Music For Writers: Martin Bresnick And The Terrible Beauty Of Sorrow

Image - iStockphoto: SmartMessenger
Image – iStockphoto: SmartMessenger

‘We Will Always Sing Such Songs Of Longing’

Each time I visited, my grandmother wept bitterly about the murder of her parents, her brother, her two sisters, and all their children. Can a child comfort a grandmother, a grandfather? I became a witness, a musician, and a composer.

Martin Bresnick is a native New Yorker. In his youth, his grandparents lived near him in the Bronx. The stories he heard from them were about their own earlier lives in Vysoke Litovsk, their “old home” in Russia (now Vysokoye, Belarus).

And it’s with “Going Home — Vysoke, My Jerusalem,” that he opens his new album, Prayers Remain Forever.

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, which is featuring the new recording as its Album of the Week, you can listen to the complete CD here, free, while reading — and writing. This is easily one of the most beautifully moving evocations of loss and confirmation of the season.

I call this “confirmation,” in the sense that we are driven in our lives, all of us, in myriad ways, to confirm with ourselves and for ourselves what and whom we’ve lost.

Bresnick’s colleague, the composer David Lang — whose thoughtful liner notes grace this recording from Starkland — points out that the second track, “Ishi’s Song,” is “a kind of musical reliquary for a song sung by the last surviving Yahi native American, who was recorded singing this song but who did not leave a translation or any indication of what it meant.”

Recently, in #MusicForWriters, we looked at the work Oceanic Verses, in which the composer Paola Prestini explores “fading civilizations” — and how much power the threat to endangered languages means to our art, that of writing.

This time, in Bresnick’s work, we hear something more individualized. As Prestini speaks to us on the macro level, Bresnick sits right beside us, so close.

Another friend of #MusicForWriters, the seminal composer Caleb Burhans, whose profoundly effective Excelsior was our first entry in this series, is heard playing violin in the “Going Home” ensemble.

Martin Bresnick
Martin Bresnick | Image:

Lang notes that “Strange Devotion” was inspired for Bresnick by a Francisco Goya sketch from the devastating Los desastres de la guerra, “The Disasters of War,” showing strangers kneeling as a coffin is carted past them. Bresnick writes that in this work we hear “the donkey shake his bells.” But note that, as in the goodness of Goya’s fondness for truth, Bresnick adds, the animal is “looking at us with bemused indifference.”

Two works of Franz Kafka inform Bresnick, too.

He writes of “Josephine the Singer,” performed her by violinist Sarita Kwok, and of speculation that “a certain vermin-like fecundity might permit the survival of our kind (mice and men) in the face of disaster.

And in “A Message from the Emperor,” all is anticipation — really all, and only all: the message never arrives. Over tense, any-minute-now marimba, we hear heralds announcing:

You will soon hear the splendid pounding of his fists upon your door!

But, of course, as in what makes Kafka Kafka, a snafu is preventing this enunciation of the news…whatever it is.

Somehow, however, the dying emperor’s respelendent messenger — “a strong indefatigable man” — is unable to make progress, “still forcing his way through the innermost chambers of the palace,” we’re told. “Never would he prevail over them.”

For my money, it’s in this piece that we hear the only missteps on this valuable album. Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenbaum are listed as performing on vibraphone, marimba, and as the speakers. It’s a highly textual piece, dependent on a forceful delivery of some very difficult narrative about this “message from a dead man.” The instrumental work is excellent. But I want to hear someone else’s voices.

But what follows more than makes amends for my own quibbles about the verbal delivery of that “Message.”

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: #MusicForWriters: Martin Bresnick And The Terrible Beauty Of Sorrow

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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