Inter-discipline: Words, Music, Memory

Words, Music, Memory exhibit on display at Morgan Hall 

Tuesday of this week marked the 83rd anniversary of the flagrant state-sponsored pogrom of Kristallnacht. On Tuesday evening, I sat in KSU's Morgan Hall of the Bailey Center for the Performing Arts to experience a commemorative musical performance. Of course I watched the talented musicians on the stage and the speakers who shared perspectives from the podium, but I also used my vantage point in the special reserved section across from stage left to scan the audience for reactions to the performance. I watched as elders clasped each other's hands and college students drew breath sharply as they heard the voice of Kristallnacht survivor Ben Hirsch talk about how the German police protected the thugs throwing Molotov cocktails inside his childhood community synagogue on the morning of November 10, 1938. I watched as couples leaned in to hear cellist Dr. Jesus Castro-Balbi vibrate the air with his deft pizzicato and groups of professors close their eyes to better hear the choir's polyphony during their performance of Dr. Laurence Sherr's "Fugitive Footsteps."

Jesus Castro-Balbi of KSU

Rabbi Joseph Prass of the Breman Museum

Baritone Cory Schantz with the KSU Chamber Singers

Me, presenting about Words, Music, Memory

Pianist Judith Cole, tenor Nathan Munson, clarinetist John Warren performing pieces by Lori Laitman and Jake Heggie

Dr. Catherine Lewis of the MHHE presenting about the history of Kristallnacht

Tuesday marked the KSU culmination of an interdisciplinary project that launched on September 19, 2021, but really began in the winter of 2020. Words, Music, Memory: (Re)presenting Voices of the Holocaust has represented for me the best kind of interdisciplinary work I can do as a public historian.

Laurence Sherr, Adina Langer, Sheena Ramirez, Jeanette Zycko, and Jeremiah Padilla after the first Words, Music, Memory concert on September 19, 2021.

Public history on its own has many of the markers of good interdisciplinary work. Practitioners build bridges between historical content (and its sources) and audiences (both specific and imagined). But when you fuse public history with the arts, new possibilities emerge. In particular, emotional through-lines are exposed, and the affirmative acts of humanity along the chain of commemoration are revealed.

By this logic, performance based on historical content is, by its nature, public history. And, at the same time, every performance is an act of radical presence. We are here, remembering, together. The wonder of that action — that people choose to be together, in a particular moment, honoring the voices of the people who witnessed the past  became real to me over and over again as I focused on the Words, Music, Memory project from the summer of 2020 through the fall of 2021. 

I was also amazed and gratified by the willingness of artists to share their craft, and their creative process, with me. From renowned playwright Wendy Kesselman to young actor Mia Quinney; and from producers Mina Miller and Tomer Zvulun to living composters and librettists Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer, Lori Laitman and Laurence Sherr, these insightful, purposeful souls were willing to open themselves up to my inquiry. They talked about the words and the lives that inspired them and the ways they applied their craft to interpreting and connecting those words with new audiences, perpetuating memory and creating experiences unique to their place and time. Likewise, the young artists, Martha Hemingway and Julia Guevara, who illustrated the writers on the exhibit panels, each illuminating their own understanding of these poets and diarists through imagery and color. 

And then there was the effect of this project on the people whose lives were touched directly by the events of the Holocaust and World War II. The way that Hershel Greenblat shared how soprano Sheena Ramirez's voice brought him back to his childhood in Austrian DP camps listening to his mother sing lullabies as she raised him and his two sisters while enduring lasting injuries sustained while resisting Nazi aggression. The way that Susan Berman talked about her mother's escape from Germany on a kindertransport to England, similarly to poet Anne Ranasinghe whose aunt enabled her escape and whose words were set to music by Lori Laitman and sung by Sheena Ramirez. The way that Hank Van Driel described his childhood in the Netherlands, the country that took in refugees of the M.S. St. Louis like the Simon family (Berman's mother's family) and hid Anne Frank only to suffer deeply under Nazi occupation and give up three quarters of its Jews to the Holocaust. 

There were also members of the audience with no obvious connection to this history who stood and testified to the emotional impact of the commemoration, to their sense of the world's need for this work. The universalism of emotional impact may seem banal in its predictability, but the magic it produces is exactly the opposite. When we are moved, it is never cliché. The alchemy of words + music = memory. And memory is always new. 

In this season of gratitude, I am thankful for having been able to work on this project and for its continuing momentum. Next month, I will join my dear friend, Sheena Ramirez, as she presents her DMA recital at James Madison University where the exhibit will be on display through their International Holocaust Remembrance in late January. Stay tuned for more!

Update: Starting September 29, 2023, the exhibition will be on display at Oberlin College. Its sojourn on campus will culminate with a visit from me and Sheena in November to include an encore of our lecture/performance and a curatorial talk on November 16, 2023.