Helm­s­ley Build­ing, Park Avenue, New York, night, 1989, pho­to by Sér­gio Valle Duarte

Like his Pulitzer-nom­i­nat­ed album and all the days were pur­ple, com­pos­er Alex Weiser’s new song cycle, in a dark blue night, com­pris­es Yid­dish poet­ry set to music. It’s inspired by Weiser’s work at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research (which is where I met him, years ago). And like his first album, in a dark blue night is strik­ing, its beau­ty stem­ming from sur­pris­ing har­monies and jux­ta­po­si­tions. The world of sound Weis­er cre­ates is as vast as the New York City sky­line — a promi­nent theme in in a dark blue night.

Miran­da Coop­er: This is your sec­ond song cycle of Yid­dish poet­ry set to music. As you know, I am smit­ten with your work, espe­cial­ly and all the days were pur­ple … I even have the album art framed. After the suc­cess of that album, what led you to com­pose this song cycle, in a dark blue night?

Alex Weis­er: There is so much incred­i­ble poet­ry in Yid­dish, I want­ed to return to it for fur­ther work. Being a life­long New York­er, and since New York has been such an impor­tant city for Yid­dish his­tor­i­cal­ly, I was curi­ous to explore it through Yid­dish poetry.

MC: How did you go about choos­ing these poems? What ele­ments did you consider?

AW: I spent a long time scour­ing books for poems to put togeth­er into my own mini-anthol­o­gy of Yid­dish poet­ry about New York City. I end­ed up being par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to depic­tions of the city at night, which I think show a qui­eter, more inti­mate side of the city that peo­ple don’t always think of first — they tend to think about the cliché of hus­tle and bustle.

MC: Could you tell me about the poems you chose?

AW: The cycle opens with a set­ting of Mor­ris Rosenfeld’s Ovnt ” (Evening), in which the Hud­son riv­er, lost in thought in its cold sil­ver-bed,” mur­murs a lone­ly good night to the set­ting sun. In the cen­ter, I set Naf­tali Gross’s Nyu-york” (New York), which describes the city lights as like the stars in heav­en.” The cycle clos­es with a set­ting of Reuben Iceland’s Nakht-refleks ”(Night Reflex), in which sky­scrap­ers are depict­ed as man-made won­ders that rival the divine.

MC: The video has love­ly sub­ti­tles in Eng­lish accom­pa­ny­ing all the songs. Were the poems already trans­lat­ed, or did you find them in Yiddish?

AW: I found the poems in Yid­dish, and when I made my anthol­o­gy for myself, I also made my own trans­la­tions of all of the poems. It was a fun way to get to know them real­ly well and think about all of the poets’ choic­es. For the sub­ti­tles in the video, I refined those ini­tial trans­la­tions a bit.

MC: In my own expe­ri­ence, the work of trans­la­tion def­i­nite­ly allows you to access a poem on a dif­fer­ent lev­el. I can imag­ine that some of those insights — into an author’s word choice, rhyme scheme, syn­tax, et cetera — could pro­vide a wealth of inspi­ra­tion for musi­cal composition.

AW: Yes, exact­ly. The act of trans­la­tion real­ly jump-starts the kind of close read­ing that I find nec­es­sary for set­ting a poem to music.

Being a life­long New York­er, and since New York has been such an impor­tant city for Yid­dish his­tor­i­cal­ly, I was curi­ous to explore it through Yid­dish poetry.

MC: How do you view the rela­tion­ship between the music and the poet­ry? Do you feel that you’re putting them in con­ver­sa­tion with one anoth­er? Or writ­ing the music to express the poet­ry in a dif­fer­ent medi­um? Some­thing else?

AW: When­ev­er I’m set­ting a poem to music, I try to build off of the poem’s imagery and ideas in the music. In the first song, for exam­ple, I read the poem as a kind of lul­la­by that the Hud­son is singing to the sun, so I built off that idea with a kind of cra­dle-rock­ing musi­cal motif and a sim­ple, folk-like melody.

MC: First you had pur­ple days, now a blue night … next should we expect a green dawn? Are you plan­ning a song cycle based on the Yid­dish film Grine felder? Or is this just a coincidence?

AW: It’s actu­al­ly total­ly a coin­ci­dence, but I love the con­nec­tion. Per­haps it points to some of the kinds of things that jump out at me in poetry.

MC: They’re very visu­al­ly evoca­tive titles — it seems to me that there would imme­di­ate­ly be a visu­al aes­thet­ic in the mind’s eye when lis­ten­ing to these songs. Is that intentional?

AW: Yes, I think I’m drawn to par­tic­u­lar­ly imag­is­tic poet­ry. I find these kinds of evoca­tive images musi­cal­ly inspir­ing and also help­ful as an entry­way into the sound world of a piece.

MC: Can you tell me a lit­tle bit about the expe­ri­ence of find­ing out you were a Pulitzer finalist?

AW: It was com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed — a wel­come sur­prise! I was in between meet­ings and got a call from one of my best, old com­pos­er friends. I wasn’t sure if I should answer at first because I only had a few min­utes, but I fig­ured I’d just say hel­lo briefly and — then he told me he’d heard that I was a final­ist for the Pulitzer prize. I didn’t believe it at first, but pret­ty soon I was inun­dat­ed with texts, calls, emails, and mes­sages, and I real­ized it was real. I didn’t get any kind of offi­cial notice from the Pulitzer com­mit­tee until some time later.

MC: Amaz­ing. So what’s next?

AW: I loved work­ing on this cycle and I’d actu­al­ly like to add more songs to it. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on two more songs that fit along­side the three here, set­ting addi­tion­al poems by Anna Mar­golin and Celia Drop­kin. I’m hop­ing to use this expand­ed ver­sion of the song cycle as the basis for my next album.

MC: I look for­ward to hear­ing it. A sheynem dank, Avreml!

AW: Nish­to far­vos, Mirele! Zayt mir gezunt un shtark!

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­ly. JBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2020 win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Miran­da Coop­er is a NYC-based writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, essays, and trans­la­tions of Yid­dish fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Jew­ish Cur­rents, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Ange­les Review, Pakn Treger, and more. In 2019, she was named an Emerg­ing Crit­ic by the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. She is also an edi­tor at In geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies.