Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2002
One of the saddest ironies of the 20th century was the death of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. In 1940, after hearing a rumor that he was about to be turned over to the Gestapo, he committed suicide rather than be arrested. He never knew that he was about to granted asylum and safe passage to New York. For a man who spent his life exploring the integration of art and politics, his ending was a last tragically poetic stroke on the canvas of his life.
Oakland's Jewlia Eisenberg has been intrigued with Benjamin and his work for years. Her work with "Balkan Klezmer punk funk" band Charming Hostess reflected his interest in the replication and montage of different influences and ideas. Now John Zorn's label, Tzadik, has released Eisenberg's solo effort, Trilectic, as part of its Radical Jewish Culture series. The record is a sweeping romp through many genres: doo-wop, prison work songs, Ituri Pygmy chants, and a variety of female vocal traditions. Using Benjamin's 1927 work Moscow Diary as her touchstone, she combines text with music, hoping to create something larger than both. "I was interested in discussing how music affected the reproduction, the meanings of the texts," she says. "One of the things that Benjamin talks about is montage, what kind of meanings you get from layering things and counterposing different objects together. I'm very interested in that. For me the text is very important; how I engage with the text. It ends up infusing the music with different kinds of meaning."
Moscow Diary documents Benjamin's stay in Russia at a time when he was questioning his politics as well as his associations. He meets and falls in love with Asja Lacis, a Marxist dedicated to art and teaching, whose interest in the interaction of art and politics surely fueled his attraction. "He went there for three reasons," says Eisenberg. "To pursue a girl, to figure out his relationship to the Communist Party, and to do a little bit of writing, making connections with people who were doing interesting arts in Moscow. And he pretty much failed at everything he tried to do there. He didn't figure out whether he wanted to be a communist, he didn't get the girl (he kinda got her, but they parted ways eventually), he didn't really connect with other people."
Eisenberg seems to feel a lot of familiarity with Benjamin, as if he were an eccentric uncle. She certainly has read enough about him to warrant endearment and understanding, having dug up just about everything she could find by or about him. "When I read Moscow Diary, it actually struck me as quite funny!" she says, laughing. "Yet horrible at the same time."
Eisenberg's interest in how these texts integrate with her music may not be shared by every listener. For some, Trilectic will just sound like weird language set to interesting music. For her, that's fine. "Some people hear the songs and they are interested in the particularities of love and erotic experience, and that's plenty!" She laughs. "If they listen to it and become curious about these ideas of porosity, transversing the membranes between politics and music, moving back and forth between popular and intellectual culture, then great. If they are into Benjamin and Lacis, great. And if they are interested in my psyche, and why I might be curious about the love life of these two dead communists, great! I'll be happy if people think about these things on any level."
There's also the Jewish angle, something that an artist who goes by "Jewlia" is bound to take very seriously. She find Benjamin's global wanderings and intellectual skittering between meaning and art to be akin to the essence of Judaism. "I think that's a Jewish idea: that you are not rooted in the place where you are. That's not what makes home. That's something that I think is common to all of my work, my work with Charming Hostess, my new band called Red Pocket, and the stuff I'm doing for Tzadik: the 'place' is not home. An individual language is not home. Home is a series of texts, a series of ideas. Home is a set of diasporic relationships, a set of relationships with different places and languages and ideas."
Trilectic has been garnering a lot of attention from fans and critics, more so than Eisenberg's previous projects. This is odd, because the music on the album isn't so different from her work with Charming Hostess. But maybe the work and ideas of Benjamin, particularly his ideas about art as expressed in his best-known piece, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," speak to us now more than ever. Eisenberg is quick to point out that Benjamin wasn't necessarily criticizing the reproduction of art, he was just pointing out that it can be complicated.
"Basically," says Eisenberg, "he's talking about why you don't want to be on a major label!"
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