Jewish mysticism in contemporary music

Gorna is a modern woman in London's Bobov Chassidic world – as she describes herself to Basia Monka, in her interview for the Magazine.

JARMILA XYMENA GÓRNA: On a spiritual quest.
Listening to the music of Jarmila Xymena Górna, to her amazing voice influenced by many musical genres, I would never say it was the Jewish mysticism that inspired this artist who was born in Poland and lives in London. But it did.
Gorna is a modern woman in London's Bobov Chassidic world – as she describes herself to Basia Monka, in her interview for the Magazine. She is a singer, composer, pianist, a soundwoman and a music producer, author of her own system of teaching music called “The Gorna Method” and a woman of spirituality. In the mid 1990s, when she first came to Israel, she discovered Jewish mysticism. This highly influenced her first album, Hashgachah. Some 14 years later, she is back with Aspaklaria, but unlike her first recording, this time the songs include lyrics.
You start your lead-off track of your new album Aspaklaria with the words: “Hi. My name is Dreamer.” We often say “dream big.” You produced and released your second album all by yourself. In your case, big dreams come true. Do you feel this way?
Dreams do come true in my life. I dreamt of some of them, whereas about some I have not even had a chance to dream. The source of everything that happens to a person is out there somewhere. You can call it God or The Creator or “The One and Only.” The trick is to be connected and aligned with what this Higher Force wants from me. Whatever happens to you this is your perfect dream, this is your perfect scenario for this particular moment, point of your story. Even though it’s challenging or even excruciating at times, it’s meant to be, so all is fine.
You live and work in Britain, so why did you name your albums with Hebrew and Aramaic words, Hashgachah and Aspaklaria?
It is a part of my spiritual quest. It all began in the mid ‘90s, when like the Biblical Jethro, I was examining many different spiritual modalities and practices. It was the summer of 1997 and I was desperate for some answers to my spiritual questions. I traveled to the Middle East, to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
While traveling, I experienced a series of epiphanies. I started to look deeper into what we call Judaism, or let’s say the “Hebraic mystical tradition.” It sounds much better. I was not drawn just to the religious practice or customs; my path was the spiritual search for depth and its implications.
THE ‘ASPAKLARIA’ album leads off with the words, ‘Hi. My name is dreamer.’ (Credit: Evrim Ozarslan and David Farren)
THE ‘ASPAKLARIA’ album leads off with the words, ‘Hi. My name is dreamer.’ (Credit: Evrim Ozarslan and David Farren)
I always like to reflect and understand what it means to me as a soul rather than the history of it or the politics. Of course, what comes with it, the traditions and the observance, this is all part and parcel of my spiritual practice, but I am mostly focused on what it does to the soul.
In 1997, you were in Israel and is that what led you to your first album Hashgachah in 2004?
Partly. It was the result of my spiritual investigation and traveling and my hands-on Judaism, but also my experimentation as a musician. Learning about Shabbat, kashrut, kashering my dishes; about Halacha and Jewish hashkafah. I keep all of those. But what really drew me was those transcendental, deeper dimensions.
The reader will not hear it, unfortunately, but it is very interesting that you, despite not growing up with Yiddish, are saying all those terms with the Yiddish accent.
Rather, Ashkenazi. I live in Stamford Hill, the Jewish religious neighborhood of London, and am a product of where I live, of this society. My Jewish education is partly a result of my geographical location.
Is Jewish mysticism the inspiration for your music, or is it an exaggeration?
There certainly is an element of Jewish mysticism and wisdom in the music, but there”s much more in it and in me. My songs on Aspaklaria are songs of love and fear, of one’s personal shattering and self-reconstructing, of getting connected and staying connected, of reaching to the heavens and reaching for the stars, of “per aspera ad astra.” There’s a meeting point between the human condition and the spiritual context in those songs. There are things I went through in my life, my broken heart, that need healing and have to find my inner resources. I needed to prove to myself as well as to humanity that it is possible to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, to yet again reach the heights. Even though people disappoint or betray you many times in life, you always have to aspire to something higher. Or at least that’s what I strive for.
So is your music a way of self-therapy? Does it help you to heal the wounds?
It is not like being sick but it’s part of life to go through different experiences – and as we started our conversation all my “dreams” do actually manifest. Whether I wish for them to happen or not, this is what is happening to me. It is less of a therapy, more a maintenance process. It is a maintenance of the connection with something higher. Music has phenomenal and incredible powers to facilitate it. It’s like a magic interface that connects the spirit within me to its Source.
Why is your new album called Aspaklaria?
In Aramaic it means “a lens.” In Talmud, Moshe Rabbeinu”s vision is compared to Aspaklaria ha-Me”ira (a clear lens), unlike other prophets, whose lens was slightly distorted. Personally, I prefer the word a visionary not a prophet. Moshe’s vision was clear.
Can we say that your music is a vision?
My music, to me personally, is a connection with HaShem, which I want to keep undistorted and uninterrupted. Aspaklaria is an inspiration for the clear vision, although of course we know that no one has, or had, as clear a vision as Moshe Rabbeinu. It is a desire for having as close a vision as possible.
Your songs have very personal names, for example: “Faith,” “My Self,” “My Hope.” There is a lot of spirituality in you and your music. However, you are not only an artist but also a producer, a sound woman, and you have your own studio and own label. Could you please tell me about the process of working on your albums?
This is my creating “magic zone”. I spent the 14-year break between my albums building the studio in my flat, learning sound engineering and all about the equipment that enabled me be this one-woman act.
IN HER Malachim studio, performing the song “My Self” from ‘Aspaklaria,’ unplugged, London 2017. (Credit: Evrim Ozarslan)
IN HER Malachim studio, performing the song “My Self” from ‘Aspaklaria,’ unplugged, London 2017. (Credit: Evrim Ozarslan)
When you have a huge budget and you’re backed up by a record company, publisher promoter, agent, manager… then, of course, all those roles are given to different people. But when you are a one-woman band, you really are demanding a super brain power of yourself. There is a technical part, production, which is a very analytical, decision-making, rational “more or less” approach that you need to use, plus there are also creative elements and ideas which are coming suddenly, an inspiration from some higher spheres.
The left hemisphere of your brain is responsible for setting a session, most of the production, arrangements, for studio equipment, endless technical logistical tasks that you need to be on top of before starting the session. But when you are in front of that microphone, you are expected to suddenly switch easily from the left to the right hemisphere, to be in the best shape for your performance, when you want to convey authentic emotional and spiritual expression in your voice or performance. This is almost like a circus trick.
Do you have a specific time of the day when you compose?
Some musicians say that composing is like any other job, they work the same hours every day.
I discovered that the best compositions come to me at the most unexpected moments, often late at night, say at 2 or 3 in the morning. When my prefrontal cortex, my “noisy, talkative brain” is exhausted, all of a sudden out of the blue there are sounds, melodies and harmonies coming to me. I grab my phone, run to the piano and switch that magic record button on and try to capture this amazing visitor, this “Magic Muse.” Those are the best moments, when you suddenly have the space for the ideas from above and you become this creative channel.
You also teach music with your own system. In the music world there are well-known Kodaly and Suzuki methods of teaching, and now there is “The Gorna Method.”
I teach religious girls and ladies piano, guitar and singing. I use my own approach to music, which entails a shift of emphasis from the more traditional system of musical education by notation and exam grades to an appreciation of music through intuition, improvisation and an ability to play by ear.
You have a classical music education. You also studied jazz and graduated at The Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland, where you originally come from. At the beginning of your career you were interested in the English folk music. You had your band “Sovay.”
I came across this music when I was visiting England at the end of my high school years. Traditional English ballads from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as American and generally British folksongs. It fascinated me. I became an “in-field researcher” of it and during my studies at the Academy of Music, I founded “Sovay.” We traveled around Poland and were very successful. But when I, for some reason, decided to stay in England, I could not see myself being this “balladeer” of traditional English folklore. I had to look for a new path to a more authentic self-expression, to find my own voice.
What were your beginnings when you moved to London almost 30 years ago?
After a while of doing all sorts of jobs, eventually I started to teach music and played keyboards in a few bands. At that time, I was still that “Sovay girl” with a guitar. But I just loved to improvise piano in my apartment.
One day, a friend who heard me improvise, recommended me to an owner of the bar, the Trolley Stop, to play the piano. They were looking for someone to do background music on Sunday nights. But I had forgotten all the jazz standards I learned and all of Beethoven’s sonatas and Bach’s fugues. I was thinking, what will I play? I didn’t have any repertoire!
But my friend literally forced me to do it. He said, Just go and play what you make up at home!” And I did. Slowly it developed into those Trance-Magic Piano Sessions – the multimedia performances with other musicians and visual effects. I was dressed all in white, the piano was wrapped up in a white sheet, there were projections of super 8 films and slides over me, lots of colors all over.
It grew into avant-garde, “crazy” improvised events. It was going on for a few years until a producer who wanted to work with me saw those events and told me that things were going very well but there was no more place for development.
“You need to record an album,” he said. He very kindly offered me his recording studio and this is where finally, my album Hashgachah was recorded.
I read that during that time you did not listen to any music.
Yes, when I was working on my first album I stopped buying and listening to any music. It was three years of silence, I wanted to create space for my own inner voice, to hear what was really ringing in my soul. I wanted my first baby to be as close and as faithful to me as possible. To be my own vision.
One day my mother sent me from Poland a recording of a concert by Meredith Monk. I had never heard about her before and it was shocking to see that what she was doing with the voice was so parallel to my own performances at the Trolley Stop. She was singing without any lyrics and straight from the soul. Singing those vocal, experimental sort of sounds. Communicating beyond words. Suddenly, it felt like I’m not on my own, it was beautiful.
Your first album was just music, no words. Why in the second one did you decide to add lyrics?
Not using words was a place of luxury. I am quite a spiritually minded, abstract-thinking person. It was very comfortable not to be limited by the verbal medium. But it was very hard to market Hashgachah. In my new album, I decided to challenge myself with the limitation of writing lyrics, although it’s not as liberating.
It is hard to define your music by one category. I hear in it jazz, classical contemporary music, electronica. You use a lot of vocalizations, playing with your voice. You mix many genders.
I am a modern woman of the 21st century, influenced by all sorts of music. I was classically trained for 12 years in the music school, my mother Danka Zyllanka, of blessed memory, was an opera singer in Lodz, Poland. My parents and sister introduced me to so many other musical styles. Critics attempted to describe my music as art pop, experimental, electronica, world, jazz…
It creates an ongoing problem of branding myself in the music industry. It was very hard to sell my first album because I refused to be confined to living in a box of just one predictable genre. It seems you cannot tame that free spirit within me, I guess.
Once I asked my fans to describe my music. They said that my music is beyond any classification, which was precisely part of its attraction to them.
Gorna has definitely found her unique way and sound.
Find Jarmila Xymena Gorna on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter