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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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A season in hell
Barbez sets a Holocaust survivor's poetry to music
band's Force of Light brims with pain.
The band's Force of Light brims with pain.

It's easy to see why Eastern European folk has been an influence on the avant-garde, cabaret-punk music of Barbez.

The Brooklyn band is led by Dan Kaufman, who grew up in Madison but lived in Israel for a year when he was 12. His paternal grandparents are Russian. His maternal grandparents are Romanian.

"My father, as a boy, before his voice changed, sang as a professional for the high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah," Kaufman says.

So it's not surprising that in 2006, Kaufman was approached by John Zorn, founder of the New York experimental world-music label Tzadik. Zorn asked him to consider recording an album for the Radical Jewish Culture series Tzadik was planning.

The request gave Kaufman the idea of making a concept album built around the works of the late Romanian-born poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. That album, Force of Light, was released on Tzadik last month. Barbez will perform selections from it on Nov. 8 at Gates of Heaven, 302 E. Gorham St.

"I had always venerated Celan," says Kaufman. "A former girlfriend turned me onto his poetry, and he became a hero of mine. I felt very close to him."

Celan committed suicide in 1970 at the age of 50. He'd been haunted for years by the guilt of having survived the German labor camps that killed both his mother and father. His father died of typhus. His mother was shot dead because she was considered unfit for work.

Kaufman embraced the challenge of setting music to Celan's visceral words.

"The poems are read," he says. "We didn't want to lose the words. But the album is mostly music. You see this progressive pattern in Celan's work of reaching toward silence. There are few words in his later poems, and they're very abstract."

The songs on Force of Light incorporate classical guitar, strings, horns, bass drums and the wails and howls of a theremin. The music includes grieving meditative dirges that brim with pain and anxious swings of tempo that suggest madness.

"Aspen Tree" is full of swirling, circular sadness that never resolves. The words are read by British performance artist Fiona Templeton: "Aspen trees, your leaves glance white into the dark. My mother's hair was never white."

The title track is less brooding, but equally dark. It's rock 'n' roll cacophony with a nervous pitch that's ultimately pierced by a screeching theremin.

Kaufman's talent for classical composition is evident throughout. "I grew out of the punk-rock world and just gravitated toward classical over time," he says.

It was a comment that got us talking about his years growing up in Madison. Kaufman, 36, is the son of UW urban-planning professor Jerome Kaufman.

"I graduated from Malcolm Shabazz High School," says Kaufman. "I joined my first band when I was in eighth grade. We were called Wanda & the Bushmen, and for a while, we played at the Wilmar Center every Friday night. We were very influenced by the tail end of the Minneapolis '80s scene, and our local heroes were the Appliances."

Kaufman says Barbez has only performed a few songs off Force of Light at a couple of live shows.

"[Our Madison performance] will be different than typical Barbez shows," he says. "We'll be talking a lot about the poetry. It will be interesting to see how this turns out live."

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