Born in New Hampshire to a Lithuanian-American family, the violinist and composer Abraham Brody felt compelled from an early age to seek out his cultural roots – a journey that has taken him via Vienna to Vilnius and points far beyond, and seen him collaborate with Siberian shamans and the celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović.
As an artist in residence at National Sawdust during Season 3, which is thematically bound together by a common thread – “Origins” – Brody will present projects featuring artists from Lithuania, Russia, Iceland, and elsewhere, many of which are meant to provide an experience broader and deeper than the bustle of everyday life.
Having performed during Opening Weekend at National Sawdust, Brody appears next with Pletai, a quartet formed spontaneously after all-night jam sessions in Moscow late last year, at National Sawdust on Oct. 5. During a recent conversation at the National Sawdust office in Williamsburg, Brody spoke at length about his personal journey, what he has learned, and what he aspires to present during his New York sojourn.
THE LOG JOURNAL: You’re in residence at National Sawdust during a season that’s being presented under the banner of “Origins.” What did that notion mean to you? What ideas did it spark?
ABRAHAM BRODY: I think it’s great. All of my work is about origins, basically, so in that sense I think we fit perfectly. I’m genuinely interested in looking for roots, and looking for more depth in performance and depth in what you create. But it’s also very important politically now – art and music is about breaking barriers. If you are an artist, and a performer, especially, you know that it bridges all languages and religions. One of the main points and powers of art and music is to connect people.
I’d like to know more about your own origin story. To my ear, your work is rooted in the past and in tradition, but also very much of the present, and accommodating to contemporary technology and feeling. How did you come to find your personal path?
I was classically trained, and I felt a little bit restricted by that—I wanted to be the creator. I started to work a lot in contemporary music, but then I was looking for something… I’m very interested in performance as a transformation, that it’s not just entertainment. It’s really important to me that there’s a deeper, more spiritual level of the work. I got very interested in my own roots, because I was born in the U.S. and I always felt there was something lacking in the culture around me… not American culture per se, but in my own surroundings I was searching for something deeper.
I found a huge inspiration in my roots from the Ukraine and Lithuania: this ancient tradition, and songs that are a thousand years old, and you can feel this power in them, this ability to take you to another dimension. So I started to write my own music and create these multimedia, multi-dimensional performances from this inspiration – which has now branched from Lithuania to Siberia, to Georgia, to Russia. It’s a very big expanse of cultures now, but that’s a very important thing for me.
To what extent were these cultural influences present in your home when you were growing up? Did you grow up in an American-assimilated household, or were you always surrounded with aspects of your heritage?
It was very assimilated. My grandmother could speak Ukrainian, but my mother didn’t learn, and it was kind of forgotten when I was a child. There were no real musical traditions left – I mean, I don’t want to make it sound as if it was so depressing. That’s not true. But my grandparents were very much assimilated. My grandfather was Jewish, and he kept that; he lived in New York, and that was very much encouraged here, to preserve that. But the other things, like music and other kinds of cultural rituals, were really given up for American things.
You literally had to go on a journey and explore the lands from which your cultural heritage had sprung.
Right, I moved there.
Where are you based now?
Vilnius. I mean, I’m living here now. I moved to New York ten days ago – I don’t know how long I’ll stay. But I went to study in Austria, in Vienna, so I left the States a while ago. Then I went to live in Lithuania… I was visiting Lithuania a lot, and the first time I went there I felt like I’d been there before. It was a really eerie feeling. And at that time I had not explored my Lithuanian roots at all. The land, the nature, the forest, the sea: It was just like, wow, this place is so magical. You really feel the connection from this earth – which is why the title of my album is From the Rich Dark Earth – from this land, you really feel like this music is seeping out of the ground.
Some of the songs on my album are inspired by these ritual songs called sutartinės, and I’m bringing a very amazing ensemble from Lithuania that performs these to come in April to perform. They’re kind of sacred songs, pre-Christian ritual songs, and they’re meant to bring the performer into a kind of a trance – they’re really spooky. So this was something that kind of pulled me: wow, what is this tradition? It’s so special.
I came of age during the ’80s, when we were just beginning to see the opening up of the Soviet Union, the beginning of glasnost. I’m curious, as you’ve explored, whether you’ve gotten a sense that these countries are still in the process of rediscovering themselves after throwing off the Soviet yoke?
Yeah, definitely. Lithuania is not rediscovering itself in that way – one thing I have to say is that they are so strong, they kept their culture. Lithuania and Latvia are in their own group of Baltic languages; they’re not related to others. They’re not at all related to Russian or other Slavic languages. And they kept this. It was forbidden during the Soviet Union to speak this. It was not the public language, this folk music was forbidden, and they did it anyway. When I’ve been song-collecting in villages, you hear these old grannies that kept this music all the time – through Nazis, through Stalin. So for me, it’s like, oh my god, I have a huge admiration and love for these people.
In another sense, now Vilnius is very developed and very modern and amazing, and very European. But you see that Lithuania has a little bit of a delay with certain social developments, compared to other countries. They’re not as open-minded socially as Western Europe. I think there’s two sides: there’s young people who are not interested in their traditions, because during Soviet times it was stifled and now they just want to be western and listen to Beyoncé, and then there are the people, who are a lot of my friends, who are really keeping it alive and really trying to revive. So it’s very complicated, very mixed. I can’t speak for all the Soviet bloc – I mean, Georgia is really similar. Georgia kept its traditions so, so strongly. But they’re very different culturally from Lithuania; it’s very far away.
The next project coming up at National Sawdust is your band Pletai. The band bio indicates that it came together in an all-night jam session. Who are these people, and how did you come together?
I had an exhibition of my work ONGON, which I’m going to show at Happylucky No. 1 opening November 14, and that is a video installation and performance based on research I did in Buryatia, in Eastern Siberia. The Buryat people there, they’re an indigenous group inside Siberia, and I was very much interested in their shamans, and how music and performance is part of this ritual state that they go into. The exhibition was in Moscow, and I was looking for volunteers to perform with me at the opening, singers. These three [Ilya Sharov, Masha Medvedchenkova, and Masha Marchenko] volunteered, and they came and they were so incredible, their voices – I was just totally blown away. We decided that we had to meet again.
The next week, I finished the exhibition and I went to do a jam session with them. They were living in this kind of communal area with all their artist friends and professional folk musicians. They all live in one apartment, like 20 people. [Laughs] They don’t do that anymore, but it was during that time. We were up two nights in a row until 5 a.m. just jamming, improvising, and it was the most amazing jam session I ever had. We made the decision that we had to work together again. And so I came back for a month in February, and we had a residency and worked on this new project, and we started to record our EP. And then I just kept going back to Moscow to perform with them.
It’s a beautiful record.
Thank you. I think you can really hear that we had this, like… [makes exploding sound] I really want to have a future with them and do things with them. It’s just hard because of the Russian passports. It’s so much trouble to get them anywhere. One of them is flying right now – she’s just boarded the plane. The U.S. Embassy closed for two weeks, and she couldn’t get her visa. Finally she got it a few days ago… it was really stressful.
What’s the distinction between what you’re doing with Pletai at National Sawdust on Oct. 5, and what you’ll present at Happylucky No. 1 on Oct. 14?
The 5th is our existing show, “Kosmosjam,” which is a work where we’ve researched and collected both Baltic and Slavic ritual songs, old songs, and recomposed them. It’s also with video. And it’s really about cosmic rituals and humans’ relationship to the cosmos and to the life cycle, and trying to demonstrate through the lens of folklore that we are so small in this universe, and to show this connection of ancient things to the power of the universe. It’s kind of like a very trippy experience. And on the 14th… we don’t know yet. We’re going to spend a week to make something new, work-in-progress, but I think it will be totally different. We’re planning to do something more wild and earthy and upbeat – not so extraterrestrial.
Let’s talk about about ONGON, then: how you conceived that project, how it came together… what it is, really.
My work sort of changed direction when I met Marina Abramović and we worked together… in the autumn of 2013 I met her, and in 2014 we worked together in Switzerland. She showed me that performance has so many directions and so many possibilities that musicians don’t explore. I started being interested in other ways to interact with audiences, other ways to draw them out, and because of my interest in folklore I got very interested in using rituals as a way to transform myself and the audience.
I’ve been really interested in shamanism for a long time. I really respect that. It also goes hand-in-hand with respect for ancestors, because they worship their ancestors. That’s what it is – it’s not some weird voodoo thing. Siberia, for me, is really unexplored. Nobody goes there, nobody goes to these tribes, and a lot of it was snuffed out by Stalin. But there’s still a lot there, so much there. So I chose Buryatia because I was also interested in their music, which is very similar to Mongolian: there’s throat-singing, they play this morin khuur stringed instrument, which is like a violin, basically. And that’s also part of the sacred music.
So I went there, and I spent a year planning, and I found all these shamans through friends of friends of friends from Buryatia. I went to observe their rituals, and I went to meet folk musicians, and it was really an amazing experience. I was filming their rituals – they let me film – and the video installation is really about showing this trance, bringing the public into the trance, making them reflect on where they’re coming from and where they’re going, and feeling this power of Buryatia. They’re animists, so there’s all these sacred places there… you can’t go here, and you have to cover your head to go to this place, and you have to make this offering at this place. It’s very magical.
So when you walk into the space, I want you to be pulled into this world, to be really brought into a trance, because I feel like especially in New York, we don’t get that experience. We’re so caught up in our lives, and everything is so fast. No one has any patience anymore. All of my performances are kind of about counteracting that, but this one especially is very meditative.
So ONGON will be from the 14th to the 20th or 21st, and on the 18th and 19th I’m bringing some colleagues from Iceland. They are amazing: one [Ásta María Kjartansdóttir] is a contemporary musician and a cellist, and the other [Anna Fríða Jónsdóttir] is a performance artist and multimedia artist who has shown her work at the Venice Biennale. We performed in Iceland at the Lunga Festival this summer, in an amazing sound sculpture by Lukas Kühne on top of a mountain, above a fjord, in the middle of the night. I love them, and so I wanted to bring them.
We’re creating a new work, which is about silence. For them, silence is really important. Iceland is full of these black beaches with no people – Icelanders are really comfortable with silence. I don’t think New Yorkers are at all comfortable with it. We want to create a work which is letting people interpret silence for themselves. We’re not going to push a mood, but I think we’re very much going to explore anxiety in silence, and how people are uncomfortable with that. So it’s quite connected with ONGON, but in a different way. That will be connected with video that Anna is making of Icelandic landscapes and our performance.
In April you’ll present the collaborative work Ancestors. What’s involved in that?
That’s April 12, and that’s with these amazing Lithuanian singers Trys Keturiose, from Vilnius. We have an existing work that we premiered at the Barbican Centre in London called Ancestors, and that’s the ritual songs I told you about, sutartinės, and they’re traditionally only sung by women. These women are the expert ensemble in Lithuania of these songs. They’ve researched for years, and they’re really specialists.
They’re all really connected, these performances. Pletai is quite wild, but the others are very much about transformation, taking people out of their everyday lives. Those songs are so magical – you really feel like they sound like they’re from another world. So we have this performance where I’ve written my own music that kind of floats on top of their songs.
I’ve read that as part of your National Sawdust residency, you hope to develop new works with New York-based artists. Do you have an agenda that you’re pursuing? Or are you leaving things open to serendipity and chance encounters?
I’m very open… I mean, even in terms of leaving or staying, I’m very open to what happens. I would love to make as much of a network here as I can. I have spoken to Paola [Prestini, composer and National Sawdust founder] about making a collaboration. I really love her work so much – that was one of the initial things that pulled me to Sawdust. We’re talking about going to Georgia together to make something. And, yeah, just to see what happens, I hope to meet the other residents and see their work. I’m really curious to make some roots here.
I’m definitely going to use this time to write some new music. I’ve been writing some work in English, actually, and I think that’s an interesting thing to work on while I’m here. I hope to make some more video-based work, as well, that I’m hoping to do in November or December, really about New York. The theme of immigration is really important for me right now. I know, and I’m sure we all know, that America is a country of immigrants. Native Americans are the only original Americans, and we’ve so mistreated them. Nobody else deserves to say that they own this place, and I think immigrants are the ones who contribute everything.
I want to create a work addressing this, and on the musical side to maybe collect songs of different immigrant populations. For example, I was in an Uber the other day and the driver was very friendly; I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Pakistan.” I love Pakistani music, and I said, Do you know Faiz Ali Faiz, this qawwali Sufi singer? And he said, “Yeah, I know him personally.” What?! He said, “I am a singer,” and he sang for me, and it was amazing. I asked if I could film him later when I do this, and I will contact him. So this kind of thing is what I’m looking for, these people who bring something very beautiful to the U.S., and they’re very hard-working and good people.
So then, in this very fast modern world, and at this specific moment in American social history, why is it important to you to expose people to these ancient traditions that may seem esoteric? What can a curious music lover gain by exposure to what you’re bringing?
I think they can get a totally different vision of other cultural possibilities, other languages – both musical languages and real languages. It’s about openness: I have been fortunate enough to go to many different countries and travel a lot. I don’t see borders of nations, I really don’t. And I think the more you expose people to other traditions and show how beautiful they are, they start to also feel that way.
We have all this technology now… I can call on FaceTime right now that member of Pletai while she’s getting on the plane. We have this possibility, but people don’t really use that. We’re more angry at each other than ever, and blaming. I think we really need to show this richness: This is humanity, and it has all these different things, and it’s really beautiful. They can connect, and they can respond to each other.
And also, it’s not just an American thing, it’s like a younger generation disease I see in London and Lithuania and New York and Amsterdam, everywhere: They don’t care about depth. They just want to swipe through their Instagram as fast as possible and listen to some pop music and throw everything away. We’re disposing of everything. And I hope that my work will be strong enough – I want to really make people think about this. I think my work has this effect of really slowing people down and making them reflect, making them more introspective. So that’s what I want to bring.
Abraham Brody performs with Pletai at National Sawdust on Oct. 5 (ticket information), and at Happylucky No. 1 Oct. 14 (details). He presents ONGON: Journey to Buryatia at Happylucky No. 1 Nov. 14-22 (details), and Ancestors at National Sawdust April 12 (ticket information).
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.