Rhythm and ritual

Blues musician Jeremiah Lockwood turns to his cantor grandfather for inspiration at a Rosh Hashana eve performance.

September 17, 2007 07:32
cantor konigsberg 88 224

cantor konigsberg 88 224. (photo credit: )


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When Jeremiah Lockwood was growing up, he used to sit with his grandfather, renowned cantor Jacob Konigsberg, listening to records of the great cantors and other masters of Jewish music. In the dimly lit study, fragrant with pipe smoke and lined with volumes of the Talmud, Lockwood was entranced. A framed print of a 16th-century French map hung on one wall. In each corner of the map stood an image of one of the four races of the world, as understood by the cartographers of the time. "The images fortified the feeling that in that room the past and present and all of humankind were united in the study of some ancient wisdom," writes Lockwood in an on-line introduction to his blues-Klezmer fusion band the Sway Machinery. "It felt to me as a child that there, in the dusky back room of my grandparents' apartment in Queens, a passageway was opened into the heart of the world." An accomplished musician, Lockwood has returned to his grandfather's ancient melodies and is working to make them resonate with contemporary audiences. The band seeks to reclaim the deep roots of Ashkenazic liturgical music, specifically the work of the masters of the golden age of cantorial music - such as Zawel Kwartin, Pierre Pinchik, Berele Chagy - reinventing them with contemporary rhythms and sounds. "In the cantor's balance of artistic authority and spiritual humility, I see a perfect stance from which to speak to the emotional needs of the contemporary world," Lockwood says. "I am revisiting the work of my heroes of hazanus, particularly the music of my grandfather, and hoping to return to that place of childlike awe that he opened to me." On Erev Rosh Hashana Lockwood will return to the melodies of his grandfather in what promises to be a transformative multimedia performance. Sway Machinery will unleash "Hidden Melodies Revealed," a performance that is the culmination of years of preparation, at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, where Konigsberg made his New York debut almost 60 years ago. The site once housed the celebrated Slonimer Synagogue, but has since found new life as an art and event venue. The building, designed in 1849, witnessed the birth of the Reform Movement in America, but after World War II, during the decline of the Jewish Lower East Side, dozens of synagogues and other significant structures disappeared. Angel Orensanz bought the building in 1986, first for his own studio, and then to make it again a beacon of education and culture in New York. "This is where my grandfather had one of his proudest moments in 1949 in front of a packed house of 1,000 people, an august and impressive list of characters," Lockwood says. "He talked about that night periodically all his life. The idea of being able to do something in the same space has been a goal for a long time." The performance, which in many ways is intended as an extension of the Rosh Hashana ritual, will take place after services end so that synagogue-goers can attend. The goal is to create an emotional state in which the musical folklore of the New Year liturgy can be absorbed by today's audience. "People say everything you do is leading up to the moment you are in, that's how we feel about this performance," says band member Stuart Bogey. "We've been practicing our approach to performing music that has been lost and neglected. Music can become a science to people, and you begin to not believe in the spiritual significance of the vibrations you are making, but I want to feel the elation of life, like we are completing the universe." Lockwood's artistic vision has been influenced by artists like Robert Wilson, one of the front runners in multimedia performance that brings together sound, narrative and visual art. The result is dramatic, even operatic. "I've done music for films and plays, and something I've thought about for years is how to take music that has narrative and use it for my own project," Lockwood says. In line with this vision, the performance will be more than just a concert. It will include elements of storytelling, theater and a hint of "mass hysteria," in an attempt to produce an atmosphere of "spiritual danger" and heightened energy. "We won't stop until we achieve our goal of drawing in the audience," Lockwood says. "We are musicians very much dedicated to a visceral approach to music, and it will shine through." The event will feature the debut of a short film especially created for the night by animator Shawn Atkins, a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, using puppets designed by Paul Andrejco. The film takes as its subject the sacrifice of Isaac, revisited as a meditation on personal fragility and the terrors unleashed when the inner life spills into the outside world. It will be accompanied by live music and a narration, performed by Yuli Beeri (Nanuchka, World/Inferno Friendship Society). "My immediate goal is to create a dramatic presentation of the music," Lockwood says. "I'm writing stories that I tell, and trying to think of ways to create, if not traditional narrative, a narrative arch." THE HIDDEN MELODIES project is made possible in part by the Six Points Fellowship, a new arts fellowship that helps 12 artists in the New York area develop new projects with a Jewish "focus, theme or element." The Jewish focus is purposely broad, with the intention of letting the artists define for themselves what makes their project Jewish. "My work speaks for itself," says Lockwood, a Six Points Fellow. "I want to turn to mythological and fantastical images of Jewishness as being as relevant to the shaping of Jewish identity. The examples around us are not so exciting and sustainable, but maybe if we look to our fantasies..." The Six Points Fellowship - initiated by a $1 million grant from the UJA-Federation of New York's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal - was announced shortly after a study, commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, revealed that young Jews were increasingly accessing their heritage through music and the arts. Jews in their 20s and 30s, the study said, felt less connected to Jewish establishments, such as synagogues and Hillel, and more to culture that exists outside the organized Jewish community. But this is not what motivates Lockwood, who does not see it as his job to recruit Jews back to their faith. "I do what I do because it's beautiful. It has nothing to do with American Jewish identity politics, nothing to do with Zionism or the Holocaust," he says. "For me they are not particularly helpful. I'm mostly concentrated on making my art. I'm not a political scientist or a rabbi; I'm a musician and artist, which is a different kind of job." Lockwood describes his own relationship to Judaism as "ongoing process." "I am constantly delving into the inner life, and using as my primary guide the body of work of Jewish texts. I am primitive with this stuff in the sense that I am self-taught, but it's something that is very important to me." Even his grandfather, who was an observant Jew, had a complicated relationship to religion. "For someone who is free-spirited, to say the tradition that I've received is a clearheaded indication of what God wants is hard for a man who grapples with his own inner life and human condition," Lockwood says. "Even for my grandfather, who was loyal and practiced a halachic life, his relationship to it was quite complex." Lockwood, who learned to sing from his grandfather, says he has "flirted" with the idea of being a cantor, but needs to approach it in a different way. "Synagogue life, as I've seen it in America, is conformistic and lacking in vital energy that I think of as being a true expression of Jewishness." Lockwood's approach to cantorial music came out of his first true love, the blues. When he was 12, his father, a musician and composer, bought him his first guitar, and at 14, he began performing on the streets of New York with Piedmont blues master Carolina Slim, who has remained his greatest influence. His current projects reflect his ongoing interest in rhythm. "I think that's one of the things that makes my approach to playing blues different from other young musicians," Lockwood said in an interview with a local New York paper. "I'm kind of studying rhythm by taking it apart, like I don't already know it." In the music composed for Sway Machinery, Lockwood infuses his grandfather's melodies with this sense of rhythm. In one interview he described it as "trying to create a rhythmic framework on which the cantorial melody can rest."

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