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Music review: A howl for Allen Ginsberg — or his mom?

'Kaddish: For Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956),' as performed Wednesday at UCLA, was at its most powerful when the performers allowed themselves to treat this as a farewell for the poet.

April 19, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" is set to a score by composer Bill Frisell, right.
Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" is set to a score by composer… (James Pratt, Spencer Davis )

Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish: For Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956)" is not a great poet's loudest howl.

Ginsberg howled for joy throughout his life and work, the cry of bliss. He howled out of physical pleasure and spiritual pain. He howled to tune into the core sound of the universe, to become one with its core chord.

"Kaddish," which was given an unusual theatrical performance at UCLA's Royce Hall on Wednesday night in a project put together by the wonderfully eclectic music producer Hal Willner, does end loud. The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer that is recited by mourners to confirm their commitment to God and life in the face of death.

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Ginsberg was not able to attend his mother's funeral, and there weren't enough men present to say Kaddish over her grave. He did so three years after her death in this magnificently sober, groundbreaking (in more ways than one) long poem.

The final image is of a crow shrieking over Naomi's grave, an angel of death and of life. "Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord" is the astonishing last line. When Ginsberg reached it in his own readings, his eyes would be red with weeping after more than hour of recitation. His would intone these words like music, lost in his voice, lost in his sorrow, lost in himself and yet open, a mystic with ears wide open.

But "Kaddish" is more quiet than not. Naomi died one year after Ginsberg's triumphant debut on the national stage with his reading of "Howl" in San Francisco in 1955. Now as fame surrounded him, he still needed to find himself. Ginsberg being Ginsberg (he was not known for lacking ego), he found it by searching for his mother's soul, the soul of a woman consumed by madness. Self and selflessness in "Kaddish" become one.

Willner worked with Ginsberg in the early '90s on the release of a CD set of the poet's readings (including an exceptionally affecting one of "Kaddish"). This "Kaddish" project, presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, was first given last year at the Park Avenue Armory in New York as part of a celebration of Philip Glass' 75th birthday.

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Of all the musicians Ginsberg worked with — and he did assert himself on the music scene any way he could, befriending everyone from Bob Dylan to John Cage — he found the most understanding spirit in Glass. Ginsberg's incendiary incantations rose from Glass' calm keyboard arpeggios like, well, the crow as the Lord's voice crying over Naomi's tombstone.

Willner's project did not involve Glass. Eclectic jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell was asked to write the accompanying music for an outstanding ensemble (Robin Holcomb, piano; Curtis Fowlkes, trombone; Ron Miles, trumpet; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Hank Roberts, cello; Doug Wieselman, clarinet; and Kenny Wollesen, percussion) but not play.

Willner and actress Chloe Webb read "Kaddish," he the voice of Allen, she of Naomi. Webb also directed the production and a film that was projected behind the stage. It included suitably angst-ridden illustrations by Ralph Steadman, along with inoffensive nature photography.

It's always dangerous to court inoffensiveness when it comes to Ginsberg, and this "Kaddish" did not, in any of its elements, always avoid that danger. Much of Frisell's music was understated, but not in a Glass-like calm so much as tensely afraid to overpower the intense poetry. Although Willner adopted many mannerisms of Ginsbergian articulation, he read as an outsider, a narrator. Webb's part was much smaller, but she did bring a welcome fresh voice.

But when the performers allowed themselves to treat this not as Ginsberg's Kaddish for Naomi but as a Kaddish for Ginsberg, when they allowed themselves their own voices, not echoes of the poet's, the project assumed considerable power. That happened pretty much in all of Webb's reading. It happened once when Holcomb broke into song.

It happened most of all at the epilogue. Willner cut "Hymmnn," a section blessing madhouse, paranoia, homosexuality, Naomi's withered thighs and most of all, Death. I can't imagine why other than to enhance the triumphant theatricality of launching directly into the poem's final farewells, which were presented as an increasingly ecstatic back and forth between the two readers.

Then came the caws. The jazz ensemble finally reached an improvisational fury. Steadman's illustrations had the character of pen fighting paper. The crows were now the voice, the real voice, of Ginsberg.

I grew up with Ginsberg's poetry. It helped shape my sensibility, and I got to know him a little. Most of Wednesday night seemed an uncertain struggle to bring back a bard. But with those caws, Allen entered the room.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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