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Review by Colin Clarke, Interview by David DeBoor Canfield

ALLA ELANA COHEN Hoffmanniana, Series 1: Johannes Kreisler-Cat Murr Quintet1. Sephardic Romancero,2 Series 2. Querying the Silence, Series 83. Querying the Silence, Series 14. Watercolors of the Master Who is Accustomed to Paint Oils,5 Vol. 1, Series 12. Inner Temple, Vol. 1, Series 3: The Day of Atonement6 1,2,4-6Alla Elana Cohen, 4Yoshiko Hiramatsu, 1,3,6Marissa Licata (pn); 1,3,5,6Ethan Wood (vn); 1,3,6Laura Krentzman (va); 1,3Sebastian Baverstam, 6Phoebe Lin (vc); 6Jennifer Slowik (ob); 6Yuko Yoshikawa (mar); 6Aaron Trant (vib) CENTAUR 4044 (59:31) Live: 2009–2012

The music of Alla Elana Cohen has impressed me on multiple occasions in the past; this disc is no exception. Her music is uncompromising, and all the better for it. This disc is entitled The Path of Memories and presents a sequence of live recordings captured between 2009 and 2012.

The first piece, from Hoffmaniana, is of course inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann, specifically his Lebensansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern. Each movement is accompanied by a poem by the composer herself (reproduced in the booklet). Cohen somehow proves that within a modernist aesthetic, humor is possible; even when the protagonist is angry at his guitar (the third movement), it has a lightness about it. A cat’s funeral, too (the fourth movement) uses glissandos as slowed-down “meows.” The piano’s chords could be the tolling of church bells, while the string instruments wail lamentations. Cohen herself is a fine pianist, as one can hear in the lightness and agility of the fifth movement, “Johannes Kreisler: Inner turmoil and frantic gallop of time,” while it is the string players that come to the fore in the slow tread of “Johannes Kreisler at the monastery: Ave maris stella.” Cohen’s poetry is excellent, but the music effectively holds its own by itself.

It is interesting that Cohen’s Sephardic Romancero pieces (three of which are presented here, played by the composer) have a Spanish tinge. It’s a reflection of how only 10 per cent of Sephardic Jews remained in the world post-Holocaust (their language is Ladino, based on Spanish). Cohen’s writing is idiomatic and imaginative, and her playing most appealing. Obviously, these performances carry the greatest authority.

When it comes to Querying the Silences, we hear Series 8 first, then Series 1. All the series were a means for the composer to explore her feelings of bereavement after the loss of her mother. The first is for string quartet. Echo is used a lot; the composer explains: “What we hear as echo is only the echo of our own thoughts.” There is no doubting whatsoever the amount of Angst contained in this score (the live performance probably helped). Whether active or slow, the effect is of a cri de cœur. At times, repeated gestures feel like a person in crisis hammering at a wall or door. Responses to a passing come in all shapes and sizes: For the first series, Cohen chose two pianos (she is joined here by Yoshiko Hiramatsu). One piano seems tethered to the earth itself in the first movement (of four). This is astonishingly powerful music. And out of that blackness and bleakness comes the sound of a violin, initiating Watercolors of the Master Who is Accustomed to Paint Oils for violin and piano (Volume 1, Series 12). They are abstract pieces, and Ethan Wood’s violin sings beautifully with the composer at the piano. This is more delicate music, and very beautiful at that.

Finally, there comes a part of the Inner Temple series, for mixed ensemble. The “inner temple” is, according to the composer, located in our souls. There is, in the composer’s own words a “ritualistic fervor” to “The Day of Atonement,” with a moment of light at the end of the second movement. It is fitting that this work closes the disc as it is so immediate, so heartfelt, and yet nothing is lost of Cohen’s integrity or directness of expression.

Booklet notes are provided by the composer. This is another fine disc of Cohen’s music. It has a directness that is compelling; this is not for the faint-hearted, but the rewards are great indeed. Colin Clarke


A New Program of Works by Iconic Composer Alla Elana Cohen
By David DeBoor Canfield

Alla Elana Cohen is no stranger to the pages of Fanfare. My previous interviews, as well as reviews (along with those of several colleagues) of three earlier CDs of her music, have appeared in 40:6, 41:4, and 43:3, and her biographical details and musical aesthetic are covered therein. The following interview was given via email in September 2023, and I eagerly seized the opportunity to cover more ground with this fascinating composer and her equally sui generis music.

Shalom, Alla! It’s so nice to be able to interview you for a fourth time, and to receive, listen to, and review the latest disc of your music. Of the handful of CDs I own that contain your music, I now have 29 different commercially recorded works by you. About how much of a percentage of the music that you’ve written to date does this number represent?

Blessings, David! Thank you so much for interviewing me again! It is always my great pleasure to communicate with you.

It has never occurred to me to count or in any way to keep track of my creative output! For all my creative life, I have attempted to follow these wise words of the great Russian poet and Nobel Prize Laureate, Boris Pasternak, who wrote, “It is unseemly to be famous, for this does not uplift you to the skies; no one should care about retaining manuscripts, or keeping archives….” Consequently, I never put any opus number on any of my works, and I don’t generally bother to keep track of where I keep this or that manuscript. Indeed, I often destroy, without the least vestige of regret, some work or another of mine, if I feel (and usually this is a very powerful feeling) that I distorted what was sent to me from Above! These destroyed pieces include all the 12-tone works I wrote during my tenure as a student at the famous Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. At the time, it was mandatory there to write utilizing that technique, but I knew from the beginning that this was not my voice. Since I wanted to go my own way, as soon as I graduated from that institution, I gladly discarded scores of scores, so to say! In that same poem by Pasternak, he wrote, “the goal of Creativity is Self-giving....” Thus, for me self-giving was and remains the lodestar for my creativity.

I understand from Greg Fritze (whom I also know) that when he was formerly head of the composition department at Berklee he convinced you to record and issue some of your works on CD. What has the recording of your music meant to you?

I never really wanted to begin any sort of tumultuous nonmusical activity in regard to my music, as it would distract my attention from composing. Additionally, since I earn my living by teaching, and that takes a lot of time and effort from me, I prefer to spend what time remains in composing more music instead of actively promoting what I have already composed. My sole goal in recording my music and issuing these CDs was and is simply to preserve some of my life’s work, demonstrating my interpretation and the way I want my pieces to sound. This is especially the case since I myself participate as pianist in those that call for one, either as soloist or as a partner in various chamber works.

I have never thought of my CDs as the means of acquiring recognition, as it normally takes a good amount of time—perhaps even 50 or 100 years—for the value of the music of a composer with a pronounced original musical idiom and who doesn’t (as in my case) belong to any trend or school of musical thought to become known to music lovers.

How much, if anything, in your music is autobiographical? I know from our somewhat frequent communication that your life—before and after your emigration from Russia—has had numerous challenges. Have you written any of these into your music?

In my opinion, a composer’s music is always autobiographical, at least in the sense that it inevitably reflects everything about him or her, including the time in which the composer lives. Other factors, such as place of birth or nationality, where the composer lived, the surrounding culture, and religious convictions (or absence thereof), all make their mark on a composer’s music. Of course, there’s also the factor that one’s music is influenced by who we are by temperament, character, views on life and art, tastes in visual art and literature, and so on. All of these factors also influence the way the listener perceives the music the composer writes, so the confluence of these gets extremely complex!

I can’t imagine, say, Shostakovich’s music outside the particular time and place in which he composed it. Likewise, I perceived it one way when I myself lived in that same place, but now at a later time and living in a much different place, I perceive it in a completely different way! Of course, I am Jewish, a religious person, and a person who lived many years of my life in the Soviet Union (a place I put only second after the Holocaust as the most inhuman experiment upon human beings in the history of humankind); therefore I compose music which always contains undercurrents of tragedy or often is directly and openly tragic or dramatic. My music always reflects my fervent search of the connection with the Divine, and also invariably reflects my fiery temperament, my preferences in the sphere of literature, and the fact that for all my life I have written poetry in addition to music. It also demonstrates my fascination with the scientific side of music, as music is not only the most wonderful art, it is also a science. This fact causes me to use compositional techniques that are solely of my design!

We must also recall that concrete events in composers’ lives might influence their music. Think about Mozart’s masterpiece, his Piano Sonata in A Minor, a work he wrote in response to the passing away of his mother. Similarly, when my own beloved mother passed away 21 years ago, I began to compose a series of compositions under the general title “Querying the Silence” in order to channel my sorrow.

Have things post-pandemic returned more or less to normal at Berklee? Are there some things there that have been permanently changed?

Yes, things are pretty much back to normal at Berklee, although we still have an option to have Directed Study lessons (individual composition lessons) and office hours online, and to participate in Department meetings online. We are now back to teaching all classes in person. Some faculty (including myself) and students still wear masks, but many don’t. I have had, just since the start of this semester, two students who tested positive for Covid, and we shall see what happens later this Fall.

Turning to specific works on this recital, it opens with your Johannes Kreisler-Cat Murr Quintet from your Hoffmanniana series. The writings of the well-known 19th-century German author and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann have inspired not only the present Quintet but a series of poems by you, each of which is connected to one movement of this six-movement work. You mention that these poems are “program notes” for the Quintet, but did you write the poetry first or the music? Are there other ways that the poems and movements of the work are intertwined?

The music came first, which is the reason I call these little poems “program notes,” and in fact they are also one more token of my homage to a masterpiece by E. T. A. Hoffmann! As the music of my Quintet has almost palpably concrete musical imagery (easy to formulate verbally), I thought it very appropriate to use poetry for that purpose. Often the subtitle of each movement tells a lot about its contents and the poem clarifies it even more.

Given the prominence of a tomcat in both your own poems and the work of Hoffmann that inspired you and other composers such as Schumann and Wagner, are you an ailurophile? If so, did you write any cat-like behavior into this Quintet? Cat-lovers such as I will want to know!

I do love cats! However, as I am allergic to them, I can’t have a live cat at home and must settle for my collection of toy cats and even a stained-glass picture of a Cat Murr, made by the (now late) grandfather of my former student and dear friend Brian Buch. I call the small circle of my friends and students the “Cat Murr Society.” We once had a concert of pieces by my students and me, to which a live cat was brought to represent our chairman, Cat Murr! (Of course, I couldn’t touch it!) Yes, in the second and fourth movements of my Quintet I tried to depict through musical means a cat’s behavior. These included the wailing of the cats, especially in the ironic funeral of the cat Mutius. The other four movements of this Quintet are, however, connected to a much more important personage: Johannes Kreisler, Kapellmeister and composer, and another protagonist of Hoffmann’s masterpiece. Schumann’s Kreisleriana is similarly connected, but only to Johannes Kreisler and not to Cat Murr. Many great composers were fascinated by Hoffmann’s brilliant prose. Wagner employed Hoffmann’s stories Martin the Barrel-Maker and His Apprentices and The Singing Contest in Wartburg as plots for operas. Tchaikovsky likewise based his ballet The Nutcracker on Hoffmann’s fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, and Delibes based his ballet Coppelia on Hoffmann's story The Sandman. Hoffmann's novel that inspired me has so many layers of content, and its structure is so unusual, that I am sure it will inspire many other composers, and all will find in it something new to convey in their music.

I also have written a string quartet in four movements as part of my Hoffmanniana, series 2. This work was performed in one of the concerts, but not the way I wanted it to go, so I didn’t include it on this CD. I recall that when Mikhail Kazinik (a famous musicologist, the author of many books and films on music and culture, and the leading expert of the concert given in conjunction with the awarding of the Nobel Prize) made this Quintet the subject of a program broadcast on the all-Russian radio station Orpheus, it resulted in letters to the station wherein listeners wrote of the vivid picture of cats fighting, snorting, etc., that the music conjured up in their minds. I depicted cats in that work through various kinds of extended techniques to give it this pictorial quality of felines.

Well, I hope you’ll accept me into your Cat Murr Society! The Sephardic Jews on the Iberian peninsula certainly experienced oppression, resulting in their expulsion from their homeland in the late 15th century. Could you specify the elements in your piano work devoted to this persecuted people that tie it to their plight? You also mention that after the Holocaust, only 10 per cent of those Jews remain. Where are most of them now located, if no longer on the Iberian peninsula?

As I’ve mentioned, my music always has a tragic undercurrent, so the pieces in this work constitute short, passionate, and somber narratives, all of them incorporating mysterious elements in them, but also, in the last movement, some lightness and lyricism. All of them have something Spanish in their idiom, though I never quote any folk songs in them. But I never actually sought to convey in this particular work any concrete imagery connected with the plight of Sephardic Jews. Instead, I have attempted to convey the general character of their culture and art and its immortality, as the surviving Iberian (or Sephardic) Jews remain in Israel and in various regions in diaspora.

In your work Watercolors of the Master Who Is Accustomed to Paint Oils, your notes state that in it you “seek to convey … what is ineffable, what is beyond any verbal definition.” Isn’t this true also in your other music? I hear things in every one of your works that defy being put into words. This puts me in mind of (if I recall correctly) Mendelssohn’s statement that if words could express what music does, he would have been a poet.

Of course, all music is inevitably about the ineffable. But in this particular album there are pieces, including the above-mentioned Cat Murr Quintet, which have very concrete musical imagery (as I wrote in the previous answer), so palpably concrete as to be easily formulated verbally. But the works written under the title Watercolors of the Master Who Is Accustomed to Paint Oils have such complex musical imagery that I find it almost impossible to express their contents in words.

As indeed, do I! Speaking of the concept of ineffability, your Inner Temple—The Day of Atonement would seem to treat a subject that is unknowable to the extreme, namely, the forgiveness of sin by the Almighty. Many non-Jews do not realize that Yom Kippur (rather than the better-known—to non-Jews, at least—Hanukkah) is the most sacred day in Judaism. How can something such as forgiveness be represented in music?

It is impossible to express forgiveness in music, as it is impossible to express in music the concepts of sin, punishment, atonement, regret, remorse, reward, encouragement, and so on. But it is possible to consider the timid ray of light coming at the end of my work, The Day of Atonement, to be a token of forgiveness, as a musical gesture which combines expressiveness, symbolism, and pictoriality, not unlike the musical gestures from Johann Mattheson’s Theory of Affects, in which sorrow had to be implied by stepwise downward motion of the tones of chromatic scale, and pride and arrogance by stepwise upward motion of the notes of a diatonic scale.

I note that all of the recordings on the present CD was are live recordings (I presume) from recitals at Berklee.

Actually, not a single recording on this CD was made at Berklee but rather came from various halls at the New England Conservatory, where I taught from 1990 until quite recently, or from Old South Church in Boston, or from Calderwood Pavilion, also in Boston. Berklee doesn’t have a single decent hall for classical music concerts, and the Berklee Performing Center is suitable only for jazz or rock concerts. Its David Friend Recital Hall has such awful acoustics that I would never want to record any of my pieces there.

Given the decline of American culture (as evidenced by “cancel culture” and other movements), do you find it more difficult to write music, considering the possibly that future generations may no longer value what composers are attempting to contribute to culture?

As I am not striving towards fame, and just prefer to be really good in what I am doing in music rather than famous, I am not worried what will happen with my music half a century or a century later! To be sure, what we call “art music” or “classical music” has never been something for the masses. Thus, even if such music achieves recognition, it is only a relative one, and can’t be compared—alas!—with the popularity of whoever the current rock star might be! But I am hopeful that there always will be at least a handful of people who have elevated thoughts and aesthetic and moral values akin to mine, or as the saying goes, “the manuscripts don’t burn.” Regardless, then, of what is the prevalent cultural trend, the destiny of my creative work is in the Almighty’s hands, and His Will Be Done!


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