telling the story of two pandemics: one North American, with the focus of the activist response being in the ’80s and ’90s, and then with Zackie’s story, the focus being the last decade.”

That is a very general summary. Consider how the opening moments of the film unfold and expand in Greysonesque fashion: A fictional Thompson and Stein, having finished Four Saints in Three Acts, are scouting for new inspiration and come across Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) on a drug strike. He refuses to take his AIDS medication until it is made affordable and available to all South Africans. Thompson and Stein want to turn him into St Zackie, which recalls St Zacharias, the founder of the eight-note musical scale, which in turn leads to a meditation on musical harmony, which leads to the palindrome, one of the major leitmotifs of the opera which, in turn, introduces us to McCaskell, whose story (told largely in documentary-style interviews) is constructed as a palindrome to Achmat’s (two stories that mirror each other). Achmat is on a drug strike; McCaskell is on a lachrymal strike — he will not cry, he refuses the melodrama of the AIDS pandemic.

The writer in Greyson is too impish to fall prey to swooning portentousness, and lightens the load of Fig Trees with surprising riffs and asides. For instance the film is narrated by St Martin, incarnated as a Trinity Bellwoods Park albino squirrel, and the black St Peregrine, incarnated as the street musician who plays the corner of Dundas and Spadina. Alexander Chapman, who starred in Greyson’s 1996 film Lilies, appears throughout in various tableaux, from a hospital ward to mock music videos.

That idea of refusing melodrama is central to Fig Trees, even though the narrative is told in the most melodramatic medium possible, opera.

But Wall and Greyson have larger strategies. “One of our first convictions was using Gertrude [Stein] as a means of turning the tragic opera inside out: refuse martyrdom, refuse tragedy, refuse sainthood.

“Zackie’s treatment strike and that larger refusal of opera gave us the spine for the story.” In formal terms, the opera of Fig Trees is interrupted by the documentary interview portions with Achmat and McCaskell.

In narrative terms, Greyson and Wall (who also sings the part of the fictional McCaskell) interrupt opera’s grandiose melodrama by honouring their subjects’ political and ethical unease with tragedy and martyrdom. The two activists embrace Greyson’s documentary rather than his opera. In real life, as the TAC gained immense political and social victories, Achmat ended his drug strike; in Fig Trees, the fictional Achmat (sung by Van Abrahams) does the same, snubbing the title of St Zackie. (And what good is an opera without an honest-to-goodness martyr?) Choosing life also affirms Greyson and Wall’s political stance.

“I think the martyr tradition exists in most cultures, maybe most obviously in Muslim cultures right now, but equally in Catholicism to this day,” says Greyson, “and if Gertrude’s talking about saints then I wanted to up the ante and talk about martyrs and a refusal of martyrdom and why it’s important for everyone to refuse martyrdom. Why martyrdom is in political terms, social terms and aesthetic terms ultimately self-indulgent, ultimately self-serving and ultimately reactionary in the broadest sense.”

“One of the things the film tries to track,” Greyson adds, “is how activists as leaders get forced into narratives that they don’t want. And so Fig Trees tries to track why those heroic, operatic, tragic narratives have great legs, but ultimately neither serve their subjects, nor any of us, and how we’ve got to find new ways of telling operatic narratives that refuse tragedies that are tied to martyrdom.”

Opera, documentary, Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thompson, Zackie Achmat, Tim McCaskell, harmonic theory, palindromic structure, AIDS activism, martyrdom, fictional truths: This is a heady 100-minute film. Some of this might pass you by but none of it will bog you down. Watching Greyson’s wildly expansive mind in action is never tedious nor overly theoretical. If we’re in the metaphorical realm of music, I would align it to a less grandiose form than opera — it’s much more akin to the improvisatory nature of jazz.

Underneath the fun, the excitement, the new melodies rushing by, is a masterful sense of discipline. When it’s done well — and in Fig Trees, it’s exemplary — the mastery is never pedantic, only playful, only delightful, only brilliant, and in the case of Fig Trees, with its lessons of activism and social ethics and aesthetic engagement, urgent, necessary and profound.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Feb. 17, 2006
starstarstarhalf_star (out of four)
Toronto’s singing hero hopes like the gospel and wonders like a child. Drawing on the black church-pop of the 1950s, David Wall with Ken Whiteley does acoustic soul, blues and brass band lullabies (“Have No Fear”). “Wonder” is Grand Funk Railroad with horns and better ideas; the vocal-teamed “Yonder Come Day” is a bad-day remedy, herculean in its uplift. To Wall’s mind, there can never be ”too much heaven or too much praise.” We know the feeling.

EXCLAIM!
April 05, 2006

David Wall is a long-time and multi-talented fixture in the Canadian independent music scene. The former lead singer of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and member of the Jewish ensemble the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band has spent much of his time lately writing music for film and television and composing songs for artists such as Big Sugar. Wall’s rich, bluesy voice is perfectly suited to the rollicking gospel and R&B numbers on his second solo record, The Spell I Was Under, but his songwriting is at its strongest when he’s in a low-key frame of mind. The moody opening track “Fortify Me” has a dark, beckoning undercurrent that is impossible to escape. Another highlight, the quirky “Have No Fear,” co-written with Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman and filmmaker Avi Lewis, is a lullaby sung over sweeping Salvation Army band-style horn harmonies that get right into your chest and squeeze hard. An unpredictable but frequently resplendent collection.

THE LIVE MUSIC REPORT
March 5, 2006
(With the Campbell Brothers)
What an extraordinary vocalist! David has an astounding range that reaches into the stratosphere and falls into growls. He sings with emotional abandon and does everything he can to get the sound he wants, hitting his chest, grasping his forehead, throwing his head back, whatever it takes. This music is perfect for his talent, allowing him great freedom for intense spontaneous expression.

April 20, 2006
The David Wall band put on an incredible evening of entertainment. The diversity of talents and the range of voices offered a rich and encompassing sound that could have filled any venue, large or small. The singing was brilliant.

THE VANCOUVER PROVINCE
Feb. 1, 2006

DAVID WALL: The Spell I Was Under (Black Hen Music)
Approach this without preconceptions and it’ll hook you deep. Wall is a Torontobased musical polymath who�s worked widely and led his own Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band for a while. No wonder he has the cream of Toronto players on this, plus Ken Whiteley producing. Right from the opening “Fortify Me,” the very southern-sounding background singers set the bluesy-gospel tone and the groove just digs deeper and deeper. Interestingly, the lyrics are particularly positive. The closing “Be Not Broken” is extraordinary but “Set Your Sails” featuring that killer slide is amazing. JPM

OTTAWA XPRESS
Feb. 16, 2006

The Spell I Was Under, Wall’s latest featuring a who’s who of Toronto’s best and brightest (Rebecca Campbell, George Kohler, Richard Bell and the aforementioned Whiteley to name but a few), is an understated vocal tour de force of all-out positivity. Its intimate, organic veneer – a tasteful melange of stinging slide, swirling organ and elegant horns – is the kind of rich and subtle roots fusion that would be right at home on the old Houston-based Duke-Peacock indie label of the ’50s, somewhere in between such gospel luminaries as the Dixie Hummingbirds and bluesmen like Bobby “Blue” Bland.

METRO TORONTO
Feb. 10, 2006

David Wall
The Spell Was Under
Black Hen Music
starstarstarstarstar (out of five)

Either David Wall has been asked by a higher power to find his spiritual soul or he’s fallen in love with gospel music. Wall, along with some of Ontario’s finest unsung talent, immerses himself in all thoughts and sounds American south-like. Give Be Not Broken, Have No Fear and Set Your Sails mere minutes for the spell-binding kick to take effect.

THE TORONTO STAR
Apr. 13, 2006. 01:00 AM
GREG QUILL
ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST

Weary from worrying about the ethics of cultural appropriation, yet still driven by a love of the redemptive and transcendent passion of African-American gospel music, Toronto singer-songwriter David Wall has spent the better part of a decade in a wilderness of his own design.

A comfortable wilderness, mind you, furnished with computers and countless musical devices with which he has been able to make a decent living as the composer of more than 30 TV and film scores, not far from the home he has made with writer/artist Kyo McClear and their two children.

Wall’s magnificent voice used to be heard alternatively in the inspired soul-gospel ensemble The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and in Canada’s primo interpreters of traditional Jewish folk music, The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. But in the early 1990s, confused by fears of being seen a cultural carpetbagger, the singer opted out of the former and cut back his involvement with the latter.

“I’m a Jew, though I didn’t have a traditional Jewish upbringing, no Hebrew, no Yiddish,” he said this week while preparing to mount his second major concert in a month.

Wall is performing at The Rivoli on Wednesday with the crack band that backed him at the debut of his stunning new solo CD, The Spell I’m Under, at Hugh’s Room in early March, with multi-instrumentalist and folk music icon Ken Whiteley, drummer Daniel Barnes, bassist Victor Bateman, pianist Marilyn Lerner, singers Pat Patrick and Rebecca Campbell and a special guest, harmonica master Carlos del Junco.

Of his conflicted feelings about his gospel singing days, he says, “What was I doing singing black music, and American music at that?”

The question haunts him still, even though he has since pursued his cultural origins by studying Jewish liturgical music and cantorial singing for two years in New York City. He still performs regularly as a cantor.

A few weeks ago Wall was stung by a British review of his album that included the line, “A white Jewish boy from Toronto performing a traditional gospel classic like `Get Right With God’ is like Ice-T singing `O Danny Boy’ or Merle Haggard breakdancing.”

Serious students of American popular culture are keenly aware of the close links between Jewish immigrants and African-American musical traditions, and Wall is no stranger to either. The subject is, in fact, a key theme that will be explored in “Rhythm & Jews,” a series of 12 documentaries at the 14th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival, running May 6-14 at the Bloor Cinema and at Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (go to http://www.tjff.com for details).

“I did go back to my so-called Jewish roots after I left Bourbon Tabernacle,” Wall explained. “But it was like putting on Jew face. It didn’t feel real to me.

“And after a while I came to the conclusion that no one really owns culture. My roots are what I experienced, the lessons I learned from what I listened to when I was young, which was essentially my mother’s record collection, everything from Etta James to the Beatles.”

In that spirit Wall, who had earned kudos from America’s foremost jazz critic Nat Hentoff for his 2001 art-song collaboration with Marilyn Lerner, Still Soft Voiced Heart, embarked two years ago on his own project, a recording that mystically and quite effortlessly constructs a bridge between the music of his bloodline and the music of his heart, particularly the soaring vocal style of 1950s gospel groups such as the Swan Silvertones and the early Staple Singers.

The Spell I Was Under, produced by Whiteley, a frequent and easy traveller across cultural divides, is a remarkable collection of Wall’s original compositions and American gospel and folk songs. It provides rich proof that one musical world doesn’t have to shut out another. This is religious music in the sense that it’s almost relentlessly uplifting, unashamedly spiritual, undeniably inclusive. In it you can hear the syntax, tones and scales and emotional textures of both ancient Jewish music and ancient African music blend into a seamless, celebratory whole.

“Singing is a big part of my identity,” Wall said. “It had been under-utilized, like a muscle that hadn’t been used, while I concentrated on my film music work.

“I really enjoy aspects of that. There’s something functional about making film music that appeals to me. It’s a craft. It’s satisfying in the same way as cantorial singing; it serves a purpose, it’s useful and it doesn’t require that you become the centre of your own universe.

“Besides, for 10 years I didn’t have anything to sing about, I was not compelled, until Ken (Whitely) started me thinking about writing again. He was my music teacher at high school, and a mentor all my life. Then, last year I was invited to take part in a gospel workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a place where people are filled with the joy and the love of music, and I worked hard to keep that feeling with me when I started writing the songs for this album.”

Wall’s new music, which openly invokes Christian spiritual allusions, has alarmed some traditionalists, and some of his oldest friends.

“The Christian thing freaks out my Jewish friends, who know me as a know-it-all, self-educated Marxist intellectual with leftist tendencies,” he said.

“My response to them is that throughout history, potent political force comes when spiritual fervour is mixed with the struggle for social justice. That’s the essence of Jewish and African-American traditional music. “This is a dark time in human history. In the face of fear and oppression we can find joy in spiritual music. It reaches for transcendence. It’s about trying to break out of the present and reaching a universal place.”

Greyson finds grandeur in video opera

PETER GODDARD

TORONTO STAR Nov. 22, 2003

Of the dozen different ways to describe Fig Trees, the music and video installation at Oakville Galleries, the simplest works best: It has the feel of greatness.

It’s there in the sumptuous weave of David Wall’s musical score, where 14th-century polyphony meets 21st-century compositional techniques.

Arias soar even as they are confined to the intimacy of video performance and to a speaker system or CD players.

The music melts into your head.

It’s there in film director John Greyson’s adroitly arranged scenes played out on monitors and screens throughout a number of rooms in two buildings.

Walk through it any which way, change the order of scenes and Fig Trees grows all around you, a grove of technology.

It’s there in the thematic material the collaborators worked with, notably in the defiant and nearly deadly four-year strike by South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, who provoked 39 pharmaceutical companies to withdraw a lawsuit intended to block South Africa from importing cheaper generic versions of essential AIDS drugs.

Having ended his protest, Achmat, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), found his way to a fig orchard to take his first dose, hence the title.

It’s there in the way all these elements and so many others are woven together so seamlessly you aren’t mindful of the various factors.

More than anything, it’s there in the very soul of the piece.

And it’s no stretch to talk about soul, even with all the technology. In fact, the soul in Fig Trees should be entirely familiar for anyone with even a passing interest in opera, where no heart is ever big enough.

Fig Trees may be the first chamber opera that works on the grand operatic scale by suggesting something heroic in intimate terms and the first to make 21st-century technology work for it.

In its first scene, Achmat (Van Abrahams) tries to gives his keynote speech to the delegates at the 2002 AIDS conference in Barcelona, via satellite

Too ill to travel, he has to rely on a video link that keeps breaking down, as does the simultaneous Simulang-Google translation of his words.

Weaving together this fusillade of techno glitches, the truncated words, the missed sentences, Achmat’s puppet-like appearance on the monitor, the original staggering video transmission, Greyson creates a sort of anti-music video, where everything that should run smoothly doesn’t.

It’s a dazzling close-up of Achmat’s frustration that’s echoed achingly through Wall’s music.

"John and I were dedicated from the outset to a piece that was `beautiful’ in the most conservative sense," Wall tells me in an e-mail.

"I am thoroughly convinced that opera should be tonal. There’s something intrinsic to the human voice that makes 20th-century serial and atonal operas sound hopelessly dated and strained.

"I also thought it would be mean to subject gallery workers to endless loops of ear-crunching dissonance.

"I wanted to reject the `operatic’ and Romantic model, which represents history as a chain of singular heroes who shape the world’s destiny. The use of interlocking, even libretto-obscuring ensembles mirrors, in my opinion, the true, multi-faceted nature of political change.

"Also, my favourite operatic moments are always the quartets, sextets, etc. where comprehensibility is sacrificed for sheer wash of beautiful sound."

The reason video, the most intimate of all visual media, integrates so well with opera, the most over-the-top musical form, lies in their mutual ability to make sense beyond words.

"At the theatre we see and hear what has been said, thought and done by various people elsewhere," wrote William Hazlitt, the influential 19th-century British essayist.

"At the opera we see and hear what was never said or done anywhere but at the opera."

In his time, Hazlitt meant larger-than-life feelings, events and characters. But the media intensity of the 21st century has made the intimate available on the global scale.

The kind of nation-stirring notions made larger-than-life in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov have yielded to worldwide movements and protests based on life-size personal issues such as AIDS, the environment or gay and minority rights.

To Greyson, Achmat’s story was an opera waiting to happen. Visiting the activist in Cape Town over a number of years "and watching him emerge as a leader," says Greyson, "I started teasing him one day about this martyr thing. The press were going crazy over it. `Someone will write an opera about him,’ I told him. There were all those large questions of martyrdom and the issues of his story.

"I’m not the biggest opera queen in the world. But with (Fig Trees) the tone generally falls with the romantic-tragic tradition, the noble suffering about a good cause. We just wanted to turn the story on its head."

This is where Gertrude Stein enters the story, or at least her "opera to be sung" Four Saints In Three Acts, written with American composer Virgil Thomson, which had its premiere in Hartford, Conn., on Feb.8, 1934.

Both Greyson and Wall had been interested in the opera for some time, "not so much as an opera in its own right, but more as a peculiar and legendary moment in queer, avant-garde and new music history," says Marnie Fleming, Fig Trees‘ curator.

(Oakville Galleries is home to one of Janet Cardiff’s earliest sound walks. There’s no reason why Fig Trees, on to Jan.25, won’t eventually have the same international reach.)

Four Saints, with its all-black cast, with everyone dressed in cellophane, and its libretto an utter jumble of nonsensical sounds, was precisely the kind of piece breaking the rules being ignored by Greyson and Wall in Fig Trees.

For Greyson, a fantasy involving Stein and Cellophane, a fictional Gertrude Stein opera set in Oakville provided the right counterpoint to Achmat’s heroics.

"Running through my work has always been this ambivalence toward realism," Greyson says. To say the least. His 1993 film, Zero Patience , the direct precursor of Fig Trees , was a musical about the arrival of AIDS in North America.

Stein’s love of wordplay, intelligent nonsense and pushing the envelope to see who’d open it, also played into Greyson’s imagination, "which tends to involve a fair amount of game-playing with words and image," says Wall.

"He loves interweaving layers and codes into his films and we approached the writing/composing of Fig Trees in this way."

Fig Trees even has its own palindrome room, where every word can be read or sung forward or backward.

Here life goes into video reverse and the singers melt into one another.

"On the stage, actors can’t sing backwards no matter how hard they try," says Greyson.

"The main thing with Fig Trees is finding new ways to make people see things anew."


The John Greyson-Dave Wall collaboration Fig Trees pays homage to South African protest leader Zackie Achmat.

Operatic Activism by Cameron Bailey

NOW MAGAZINE, NOV 13

FIG TREES Rating: NNNN

This spring The New Yorker called AIDS activist Zackie Achmat the most important protest leader in South Africa since Nelson Mandela. Now video artist John Greyson and musician Dave Wall have rendered Achmat operatic in a stunning, ambitious video installation. Fig Trees has Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson dreaming up an opera about Achmat. The combination of Greyson’s video and Wall’s music is mournful and gorgeous, but what astounds is the conceptual rigour.

Fig Trees is designed with mind-bending formalist complexity, feeding Achmat’s work for fair pharmaceuticals through palindromes, translation machines and multiple screens. The whole thing is installed in six rooms at both the Centennial and Gairloch locations of the Oakville Galleries.

On opening night, Tuesday (November 18), a bus leaves the Paul Petro gallery (980 Queen West) for Oakville; reserve at oakgalleries@idirect.com. (On view November 18-January 25, 2004, Oakville Galleries)


The Lilting Melodies of Yiddish

Music by Nat Hentoff

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL May 30, 2002

During the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s, a number of young Jewish players — immersed in Bill Monroe-style bluegrass or blues originating in the Mississippi Delta that their grandmothers never sang to them — decided to plumb the colors and rhythms of their own musical heritage.

Pianist Marilyn Lerner (left) and singer David Wall (right) set works by 20th-century Yiddish poets to music on ‘Still Soft Voiced Heart.’

Some joined klezmer bands, but two Toronto-based musicians — singer David Wall and pianist Marilyn Lerner — have since found a distinctly singular way to revivify their roots. In "Still Soft Voiced Heart: New Jewish Lieder" (Traditional Crossroads, New York, www.traditionalcrossroads.com1), they have put to music works by 20th-century Yiddish poets in settings that are so luminously lyrical in their immediacy — and their range of Jewish sensibility — that, like bluegrass and the blues, they also speak to the human condition.

As one of the poets, Peretz Miransky, who came to Toronto after the Nazis took Vilna, wrote in one of these songs: "Every being has a melody of its own that can be heard" — and that can harmonize with the inner melodies of listeners from other cultures. And Zisha Landau, who was born in Poland and died in New York, is both contemporary and timeless in "Softly Let Us All Vanish":

Let us be free like the stars/ Then we will all swim away/ Softly, lest anyone hear — / children still die of fear.

And my own youth, in a Boston neighborhood where the conservatives were the voters for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, returns in "To a Woman Socialist" by Avrom Reisen, who came to the United States from Russia:

Your eyes sparkle and shine when you speak/ of the new times to come when all people will/ live equally and happily./ And I too believe in this vision yet still I cry,/ for even in this bright new future, you will/ never be mine.

I was so deeply drawn into this fusion of music, poetry and memory that I keep playing this cycle of lieder entirely new to me and yet quickly familiar. Curious as to how all this came together, I called the originators.

Mr. Wall, formerly lead vocalist for a Toronto rhythm-and-blues band, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, needed a gig and joined the Flying Bulgar Klezmer band. But he had to learn Yiddish, and found an affinity for the language. "It’s a beautiful language," he told me, "full of poetry. Yiddish has a particular lilt. Certain melodies just flow out of it."

Mr. Wall was so taken with cantorial music — the roots of Yiddish blues — that he also studied cantorial singing. And he discovered Yiddish poetry that is "not all about the shtetl or the theater or comedy. For better or worse, it’s serious."

Ms. Lerner, a specialist in improvisation, both in jazz and avant-garde classical music, is also versed in musicology. But a time came when she began to think of exploring Jewish music too. "It’s in my blood," she told me. But like Mr. Wall, she had to study the language, because the only Yiddish she had heard as a child was when her parents didn’t want her to understand what they were saying.

Her piano accompaniments to Mr. Wall’s singing, and her interludes, are like a second compelling voice. As Lorin Sklamberg — a composer, vocalist and co-founder of the Klezmatics — says in the notes to this set, Ms. Lerner and Mr. Wall "have combined their musical personalities with the verbal voices of Reisen, Sutskever, Teitelboim, Molodowsky, Landau . . . and Peretz Miransky to create something which is distinctly theirs. Such authenticity continues to be an exception to the classical, pop, jazz and world-music landscapes (territorial distinctions which Marilyn and Dave blithely transcend)."

Ms. Lerner and Mr. Wall naturally interweave their multicultural personalities in these performances, but I’m certain my grandparents would recognize the songs and the poetry to be unmistakably rooted in Yiddishkeit, or the essence of being Jewish.

Most of the poets in "Still Soft Voiced Heart" can also be found in "A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry," edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg and translated by Stanley Kunitz, Cynthia Ozick and Adrienne Rich, among others (Schocken Books). This 378-page collection is out of print — and should not be. The enthusiastic audiences Mr. Wall and Ms. Lerner are attracting may indicate a revival of interest in Yiddish poetry, as there is already in the Yiddish language. Schocken Books could spur that revival by making "A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry" available again.

As Howe and Greenberg noted: "What makes Yiddish poets Yiddish is not that they happen to write in the language but even as they seek and receive the impress of surrounding cultures, they cannot break past the visible and invisible boundaries of Yiddish."

The booklet in "Still Soft Voiced Heart" includes both the Yiddish transliterations and the English translations of the songs, and reading them aloud, or at least the English version, may, along with the music, encourage learning more about this stubborn tradition.

The recording also made me curious about the company with the imagination to produce "Still Soft Voiced Heart." The catalog of Traditional Crossroads is an invitation to even more unexpected discoveries: music from Turkey, Iran, Senegal, Bulgaria. Gypsy music, wedding music, even the history of the cigar in Cuban folk music. (Traditional Crossroads is at P.O. Box 20320, Greeley Square Station, New York, N.Y. 10001-9992).

Peretz Miransky wrote:

As the night engulfs the sunset/ and the stars begin to hover/ few are privileged to hear/ the song belonging to another.

It is no longer only a few who are so privileged.


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