Alex Roth reflects on his experience performing at FestivALT, a programme of radical Jewish art and activism that runs alongside Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival. The event took place in June 2019 and was proudly supported by Asylum Arts.
In recent years, I seem to have developed something of an obsession with the past. Or rather, through projects I’ve done in recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of an existing preoccupation with the past. In particular, I’m drawn to the question of how and why we document experience. This theme manifests in different ways: my orchestral composition Bone Palace Ballet is haunted by the ghost of a wax cylinder recording of Handel’s Israel in Egypt from 1888 (one of the earliest recordings of music known to exist); the sonic sculpture installation Nistarim [supported by Asylum’s Small Grants Program] turns quasi-historic relics into wind-activated musical instruments, allowing their stories to be heard in new ways.
Since relocating from London to Krakow last year – reversing a migratory path traced by my great-great-grandfather in 1890 – this fascination with the past has taken on a very personal meaning, becoming a central theme in much of my recent work. What does it mean for me to return to my ancestral homeland? What remnants of the culture that shaped my family over generations can be found in contemporary Poland? And what has formed in the spaces left by exile and extermination?
In FestivALT, I found a place where I could ask these questions out loud, as it were. In the performance I created, I was interested in exploring the tension between experienced and documented memory, especially in the context of Poland’s Jewish past. This is a sensitive subject: relations between Polish and Israeli politicians and historians have soured over differing accounts of what happened in Poland before, during and after Nazi occupation.
In a way, I had already laid the foundations for this exploration in two other projects I’d initiated since arriving in Krakow: a series of field recordings I made around Poland and Ukraine that I compiled under the title SLUCHAM (Polish for “I listen” but also used to ask someone to repeat something, as in “pardon?”); and the trio ROTH / ZIMPEL / ZEMLER, in which we improvise around those field recordings to create dialogues between places and the cultures that inhabit them, and between past and present.
My FestivALT project took these ideas further, developing around a longstanding trio with my two brothers, saxophonist Nick and percussionist Simon (ideal collaborators for a piece infused with ancestral spirits). In a psychogeographic promenade performance, each of us played a solo response to/at a different site of significance to Kraków’s Jewish community: Simon at a fragment of the ghetto wall; myself at a community centre within the former ghetto; Nick in the garden of a home (now café) next to the high synagogue, once occupied by a family of Roths.
Simon Roth performing at former ghetto wall. Photo credit: Adam Schorin
I led the audience on soundwalks between locations, inviting them to hear our improvised responses in the context of the city’s unique soundscape. Then, in the final venue, a former mikveh (ritual bathhouse), we converged as a trio to improvise around field recordings I’d previously made at all four locations. Specially shot video footage of these sites was projected behind us while we played, appearing clockwise in the order we’d visited them to enhance the sense of time passing.
Photo Credit: Jason Francisco
My intention was to open up an internal dialogue between experienced memory of these places and documented memory (in this case, audio and video recordings) to facilitate different perspectives on communal experience, underscoring the fluidity of what we consider to be true. To push this concept further, I had time-stretched the audio and video recordings, evoking the distortion that is inherent in the act of remembering.
Recalling the performance now through both my own experienced memory and the photographs and recordings others made of it, I realise I’ve come full circle: an exploration of memory has itself become a memory, subject to the same discolourations as a photograph of a photograph, or a taped echo looping back on itself ad infinitum.