The Sound Of Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’

Eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell tackles an iconic poem.

02/14/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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It is purely coincidence, no doubt, that Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic poem “Kaddish” three years after the death of his mother Naomi, and eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell began work on his musical accompaniment to that poem three years after the death of his mother Jane.

The program that results from Frisell’s labors, a multimedia extravaganza produced by Hal Willner, and featuring Willner and director Chloe Webb reading the dense, rich Ginsberg text, will have its world premiere Feb. 23.

Frisell, who will turn 61 next month, is a prodigious guitarist-composer whose work, while usually filed under “jazz,” spans a jaw-dropping range of genres and moods, from folk-tinged Americana to settings of Beatles tunes to countrified jazz. Last week the soft-spoken musician was waiting for the rain to subside in Seattle, where he is currently based, so that he could go for a walk, when he spoke in an interviewer with The Jewish Week.

“This is Hal Willner’s thing — it all came from him,” Frisell said. “He was a good friend of Allen’s, and I’ve had a long relationship with Hal. It’s 30-plus years I’ve been working with Hal.”

That collaboration led to Frisell’s own acquaintance with Ginsberg, whom he met in the late 1980s when they recorded an album for Willner of Ginsberg reading with a sturdy jazz backup.

When Willner asked Frisell to compose music for the new “Kaddish” project, he was delighted. “It’s quite an honor for me to be part of this thing,” the compulsively modest guitarist says.

Timely, too. Frisell had been procrastinating over the doleful task of cleaning out his mother’s house. Then his close friend and frequent collaborator Paul Motian, the pioneering jazz drummer, died in November. He found some comfort in Ginsberg’s verse.

“I’d read his poetry on and off back in college, but it was in the course of this project that I really got into it,” he said. “There were so many things going on, so many things lining up in my life. Paul — that was huge, and it was happening right when I started to write the music. The poem helped me ... it gave me support. I don’t want to get super-dark about it; it’s a good thing.”

Frisell prepared for the writing by listening to a recording of Ginsberg reciting “Kaddish.” Although he was not actually setting Ginsberg’s words to music (like an opera), Frisell said he found it helpful, along with frequent re-readings of the text.

“I tried to get the sound of the poem,” he said. “There wasn’t any system to it; I would try to have that [recording of Ginsberg] close to me and then start writing music. But the reality is that when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about any literal or specific thing. And it was resonating with all these other things that were going on.”

Frisell is hesitant when he tries to describe his writing process. He said, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like. I just enter into this world and the notes are willed to more notes, or some melody will come, and it’s like a branch and other branches will start coming out from it.”

Unfortunately, one logical source of inspiration was not available to him. The visual materials that are a part of the performance — art by Ralph Steadman and short films by Webb — were still being completed as we spoke last week.

“My job is to make a bed for the poem that it can rest in,” Frisell said. “Right now I’m in the homestretch of panic and frantic writing.”

He won’t have his own guitar playing to fall back on either, which means it’s his writing that will be under scrutiny.

“Hal specifically asked me not to play,” he said. “I think that might be the greatest thing that happened. I’ve been waiting for that to happen, and this was the first time. I was really happy that he recognized this is something I wanted to do. When I’m playing, the guitar is a safety net; I can always work something out. This way we keep it pure.”

Given that Frisell has, over his 30-plus-year career, played with Jewish music luminaries John Zorn, Don Byron and Jenny Scheinman, will there be an explicitly Jewish tone to the music?

“I don’t know, I haven’t actively gone after it,” he said. “It’s not a klezmer thing or like that. We all have these names that people put on music, but it’s hard for me to see the lines between them. When I get with other musicians, I don’t think about whether they’re Jewish or whatever — the music takes over.”

Oddly, Frisell went to Hebrew school as a kid, tagging along with his best friend, who was Jewish. However, he added, “I’m not religious in any organized way. But it’s a part of the whole fabric of what we all are.”

That is a sentiment that Allen Ginsberg undoubtedly would share.

“Kaddish,” text by Allen Ginsberg, music by Bill Frisell, will have its world premiere with the Tune-In Music Festival on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m., at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave.). For information, call (212) 933-5812 or go to www.armoryonpark.org/index.php/programs_events/detail/kaddish.

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