Artist Statement

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Lera Auerbach

Vessels of Light
for violoncello, choir and orchestra

Dedicated to Chiune Sugihara
and all those who risk everything to save others

In Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” commissioned by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, I wished to weave together numerous voices, voices full of mystical beauty and everlasting courage, voices that carry history and manifest the continuity of spirit not by shouting but by whispering. To celebrate their unbroken essence and strength and in honor and memory of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, whose actions saved thousands of Jews – I implied the ancient Japanese technique and concept of Kintsugi to the form of this symphony. The subtitle of the work Vessels of Light connects with the concept of Shevirat ha-Kelim (Breaking of the Vessels.) I chose Yiddish poetry for the libretto – as a tribute to the Yiddish language. The language itself suffered – it lost too many people. The words of the poets penetrate the void, connect generations, guide us, and don’t let us forget who we are.

What is Kintsugi? A technique of repairing broken pottery by joining the shards and filling the cracks with gold powder glue; thus, instead of hiding the repairs, it emphasizes them, making the objects even more beautiful and precious by celebrating their history and uniqueness. The philosophy behind this art technique can be profoundly translated into life. How do you apply the Kintsugi technique and principles to music? As the first step of working on the symphony, I set Psalm 121 for a Capella choir – this Psalm was often used as a talisman for travelers – an amulet of protection. During the Middle Ages, amulets with protective words (such as Psalm 121) were favored because of their promise to protect the wearer from harm; such amulets offered “safe passage through the precarious world.” After completing the Psalm, I “shattered” it; its fragmented musical material – without words – appears in the interludes, with the solo cello in a binding embrace that holds the different poems (parts) together, making them stronger, and creating a sense of unity. The Psalm remains unsung in the symphony and will only exist in a bronze sculpture I have created as an integral part of this memorial.

The voice of the solo violoncello becomes the golden glue. It springs from Dovid Hofshteyn’s poem “Violoncello,” in which the poet addresses his soul, which continues to vibrate high and low through blood and suffering, eternally alive. The violoncello represents that which is unnamable – that mystical “string” that unites all Jewish people scattered across the world, remaining mysteriously and multiculturally united. The solo violoncello – the golden glue of Kintsugi – in the act of bringing together fragments of lives and memories becomes Letopisets – a scribe of time. The lines of the Psalm are meant only to be read internally. The interludes feature male and female whisperers, symbolizing different people and stories woven together, helping to connect the broken parts – allowing them to become whole. The whisperers (unsung lines) and the silent Psalm (unspoken lines) in the interludes provide two additional levels of Kintsugi technique and work on different radiuses of consciousness from the movements of the symphony.

When I was approached for this project – I felt hesitant to accept it. It felt too heavy – too much responsibility. After having written two Requiems – Ode to Peace and Russian Requiem, I knew only all too well what it takes to face such a subject and become deeply immersed in it to give it form. I also knew that this symphony would strike a very personal string – my family’s history, which I avoided facing directly throughout my life. My mother was born in 1940 to a Jewish family in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. As Hitler’s army marched East in 1941, my grandparents abandoned all their possessions (including their beloved library and cherished collection of musical instruments.) They boarded the train – heading towards Siberia. The news of ghettos and the fate of Jews in Hitler’s territories had reached them. All they could do was flee into the unknown. In today’s context, the same trains with refugees travel west – a mirror retrograde of history.

The same railroad, for some, represented hope, while for others, it represented sorrow and loss of freedom. For many (as for most refugees) – it was the combination of both – hopes and fears, so tightly woven together that it was no longer possible to distinguish between them. The golden string that resonated through their lives was their courage. They carried the power of words and music wherever they traveled and passed it to their children. Knowledge was their most valuable possession. Books can burn, but songs are immortal; the vessels can break, but you can’t destroy what they contain – the song, the spirit, the legacy, The Light.

Can the actions and decisions of one individual repair the world? Yes, Chiune Sugihara’s acts and choices did, alongside a few other diplomats who were able to save thousands. They include, amongst others, Jan Zwartendijk (Acting Dutch Consul in Lithuania,) Ho Feng-Shan (Chinese Consul-General in Vienna,) Aristides de Sousa Mendes (Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France,) Charles Carl Lutz (Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest,) and Selahattin Ulkumen (Turkish Consul in Rhodes.) The Righteous Among the Nations, honored by Yad Vashem, are non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Rescue took many forms, and the Righteous came from different nations, religions, and walks of life. What they had in common was that they protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when hostility and indifference prevailed.

Each voice weaves its melody into the fabric of history. Each voice matters. Brokenness is illusory. Yiddish poets Yisroel Emyot, Dovid Hofshteyn, Itzik Manger, Peretz Markish, Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, Avrom Sutzkever, Moyshe Teyf, Reyzl Zhikhlinski, and others left an indelible heritage. Embracing their world also requires courage, but one of the essential human desires is the wish to remember, preserve, record, connect to the past, and pass the knowledge to the future. The beginning contains the end; its arch – a gateway. The form of an arch communicates a connection between space and time, seen and unseen, hidden and open. It’s also a symbol of transfer – a passageway between the past and the future.

How do you capture grief? How to make that which is impossible to grasp – graspable? The poems selected for the libretto are vessels containing memories, some so painful as if every letter was a shard. Incantations of memory – letters to nowhere or forevermore – addressed to us, the living. Each shard is a mirror – we are reflected in them. The golden string vibrates. There are no shards – there are only words sung in a language, still vernacular, with words – alive, ancient, and young – the language of dreamers and poets, musicians, and scholars – people just like you and me; people who suffered more than most, who laughed, loved, and danced, whose fates intersected. People whose voices, never forgotten, share their stories of hopes and losses, wanders and wonders, sacrifices, and courage. Are we ready to hear them?

Artist Statement by Lera Auerbach

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