Apr 24, 2019
In 1994, Adam Sandler brought to national attention a common Jewish lament: at Christmastime, when carols seem to fill every sonic space, those who celebrate Chanukah find their musical options lacking in comparison. Sandler’s response to this conundrum was “The Chanukah Song,” the famous roll call of Jewish celebrities who celebrate for “eight crazy nights.” The “rapturous response” to the first performance of the song—and its enduring legacy—reflects the power of Sandler wittily “trading on the current Jewish condition: comfortable individuality, alienated collectivity,” according to Jeremy Dauber in his recent publication on Jewish comedy. 1 1 Jeremy Dauber. Jewish Comedy (A Serious History), (New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2017), 274-5. Sandler’s humorous song added to the Chanukah canon, and used the occasion of the holiday as a platform to draw attention to well-known Jewish Americans. Shimmering Lights, a new album of Chanukah songs by Yale Strom’s Broken Consort, approaches this issue from another direction, bringing to (shimmering) light a rich, diverse repertoire of Chanukah music. Shimmering Lights is a beautifully curated collection of Chanukah songs that draws from a wide range of traditions, unifying many influences under one sonic signature. Under Strom’s vision, the Consort creatively interprets and builds on traditional songs from across time and space.
The most striking feature of this album is the carefully balanced string ensemble—the Broken Consort—composed of an all-star lineup of dextrous and seasoned musicians. Masterfully arranged by Strom and bassist Jeff Pekarek, the oud, upright bass, cello, violin, viola, and guitar(s) weave an intricate string-family fabric, with each instrument offering a unique character that heightens the potency of the ensemble. The studio processes, from the engineering to the mixing and mastering, faithfully execute this vision. Within each piece, textures build and collapse, creating ebbs and flows that heighten the musical drama. Variations in compositional texture between songs give each track a distinct flavor that carries the listener across the album with a sense of adventure but also a clear feeling of familiarity. The rapid, sometimes frantic transitions between soloists are tempered by the underlying quality of the piece as the instruments rise and fall out of the stable ensemble, offering the instrumental dialogue a conversational, rather than argumentative, feel. Between songs, and within songs, the world-class musicians present their expertise in a wide range of genres by moving in and out of various musical styles and influences.
This instrumental fingerprint is established from the opening moments of the album. The oud is the first instrument we hear, in a solo display of the rhythmic, sonic, and tonal range of the instrument. The upright bass interlude that follows echoes the percussive, metal-on-woodiness of the oud. When they finally weave together, they establish a driving structure that brilliantly accompanies the first occasion of Elizabeth Schwartz’s vocals—singing “Maoz Tzur”, a traditional Chanukah song. Throughout the piece, the upright bass and the oud leap out of the texture that Consort weaves underneath.
Elizabeth Schwartz’s vocals add a striking dimension to the project, approaching a variety of musical sources with a singular, powerful voice. As she sings in English, Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish, Schwartz’s talents shine through in many languages; her voice provides an effective matched counterpoint to the intensity of the album’s instrumentals.
The instrumentation and arrangement of Shimmering Lights serve the broader intention of the album—unifying musical legacies from across cultures, traditions, and histories to highlight the holiday of Chanukah as an important influence on music, and offering a broad array of songs for those looking to liven up wintertime festivities. In that spirit of shared Chanukah practices across cultures, many of these songs deal with food. From a Yiddish song about latkes to a Ladino song detailing the Greek Sephardic tradition of children visiting neighbors to sing and ask them for flour and oil, many of the songs on the album pair the musical and culinary aspects of Chanukah that give the holiday its significance for so many families around the globe.
In this review, I focus on the interesting uses of Yiddish and the Yiddish musical tradition throughout the album—since that is the musical and cultural tradition I know best—though I do not mean to discount the significance of the other tracks on the album.
“Khanike Oi Khanike” begins with a sparse texture highlighting the song’s acoustic guitar. Elizabeth Schwartz enters after a short introduction, singing the lyrics to the well-known song by Mordkhe Rivesman. Strom and Schwartz made the choice with this track to present Rivesman’s original lyrics in the song. This means including an oft-ignored second verse, and maintaining the lyrical particularities of the original, which have been amended in popular versions of the song. For example, Schwartz sings “tsind kinder/di dininke likhtelekh on” (“light children/ the thin candles”), where other versions refer to the candles generally as “khanike likhtelekh” (Chanukah candles). The second verse evokes the militaristic origins of the Chanukah story, as well as the redemptive religious aspect of the holiday, two elements understandably underplayed in more modern, secular renditions of the song. This verse explains how the Jews drove their enemies out of Israel and sang psalms in the Holy Temple. The last lines imagine a sustained Jewish future in Jerusalem. The decision to present the text in its unaltered original form seems to reflect the ethnographic impulse of the Shimmering Lights project, excavating these songs to their source and bringing them forward in a contemporary interpretation. After two verses of Yiddish and an instrumental interlude, Schwartz sings a verse in English. Interestingly, this is not a translation of the Yiddish that was just sung, but rather the translation traditionally sung in English. To me, this has the effect of announcing the legacy of the song, which transitioned from a Yiddish-language to an English-language standard, the current adaptation just one data point in the history of the song. This track features a violin solo played with country-fiddle sensibilities that do not seem at all out of place in a song that does not otherwise suggest such an influence. This is a credit not only to the soloist, whose stylistic versatility allows the coherent melding of genres, but to the clever arrangement of the song as a whole. “Khanike Oi Khanike” is a strong introduction to the Yiddish influence on the album.
The second Yiddish song is “Latkes.” “Latkes” is a clever re-interpretation of “Bulbes” (“Potatoes”), the Yiddish-language standard that bemoans a life of nothing but potatoes. A well known interpretation of the song is “Nothing” by the Fugs, a proto-punk folk band band of Jewish musicians who creatively adapted the shtetl struggle to the 1960s. The instrumental introduction to the Consort’s “Latkes” beautiful. It begins with a lush string quartet, upon which a soft electric guitar line floats. It is perhaps a strange introduction given the subject matter of the source song, but this ambiguity might be fitting, as the song uses the non-celebratory Bulbes as a basis for a number whose main dish represents the festivity of Chanukah. The tempo and texture changes throughout maintain the ambiguity while offering a great platform for the soloists. In contrast to “Khanike Oi Khanike,” “Latkes” demonstrates that the creators of this project are comfortable not only digging into traditional sources but also making those sources their own. It proves a high degree of familiarity with the sources and also with the Yiddish language, and puts a clear stamp of individuality on an album that, on its surface, could be seen as merely a best-of-Chanukah compilation.
“Akht Kleyn Brider” is a wonderful arrangement of Meyer Posner’s musical setting of Aleph Katz’s lyrics that tell the stories of the Maccabee brothers, and highlights the centrality of the number ‘eight’ in the Chanukah story. On Shimmering Lights, the Consort takes their cue from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, reflecting the stylistic and timbral voice of the iconic duo. The acoustic guitar solo featured in the middle of the song demonstrates great jazz chops that give added legitimacy to the decision to set the song in a gypsy jazz context. The solos that follow glide idiomatically over the chord changes, but reference jazz vocabulary less explicitly.
Shimmering Lights is a wonderful album that delivers on an ambitious goal of bringing together a wide range of traditions who share a festive musical expression of Chanukah. It is not the only album to take on this task but Shimmering Lights is one of the most compelling that I have heard. Listeners will find an engaging musical experience that will leave them in awe of both the musicianship featured on the album and of the sheer depth and variety of music celebrating Chanukah. I recommend listening several times to pick out the instrumental, stylistic, lyrical, and textural details that may overwhelm upon first impression. One need not wait for winter to enjoy this album. The flow of the album’s songs provides a compelling musical experience at any time of year. The virtuosity and inviting arrangements of the Consort radiate the festive Chanukah spirit, an oft-needed reminder that whenever life brings adversity and darkness, shimmering lights indicate a way forward.