Jewish But Not Judaic: Alex Weiser’s New Album

Composer Alex Weiser, a current LABA fellow, is also director of Public Programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. His new album, and all the days were purple will be released on April 12 by Cantaloupe Music. Weiser set Yiddish and English poems to music to create an absorbing and atmospheric work of music. If you’re interested in attending the launch party and concert on April 9 at YIVO, click here.

How did the album come about?

Roulette is a venue in Brooklyn that supports contemporary classical music and all kinds of avant garde stuff. I’m currently an artist-in-residence and we’re doing the first act of my biographical opera about Theodor Herzl. Two years ago I was lucky enough to be a commissioned artist. They’re really open and supportive, and they basically said: “Here’s money, do what you want.”

The lyrics are largely drawn from poetry, much of it Yiddish poetry.

I saw this commission as an opportunity to take stock of where I’m at as a person and as a composer. So the album reflects on questions of life and death and trying to find meaning. I was never a believer in any serious way. And poetry is one place I look for meaning and order in the world. The idea of finding that in poetry that’s Jewish but not religious excited me. It’s Jewish but not Judaic.

There’s a Yiddish poet, Anna Margolin. She published one book in 1929. I was introduced to her poetry by a friend at YIVO. She has a line in a poem called Yorn, “years,” about ‘seeking You but not believing in You.’”

How did you learn Yiddish?

YIVO is a library and archive of Jewish history and culture. It was founded in Vilna, Poland [now Vilnius, Lithuania] in 1925, and now it’s here in New York. I took a class in our Yiddish language summer program. I heard a little Yiddish growing up, but studying it really expanded my knowledge and opened up this whole world, and you hear that reflected on the album.

The music had this interesting contrast between discordance and prettiness. There are these beautiful violin lines interrupted by discordance. It’s not jarring, though. Was that purposeful?

It’s hard to say. I didn’t have specific reference points in mind. But every song on the album does have a musical conceit that pulls from the poetry. In the opening song [an untitled text by Anna Margolin], there’s a stanza:

No, rather, this was my happiness:
To go silently back and forth
Across the square with you.

I latched onto that image of walking across the square as an image of going through life. So musically that song moves like a processional, walking sound. But then she writes:

How over our joy
Hovered the smiling face of death

And all the days were purple,
and all were hard.

It’s almost like Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]. Purple is regal, beautiful and rich, and it’s dusk, and the sun is always setting. So like Kohelet, she’s saying, “Enjoy it while it lasts. The fact that you’re going die means you should enjoy.” So I was looking for a musical language that finds joy through the looming specter of death.

To hear samples of Weiser’s music or pre-order his album, click here.