Gershon Kingsley, the German-born American composer whose pioneering work with the Moog synthesizer sought to reconcile pop and classical music, has died. He was ninety-seven and lived in Manhattan. The Milken Archive of Jewish Music for which Kingsley conducted and recorded several of his compositions, including his Jazz Psalms, Shabbat for Today and Voices from the Shadow, mourns the loss of this great artist.
“Gershon Kingsley was, himself, the great synthesizer,” Lowell Milken said, “bringing together both his German and American heritage, as well as infusing his commercial work with great artistry and making his artistic work commercial and accessible. The Milken Archive was honored to include his important work among our recordings, and valued his friendship as much as his creativity.”
Describing his creative world as a place where "Mozart dances with the Beatles,” Kingsley was known for marrying classical and liturgical music with popular influences. Kingsley had the remarkable ability to match traditional Hebrew liturgy to electronic instrumentation and, in his own words, “reconcile the opposites of our human soul.”
Gershon Kingsley composed the first full synagogue service for Moog synthesizer. Among the prolific German-born American composer’s works is the internationally famous hit, "Popcorn." (Photo: May 1, 1992, Milken Archive of Jewish Music)
Gershon Kingsley was born Goetz Gustav Kinski in Bochum, Germany on October 28, 1922. Although Kingsley’s mother was born a Polish Roman Catholic and his father a German Jew, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Kingsley joined a Zionist youth group. Just prior to the anti-Semitic riots of Kristallnacht in 1938, Kingsley moved to Palestine to work as a farmer. He would be separated from his parents for eight years, during which time, failing to obtain a visa to the United States, they went first to Cuba.
It was on a kibbutz in Palestine where, in addition to farming, Kingsley taught himself piano. Leaving the kibbutz for Jerusalem, he played in a jazz band while studying at a music conservatory.
In 1946, Kingsley emigrated to the United States, where he was reunited with his parents, and moved to Los Angeles where his first job was as an organist at a Reform temple. “They asked me to write a small liturgical setting—for bar’khu or sh’ma,” he recalled more than 50 years later in a Milken Archive oral history session, “so I became a ‘Jewish composer’ by default!” At age 24, Kingsley finished high school at night and attended the LA Conservatory of Music (now Cal Arts), graduating with a B.A. in music.
Kingsley spent a summer in residence at the Brandeis Art Institute in 1948 (a division of the Brandeis Camp Institute) in Santa Susana, California, which was under the musical direction of conductor and composer Max Helfman.
Gershon Kingsley (center) attends a class taught by Solomon Rosowsky (left) at the Brandeis Arts Institute, 1948.
A job conducting at “The Music Circus,” a summer stock theater in Sacramento, California was followed by a season conducting the “Melody Fair” musical theater in Framingham, Massachusetts. Kingsley then became musical director for the Broadway production of The Entertainer starring Sir Lawrence Olivier. Kingsley went on to conduct for several Broadway and off-Broadway productions (for which he won two Obies), including Porgy and Bess, and The Cradle Will Rock. During this period, Kingsley also was musical director for the Joffrey Ballet, Josephine Baker, and the television special, The World of Kurt Weill, which starred Lotte Lenya.
In 1966, Cantor David Benedict of Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York, commissioned Kingsley’s Jazz Psalms, saying, “Kingsley’s compositions create an amazingly compatible fusion of American jazz idioms and traditional Hebrew character…[that] results in a new 20th-century American Jewish musical expression.”
That same year, while working as staff arranger for Vanguard Records, Kingsley collaborated with French composer Jean-Jacques Perrey on The In Sound from Way Out, an experimental pop album of intricate tape loops with live studio musicians that became an instant hit with the advertising industry. Kingsley’s growing interest in electronic sounds led him to the upstate New York studio of Robert Moog. As Kingsley recalled in a Milken Archive interview: “I looked at his synthesizer – which looked to me like a telephone switchboard – I was so fascinated by it…that I had to have it.”
Kingsley went on to record several highly popular records of music on the Moog, including such albums as Music to Moog By and songs such as Baroque Hoedown which was chosen as accompaniment for the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Disney theme Parks, where it is in use to this day. Kingsley composed music for synthesizer and symphony for the Boston Pops, and as part of the First Moog Quartet, a four synthesizer ensemble under Kingsley’s direction, performed the first live show of electronic music at Carnegie Hall. Kingsley’s electronic composition Popcorn, which he described as “a classically inspired pop song” became an international hit that continues to be sampled and inspire remakes.
Gershon Kingsley in 2007.
“I have always been sitting between two chairs in my music,” Kingsley told the Milken Archive. "I try to bring classical and pop together."
Kingsley’s work in advertising won him two Clio awards, and his extensive work in film and television won him an Emmy award for the music of A New Voice in the Wilderness.
As a composer, Kingsley focused primarily on theatrical works both religious and secular. His religious works are inspired by Jewish and Hebrew texts that he has described as "scenic cantatas." They include: A Prophet's Song of Love, What Is Man?, Shabbat for Today, They Never Had the Chance to Live, Simcha, The Fifth Cup and Friday of Thanksgiving. Shabbat for Today and The Fifth Cup have been nationally broadcast and performed extensively throughout the U.S. He also wrote the popular choral anthem Shepherd Me, Lord, which became very popular among gospel congregations.
In the 1980s, Kingsley took his electronic compositions into the realm of New Age music, releasing the albums, Much Silence, Sanctuary and Anima. In his later work, Kingsley sought to address his German and Jewish heritage, by creating music about some of the most painful of Jewish experiences, including They Never Had a Chance to Live, (about the children murdered in the concentration camps); Voices from the Shadow, a theatrical concert piece based on poetry written during the Holocaust; Selma, a song cycle based on the Holocaust poetry of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (one of the poets in Voices); and Raoul, an opera based on the life of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Hungarian Jews in Budapest during the Holocaust (with a libretto by Michael Kunze).
Kingsley's Milken Archive album was released in 2005.
In 2001, Kingsley recorded “Voices” for the Milken Archive, featuring the soloists Amy Goldstein, Mary Catherine George, Larry Picard and Matthew Walley. In an alternate version that includes narration, Kingsley incorporated a spontaneous reflection on the question of whether or not the Holocaust should serve as subject matter for art: "One CANNOT write about Auschwitz. One MUST write—write and write—about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. It seems that when we are forced to walk that corridor between Life and Death, sources of creativity become readily available, and Life is compelled to express itself."
The Milken Archive of Jewish Music remembers Gershon Kingsley with great respect and admiration. May the vastness and importance of his musical legacy be a comfort to all who mourn him.
Explore the legacy of Gershon Kingsley through his works with the Milken Archive: