On October 20, 1988, a large part of western Europe heard a unique radio concert -- CRYSTAL PSALMS -- a concerto for musicians in six nations, simultaneously performed, mixed and broadcast live in stereo to listeners from Palermo to Helsinki.
This special event, composed and coordinated by myself, while part of a worldwide series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), was, through its unusual concept, one which demanded and demonstrated an exceptional quality of international artistic and technological collaboration -- the bringing together groups of musicians and technicians (some 300 in all, in six major European cities) who neither saw nor heard one another, yet performed as one unified ensemble to realize this complex score.
At my suggestion this concert was organized in the fall of 1987 at a meeting in Rome where the producers from each radio station -- Danmarks Radio; Hessicher Rundfunk, Germany, ORF, Austria; Radio France; RAI, Italy; VPRO, Holland -- were present. The RAI in Rome was chosen to be the main technical center. The music was written between May and September at my home in Poggidoro (Velletri) near Rome. The recording heard here is a document of that one-time only concert-broadcast remixed by me in 1991.
The score was composed to be played by complementary ensembles in each of the six locations. These consisted of: a mixed chorus (16-32 voices), a quartet of strings or winds, a percussionist and accordionist. While each group of musicians was conducted independently, a recorded time track -- heard by each conductor -- was used to synchronize all six ensembles.
A pre-recorded tape containing sounds of many aspects of Jewish life was often employed together with the live sounds. Hence, the archaic sounds of the shofar (ritual ram's horn), the Yemenite Jews praying at the Western ("Wailing") Wall, famous Eastern European cantors taken from old sound archives; children in a Roman Jewish orphanage; my young niece singing her Bat Mitzvah prayers and my father singing in Yiddish at a family gathering. Ship horns, trains, crows and breaking glass, too. To this sonic panorama one hears live choral fragments of the Renaissance Jewish composers Salomone Rossi from Italy and Caceres of the famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, as well as from the renowned 19th Century composers of the Jewish liturgy, Lewandowski and Sulzer.
The music is structured in two contiguous sections. The first, lasting 24 minutes and dominated by the percussion using fallen and thrown objects, is an 18-voice polyphonic structure, where the musical fragments in each "voice" are repeated cyclically and woven by chance into an increasingly denser texture. The remaining 29 minutes shift without warning from one musical discourse to another -- from the sound of an idling car to a Yiddish lullaby, to a ram's horn, to breaking glass; from a familiar warm melody to random sonic colllisions. Here tonal chords are anchored to nothing, innocent children recite their lessons in the midst of raging international chaos. Glass breaks and telephones go unanswered. Cantors from Budapest invoke Israel amidst a demented loop of Verdi's "Va Pensiero." An Offenbach tune bleeds into a forgotten Schtetl song and winds up in 16th century Italy with fog horns and Strauss waltzes across a field of menacing crows.
There is no guiding text other than the mysterious reccurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet and the recitation of disconnected numbers in German, so the listeners, like the musicians, are left to navigate in a sea of structured disorder with nothing but blind faith and the clothes on their backs -- survivors of raw sonic history.
This event -- for me a very special form of human artistic collaboration -- now exists, along side the memory of the inhuman pogrom of 1938 which inspired it. One can only wish that it had been otherwise that instead we could be remembering and celebrating some noble acts of humanity and love.
By focusing on this almost incomprehensible moment in our recent history, I do not intend to offer yet another lesson on the Holocaust, but simply wish to make a clear personal musical statement and to solicit a conscious act of remembering -- remembering not only this moment of unparalleled human madness of fifty years ago, but of all crimes against humanity anywhere anytime. Without remembering there is no learning; without learning no remembering. And without remembering and learning there is no survival.