4.47. Alvin Curran, electro-acoustic composition ‘Crystal Psalms’ (1988)

Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” of November 9-10, 1938, was a pogrom of unprecedented proportions against the German Jews. The perpetrators commemorated November 10, the birthday of Martin Luther, who passed the following judgment on the Jews in 1543:

Was wollen wir Christen nun mit diesem verworfenen, verdammten Volk der Juden tun? . . . Ich will meinen treuen Rat geben. Erstlich, daß man ihre Synagogen oder Schulen mit Feuer anstecke . . . Zum zweiten, daß man ihre Häuser desgleichen zerbreche und zerstöre . . . Zum dritten, daß man ihnen alle Betbüchlein und Talmudisten nehme, worin solche Abgötterei, Lügen, Fluch und Lästerung gelehrt wird. *“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? . . . I shall give you my sincere advice: First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools . . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. . . . Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.” Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, Part XI.

The pogromists also commemorated November 9, 1923, the date of the failed coup by Adolf Hitler, who went one step further than Luther and represented pogroms as not only understandable, but also unavoidable actions of oppressed, non-Jewish masses:

In Zeiten bitterster Not bricht endlich die Wut gegen ihn aus, und die ausgeplünderten und zugrunde gerichteten Massen greifen zur Selbsthilfe, um sich der Gottesgeißel zu erwehren. Sie haben ihn im Laufe einiger Jahrhunderte kennengelernt und empfinden schon sein bloßes Dasein als gleiche Not wie die Pest. *“In times of most bitter distress the wrath against him [“the Jew”] finally breaks out, and the exploited and ruined masses take up self-defense in order to ward off the scourge of God. They have got to know him in the course of several centuries and they experience his mere existence as the same distress as the plague.” Hitler, Mein Kampf 426.

The pogromists of Kristallnacht did not limit themselves to setting fire to synagogues, but desecrated ritual objects as well, including shofarot; an example of these actions is revealed by an eyewitness report from Strümpfelbrunn, a village 40 kilometers east of Mannheim:

During the November pogrom of 1938 the synagogue was destroyed by members of the SA. The building was cleared out and the ritual objects, among which a particularly old and precious parokhet from the Jewish community of Hirschhorn, the lecterns and the Torah scrolls, were burned on a meadow. Two Jews were forced to carry the Torah scrolls to the meadow. A silk cloth from the lectern of the cantor was hung out on a pole out of a window of the synagogue. After the destruction, a group of SA members marched through the village, blowing the shofar they had stolen from the synagogue. *“Die Synagoge in Strümpfelbrunn.” Alemannia Judaica. Quotation translated from the German by KvH.

In 1988, Kristallnacht was commemorated in several works of art, including Crystal Psalms by the American composer Alvin Curran, who was born in 1938 and lives in Italy. This composition was commissioned by six broadcasting companies from different countries: the Hessische Rundfunk (Germany), ÖRF (Austria), RAI (Italy), Radio France, VPRO (Netherlands) and Danmarks Radio. Six ensembles in the cooperating countries played simultaneously; each ensemble consisted of a mixed choir, a wind or string quartet, a percussionist and an accordion player. At each location, the musicians were led by a conductor and everything was synchronized by a recorded time track which only the conductors could hear. The live music was complemented by recorded sounds on a tape and coordinated from Rome by the composer. In 1994, the live broadcast of the composition was released on CD. Though its sound quality is flawless and the recording offers the possibility of a repeated listening, the CD cannot provide the experience of the original live broadcast with its large, international audience.

Crystal Psalms is not an attempt to create the soundscape of a German city during Kristallnacht; instead, it is a carefully made collage of live music, composed by Curran, recorded music by other composers and stylized street noise. The chaos of Kristallnacht is reflected in the music and both musicians and listeners “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.” *Curran, Crystal Psalms, CD Booklet 4. Curran’s music is full of “random sonic collisions” and “tonal chords . . . anchored to nothing,” and according to the composer, the only clues are “the mysterious recurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet” and “the recitation of disconnected numbers in German.” *Ibid. 4.

These clues, however, give little to grasp; reference points are rather the chronotopes of Jewish life in Germany and elsewhere. The Jewish family is represented by Curran’s father, who sings a Yiddish song, and Curran’s praying niece, who will be bat miẓvah; the Jewish school is represented by children reciting a lesson; the Ashkenazi synagogue appears in the music of the 19th-century composers Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer, and in cantors from early-20th-century Eastern Europe, whereas the Sephardi synagogue is represented by the composers Salomone Rossi from the Italy of around 1600 and Abraham de Caceres from 18th-century Amsterdam; synagogues in general are represented by shofar blasts. The concert hall and the opera theater are represented by Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss (who had some Jewish ancestors), and the choir “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on wings of gold”) from Verdi’s opera Nabucco (“Nebuchadnezzar”) on Babylonian exile. Finally, the ominous chronotope of transport is represented by foghorns, warning of a danger; the sounds of an idling truck engine, alluding to razzias; and the sounds of trains as allusions to flight as well as deportation.

Crystal Psalms consists of two parts with a duration of 24:00 and 29:20 minutes respectively. Part 1, “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.” *Ibid. 3. Although the recorded sounds are realistic, the composition is a kind of musique concrète rather than a “soundscape” of Kristallnacht.

Part 2 “shift[s] without warning from one musical discourse to another,” though the musical episodes are longer than those in Part I and overlap more, resulting in a greater density. There is more original, minimal-style music, composed by Curran and towards the end there is much choral music, leading to a slowly upward moving cluster, until one minute before the end, a silence falls; at this moment, an unanswered telephone rings as a symbol of the isolation of the Jewish community in Germany. Part 2 is even less realistic than Part 1 and resembles a nightmare full of specters and hallucinatory memories. In this part, the shofar can be heard in four episodes with traditional or paraphrased blasts. Below will be shown how every episode can be linked to an aspect of Kristallnacht.

In the first episode from 1:10 to 1:52, a shofar blows a tekiʿah and a teruʿah, separated by the sounds of breaking glass and a wind ensemble; the sounds suggest a burglary in a synagogue. This episode is preceded by a Jewish chant, with as a counterpoint, an accordion repeating a distorted waltz motif from Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus, Act II, No. 18, mm. 5-8: E4-D♯-E-G-F♯-E-C4-C-C-C, E4-D♯-E-G-F♯-E-B3-B-B-B. The main phrases from this waltz apply to Kristallnacht, for example No. 19, mm. 1-4, “Ha, welch ein Fest, welche Nacht voll Freud!” (“Ha, what a feast, what a wondrous night!”); No. 20, mm. 10-16, “Welch ein rührend Wiedersehn wird das im Arreste geben!” (“Touching in the gaol will be their mutual recognition!”); and No. 23, mm. 1-8, “Verlang nicht zu schauen, was hier verhüllt; erbeben würdest du vor diesem Bild!” (“Attempt not to know what’s here concealed; you’d perish of terror were it revealed!”). *Strauss, Die Fledermaus, Piano-vocal score 134-140. This shofar episode of Crystal Psalms is followed by sounds related to deportation and exile: an idling truck engine, the “sound signature” of a razzia, and Verdi’s chorus “Va, pensiero” on Babylonian exile.

The second episode includes the minute between 5:36 and 6:36. A tekiʿah gedolah, a teruʿah, a tekiʿah and another teruʿah are interrupted by breaking glass, nervous accordion sounds and (muffled) choral readers; this episode is concluded by cawing crows as symbols of death.

In the third episode from 13:07 to 13:17, a shofar blows a tekiʿah gedolah; this episode is preceded by a choir singing polyphonic music with a word like “hallelujah” and disturbed by a coarse, low saxophone note. As the distinguished sounds of the shofar and the choir are followed by a vulgar saxophone note, the subject here is probably desecration.

The equally short fourth episode from 28:13 to 28:23 consists of a teruʿah. It is preceded by a niggun, drowned out by a powerful cluster; then, in a moment of silence, a ringing telephone is heard; a sustained minor triad in voices and instruments, briefly interrupted by breaking glass, performs a slow upward glissando, turns into a cluster and ends in a long reverberation. This conclusion of Crystal Psalms with the drowned-out niggun and the unanswered telephone call expresses isolation and oblivion.

Crystal Psalms is a telling title, and Curran’s composition has points in common with at least seven psalms. The above-mentioned motifs of isolation, desecration, destruction, and death are also found in the Psalms. Pss. 74 and 79 are lamentations on the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. In Ps. 74, the Temple is being desecrated: “4 Your foes roar inside Your meeting-place; / they take their signs for true signs”, whereupon the enemy sets all the country’s sanctuaries on fire: “7 They made Your sanctuary go up in flames; / they brought low in dishonor the dwelling-place of Your presence.” In Ps. 79, not only the Temple, but also the city is destroyed, and the inhabitants are persecuted: “1 O God, heathens have entered Your domain, / defiled Your holy temple, / and turned Jerusalem into ruins. . . . 4 We have become the butt of our neighbors, / the scorn and derision of those around us.” Furthermore, there are strong thematic relations between Crystal Psalms and the four Psalms (57, 58, 59, and 75) headed Al tashḥeth (“Do not destroy.”) *Possibly a melody used by the author of the psalm. Cf. The Jewish Study Bible 1344, Note. In Ps. 59:4, a man becomes the victim of a conspiracy: “fierce men plot against me / for no offense of mine;” in Ps. 58:3, he is outlawed: “In your minds you devise wrongdoing in the land; / with your hands you deal out lawlessness” and in Pss. 59:15 and 57:5 persecuted: “They come each evening growling like dogs, / roaming the city” and “I lie down among man-eating lions / whose teeth are spears and arrows, / whose tongue is a sharp sword.”

In Crystal Psalms, Curran commemorated not only the victims of Kristallnacht, but also those of all crimes against humanity. A similar position was taken by the composer Robert Normandeau, who dedicated his Chorus not only to the victims in the Twin Towers but to all victims of violence on September 11th, 2001. *Chapter 4.62. Whereas Normandeau offers the perspective of mutual respect between the three monotheistic religions, Curran offers a perspective of connected remembering and learning, that would turn the shofar as a “tool of remembrance” into a “tool of learning”:

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. *Curran, Crystal Psalms, CD Booklet 1.

This last sentence might be Curran’s dialogue with the Pirkei Avot, the collection of wisdom sayings: “If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.” *Pirkei Avot 3:21. In The Koren Siddur 658. Both Curran’s comment and Pirkei Avot 3:21 stress the interdependence of knowledge, understanding, and survival.

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