The new Darrell Katz CD, "The Death of Simone Weil,"
challenges boundaries in music and spoken word performance
in an ambitious large scale cantata - improvisational
and planned in structure - that combines jazz orchestra
with powerful vocalization of poems on the harrowing
life and death of the mid-20th century French philosopher.
Textures, colors and rhythms converge in sometimes
jarring and suddenly heartwarming ways to provide a
panoply of orchestral color, harmony and rhythm in support
of the poetry of Katz' wife Paula Tatarunis, as well
as a concluding piece composed by Katz based on the
writings of Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio.
How jarring in the work? A recent airing of the CD
- which is available from innova.mu - on a local poetry
radio show on Long Island resulted in a caller complaining
that it was too late in the day for such 'caterwauling.'
"That's a tell-tale sign that a musical work is
either challenging conventional tastes, like much of
the work which is now canonical in music, though there
are no doubt cases in which it's a sign that the music
is rubbish," said the radio host. "Cutting
edge stuff is hard to evaluate. But in this case, I
think that an open-minded listener would conclude that
Katz' edge cuts in the direction of innovation."
There's good reason for that conclusion. Katz' melodic
invention, his use of a broad palette, and the impeccable
performance of the Boston Jazz Composer's Alliance Orchestra
behind singer Rebecca Shrimpton all bring out nuances
of meaning and feeling in the long poem, which takes
as its subject the demise of the oppressed French philosopher
Weil, who suffered a martyrdom of sorts during the run-up
and advent of World War II. Tatarunis' moving text is
not just supported by musical interweaving, however
- Katz has in this case set the texts to music that
is truly impactful.
"I was really into the idea of getting the melody,
working with the text, and figuring out what to do with
it," Katz says. "I think the best model for
what I wanted to do is the Tin Pan Alley composers.
I wanted the words to line up with the melodies so it
sounded very conversational. I wanted the text to be
really clear and easy to understand."
A 21st century composer, he achieves this in a manner
that Kurt Well could only dream of. The music's sensitivity
to the sound and meaning of words manifests itself in
everything from bouncy Latin rhythms to blues to post-modern
Balinese ping-pang - with plenty of jazz and classic
and folk traditions thrown in.
For instance, the light, bouncy sound of the words
"Viana do Castelo," notes Katz, inspired the
Latin rhythms in the opening moments of Renault. The
blues that concludes that section of the six-part suite
was suggested by the slavery imagery that links the
Renault plant workers and the fishermen in the poem.
The Jazz Composers Alliance of Boston has, since 1984,
supported and promoted composition in the jazz idiom
in several ways. Through its resident ensemble, they've
premiered more than 100 new works by their composers
in residence and guest composers - including commissioned
works from Marty Ehrlich, Wayne Horvitz and Muhal Richard
Abrams. Their Signature Concert Series has presented
works by Sam Rivers, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill
Katz, a founder of the Jazz Composers Alliance and
Orchestra, is a blossoming talent in that field. He
has a tradition of synthesizing diverse influences into
his personal compositional style, and in this CD, one
may sense the maturing of that effort. His work can
be heard on previous JCA Orchestra releases - Flux,
Dreamland and In, Thru, and Out. His settings of the
poetry of Tatarunis, whose work has appeared in small
presses like Plowshares and The Massachusetts Review,
are found on the Jazz Composers Alliance Sax Quartet's
I'm Me and You're Not, and the In, Thru and Out.
In terms of performance, one will find subtle shadings
of vocalization striding measure by measure with the
text by vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton. And soloists Bob
Pilkington (trombone), Norm Zocher (guitar) and Jeremy
Udden (sax) add immediacy to the recording through frequently
soaring improvisational work.
This is deeply emotional music, appropriately harrowing
as it is built against a challenging subject that does
not lend itself to easy listening - a story akin to
the movie The Pianist, but here instead of the pat Hollywood
triumphal ending the full measure of the personal, spiritual
and societal denouement is made painfully evident. Weil's
story is enigmatic and disturbing, acknowledges Tatarunis.
"During the Occupation, faced with limitations
on her employment because of her Jewishness, (Weil)
composed letters that savagely mocked the absurdly bureaucratic
literalness of the racial statues," notes the poet
in her liner notes, "but also concluded that Jews
were a minority whose interests would be best served
by their being assimilated into Christian society."
Tatarunis describes how Weil's self-negation culminated
in 1942 when, ill with tuberculosis in an English hospital,
she refused to eat more than the meager war rations
allotted to French citizens. "This refusal, the
consummation of a lifelong asceticism and denial of
the body, led to her death."
Not particularly easy stuff to gloss, and in fact,
Tatarunis meets the challenge of creating impressionistic
snapshots of Weil's story with adroitness. Each piece
begins with a quote from Weil's notebooks (the epigram
to number 6, "Almost Paradise," reads "The
gods love sacrifices/they swarm like flies/toward the
sweet savor/The world is eater and eaten."). Here's
a passage from Tatarunis' text: It seemed so little
to set againt/the beasts' Goliath belly./Quiet as a
pearl, she disappeared./She passed untainted through
the body of the world,/onto the charnal floor to lie/with
the bones of the afflicted,/almost the paradise she
In the end, her text stands quite well on its own as
poetry, and should in no way be considered as mere libretto.
In fact the work of all the artists - from author to
composer and from orchestra member to improviser - rises
to the considerable challenge of the topic at hand.
Ultimately, then, it is for the audience to rise to
the challenge as well. For those who allow themselves
to eschew the easy answer and to tear down the walls
of convention and musical familiarity, this CD will
offer power, moment and a broadening of insight into
the darker areas of the human experience.