Oct 20, 2022
Shifting my weight to get comfortable on a crowded commuter train, I gaze out the window to witness suburban sprawl giving way to a storied city skyline and feel myself transported, physically and spiritually, to the buzzing din of New York City. All along I have Anthony Russell and Dmitri Gaskin—Tsvey Brider—echoing in my headphones: a fitting accompaniment to my journey to the heart of the City.
Kosmopolitn, the latest Tsvey Brider release from Borscht Beat Records, is a tribute to the social and cultural dynamism of turn-of-the-twentieth century Yiddish poetic life; it approaches it with an imaginary retrospective that offers a uniquely modern voice to the spirit of this period. Twelve of the fifteen tracks on Kosmopolitn are original musical settings of decades-old Yiddish poetry by the duo: Anthony Russell and Dmitri Gaskin. The remaining three tracks are instrumental numbers that distill the lyrical spirit of the album into lively wordless fantasies. Russell’s classically trained yet flexible bass vocals along with Gaskin’s multi-instrumental prowess carry the listener through just under an hour of musical excitement.
An accompanying booklet brings the music and text to life through a series of fictional conversations that imagine audience members discussing a live performance of the album. The liner notes set the scene in an urban café. The time isn’t given, but given the content of the album, we can imagine the scene taking place sometime during the 1910s. The liner notes ask the listener to imagine being transported to Warsaw, Berlin, or New York, an imaginary synthesis of idealized cosmopolitanism. Shachar Pinsker, in his book exploring the rise of modern Jewish culture within the venue of the coffee house, explains that “the cafe has been a space in which the enunciation of identity, the celebration of lived experience, and the grappling with contested meanings took place.” 1 1 Pinsker, Shachar. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2018. 9. He clarifies, “The cafe, in other words, has been an essential facet of the modern Jewish experience and has been critical to its complex mixture of history and fiction, reality and imagination, longing and belonging, consumption and sociability, idleness and productivity.” 2 2 Ibid., 5. Tsvey Brider tap into this storied tradition with Kosmopolitn, using the idealized setting of the cafe as a springboard for a fantastic and fantastical musical exploration of early twentieth century poetry.
The album begins with two settings of Celia Dropkin poems, “Tsirkus Dame” and “Vays vi Der Shney.” This opening gesture is thoughtful and significant. First, it provides Russell and Gaskin an opportunity to share their creative process, revealing not only their methods of text painting, but also their personal motivations for embarking on this arrangement process. In the notes to “Tsirkus Dame,” Russell answers Greg, one of the fictional coffee-drinkers, regarding his affinity to Dropkin. Russell explains, “She has a whole interior monologue while she’s performing. And I can tell you as a black queer guy performing in Yiddish, I always have a monologue about the similarities and differences I have with my audience.”
In this brief passage, Russell breaks the fourth wall as he chips away at the boundary between the twentieth century listener and the imaginary world invoked through the album. Russell is at once addressing the imagined historical audience and the contemporary audience, bridging a historical gap of over one hundred years. He continues, “But I think I also felt an affinity because you could spend your entire life studying Yiddish music and not encounter non-heteronormative desire, and here it was.” As Faith Jones has poignantly explained of Dropkin, “The critics skewered her. They were all men. She was all wrong. She wrote about sex and bodies—women’s bodies. A man’s passion is noble; a woman’s is embarrassing. She was unafraid and a woman.” 3 3https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/pakn-treger/why-read-celia-dropkin Tsvey Brider, then, open the album with a statement of historical reclamation, reframing Dropkin’s voice both for one who listens on BandCamp and one who heard the song in a dimly lit café in 1913. Among the three Celia Dropkin compositions featured on the album, the Brider play out a range of musical approaches, one referencing the Romantic era of Western art music, the second building on that tradition with references to the cabaret and the theater, and the third offering an impressionistic musical approach characteristic of early twentieth century musical modernism. These various musical approaches to a singular poetic voice not only illuminate the scope of Dropkin’s work, but allow the musicians to stretch out stylistically.
In the notes for “Vays Vi Der Shney,” the brothers describe a disagreement regarding the meaning of the poem and how it should be set to music. As Russell states explicitly in the notes for “Vays,” the track trades in rather simple yet evocative harmony characteristic of a Schubert or Schumann lied—thinking, for example, of Schubert’s Winterreise. Gaskin’s supplement to Russell’s initial sketch to the song is compelling, as the harmonic character of the song builds in tension and intrigue over the course of the entire track. The harmony not only adds color but allows for a rather seamless transition between implied key centers, highlighting the various moods that Russell and Gaskin identify in the poem’s narrator.
By contrast, “Tsirkus Dame,” the opening track of the album, evokes the thrill and seediness of an early twentieth century cabaret. The strong “oom-pah” beat takes us out of Schubert’s world and into Mordechai Gebirtig’s. The constant movement in the lower voices not only builds tension in the harmony, evoking the precarity of the “circus dame,” but generally serves to move the song forward. Though neither the harmony or the melody suggest anything particularly “Jewish,” the violin after the line “mit di shpitsn aroyf” offers a little klezmer gesture which snaps a Jewish lens onto an otherwise Central European character. At the line ‘Mit a farkhaptn otem” there is the musical suggestion of a fall—the very thing that the narrator ponders throughout the poem.
“In Hamak” derives clear inspiration from the psychedelic impressionism of such composers as Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger. The song opens with something of a “doina,” a cadenza which puts the listener into the floating headspace evoked in the song. Gaskin’s harmonium playing lines in a Lydian-dominant scale suggest, all at the same time, Eastern European modes, whole-tone fantasies, and nascent jazz devices; in other words, “the experience of multiple cultures and traditions running into one another. But at the end of the day, I just thought it would sound really good,” to quote Gaskin from the liner notes.
This exquisite range of musical approaches serves the album’s objective of being slightly out of history while being rooted in time. It demonstrates how one poetic voice, Dropkin’s, can be musically arranged in three divergent ways.
This method of exploring historical and poetic tensions through music echoes throughout the album. The group states a particular conflict, between the traditional shtetl and the modern cosmopolitan city. In their setting of Avrom Reyzen’s “Mayn Heym,” for example, Russell makes it clear, “so here you have the narrator praising life in the shtetl, but the funny thing is that the conversation is probably not happening there. It feels like a performance of love for shtetl life that most likely is taking place in a cosmopolitan setting.” Gaskin and Russell continue, “Veretski Pass’s playing is able to bridge genres—between an Ashkenazi Jewish folk genre and more cosmopolitan forms of music, that’s the kind of flexibility we’re interested in for this project.”
For their arrangement of Mordechai Gebirtig’s “Kinder Yorn,” the tsvey brider step aside and let the debate around this issue play out among the fictional audience members of the liner notes. When one claims, with an air of authority, “Tsvey Brider’s interpretation completely misses the point of this song. It’s supposed to be played with stylized sentimentality,” another responds “I honestly think Gebirtig would have been delighted to see his songs reinterpreted and played in the 21st century.”
We can hear this contemporary, non-sentimental, approach, for example, in “Shikago,” which steadily builds a groove with modern implications. The 10/4 time signature of the groove takes us out of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Western classical canon and into another realm: a modern feel that, at once, establishes a firm foundation that is nonetheless difficult to hold onto. Musically, the album provides a wide range of palettes and styles that establish Russell and Gaskin, along with their collaborators, as unequivocal masters of their craft.
Eschewing musical co-participation by the audience—these songs aren’t meant to be sung around a campfire—this album aligns itself with the art song tradition. In terms of Yiddish music, this tradition has been overshadowed by the popularity of klezmer, folk songs, and theater music, though it has nonetheless maintained an important presence. The leftist “folks-choirs” under the direction of Jacob Shaefer, for example, sang songs, sometimes folk songs, in a classical, arranged style. Dora Wasserman, a legendary presence in the Montreal cultural scene, was another key figure in this genre. Like Tsvey Brider, Wasserman also arranged Yiddish poetry into song, including the poems of Avrom Reyzen, another of the poets featured on Kosmopolitn. This album reinvigorates this genre, bringing it into the twentieth century.
While this album sits squarely in this tradition, it also makes evident an intention to move beyond. First the group extends the legacy Yiddish art song with their creative and novel use of the liner notes, developed in tandem with sound recording. For the first time in human history, around the period evoked in Kosmopolitn, sound became disembodied, split from its source, a condition referred to as “schizophonia.” The power of liner notes, along with album artwork and music videos, stems from their ability to creatively fill in the sensory gap created by this separation. African American studies professor Alexander Weheliye, considering in his study the relationship between Black popular music and technology, explains, “As we shall see, the putative split between sound and source created anxieties about the writing of sound and the visual dimension of music, but it also opened new ways to engage these spheres.” 4 4 Weheliye, Alexander G. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. 20.
Tsvey Brider engage these spheres ambitiously, creating nesting narratives within the liner notes, and through the poetry featured on the album, that obscure the boundaries of time and space. The audio album, coupled with this novel story-telling approach, amplifies the psychedelic, history bending quality of the album.
Yet I am left wondering what Tsvey Brider might have accomplished, or might accomplish with future projects, in stretching that approach further to its extremes. The liner notes are dotted with references to San Francisco, with a nod to the creative experimentalism that came out of the Bay Area throughout the twentieth century, from psychedelic rock and jazz of the late 1960s to radical hip-hop in the 1980s. I wonder what it would mean to lean on the influence of their label mates Forshpil—a psychedelic Yiddish rock band—in introducing musical aspects to the project that capture the electric psychedelia of the 1960s and ‘70s or the digital, electronic flavor of the hip-hop era. In other words, what could it mean to expand the historical imaginary throughout the entirety of the twentieth century, rather than relying solely on a palette of instruments and textures that index the 1910s?
If the intention is only to aesthetically and texturally evoke this particular period of history, could more have been made about the parallels between those decades and our own time? In other words, what makes this period ripe and relevant to a listener in the year 2022? Why should we invest in the portrait of this moment?
These lingering questions, I hope, will not take away from the overall impact of the album. I intend them merely as encouragement for future projects. Kosmopolitn leaves no doubt that Tsvey Brider has the facility, the imagination, and the resources to lean into musical works that bend time, space, and genre, which I am confident they will continue to explore. I am truly excited for the future evolution of the Tsvey Brider. In the meantime, Kosmopolitan will stay at the top of my playlist until I reach my stop!
Kosmopolitn is available on Bandcamp as a digital album for $10, or as a CD $15. A 34 page booklet featuring the complete lyrics for the album in Yiddish and English liner notes is also available for purchase on Bandcamp.