A Woman of Valor

An Interview with composer Judith Lang Zaimont

Milken Archive: Were you brought up as a Reform Jew?

Judith Lang Zaimont: No, Conservative. My parents were founding members of the Bellerose Jewish Center in very eastern Queens, New York—a Conservative synagogue.

MA: And yet you've used material from the Reform liturgy in your works.

JLZ: Oh yes. After my marriage, my husband and I were members of various Reform congregations in the cities in which we lived.

MA: How did your affiliation with Reform congregations affect your selection of Jewish ideas and text?

JLZ: Almost not at all. I'm very much a person who's connected to the printed word, rather than the socialized experience of liturgy. So I would go back again and again to the service as printed in the [Union] Prayerbook. In fact, my setting of A Woman of Valor was commissioned by the late Cantor Paul Kwartin in memory of his mother, Bronia Kwartin, who had been a freedom fighter in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. He had a radio program on WFUV (Fordham University), very well known—and he did two broadcasts on his program devoted to my sacred service. It was after he heard how I had treated the text in the sacred service that he approached me about the setting of A Woman of Valor.

MA: How are you and your family a part of the American Jewish immigrant experience?

JLZ: Three of my grandparents were immigrants to America. My grandpa, Max Lang, was himself the child of an immigrant, but he was the only American-born grandparent. He married Jenny Zinns from Austria—that's my Grandma Jenny. These are my father's parents. And she came over ahead of her brothers and sisters and brought her generation of her family to this country. A very forward-thinking woman who was not educated in college.

It was a working-class family that my father grew up in. My mother's family was more well-to-do back in Eastern Europe. My grandfather, Israel Friedman, my mother's dad, was the son of a learned man in Brest-Litovsk, a well-known metropolitan area.

In 1903—could've been '05—my grandfather Israel was out in the street when the Cossacks came, and he got picked up in some kind of sweep of Jews and was taken to jail. There he began to play chess with his jailor—my grandfather was a really fine chess player—and he built goodwill with the jailor, who could then be approached with a bribe by my grandfather's father to release my grandfather. And he was then probably put on a boat to America. So that's how he left.

My grandmother—Ida Gutman was her maiden name, Ida Friedman after she married—was the daughter of a cantor in Mezrich, Poland, and she and her whole family came to this country. Her brother was a renowned professor of languages back in Poland, but he could not do that in this country [because of the language barrier]. So both he and my grandfather—that is, the two brothers-in-law—went into selling clothing and selling haberdashery when they came over.

And my mother's family had a store in Brooklyn, on Third Avenue and 14th—Friedman's Dried Goods—and that became very well known, because the sailors who came into the ports in Brooklyn would go to my grandfather Israel Friedman's store, since he spoke seven languages. And there was always time for tea, playing a chess game, discussing the news of the day from the old country and the new country. They found a very warm welcome at Friedman's Dried Goods Store, with the little kitchen he had right off the store where he brewed tea for them.

MA: Were your parents musical?

JLZ: My mother is immensely musical. She's a former president of the New York State Music Teachers Association. It was with my mother that I first studied piano before I began working with Rosanna Levine at Juilliard Prep. I would call my mother "a woman of valor." She was one of five children. All the boys were sent to college, the girls were not. My mother actually was studying for a full year at the Institute of Musical Arts, which is the institution that preceded Juilliard, but when it came time for her next younger brother to go to college, she had to go back and work at home. It was a matter of pecking order but also gender.

She was a marvelously accomplished pianist and was an exemplar for me. She continued doing all those things throughout her life. As a married woman, she always worked. She was a piano teacher, and as I mentioned, was well regarded in her profession. As a matter of fact, right now, in 2005, there are three music scholarships for piano students offered through the New York State Music Teachers' Association that are called the Bertha F. Lang Piano Prize.

My father, bless him, was the best audience in the world. I need to be very clear about this. My father, who's passed on now, was an extremely eminent gentleman. He was a chemical engineer, and under many mayoral administrations in New York City—under Beame, under Lindsay, under Koch—he was New York City's water commissioner. He later served as an adviser on water pollution control around the world, and as vice president of the World Bank. But in terms of music, he was our first and best listener.

Judith Lang Zaimont

Judith Lang Zaimont with students at the University of Minnesota.

MA: What aspects of composing have been especially gratifying to you?

JLZ: Funny, the first answer that pops out is the fact that what I do takes place in time, out of time. That is, I can spend as much time on a measure, on a figure, on a moment in the music as I need to, to get it absolutely right. What am I comparing this to? Through my teens, and into the first part of my 20s, my sister Doris and I were a duo piano team [as The Lang Sisters]. We toured around the country, we constantly made recordings, we were on radio and television. The Lang Sisters were getting a pretty fair reputation, with lots of experience. But what I found was that the performing almost never was satisfying for me.

MA: Why is that?

JLZ: Things come and go. The passages are there and then they're gone. You can't call them back and fix and correct them. And in composing, you can do that. You can live with the moment for as long as you need to make it right.

MA: Regarding your Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening, how did you select the passages that became the lyrics for your works?

JLZ: Oh, those are from the Reform service. With some adjustments on my part.

MA: Didn't you use some portions and not others?

JLZ: Yes. "What did I set out to do?" would be the core question. The U.S. Bicentennial was looming. And for some years, I'd been involved as resident composer and accompanist for the Great Neck Choral Society on Long Island. And I watched, year after year, this chorus really do right by the great choral masterpieces of the past and into the 20th century: the Poulenc Gloria, Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb. We did the Dona Nobis Pacem of Vaughn Williams. And all of this was drawn from a liturgy that was not my liturgy. I think in years past, they may have sung the Bloch sacred service, but I'm not sure. They didn't do the Milhaud, I know that.

And when they came to me to commission a piece to celebrate the American Bicentennial, the conductor, George Rose—who's a wonderful, bold, champion of all good music, new or old—said, "Why don't you write us a mass?" And I looked at George and I said, "George, I will write you a sacred service, and I will write you an American sacred service." And that's where it came from.

I'm not interested in following in the footsteps of other people. If you're a real artist, you're out to put your imprints on your own art. About two or three years previously, I had made a pilgrimage out to an obscure church somewhere in western Queens, to hear a local chorus sing parts of Miriam Gideon's sacred service. And that was the first Jewish music that I'd heard that was written by a woman. Gideon, of course, is kind of a—not a tonal composer, but a modernist, expressionist composer. And this was actually a very lovely, modest, tuneful piece, beautifully written for chorus. And that kind of also sparked my interest, as I saw that this was again territory that was not well populated. I was interested in doing something that was new, and a real contribution. And so from that came the germ of the piece that I was about to write. And I wanted to do it right: for full orchestra, for chorus, for baritone solo.

MA: You must have been pleased.

JLZ: I was pleased that they were so quick in agreement to do this. As a matter of fact, a huge percentage of the population of the Great Neck Choral Society is now and always has been Jewish. And here they were singing all these masses and requiems! So it was time to do something big, and it was time to do something big that was ours. Of course then, the issue of making it American arose. That's why so much of this setting is in English—virtually the entirety of it.

MA: If human sacrifice had not been forbidden or ended, how do you think it would have changed human history?

JLZ: I'd like to give a more modest answer, and I need to step back so that I can answer fully. One thing I didn't mention about A Woman Of Valor, which you will notice, is that the text is expanded. This is a technique that I've used before. Because I'm dealing with translations, I can use multiple, slightly differing translations that kind of inflect what the basic message of any strand of text is conveying, without actually repeating words. When we hear in Handel's oratorios, "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah," there's just one way to say that. It's one joyous expression, one emotional expression. But for me, I don't like to repeat the text. I don't like to say "For unto us a son is given, for unto us a son is given." I'd rather say something else. So in A Woman Of Valor, for instance, one of the translations of the song is, "She does him good—she does him no evil." That's two different ways of saying the same thing, and they come from two different sources.

Milken Archive album artwork

Artist Matthew Stork created this depiction of the binding of Isaac based on Zaimont’s Parable: A Tale of Abram and Isaac

But when we come now to Parable—and I'm getting to your question—I was dealing here with a text that was in English: the Wilfred Owen poem. And there was no way for me to crack this text. It was too intransigent. [In the original Biblical story] Abraham's response to the message, "Go to the mountain, prepare and sacrifice your son, because it is told to you to do it" is evidence of his faith [and the sacrifice is stopped by Divine intervention]. In the Wilfred Owen telling of this tale, the original injunction is the only message that penetrates Abraham [and not the Divine intervention]. He does not hear, he will not swerve. That's because it's a parable for Owen. He's talking about the death of a generation of Englishmen in World War I. But I could not deal with that at the moment of writing. My son was two years old when I wrote this piece. And I could not for the life of me fathom a parent sacrificing a child. I don't care who tells you to do what—that's instinct, and it's fundamental. So I had to go back and open the text up, as I do in so many of my pieces that are texted. I think a lot about the words before I can begin to write.

And I came upon the medieval Brome Mystery Play, in which all of the characters in this drama have words that they can actually speak. There was no way I could even start this piece until I had the words from the mystery play that Abraham speaks to his son, Isaac: "I love thee best of all. Thou art child full good." Until I could get Abraham to speak to his son and say, "I love you," and until Isaac could ask for mercy from his father, and until the angel could have words and be poignant, saying, "See the ram, see the ram, go this other way"—until all characters could speak in the first person, I could not begin to write.

Until I could find some way to make peace with the issue for me as a person—who happens to be the composer in this case—of coping with the concept of sacrificing a child, I could not even begin this composition. I circled around it for a fair number of weeks, until I could find an opening into it. And then the music just came out. I wrote this piece in less than two weeks.

And again, I'm not answering this in world terms. I'm not answering this in absolutes. I'm answering it from a much humbler place, just for me as a parent.

MA: It's personal.

JLZ: Exactly.

MA: Do you find yourself becoming a more hopeful person and experiencing a sense of renewal at the time of Rosh Hashanah?

JLZ: Wonderful question! The answer is generally yes. I'm also a person—if you know my other music—who is very sensitive to climate and weather conditions. I have two sets of piano preludes on the months [of the year]. They're relatively famous in piano circles—one of them just won a large prize. And my second piano trio is called Zones, and the movements are titled Cold, Warm, and Temperate. So I'm very attuned to these changing meteorological conditions. I have a quintet on the two Auroras, Borealis and Australis. I also gauge changing points in our external circumstances here in this northern latitude. And so Rosh Hashanah comes at a time of year when we are about to turn a corner. And it's always refreshing, because it synchs with the academic calendar as well, and the time of harvest, which is a time of relative bounty. For all those reasons, Rosh Hashanah is a very optimistic season for me.

MA: How does this sense of optimism, or the remembrance of this sense of optimism, contribute to your composition?

JLZ: The two movements are Dawn and Hope. They come from the time of year, the climate of mind, the experience of this turning point and the shofar blowing in congregation and a great mass of people coming together. The text too—now here's another case of messing with the words. All of these pieces that are on this disc show my input with the text as well as on the musical side.

I have a little tale to tell "out of school," so to speak. These meditation texts come from the materials that are inside Gates Of Prayer that are not part of the liturgy. These are the readings that are provided for the congregants to turn to when you're "tuning out" of the main message of the service. And that's what happened to me one year, that I will not pinpoint. I tuned out for a fair amount of time, and read my way through all of this intervening material in the book, and was so galvanized by some of what I read, I said, "I must set this."

I had a commission from the Skidmore Vocal Ensemble. I was in residence at Skidmore, as well as at the University of Minnesota that year, and was looking for a text. And this seemed so hopeful to me. And because it's hopeful and optimistic, it kind of coded young. And so I needed something that would be for younger voices, not a world-weary message, but a message of looking ahead. So from all of those strands, I was ripe for hearing that intervening material in the book, right at that point.

MA: Did you participate in the rehearsal or the recording process of the Milken Archive experience?

JLZ: Yes, I did. And that was amazing to me. I was able to be out in California when the Meditations were recorded, in London when Parable was recorded, and in Berlin when the Service was recorded.

There's a poignancy about a sacred service being recorded by German artists and musicians. The largest part of my grandparents' families on both sides—my mother's parents' family and my father's parents' family—were killed in World War II. My husband and I do not buy German products. And in the year in which we lived in France, we toured around Europe, but would not set foot in Germany. As a matter of fact, because we took the Orient Express on one occasion from France going east, we ate in the dining car at the time we were passing through Germany, and they gave us change in marks. We left the money on the table.

It took a lot to get me to Germany. But this experience was transformative. To have these musicians—under Gerard Schwarz's direction, of course, and with James Maddalena singing the solo—to have them singing with understanding and being invested in the musical outcome, and with appreciation for my notes about a fundamental experience for any Jew, was transformative. We went to several of the sites in Berlin that were memorials to Jews lost in World War II. And I experienced a city that's really involved in renewal, with face forward to the future, and not carrying around as a heavy, heavy anchor all of this baggage of the past.

MA: During any of those recording sessions, did you interact with the artists? And what was that like?

JLZ: Oh yes. I was invited to the rehearsals for all three of those pieces. I was not a participant in the recording of A Woman of Valor. But I had a wonderful surrogate, Samuel Adler, who was conducting and preparing. He's said nice things about my music from time to time and has been an appreciative colleague, so that was just fine.

For Parable, I was there both for an instrumental rehearsal and a rehearsal with the artist and a separate rehearsal with the chorus. Prior to the recording sessions, I was in the booth for every moment, and could request additional takes. For the Sacred Service—this was the most interesting—we had a separate recording with Maestro Schwarz and James Maddalena. And we were waiting for the rehearsal pianist to come, to do all the arias, and for some reason, the pianist did not arrive. So I played. It was great. I mean, you can answer many many questions just simply by how you deliver the passage. So if I played it a certain way, it kind of resonates back to the conductor and to the soloist. And I also attended a choral rehearsal, and was in the booth for all the recordings.

MA: Can I assume this was a satisfying time for you?

JLZ: If you can call it "satisfying" when you simultaneously enjoy very much hearing everything come together, and then pull your hair out by the roots when there are little imperfections—for an artist, that's satisfying.

MA: Did your presence affect the interpretation of your works?

JLZ: I would imagine, yes. In all good ways, one hopes.

MA: In general, what has been your experience working with the Milken Archive?

JLZ: It's been unlike any other recording experience I've had. Let me be clear about that. First of all, it's a magnificent project. And I say that without any holding back. Just the scope of it is so big, the concept of it and the way it's been carried out is attentive to detail and lavish in a way that's unusual for recording projects taking place now in the 21st century. The educational aspect of it is huge. The documentary aspect of it is of great scope. I'm pleased in several different ways to have been invited to be part of the project: as a composer, as an individual voice, and also as a woman.

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