An Interview with Gershon Kingsley

MILKEN ARCHIVE: You've described your artistic approach as "chaos versus organization." What did you mean by that and how does it apply to your work?

GERSHON KINGSLEY: Creativity always has a chaotic element to it in the beginning. Chaos is the initial part of creativity.

MA: Do you think music can bring people from different backgrounds together?

GK: Sure, it will bring people together. In fact, when I composed my big popular success "Popcorn" during the Yom Kippur War, it was played in Lebanon with Arab text and it was played in Israel with Hebrew text. You could take it from a more philosophical point: why couldn't they play the song and have peace?

MA: How did you decide which pieces to use for Voices from the Shadow?

GK: Well, that's a very hard question to answer. It was at the time when Schindler's List was a big success in Germany—a commercial success. This to me was always amazing: after all that had happened in Germany, that a film which really showed the plight of the Jews became such a commercial success. Right after the success of the movie, the German government released monies for Jewish culture. I went to one of the program chairmen and I said, "Listen, why don't you use me for a concert? I'm from this time, but I'm still alive." She looked me right in the face and said, "I'm sorry, we only want dead composers." And I didn't want to accommodate her at the time. So I decided to do something else.

I went into libraries in Germany and I tried to find poems from the Holocaust. I found about 30 or 40 poems. I was living in Munich at the time, and my studio was in the basement of an apartment. I started to try to write music to these poems. And I couldn't, for weeks, because always in my mind I was thinking, "How can one compose music and put melodies to something so tragic, where people maybe went from writing the poem to, 15 minutes later, the gas chamber?" Often these were not professional poets. They wrote just what they felt like. And this tragic feeling of doing something in the moment you know you're facing death was to me an amazing event. So I couldn't compose.

Gershon Kingsley


But weeks later, I did something which sounds ridiculous if I say it, because one shouldn't even talk about this: I tried to identify myself with the person who wrote the poem, and tried to imagine at the time what was going to happen. To identify myself means, "Okay, now I'm whatever his name is, I'm writing that poem, and now they're calling me in to go to the gas chamber." And finally something worked. It wasn't aa question of whether I liked one more or liked one less. I just started to compose. And I composed about 20 or 30 songs.

MA: What did it feel like to be one of the early pioneers of electronic music?

GK: I went to electronic music because it was at the time when the technology was foreshadowing what was going to happen, which we take for granted today. When I met Robert Moog in his little hamlet in upstate New York, and I looked at his synthesizer—which looked to me like a telephone switchboard—I was so fascinated by it and the sounds that came out of it that I had to have it. And that's what happened. I was always interested in sound anyway. And orchestrations. My favorite composers were always composers who had this palette of great orchestral sound: Ravel and Stravinsky. So it was just normal that I went into it. I don't know whether I succeeded. But there are many so-called champions of electronic music today.

MA: Do you feel that technological advancements diminish musicality, or augment accepted notions of musical creativity?

GK: It depends on what you call technology. Somebody writing with a pencil on a piece of paper is as important as a guy who sits down at a computer and writes using a piece of software. The main thing is the expression of creativity. Creativity doesn't come with technology. Creativity comes in your brain first. Then it's expressed in the instruments you want to use.

MA: What do you think of the sonic quality of the new digital synthesizers used in music today? Can they compete tonally with the analog synthesizers of the seventies?

GK: I do think so, yes. When it comes to technical instruments— Take a clarinet, for example: it's a technical instrument. It's technology. Even the piano is technology. So times change and technology changes. What used to be an analog instrument is now a digital instrument. I always used to say in my lectures that the difference between analog and digital is like a painting by Seurat, the French pointillist painter. When you're very close to one of his paintings, it's digital. When you go away from it, and you see it further away, it becomes analog.

Gershon Kingsley


After I wrote "Popcorn," Roland came out with a synthesizer and there was a sound called "Popcorn." So sounds can be recreated, as long as you know how to get the sound quality. When I started out with my French partner, we had an Ondioline, which was sort of a computer synthesizer but with tubes. It didn't have the other things you have today. It had an incredible sound quality. It sounded like a real clarinet, a real violin, a real trumpet. And we used to appear together on many talk shows like Johnny Carson, and they were fascinated to hear these sounds coming out of this little Ondioline.

MA: Do you think we'll see a broader resurgence of interest in Moog music?

GK: I'll tell you something very interesting: some people came to me about two weeks ago—a group called Rebooters. I'd never heard of them, but they are young, creative Jewish people in every discipline of creativity—painters, composers, television actors, producers—and they're fascinated by my involvement in Hebrew music in 1970. One of my pieces is the Shabbat For Today, which the Milken Archive recorded part of, though I have 12 different versions. And these Rebooters were interested, strangely enough, in my original version, which I did in 1968 in my little studio on 55th street, where I had a four-track tape recorder, three singers, a cantor, a rabbi, and a drummer, and I played the Moog. Of course, from a composing point of view, it was very primitive at the time. But apparently they liked the primitivity of it in '68, and they want to re-release it now. Can you imagine this?

MA: What do you hope to see in the future of American Jewish music?

GK: Maybe there's a young genius coming up, a new Jewish Mozart. Who knows? You never know, right?

Composer Gershon Kingsley passed away in 2019.

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