Memorializing the Holocaust in Electronic Music: An Interview with Francisco Dean

Jo Sabath


The second time I meet Francisco Dean, the director of the Chicago Laboratory School’s “Electronic Orchestra” after-school program, it’s just us and the five sophomores in his orchestra in the school’s cavernous auditorium. I’m helping him sound check for the dress rehearsal of Frilingdik Umbazigt: As the Spring Unconquered. Dean has composed Frilingdik for the school’s biannual Holocaust Memorial Day assembly.

A couple of months earlier, Dean recorded my introductory level Yiddish class at the University of Chicago singing “Zog nit keynmol” in off-key Yiddish. Since then, he’s added our voices to those of MameLoshn, a Yiddish choir at a local synagogue, corrected for pitch, and layered the takes on top of one another until we sound like 94 defiant Jews marching into battle (of which I proudly make up an eighth). This is one of the only melodic parts of Dean’s composition to come from a source as traditional as the human voice. While the piece also has spoken word sections, the rest of the sounds are all generated from recovered artifacts stored in the Illinois Holocaust Museum. The raw frequencies generated from the artifacts were transformed into electronic instruments, compiled into a musical composition. A lot of the work that went into the project was covered in a behind-the-scenes presentation Dean gave at the museum’s event honoring Anne Frank’s birthday.

Even more meaningful than Dean’s compositional techniques is the contribution Frilingdik offers to discourses of cultural exchange. When Dean and I speak after the rehearsal, I ask about his relationship to Jewish and Yiddish culture, given that he himself is not Jewish. Making art about tragedy can be challenging, but to make it about another people’s tragedy is a hurdle all its own. However, I believe Dean found a relatively successful way to approach this quagmire. At every step of the process, Dean says he found in the Illinois Jewish community an enthusiastic partner. And while a part of me worries that creating a clear-cut narrative out of disparate artifacts oversimplifies their independent meanings, if it weren’t for Dean’s work, I would never have been exposed to the stories in the first place.

Dean’s project is also an educational one. I’m struck during the rehearsal at the nonchalance with which the sophomores treat the song’s material. They dance and joke while poetry about the horrors of the Holocaust plays through the speakers directly in front of them. But I don’t begrudge Dean or the kids for this—kids are kids. They tell me that the project has helped them to individuate the history, which I’m heartened to hear (I also remember all my own antics during long band practices). But the shadow of the Holocaust still hangs over the optimism that Dean’s efforts inspire in me. A part of me wishes he had experienced the warmth and welcome he found in Jewish spaces through an avenue other than reflecting on such a catacylsmic tragedy.

Jo Sabath: Can you talk about working with the Lab School’s Jewish Student Association and their coming to you for this project? Walk me through the timeline.

Francisco Dean: Actually, I came to them. Every other year the Lab School does this Holocaust assembly, with musical performances as a part of the program. When I heard that this school had this assembly, I thought that was pretty powerful and unique. I used to teach the band classes here. The choir’s always done something; sometimes, the orchestra’s done something, but I don’t think the band had ever done anything, so I offered. And I really had a memorable experience, so now that I’m no longer teaching band, I thought, “Well, how can I still stay involved?”

So, I approached them about the electronic ensemble doing something. I thought this could be a unique musical thing. You could explore some stuff that with traditional music, maybe you weren’t able to. They were really enthusiastic about it. Originally, I had planned on just writing a piece. The only difference would have been that they were electronic instruments as opposed to the cello or the trumpet. Conceptually, it wasn’t going to be any different. But that was when, back in the fall, I went to that workshop.

JS: Which workshop?

FD: It’s a workshop called Beat Picnic. The guy who’s responsible for it is a U.K. musician who lives in Japan— Ally Mobbs. He just loves creating beats with found sounds. So when I read the description of this workshop, I thought, “You know, I’m going to go out into the city and record traffic and make some really cool, exotic drum thing.” But when I saw what he was having us do with this technique, I was just blown away. I’d never heard of sampling real-life sounds before, I’d never seen that done, and that gave me the idea to really have this piece have that deeper level.

Beat Picnic was part of a music summit called Loop, hosted by Ableton—the music software company that we use to create and perform the music. Loop is an annual event usually held in Berlin, where Ableton was founded, but last year they held Loop in the US for the first time. Loop is three days of concerts, workshops, and everything in between.

JS: How did you come to the subject matter?

FD: The poems you hear being read were discovered when the Terezin concentration camp was liberated after the war. Members of the JSA [Jewish Student Association] helped record some of those voicelines. They found countless drawings, paintings, short stories, and so many of those have been published. So I took three poems from that collection, each one written by a different person, to describe three sections of the periods demarked temporally by the Holocaust. The first poem is Birdsong. That was written anonymously, depicting an earlier time before the Holocaust. The second poem, “Fear” by Eva Pickova, is talking about the Holocaust itself. And then the last poem, “I am a Jew,” is talking about the pride and resilience of the Jewish people. I wanted to show that despite how horrible that was, the Jewish people have endured, and have a strength and resolve.

So the title of the piece, in Yiddish, and [In geveb editor-in-chief] Jessica Kirzane helped me find the title, is Frilingdik Umbazigt: As the Spring Unconquered. Because a spring in a physical sense is a coil, and when you press it and release it, it comes back into shape. But then the season spring, no matter how evil or harsh or cold or brutal winter is, spring always returns. So spring, in this piece, represents the spirit of the Jewish people. And the poems mark each of those things.

And within each movement is also a significant musical element. In the first movement, the Jewish lullaby [“Oyfn veg sheyt a boym”] is quoted at the very beginning. In the second movement Fear, the Psalm of David is the melody that goes with that. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And then the final one is “Zog nit keynmol” which you all sang. So there’s a poem and a melody that goes with each movement. Everything else around that is a creative musical interpretation.

The idea of the Holocaust artifacts was a really nice idea, but I was like, “That’s not going to happen.” I’ve been to Auschwitz. When I was in high school, the orchestra I was in did a tour of Europe, and as much as I can try to understand all of that—I have a deep respect for it—it’s not something I take lightly. So when I approached the museum about it, I was expecting them to say no. But, I just figured “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I’m just going to ask.” And then when they thought that was a really great idea, and they invited me out, I thought I was just going to be taking things from the museum floor. But they took me to the archives. So there were thousands of artifacts. The curator was really gracious, just allowing me to explore different things.

There’s a little behind-the-scenes thing that we’ve put together about this piece to give more explanation about it. [He pulls up a picture on his phone.] That’s the original manuscript they recovered of “Birdsong.” So, it’s in Czech, and there’s the translation. We have an electronic music performance [at the University of Chicago Lab School] night called Digimuse. It’s for all things electronic music. We created a little mini exhibit for it, with about twenty-two slides.

They were enlarged and displayed so you could go through and actually see [some of the artifacts, like the ones I’m showing you on my phone.] That’s Eva. At 12 years old she wrote that poem “Fear.” 12 years old. We know, at 14, she was sent to Auschwitz and she was killed.

And this is Franta. They found a lot of his poems.

So, that’s the Renny letter [a farewell letter written on January 10, 1943 by Renny (Nussbaum) Wahlhaus to her family upon learning that she and her son Alfred would be transported to Auschwitz. The letter was read in English as part of the Electronic Orchestra’s presentation].The irony of this is that the artifact was a typed letter. And one of the artifacts that they happened to have [at the Illinois Holocaust Museum] was a typewriter. So we collected manual typestrikes, and I loaded those onto a drum-pad to create that typing effect that you hear [in the composition].

This is Jerry Glass. Jerry Glass was a Jewish Chicagoan. He was a part of the Normandy invasion. He served under General Patton. He was key in the liberation of the Mauthausen camp because he was able to translate Yiddish to the allied troops. This is actually him at Mauthausen seeing firsthand this horror and kind of having a moment. And someone captured that.

So there are three pieces of his uniform [used as instruments in the piece]. The marching [sound], that’s Jerry’s boot. We recorded hundreds of taps on various different surfaces. [We used] pine, oak, birch, particle board, concrete, and created [the sound]. The zipper of his jacket, one of the melody instruments of the last movement came from that. This was the one that really blew me away. It was literally just taking a pants leg and [he rubs them together] you can barely hear that. But those frequencies I was able to extract and create another melody instrument from that.

What I do [in the slideshow] is I show the photograph of the actual artifact and I explain how I captured the sound and what instrument I created from that. At Digimuse we have a little exhibit.

JS: Can you tell me what it was like to reach out to the Yiddish-speaking communities?

FD: This school is a very unique place. I’ve found that something completely outlandish or off-the-wall, you can propose that, and there’s somebody here who can help you with it. It was kind of a shot in the dark, I said, “Does anyone know anybody that speaks Yiddish? I have this project!” One of the deans over at the elementary school over on Stony put me in touch with Jessica Kirzane. And she also put me in touch with a retired teacher whose wife is one of the members of this group, [MameLoshn], at Oak Park Temple.

Jessica reached out to me first. I emailed her, and that’s when I came to visit your class. And then, about a month later, I got in touch with Berit Engen [from MameLoshn]. She invited me out to one of their rehearsals. It was great because I don’t speak Yiddish, I don’t understand Yiddish, I’m very removed from the culture. But just the sheer amount of time you have to spend processing all of these recordings and samples — you can’t help but begin to connect with the language.

It’s funny because I can’t read any of these poems now without hearing the voices of these kids [in the Jewish Student Association]. Because I’ve spent so much time with all of those recordings. Or, having them say one word 24 different ways so I can decide which way I want to create that thing.

And the other thing I really appreciate is how gracious everyone has been allowing me into their culture. I didn’t know that Yiddish was a combination of German and Slavic languages and Hebrew. I’m just blown away by that. The whole melting pot of influences.

Some cultures are very protective and kind of stand-offish, and I felt from the very beginning that I was completely welcomed.

JS: Watching the kids come to the piece, how has that been?

FD: It’s been really great, because on the one hand, it’s a very emotional piece. But in the performance of it we can’t really allow ourselves to go into that space because we’re so responsible for everything. There are moments when I’m running through this, and I get a little choked up about it, and I kind of have to for a moment snap myself out so I don’t miss a cue.

We stop sometimes and we talk about the piece. I would play a tap on the menorah, and [then play] this instrument we’ve created out of it, so they could really appreciate that piece of of it. And the Renny letter and these poems, we would talk about what the writings meant. So there are moments when we introduce the elements that we kind of talk about it. I think we go in and out of that. I think the kids, as they’re performing it, they can find moments where they’re allowed to really just meditate on it. But then other moments where in that instance, it’s just a melody they have to play. For the sake of saving the performance of the piece. Because I’ve had that problem before where we get really choked up and caught up and it can just take you left field and kind of ruin stuff. So, I think the audience is allowed to experience that because [the kids] are very focused and concentrated on it.

I also had the opportunity to speak briefly with the students involved in the Electronic Orchestra. I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy.

JS: What brought you all to the Electronic Orchestra?

Annette: Mr. Dean took me and George aside and showed us this video of the previous year’s ensemble, and it looked really really cool. It was a small group of people but it sounded like a much larger group of people. It was interesting to see how they could multiply and layer sounds in order to make something like this.

JS: How would you describe the feelings that you have while the song is being played?

Rick: I always get pretty sad when the letter is being read, because that’s just heavy and depressing. That part really gets to me. For most of it, I’m just into the music. I’m moving and just digging the sound.

JS: Yeah, I saw you guys, you each had your little dance moves.

Jordan: I think that’s just us, messing around.

Rick: We’ve met, like, a lot. We’re here after-school every Monday for 6 months probably. We get our little quirks going. [laughter]

Annette: I think it’s easy to forget, well, not forget what we’re doing, but because the sounds don’t really sound like they came from artifacts, it just kind of feels like music. So that’s why we want to dance. And then you kind of remember, and you’re just like… [she trails off]

JS: How, if at all, has this changed the way you think about Judaism?

Eli: For me personally, I always think of the Holocaust as this terrible event, and there’s so many people who have died. But this event really gave me a more individual look at the Holocaust. Especially the letter being read. It’s just one person’s snapshot of this event, and there’s so many millions more of those. And it really made me more aware of the situation.

George: I think the letter really got to me.

JS: How did having people speaking Yiddish on the track change anything?

George: I don’t know, that’s one of my favorite parts of it.

JS: Why do you think that is?

Jordan: Well, the third movement is really hopeful, and the choir just makes it really uplifting. And it just changes the course of the song.

Rick: It’s really… I don’t know if this is a bad word to use in this context, but it sounds really groovy to me.

Eli: Obviously it’s about the Holocaust, but that just takes it one step deeper into understanding what it actually means, and not just being music.

Sabath, Jo. “Memorializing the Holocaust in Electronic Music: An Interview with Francisco Dean.” In geveb, October 2019:
Sabath, Jo. “Memorializing the Holocaust in Electronic Music: An Interview with Francisco Dean.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed Sep 23, 2020.


Jo Sabath

Jo Sabath is a student at the University of Chicago. This is Jo’s first publication.