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Sam SADIGURSKY (b. 1979)
The Solomon Diaries Volumes 1-3 (2020)
Sam Sadigursky (clarinet)
Nathan Koci (accordion, piano, banjo)
Katrina Lenk (vocals)
rec. December 2020 and January 2021, Garden Sound Studio, Hoboken, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

In an ideal world this release (or more accurately three releases) ought to be accompanied by a booklet lavishly illustrated with pictures from the book The Borscht Belt by Marisa Scheinfeld which inspired the music. As it is, this is a download only release available through Bandcamp without any notes beyond the press release that came with it. This almost certainly reflects the economic realities of recording new contemporary classical music in 2021 which in itself is another great pity. Thankfully a quick internet search will bring up some of Scheinfeld’s haunting images. They are the best place to start with this remarkable recording. A few evocative pictures of the Borscht Belt resorts in their heyday are used as cover shots for the three volumes of this recording.

At first glance, I baulked somewhat at over 100 minutes of music for clarinet and accordion but fear not as there is never a dull moment. Sadigursky’s musical imagination works at white heat throughout. I labelled The Solomon Diaries as ‘contemporary classical’ just now and, as with a lot of new music I get to review these days, it hardly fits that description. There’s jazz in here, klezmer, folk, oldies, show tunes and much else besides. Everything is held in the grip of Sadigursky’s powerful vision of the American Jewish experience as filtered through Scheinfeld’s images of the decaying resort hotels of the so called Borscht Belt just before they were demolished. This then is music steeped in memory but, like the crumbling swimming pools and bars of the hotels themselves, they are fragmentary memories.

Inevitably, there is a lot of sadness in this piece but that is only part of the picture. A lot of the memories relate to what Sadigursky refers to as the “oasis” of the Borscht Belt and they are memories of people having a good time, clearly often in resistance to the terrible experiences many holidaymakers had gone through to reach that part of America. As one track, Revolution Room, which uses archive tape, reminds us even on reaching America, they met an anti-Semitism virulent enough to necessitate the building of these Jewish resorts since they found themselves so often excluded from mainstream hotels. There is often a riotousness to the music though mostly this is tinged with an air of frenzy as though the dancers were dancing for their lives.

The resultant piece is as many layered as memory itself. At one level, it operates as a ghost filled experience of the ruined buildings. At another, it conjures up the vibrant life of the resorts in all its gaudy colours. Pull the camera back a little further and we get the shock and wonder of the Jewish immigrant experience of America. Lurking behind all this, obviously, inexorably is the trauma of the Holocaust and still further back the Jewish experience in Europe. All of these leave musical traces and, as the bedrock to it all, there is the great, ancient musical tradition of the Jewish faith (most directly in the piece entitled Kudman Chant which opens part two).

The piece was originally scored for clarinet and string quartet but, given the way the sounds of both instruments seem hardwired into the Jewish consciousness, perhaps accordion and clarinet are even more appropriate.

It would have been easy for this composition to have ended up a post modernist hodge podge of influences but Sadigursky’s method is not one of collage but fusion. He is able to absorb all of these different forms of music without losing his own voice. It sounds like, rather than diluting his own voice, these deep connections with his heritage have enriched it. Both musicians have taken a deep dive into this music which they clearly love.

The piece is divided across three shortish albums (short timing is of course not an issue with download albums) and each album contains a number of shorter tracks whose names presumably refer to aspects of life in the Borscht Belt. Reflecting the nature of these resorts, there are a lot of dances including waltzes and tangos. These dance rhythms pulse through the music animating the nostalgia and the sadness. It is clear from this work that people had a good time on their holidays there. Sadigursky includes short bursts of recordings of performers who entertained the guests staying at the hotels whose voices are heard echoing through the instrumental lines. At one point, we hear a standup routine from one of the comedians famously associated with the Borscht Belt backed by some suitably jazzy piano. The impression is tangibly that all human life was there. It is an immensely entertaining listen.

My sense of the structure of the piece is that it represents an ever deepening movement into the place and its history. Life at the resorts seems to come most vividly to life in the second album where the first part begins tentatively as if unsure how to respond to Scheinfeld’s pictures but gathers momentum before closing on a group of pieces evoking the Holocaust and before and after it.

I haven’t said very much about the depth of feeling that runs through The Solomon Diaries. There is an intensity and directness to it that is too often absent from a lot of contemporary music. To be clear, that feeling is not just nostalgia but pain and love. This is an emotional history it is true but it also evokes an emotional present. As a musical experience it is not in the slightest abstract even if its external influences are indirect rather represented in the music.

Even in a contemporary music scene that seems to go from strength to strength each year, I will be astonished (and very pleased!) if 2022 presents me with a finer recording of new music. It touches on some of the most serious aspects of the human condition yet it finds room to dance and joke and sing.

David McDade

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