Barbez and Celan

There should be more projects like Barbez’s “Force of Light,” a multimedia performance inspired by and reacting to the poems of Paul Celan.  The seven piece band, augmented by Fiona Templeton reading Celan’s words, recorded and released these eight pieces last year on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, but I saw them perform them live at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage last week.  Informed largely by Pamelia Kurstin’s spectral theremin, Barbez’s coursing instrumentals swept powerfully around (and occasionally over) Templeton’s interspersed readings.  It was refreshing to see artists engage with poetry this way and equally refreshing to see the packed house Barbez and Celan drew on a blustery January evening.  While lacking in neither energy nor ambition, I did find the performance uneven.  Barbez’s music was rich in texture but not in mood: the music responding increasingly to the darkest parts of Celan’s poetry.  Granted, it’s all pretty dark, but I’m always awed by Celan’s ability to balance lyrical beauty with grim reality and found that balance largely absent in Barbez’s interpretations.  Still, “Force of Light” was intense and at times moving; I’d love to see more of its kind.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Poetry International 13/14, coming out in 2009, will feature a Paul Celan chapbook of new translations by David Young.  Check here for a preview.

by Martin Woodside

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