Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Music Interview

Alex Roth: ‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’ and the Sephardic tradition

By | Published on Monday 7 October 2013


Alex Roth is an award winning and multi talented musician who produces a range of truly diverse and eclectic work.

When we heard about his latest venture, a suite of medieval Sephardic folk songs, re-imagined for the stage and accompanied by dance and digital media, we thought it sounded both promising and intriguing.

Keen to find out more about ‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’, as well as the history of this kind of music, we put some questions to the man behind it.

CM: Can you tell us something about Sephardic music, and where it emerged from?
AR: Sephardic music derives from the Jewish communities living in the Iberian peninsula throughout the medieval era. In fact, the word itself is an anglicisation of the Hebrew word for Spain, which is transliterated as “Sefarad”. Before the Jews were exiled from Spain (and subsequently Portugal) at the end of the 15th century, they had enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity under Moorish rule.

This is one of the few historical examples of Jews and Muslims living peacefully alongside each other, and is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Jewish culture”. One result of this co-existence was that the artistic characteristics of each tradition overlapped with the other, and certain Sephardic songs display qualities – melodic modes or rhythmic patterns for example – that sound distinctly Arabic. Sephardic music shares this influence with flamenco, though for some reason the latter has become much more widely known outside its original context.

The Muslims were eventually conquered by Christian crusaders who expelled the Jews from Spain. Some travelled to or through Morocco, Greece and the Balkans, and many resettled in the Ottoman empire, where they were warmly received. Each of these communities assimilated musical influences from its new surroundings, so the current repertoire includes many different styles. To me there is something very unique about the sound of Sephardic music but as with any genre it’s difficult to describe exactly what this is!

What I can say is that most of the secular Sephardic songs are in Ladino, which is a kind of cross between Spanish and Hebrew (just as Yiddish is largely a combination of Hebrew and German). Often the lyrics are intensely poetic and highly allegorical, and they are carried by some of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.

CM: What kind of instruments is it traditionally played on? Have you departed from tradition in the way you are presenting it in ‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’?
AR: Most of the songs we’ll be playing in ‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’ are from the Sephardic ballad tradition, which traditionally would be sung by women without any accompaniment, or sometimes with a small hand drum. In terms of instrumentation, you could say we have departed from this tradition by re-imagining these songs for Sefiroth, which is an electro-acoustic chamber ensemble comprising two female voices, violin, saxophone, trumpet, cello, guitar, tuba, bass, drums, percussion and electronics.

But we don’t claim to be presenting the music as it would have been heard in medieval Spain! As musicians we’re more interested in exploring what this repertoire means to us – both individually and collectively – and arriving at our own interpretations of it, which are necessarily filtered through our experiences of other music: jazz, contemporary classical, electronica etc.

CM: In bringing these songs together, you’ve created a narrative performance; where does the story take us?
AR: The narrative at the heart of ‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’ ties together themes that recur throughout the Sephardic musical repertoire, and throughout Jewish history for that matter: love, loss, migration, yearning and defiance. These are some of the things that I equate with my own understanding of Jewish identity. But the show is by no means aimed exclusively at Jews.

In its simplest form the piece has a fairytale-like quality, and beneath this there are several other layers of meaning which we invite the audience to read into it. The narrative is not explicitly stated in the performance; rather, it is suggested through dance, music and digital projections. So it’s entirely possible (even encouraged) that one person’s interpretation of these meanings will be different to the next.

CM: The piece draws on ancient mythology and symbolism of the Kabbalist tree of life; how will we see this influence in the performance?
AR: The Tree Of Life concept permeates every aspect of this production – even the band name which we chose years ago! (The Hebrew word Sefiroth refers to the stations on the tree which are associated with aspects of the divine). In the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah the sefirotic tree can be read either upwards or downwards, each direction rendering a different meaning.

The downwards interpretation is something of a creation story (in an artistic sense as much as a biblical one), while the upwards reading has more to do with the human quest to transcend the knowable realm and (re)unite with the divine. To discuss this in detail would require a whole book (of which there are many), but suffice it to say that both of these trajectories are represented in the way I have structured Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia (which translates from Ladino as “The Trees Weep for Rain”).

On another level, the characters in the story are personifications of key elements discussed in ancient Kabbalistic texts such as the Bahir, and their interactions in the narrative mirror the paths which connect the stations on the Tree of Life, as expounded upon by the ancient Jewish mystics. Then there is the matter of set and costume design, digital projection and lighting, but I don’t want to give too much away!

CM: The show combines aspects of live concert, immersive performance, contemporary dance and digital media; was bringing all these aspects together difficult?
AR: This is certainly the most ambitious project I’ve worked on to date, and correspondingly it’s taken a long time to come to fruition. There was a lot of research involved throughout the process but once the core concept was in place, ideas for the integration of different media seemed to suggest themselves quite naturally.

The literature of Kabbalah presents a model for understanding and engaging with almost any system, ancient or modern, so I was starting out with source material that lends itself well to the imagination. It also helps that I’m working with an extremely talented team of artists who not only know how to realise my ideas but also bring their own creativity to the project.

CM: How were you drawn into music, and why did you decide to make it your career?
AR: My mother is probably to thank/blame – she’s a music teacher and has always been very supportive of my creative endeavours, along with those of my two brothers Nick (who co-directs Sefiroth with me) and Simon (the percussionist in the band). Growing up in a musical household, I think music just became a natural part of our daily lives, whether it was jumping around to early Beatles recordings, watching the Proms on TV or jamming together for hours on end. I don’t recall ever having made a conscious decision to become a musician, but I am grateful that my passion has ended up being my work.

CM: Your body of work seems to fall into many different genres, and encompass many angles; do you have a favoured genre?
AR: The common thread that seems to tie all my work together is improvisation. Whether I’m working in multimedia theatre with Sefiroth, touring with with my jazztronica quintet Otriad, interpreting poems with Blue-Eyed Hawk or composing for my electric guitar ensemble GUITARMAGEDDON, what I’m interested in is setting up or being part of a context in which people can interact artistically.

CM: As someone who has studied music extensively, what advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Have a strong vision and work hard to realise it. And be nice to people!

CM: Who are your favourite musicians, and who (musical or not) inspires you?
AR: Every piece of music I write, every band I’m in and every project I work on has its own set of influences, musical or otherwise. The arrangements for Sefiroth have been partly inspired by the work of contemporary musicians like Savina Yannatou, John Zorn and Akira Rabelais. But as I mentioned, the central concept for Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia is based on research into the writings of Jewish mystics.

Another important influence on this show was a sculptural sound installation by Heiner Goebbels called Stifter’s Dinge, which really opened my eyes to multimedia work when I experienced it in 2008. I’m also very interested in contemporary dance, particularly choreographers like Pina Bausch, Hofesh Shechter, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant. And I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of many writers and poets including Primo Levi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and W. B. Yeats.

On a personal level, the people closest to me are hugely inspiring: my mother, my partner Kasia, my brothers, and all the musicians and artists I have been fortunate enough to work with.

‘Arvoles Lloran por Lluvia’ is on at Battersea Mess and Music Hall from 8 – 10 Oct. You can see a trailer for the show here on YouTube , and sort out your tickets right about here

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