Ginsberg’s ’Kaddish’ Set to Jazz
The San Francisco premiere of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956) came alive for music and poetry fans in a multimedia performance at the new SFJazz Center on April 18. Jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, a resident artistic director at the center, conducted an orchestra of seven as a two-member cast recited the epic, nearly 7,000-word poem.
Beat Generation pioneer Ginsberg, who died in 1997, wrote Kaddish in the late 1950s as an attempt to understand his relationship with his mother and her long struggle with mental illness. The poem represents Ginsberg’s troubled reflections of his mother after her death. Central themes of Kaddish are loss and mourning. The poem takes its name from the Jewish prayer of mourning. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights published Kaddish in 1961.
Grammy Award-winner Hal Willner resembled an older Ginsberg with beard, glasses and disheveled suit, as he read from the poem. Director Chole Webb, dressed in a black outfit with a white shawl that served as a head covering and a straightjacket, powerfully read from the text as Naomi. Actors stood at opposite ends of the stage, and this worked beautifully to show the emotional distance between son and mother.
On a screen above the stage, slowly changing images included photos of a young Ginsberg with his family at their home in Paterson, New Jersey. A sad photo of Ginsberg and his ailing mother lingered on the screen as Willner and Webb read Ginsberg’s stark descriptions of her mental and physical decline. Other photos included trees, leaves, and plants that shifted in and out of focus as if to suggest Naomi’s mental state and her son’s blurry attempts to understand her. The shifting of focus and distorted images of faces and figures contributed a dreamlike quality to the performance. Artist Ralph Steadman, an associate of Ginsberg and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, designed the visuals, which included animation and short videos by Willner. Images and music combined to give the performance an overall mesmerizing effect.
Ginsberg, one of the most highly acclaimed poets of the 20th century, mentioned his homosexuality several times in Kaddish, and Willner captured the poet’s most memorable passage as he read: "ignore woe - later dreams of kneeling by R’s shocked knees declaring my love of 1941 - What sweetness he’d have shown me, tho, that I’d wished him & despaired - first love - a crush - Later a mortal avalanche, whole mountains of homosexuality, Matterhorns of cock, Grand Canyons of asshole - weight on my melancholy head -"
Some passages of Kaddish were written in Hebrew, and Willner delivered them with a force found in Ginsberg’s poem. Naomi Ginsberg lived for long periods in mental institutions, and her painful descriptions of electroshock treatment haunted her and her son for life. Cast and musicians successfully conveyed the pain of mental illness and the cruelty of an earlier era’s treatment for the disease.
After Naomi died, Allen, then living in Berkeley, received her last letter a few days later. As read by Webb, she rambled about a "key in the window." She advised, "Get married Allen, don’t take drugs." Webb ended with, "Love your mother which is Naomi."
At this point, both poem and music reached a crescendo, acknowledging an important passage in the poetry and life of Allen Ginsberg. He did not understand Naomi in life or death. He wrote Kaddish in an effort to explain her to himself and his readers.
At concert end, the audience gave the cast and musicians a long ovation for their 90-minute interpretation of Kaddish . On the screen above the stage appeared an image of an elderly and sad Ginsberg staring from a window as he hauntingly sang from another of his works, "Do the Meditation Rock," a 1980s jazz collaboration with Willner and Frisell. It was a memorable end to a stunning performance.