The unmarked space within Matthew Rosenblum’s composition is what makes its microtonality most familiar. Even for those whose lexicon lacks “octave,” “tuning” or “semitone,” the story of a grandmother gathering her kin in the dark of Passover night and recounting a perilous escape is a recognizable tale.
That Rosenblum fused narrative, friendship and extemporization in an accessible classical piece is a spiel worth sharing.
“The way that I remember it, this is after the seder, this is the Bronx, in New York, and there’s like 30 people,” said Rosenblum, 63. “My grandfather and uncles are doing the serious thing on one side; the kids are running around, and there’s like nonsense on the other side.”
The seder ended. “People are cleaning up and I remember my grandmother gathering the grandchildren in a little corner of the table and telling this.”
Her family had come from Proskurov, Ukraine, and on Feb. 15, 1919, a pogrom began there.
Several hours after its start, 1,500 Jews had been murdered, and another 1,000 were wounded.
“It was a horrible story. She witnessed her family members being massacred.”
Between elegiac bawls and convulsive chants, the grandmother’s report, which family members later termed “the grainitz” (border), continued.
“The priest of the town, in exchange for their furniture, arranged for a hay cart to take them out of town. My grandmother tied the silverware around her legs, and they all ran out and went into the hay cart and traveled to the border where they waited for a sign to say that it was OK to cross,” said Rosenblum to filmmaker David Bernabo.
Once the sign was received, the escapees ventured on, and in the midst of migration, somewhere in the woods, Rosenblum’s mother was born. The group finally made its way either to Italy or Vienna — depending on which version is being recited — where the silverware was sold for passage to Palestine.
Although Rosenblum, at only 6 years old, had previously learned of the unfoldings, their conveyance that Passover night was distinctive.
“I remember this clear as day,” he said. “She was sobbing, and it was like this chant thing, and it was crying and narrating and telling the story in such a unique way that I had never heard before, and it made a huge impression on me.”
For decades, Rosenblum, now professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, tucked the incident away, but in the mid-1990s, while listening to an ethnomusicologist lecture on Russian laments, the nightmarish recollection of his grandmother shaking and singing sprung alive.
“That’s when this memory kind of became more vivid to me. I always remembered it, but I hadn’t heard those sounds since then, until I heard those recordings,” he said.
Years passed again, and while reconnecting with a friend who had also attended the High School of Music & Art on West 135th St. in New York City, Rosenblum strategized on a possible piece.
“We were chatting, and Matthew said, ‘I’m thinking of writing a clarinet concerto for you,’” said David Krakauer, 61.
Rosenblum, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, had been working on a commixture of his grandmother’s superstitious sensibilities, Ukrainian laments and aspects from the frenzied fifth movement of 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.”
“And then I think he heard my voice, or the voice of my clarinet, as a unifying factor of all of these elements,” said Krakauer.
But as opposed to relying on the academic’s initial intention, the renowned clarinetist delved into the possibilities of their collaboration.
“David asked me what my grandmother was like so I mentioned this story about the grainitz, about escaping from Ukraine, and I told him about the specific instance when she told us that story,” explained Rosenblum.
“At that moment he said, ‘Well, that has to be the piece right there. It’s that personal connection to a memory and to your grandmother, so the piece should be a lament, you know like as she was lamenting to you. The first part of the piece should be a lament, and the second part will go to this ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ Berlioz thing that’s all supernatural, so you get both sides of your grandmother, kind of two different views.’”
Krakauer’s idea was “brilliant,” said Rosenblum.
Between months-long electronic exchanges and conversations, the two continued hammering away. Now days from its premiere and subsequent Boston-based taping, the musicians are more than pleased with their construction.
“I’m tickled pink with the results. I think it’s an incredible piece of music, an epic piece of music. I’m excited to perform it and record it,” said Krakauer, a 2015 Grammy Award nominee.
The frightfully engaging enmeshment, which will kick off the Beyond Microtonal Music Festival (Jan. 11-13 at various venues), features a symphony orchestra led by Gil Rose, founder and conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, interspersings of recorded Eastern European laments and a “duet” between Krakauer and Rosenblum’s deceased grandmother.
At that point in the piece, “it’s just the strings, my grandmother singing this tune and David doing his thing over it,” said Rosenblum.
Given its “highly referential” nature, ‘Lament/Witches’ Sabbath’ is in some ways the most personal piece I’ve ever written,” he added.
But it is that specificity — one family’s survival saga — that broadens the appeal, explained Krakauer.
“These are real stories; it happened to our family and it’s happening to families throughout the world,” said Rosenblum.
“It’s obviously a very hot topic today with so many people fleeing their native countries for their lives,” echoed the clarinetist.
The three-day festival will boast a bevy of opportunities to explore similar themes through performances and panel discussions dedicated to microtonal music — something long considered a “fringe sub field” because of its reliance upon “pitch and tuning systems other than the standard 12-note temperament that has been in use since Bach’s time,” explained Rosenblum.
Krakauer, whose involvement in the Steel City affair includes a closing act alongside his band, Ancestral Groove, on Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. at the Andy Warhol Museum, explained that although Rosenblum’s composition can be analyzed and appreciated by those intrigued by semitones or alternate tunings, its accessibility endears it to all listeners.
“The concerto is a piece that any audience will get right away from beginning to the end. It’s captivating, it carries the listener, it’s incredibly emotional and incredibly intense. And I think what makes the piece fantastic is that it totally transcends the category of being a microtonal piece.” PJC
Tickets to the Beyond Microtonal Music Festival are available by calling the University of Pittsburgh Stages Box Office at 412-624-7529 or visiting music.pitt.edu/tickets.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz