Summer 2004


Summer 2004

WEIL ALIVE: On Darrel Katz' CD, The Death Of Simone Weil

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 - 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 and others.

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 craved.

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.

Information about the CD The Death Of Simone Weil may be found at



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