by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow, Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
A new concert series from the Milken Center will offer a promising glimpse into the musical life of contemporary Jewish America
The Lowell Milken Center, in partnership with The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, is launching a virtual concert series featuring new voices in American Jewish music. Titled Secret Chord Concerts and curated by Milken Center Associate Director Lorry Black and Dan Samuels, The Weitzman’s Director of Public Programs, the series extends the popular video-based format that emerged as the new normal for music presentation during the Corona epidemic. It is modeled on the popular “NPR Tiny Desk Concerts” but with a Jewish slant. These events will stream online; they are being produced in sound stages both at UCLA and at The Weitzman in Philadelphia but seek to address a national audience. The series features an impressive lineup of artists, including well-known artists such as klezmer revival pioneer Andy Statman, and Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, who was featured in a recent essay in Conversations. Secret Chord will premiere on the Facebook Live pages of the two sponsoring organizations on the first Wednesday of the month and opens with the female vocal trio New Moon Rising on June 1. (See ‘How to Watch’ below.)
In anticipation of the launch of the series, I had a chance to talk with Janice Markham and Leeav Sofer, the violinist and frontman/vocalist, respectively, of Mostly Kosher, a Los Angeles-based band whose Secret Chord Concert will air on July 6, the second concert in the series. The band is currently promoting the release of their new album This World is Yours. I spoke to Markham and Sofer in Sofer’s windowless basement studio. The room was fitted with prop windows, operated by a light switch to create the illusion of the sun being out, a nod, perhaps, to the theatrical illusions of Hollywood sets.
Mostly Kosher employs a prog-rock aesthetic, using shifts in rhythmic feel, complex chord progressions and hectic tempos to create a feeling of thoughtful playfulness. Markham and Sofer cited Frank Zappa as a key influence and suggested that their goal was to create a formally complex musical statement that was still accessible and felt by audiences as engaging. The concern with accessibility and audience engagement is on display in the band’s work with school groups and their long-running stint as performers at Disneyland.
Markham and Sofer described the new record as a “klezmer rock opera,” although klezmer is only one of the musical signifiers of Jewishness that the band references. Their song selections draw freely on a range of Jewish heritage sources and languages. On the album and in concert, Sofer sings in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, and on several tracks performs songs originally in Jewish languages translated into English. The band’s musical concept seems to be less focused on historically informed performance or roots in any one specific Jewish idiom, and more oriented towards an American concept of ethnic identity being displayed as a recognizable product that can be enjoyed by a broad audience. Sofer described their project as a “drawbridge down to the non-Jewish community” that would make sounds of Jewishness entertaining and accessible.
According to Sofer, the motivation for his work with Mostly Kosher stems from a deeply held desire for as many people as possible to be moved by a musical experience. His goal is to “use the culture to celebrate things that are universal.” Both Markham and Sofer described achieving a feeling of universality as being a challenging goal to fulfill. They contrasted the Jewish music scene in Los Angeles with that of New York City. They see klezmer music as having achieved a status in New Yok as part of the “normal” texture of city life. In contrast, they see Los Angeles as offering a long-term challenge to musicians playing “traditional” musics. This challenge stems in part from the geography of the city and its traffic conditions that discourage the formation of “scenes.”
Markham and Sofer described their music as being driven in part by their political and social concerns. They talked about how the theme of mental illness and inclusion of those who are suffering plays a central role in the narrative element of their album. In an unusual twist on the classic Ladino ballad Adio Kerida, Sofer has recast the lyrics of lost love to dramatize the emotions of a character who is outcast from society. Instead of a love affair, the tortured and soul-shocked narrator cannot believe that they have been rejected by the world. Markham and Sofer highlighted how this creative project is in line with their investment in developing relationships with homeless people in Los Angeles. They described their ongoing focus on the role the arts can play as a therapeutic intervention in the lives of people living with mental illness.
Markham and Sofer also talked about the challenges of establishing a sense of a Jewish music community in Los Angeles. They highlighted the role that Secret Chord curator Lorry Black has played in fostering a sense of a music scene in a city known for its geographic diffuseness. Both bandmates have known Black for years and were involved in the klezmer jam sessions he ran at UCLA in outdoor locations during the pandemic.
I spoke to Black about his motivations for starting the Secret Chord series. Black told me that the concept for the series originated with Dan Samuels at The Weitzman museum, who wanted to start a video-based series inspired by the popular NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. Black jumped at the idea, seeing the series as an opportunity to help shape how the LA Jewish music scene would be presented to the world, and to create an opportunity for bringing important national artists to Los Angeles. Black described Mostly Kosher as representing the Los Angeles scene and talked about how he has come to feel personally invested in their music over the course of watching them develop over many years. As a lifelong Angelino and participant in the Jewish music scene as a performer, Black is uniquely positioned to help sculpt a presentation of Los Angeles Jewish culture for a broad audience.
But clearly, the ambitions of the Secret Chord Concerts transcend the local, as reflected in its programming curation, its bi-coastal production locations, and its embrace of a streaming video format that will attract both national and international audiences. Reflecting on the collaboration between the Milken Center and The Weitzman, Black said, “Our shared vision of how music reflects all aspects of the American Jewish experience, from East Coast to West, guides this joint effort. We’re excited to expand audiences for these outstanding musical artists and introduce new people to their incredible music.” We will surely have much to say about these concerts in the coming months.
HOW TO WATCH the Secret Chord Concerts:
The first concert premiered on Wednesday, June 1. It is now available on-demand on the Lowell Milken Center’s YouTube channel here. Future episodes will premiere on their release dates on the Facebook pages of The Weitzman, the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience, and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. The series will be available on-demand after the event on The Weitzman’s Facebook page and website, and on the Lowell Milken Center’s YouTube page. Learn more about the series through the press release here.