Welp, I did it. I wrote a piece of sacred Jewish music that uses the ultimate taboo. I used a clip of Hitler. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of the idea, and it’s probably the kind of trick you can use only once. The piece is not even finished, but I was sick of working on it for three months with no reward, and the moment it was in something resembling presentable shape, I released an early draft into the world on social media. Judging from the early impressions on listeners, no piece of music I’ve done so far has made this kind of impact on people.
It was a bit hellish to make. Imagine going into a studio every week to keep company with Hitler, and not a jokey caricature of Hitler either. Imagine creating the kind of piece where you do your best to pay seriousness to exactly how terrifying he is. The piece doesn’t just feature Hitler but all the attendant totalitarian elements: an orchestral interlude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold plays in the background as Wotan and Loge walk into the bowels of the earth to visit the Nibelungs, a race of dwarves who love and smelt gold, the orchestra plays the most insistent possible rhythm in the most dissonant possible chord an ensemble can achieve in tonal harmony (a 13th), which gradually peels back to hear the striking of no less than a dozen percussionists striking anvils… The music of every other race is unending melody, the music of a race clearly meant to resemble Jews is nothing but an incessant and pitchless rhythm. The implication, if you’re looking for it, is pretty clear: a practical race like the Jews is the death of all transcendence, all worthwhile experience, living death.
As with so many things in Wagner, the anti-Semitism is unmistakable unless you’re willfully ignoring it. I cannot help but hear the awesome horror of this moment in Wagner’s music and hear the terror he and so many other delusional anti-Semites felt at encountering Jews. The effect I wanted to create is the descent into the warped mind of an antisemite who believes that Jews are terrifying, when in fact, the antisemites are clearly the true terror.
In the foreground against Wagner plays not only Hitler, but Stalin, Lenin, and Mussolini, Richard Nixon, Oswald Mosley, Idi Amin, and Father Coughlin.
Beginning with Nixon, there is ambiguity in everything the English-speakers say. It’s not quite overt in its anti-Semitism, but the dogwhistle is unmistakably there. Jews heard it, anti-Semites heard it, nobody else necessarily did. All of them: Nixon, Idi Amin, Mosley, and Coughlin, couched their anti-Semitism in all manner of justifications. On the Watergate Tapes, Nixon says that “our Jewish friends” have a death wish, that holocausts against Jews happen because they’re not “behavin’ themselves.” Lord Mosley, the would-have-been British Hitler, blames both Hitler and Jews for the Second World War — Hitler for invading Czechoslovakia and Poland, Jews for agitating for British involvement. When a journalist asks Idi Amin about his quote that “Hitler didn’t kill enough Jews during the war,” Amin simply laughs sinisterly and says “Why do you asking me about Hitler?” (his malapropism, not mine). And the nearly forgotten Father Coughlin? Well,… he is one of the most dangerous characters in American history whose effect on America continues to this day. He is the original progenitor of “hate media,” without whose model Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would be impossible. He mesmerized a radio audience of 40 million and by 1940 successfully agitated for and justified mob violence against Jews. At a keynote speech for the lobby he founded, “The National Union for Social Justice” (note those two words…), he declaimed, in a stentorian and fake Irish brogue, “We are Christian insofar as we believe in Christ’s principle of love your neighbor as yourself, and with that principle I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me he does not believe in it!”
I don’t even need to check the text to copy that quote word-for-word. I would get home from the studio and Father Coughlin, above even Hitler, would haunt me the worst. The vituperative vitriol of his voice would resound in my head for days. The murderous rage of his tone, the biblically steeped incantations, the barest possible nods to generosity to Jews that only made his anti-Semitism sound more insidious.
Listening to what I’d wrought, I felt as though I’d raised the ghost of that horrible, deadly era. One of my closest friends, Israeli born, commented to me, “Thank you, Evan, for recording the soundtrack of my nightmares.”
The music follows this descent into history with a sojourn into more contemporary tropes. We go into the realm of present day anti-Semitism with Louis Farrakhan, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeremy Corbyn and John Mearsheimer, set against a background of Mussorgsky’s piece from Pictures at an Exhibition: Two Jews — Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuÿle. Both are set against a melody intoned by my longtime soprano collaborator, Allison Clendaniel, along with the leitmotif rhythm of Wagner’s dwarves, a singer’s glissando (scoop) artificially prolonged into four minutes, and clips from the Costanzas, Adam Sandler, the Springtime for Hitler production in The Producers (the original movie, which is the funniest movie ever made, the Broadway musical should never have happened), Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and Kyle’s Mom in South Park. On the one side, Jewish stereotypes, on the other, Jewish stereotypers.
But here’s the thing, I don’t look at Jewish stereotypes with disapproval. The Jewish worldview, at least the worldview we’re supposed to have, is nowhere near so serious as earnest people like Ted Cruz and Jeremy Corbyn who view the world as an existential battle between the forces of light and darkness. On the one hand, we have the humorless ultra-seriousness of anti-Semites who see Jews as impediments to the various Kingdoms of Heaven they believe possible to achieve on Earth, on the other, we have Jews, whom in spite of all we’ve been through are confident enough to laugh at ourselves. I know which worldview I prefer, I prefer the worldview which leads to life instead of death. This is reality as we in our day generally experience it. On the one side, living as Jews, trying to laugh at ourselves while everybody who fears Jews in their various ways seems to view the world with a surfeit of humorlessness.
And inevitably in history, the seriousness eventually wins out. Wagner’s Ring takes over again, as the Nibelungs, hypnotized by their taskmaster Alberich, ascend to the surface, carrying with them their gold as lucre to present to the Gods and Giants. Alberich holds up his Ring of Power, by which he planned to rule the world (which Wotan, the head god, will rob from him two minutes later), and the dwarves scurry back to their Nibelheim, their ancestral home where they can continue their devious, loveless machinations.
We used two separate Rheingold recordings. On the way down to Nibelheim, we used Christian Thielemann, an avowed German ultra-right-winger. On the way back up, we used Rheingold’s most iconic recording — conducted by Georg Solti, a Hungarian-Jewish conductor who lost his entire family in the Shoah. There was no especial significance in that, the only reason we used the Thielemann recording was that Solti’s recording of the descent into Nibelheim was too fast for any singer to articulate a text to. But the Solti recording has an amazing, terrifying, sublime moment, utilized in hardly any other recording.
When Alberich holds up the ring, all the Nibelungs scream. In the context of the opera, it is absolutely bone-chilling. It is a moment which lays bare Wagner’s implication, that this race experiences nothing but horror their entire lives, and deserve nothing but horror. It is but one step from here to the Camps.
I am no fan of Wagner, but I am addicted to him. The music is simply too powerful to ignore, and his disgusting greatness is something every culturally minded person has to confront eventually. If you don’t see the direct line in the mental space between Wagner’s authoritarianism and Hitler’s, you conceal anti-Semitism in your soul.
Against this ascent of the Nibelungs, I put more speeches of Hitler. We have descended into that “terrible” “horrific” realm which is Nibelheim, or as reality has it modern life, a place where the master race has no chance of emerging. Everything is chaotic and ambiguous. But the antisemites inevitably want greater order, and eventually they re-emerge, newly cleansed by blood, to the surface where the hall of the gods, Valhalla, awaits them. There is no place in Valhalla for Nibelungs, dwarves, or Jews. Right before that scream, Hitler shouts “ICH LIEBE DEUTSCHLAND!’ and after the scream, shouts from Germans of “Heil! Heil! Heil! Heil!”
Putting clips of 30s fascism into Jewish music is a pretty obvious idea, but you have to save it for a psalm that is really iconic. Psalm 13 begins with the phrase, “How Long, O Lord,” which is one of the most commonly cited biblical phrases. I didn’t go into Psalm 13 meaning for it to be a statement about anti-Semitism, but that is what it clearly became. It’s a very short Psalm, and it practically begs for some sort of historical statement. When will the history of the Jewish people be put as well as King David allegedly put it right here?
How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.
Like Greek drama, the Psalms are meant to be sung, not spoken. They are considered one of the Bible’s more boring parts by so many people from Jane Eyre to John Mulaney. There are so many parts of the Tanakh I would rather read: Genesis and Exodus, Samuel 1, Isaiah, Jeremiah and his Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, but in terms of poetry, not narrative, the Psalms stand alone. There are isolated poetic moments: the Song of Deborah, Isaiah singing to his vine, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, but nothing can compare to the sustained achievement of the Psalms over 150 separate poems. Be he David or some imperial poet laureate, the Psalmist stands alone in the world of the Ancient Hebrews, the only large-scale poetic achievement that can take pride of place next to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Sappho.
The point of the “Psalm Project” is to render the entire Jewish experience into music. There are 150 Tehillim, and should I live long enough (and I wonder if I’ll get even to Psalm 23), then over the course of a long lifetime I mean to set them all to music. I need a way of justifying the existence of this crazy person whose marbles came undone so long ago that people have stopped asking when or where it all went wrong; routinely called a genius from the earliest age, and still occasionally called one, but however justifiable a reason mental instability is, he took this surfeit of gifts and flushed them down the toilet. Who can possibly live anything but a disappointing and disturbed life with that knowledge?
Whether or not I ever wanted to be Jewish, a Jew is what I am. Misunderstood and irritating though other Jews may find me, they cannot completely ignore a composer who tried his best to give them musical voice to texts surrounded by silence for 2,000 years. This is a musical offering, not to Hashem, not to the world, not to myself, but to other Jews. If they never accept it, it’s their own damn fault.
What is helpful about the Psalms is that they were meant to be chanted in moments of despair. It is cathartic to set the terrifying rage in the first half of Psalm 2:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,
Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Psalm 2 took more than six months to complete. When I began it, Donald Trump was still a joke, a scary joke, but a joke nevertheless. When I finished it, Donald Trump was two months away from being elected. When I looked at the second and third verses, it seemed almost providential to set them when I did.
It was nearly as cathartic to set a paranoid line like at the beginning of Psalm 3, which had been in my head for more than five years before I got to record it — albeit in the revision it’s extremely different:
Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God.
Or the erotic despair in the middle of Psalm 6:
I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.
Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.
But nothing was quite as cathartic as the setting of Psalm 10.
10 Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
2 The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined.
3 For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth.
4 The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.
5 His ways are always grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight: as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them.
6 He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity.
7 His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under his tongue is mischief and vanity.
8 He sitteth in the lurking places of the villages: in the secret places doth he murder the innocent: his eyes are privily set against the poor.
9 He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den: he lieth in wait to catch the poor: he doth catch the poor, when he draweth him into his net.
10 He croucheth, and humbleth himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones.
11 He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it.
12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble.
13 Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God? he hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it.
14 Thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest mischief and spite, to requite it with thy hand: the poor committeth himself unto thee; thou art the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none.
16 The Lord is King for ever and ever: the heathen are perished out of his land.
17 Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear:
18 To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress.
I felt as though all the turmoil was hanging out from my stomach like disemboweled guts, a ghost released into the world, and yet I felt a little bit better. Psalm 10 is easily one of the more traditionally composed pieces in the project, but I basically improvised Psalm 10 on the spot in a state of near-complete panic. My engineer was going abroad for a year and I was blocked for weeks, knowing that the ability to complete 3-10, which I perhaps wrongly envisioned as a single piece, laid in the balance. For two weeks, I was completely stymied and we threw out whatever work we could do. Finally, I managed to cobble together what I think is, though not the best, the most expressive of the 13 so far, and thus far, the climax of the middle section is the single best thing in this whole project. I can’t listen to Psalm 10, particularly the middle section, while completely keeping it together emotionally. It is a very traditional piece of choral music, but it has genuine emotion and not the usual saccharine shit most modern composers compel choruses to sing.
We’ve resumed the project, and in six months we’ve revised Psalm 3 and completed Psalms 11, 12, and pretty much all of 13. I don’t know if I can sustain this level of quality. Once you raise the ghost of Hitler, it’s very difficult to sustain the same level of intensity. But now that we’ve returned to it after a year’s hiatus, it’s clear that the music is better than it was before our break. It was inevitable that some Psalms would be better than others, and there are all kinds of weak passages I’d love to revisit when I have an idea for how to improve them, but I have faith that, somehow, from somewhere, the ideas will keep coming. Please, may I live long enough for Hashem or whoever is up there to send them.