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Barbez blends theremin with verse by Holocaust poet Paul Celan 


With his New York-based instrumental post-rock/Balkan ensemble, Barbez, guitarist Dan Kaufman has straddled the line between Brechtian cabaret, klezmer and 20th-century neo-classical music. His own instrumental style boasts a clean, mathy quality, like Nels Cline or Slint's David Pajo.

But with Force of Light, released on John Zorn's Tzadik label, Barbez takes things one discipline further by incorporating verse from acclaimed poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan (read by Fiona Templeton). Apparently, both Kaufman and Zorn were devotees of Celan's work, and Kaufman spent quite a spell in Berlin delving into the mindset of an artist who grew up in the death camps and witnessed his parents perish by disease and gunfire. ("My mother's heart was ripped by lead," Celan writes.)

Barbez's intense, understated bombast -- sometimes mournfully dark, other times shimmering with luminosity -- successfully evokes Celan's painful memories of youth. Not since the Godspeed You Black Emperor klez-offshoot Black Ox Orkestar (which was considerably more leftist in political stance) has there been such a hopeful dirge set to a topical Jewish background, laden with poignant Middle-Eastern modalities on pieces such as "The Black Forest" and "Shibboleth."

Though the contributions of clarinetist Peter Hess (Balkan Beat Box) and drummer John Bollinger (Antony and the Johnsons) round out the quintet's sound in a live setting, the secret weapon is theremin player Pamelia Kurstin.

In fact, Kurstin is the reason that Barbez was invited to Duquesne University -- admittedly, not the first place one thinks of when either an avant-garde or Jewish-themed program is mentioned. On Mon., Nov. 5, Kurstin will conduct a daytime workshop for the students, and will perform some solo theremin work as part of that evening's performance by Barbez. "I had been trying to get her into the school for a while," explains Lynn Purse, professor of music technology at Duquesne's music school. "She lives in Austria now, so she's not touring with [Barbez] quite as often."

So Kurstin's found that essence rare. But if you're looking for the melancholic side of chamber-rock (a little Rachel's here, a little Beirut there), she and Barbez will get you what you asked for.

Dan Kaufman & Barbez. 8 p.m. Mon., Nov. 5. PNC Recital Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. $10 ($5 with student ID). 412-396-6083

click to enlarge Light and shade: Dan Kaufman
  • Light and shade: Dan Kaufman

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