Dan Kaufman first read the work of poet Paul Celan not long before he formed the Brooklyn collective Barbez in 1997. And whether it’s because Kaufman subconsciously let Celan creep into his music in the intervening decade or because his writings are simply a literary expression of the same ghostly realm that’s always been in Kaufman’s head, Force of Light — a song cycle based on Celan’s poetry — feels like the album that Kaufman and Barbez were meant to make.
Born into a Romanian Jewish family in 1920, Celan narrowly escaped the deportation that sent his parents to a Nazi concentration camp in Ukraine, where his father died of typhus and his mother was shot by a guard. Celan himself survived several labor camps in southern Romania. The writings that Kaufman chose for Force of Light, translated from the original German by Michael Hamburger, were written in elemental yet often indirect language, relating the horror and dislocation of the Jewish experience during and after the Holocaust.
The music on Force of Light has much the same effect on sound as Celan’s words do on language, twisting it into emotionally knotty shadows that loom large despite their surface simplicity. Vibraphone, percussion and guitar/bass ostinatos creep across “Aspen Tree,” based on a poem about the murder of Celan’s mother. Performance artist Fiona Templeton recites, “Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges? My gentle mother cannot return” as smoky melodies trade off between clarinets and Pamelia Kurstin’s unsettling theremin loops. Skeletons dance to the marimbas and tom-toms on the instrumental “The Black Forest,” which was supposedly inspired by a meeting between Celan and the philosopher and Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger.
Barbez’s first three records had a very human volatility to them, aided in no small part by the expressionism of former vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina. On Force of Light, the only words we hear are delivered in a clear, almost emotionless speaking voice, and with the exception of the title track’s crescendo, Barbez keeps it slow, steady and quiet. It’s as if this music, and certainly Celan’s poetry, comes from a place where death is unquestioned and unsurprising, or else it has taken such a toll that feeling anything at all is too painful. Force of Light ends with “Sky Beetle,” a crepuscular timpani/violin/theremin dirge with the same mix of calm and hopelessness as its single lyric: “Laden with reflection with the sky beetles, inside the mountain/ The death you still owe me, I carry it out.” Paul Celan committed suicide soon after he wrote that line. His brilliant, wounded spirit is preserved in this enigmatic tombstone of an album.