Interviews

So many of us are a little bit witchy — Ayelet Rose Gottlieb presents her new album, ’13 Lunar Meditations: Summoning the Witches’

On January 12, Montreal-based vocalist, composer, improviser and curator Ayelet Rose Gottlieb released her new album, 13 Lunar Meditations: Summoning the Witches.

Six years in the making, Ayelet’s ambitious new record is based on a collection of texts about “the moon and our connection to it” provided by women and girls from all around the world. With jazz icon Jay Clayton sharing the role of lead vocalist, 13 Lunar Meditations features the core band of Aram Bajakian (guitar), Eylem Basaldi (Turkish violin), Stéphane Diamantakiou (upright bass) and Ivan Bamford (drums) alongside a wealth of talent from the international jazz and improv scenes, including Choeur Luna, a choir of improvisers conducted by co-producer DB Boyko.

I was first introduced to Ayelet’s talent through John Zorn’s Mycale a cappella quartet, part of his long-running Masada series. Over the last year, I grew increasingly familiar with her work within the Orchard of Pomegranates, a physical and digital space where she offers house concerts, jazz labs, workshops and curated Listening Hours, which I’ve often attended.

I was excited to catch up with Ayelet a couple of weeks ago and talk about her new record, the accompanying live video series, the importance of a physical recording in the digital age and the Orchard of Pomegranates.

First off, let’s talk a bit about how this project originated. How did you decide to summon the witches and, more importantly, who are the witches?

(laughs) Well, it started when I was pregnant with the twins. I was on bed rest for almost the entire pregnancy. For the first half of it, I was in Israel, in my parents’ home, in my childhood room, completely alone. It was winter; it was snowing outside. My husband was in Canada. I just felt completely isolated.

Just to break my loneliness in that moment, I sent an e-mail to a bunch of friends of mine — all women. I think the title was something like “Summoning my Witches.” It got incredible responses. It was a really moving experience that just stayed with me.

After a few months, when I was back in Canada, I met DB Boyko. One morning I was having coffee with Ken Pickering, the founder and curator of the Vancouver Jazz Festival, when his friend DB walked in. He introduced us and we kept in touch.

DB was the curator at the Western Front, where Aram is now curating. She had a commissioning series for an experimental voice festival and she also conducted a choir of improvisers. She decided to commission a piece for me. I thought it would be cool to combine my quintet with her choir. So that’s where that sparked.

When I was deciding what to write, I had a memory of that e-mail from a year prior. I thought of the witches and the moon. It was born out of the memory of that solitary moment and this opportunity to write for DB’s choir and my band.

As an artist, I feel like everything is source material. Whatever we experience in life is source material for something to be made. If I have a strong experience, I save it in my head as a seed for a work. It could be anything, like a walk outside with my daughter or an e-mail exchange with some friends.

I feel like the idea of the “witches” is about community. It’s about inviting the presence of others and not shying away from our bizarre sides, from our energetic sides, from the parts of ourselves that can communicate with the other realms. In the artist community, so many of us are a little bit witchy. (laughs) We have that connection. If you think about Coltrane’s relationship to God — it’s not a huge surprise, right? Because you have that direct channel that so many musicians tap into. We get these gifts and we’re wondering, “What is that? Who gave this to me?”

What I like a lot about this album is that it’s clearly a very personal and very intimate work, yet you didn’t just build it around yourself. It’s about all these people and all these things that are important to you. Your reaction to loneliness was not to lose yourself within it, but to reach out and surround yourself with people and things that you love. The result is an album that is, at the same time, incredibly complex but also lighthearted and playful, especially in the vocal part. You’ve also produced a beautiful vinyl, a lunar calendar, postcards, the Lunar Conversation series and all of these things that expand this microcosm of the album. When you were planning it in your mind, did you envision it as this big, complex project or did that just develop organically with time?

The initial idea was to invite women and girls from many parts of the world to write the texts. I got about half of the texts right away, for that first performance. I did another performance later in the same year, at The Stone. For that one, I asked for more writing from more people. So there were two batches of receiving poetry and texts.

In those performances, I used some samples of the readers’ voices, like I did on the album as well. I wanted to have these different accents and languages in the mix. That was from the get-go. But it took a long time to really shape, because every rendition was completely different. The day before the recording we did a gig in Montreal, at Resonance Café, and we did it in the order that I imagined would actually be on the album. The sores were nicely bound and all that. At the end of that performance, Jay said, “We have to end the cycle on ‘Desert Moon.’ It has to be the last song.” Initially, it was somewhere in the beginning. So then the whole thing got reshuffled.

Even between performances, I wrote new pieces, I omitted others, I reshaped things. It was such a different format than what I was used to working with. The compositions that are more through-composed, that are really detailed, they stayed pretty much as they were originally written. But there are so many pieces that have a lot of freedom. They are like a guideline to the piece more than a detailed account of what every musician is going to be playing. For those, it took a while. I tried different things. It took several times through to shape them until we got them right. Some of them I kept shaping even in post-production — in the mixing and editing rooms.

I can imagine that when you have a song that is supposed to be open-ended and free it can be difficult to decide what version to capture on a recording.

I don’t know. I mean, I think you kind of know when something doesn’t quite work for you and when something works. Of course, there can be countless other versions of that but, for me, in a recording, it’s really important to get the truest performance of the piece — something that you can live with twenty years down the line. It just needs to answer certain criteria for me: Do I love it? Does it communicate what I want to say? Is there any part where I’m just drooping in the middle of it? If there is, I take it out. I’m ruthless with that stuff. Even if I wrote it and it has a personal significance. If it doesn’t work in the music then chop it, because it’s not worth it. You really need to be whole with your decisions, because they last.

In a concert it’s different. You do it and maybe one song works better than the other. You end the concert feeling either it was a good concert or not, but it’s not about the details of each specific song. Because the person listening to it is going through an experience and it’s a Zen experience. It happens and then it’s gone. With a recording it’s different because it lasts and people will listen to it several times and you will listen to it several times, so it needs to be precise. Every solo needs to hold the interest. Whatever it is — the instrumental section — it really needs to hold the space that it’s taking.

The collaborators were clearly an important part of creating this album. DB Boyko is listed as co-producer while Jay Clayton is credited as co-lead vocalist. How did you decide on the people you wanted to involve in this project and what roles you wanted them to have?

It varied from person to person. The first rendition was at the Western Front in Vancouver. That’s the one that DB commissioned. Aram was on that gig and, honestly, he is one of my favorite musicians. I really enjoy so much of what he does. He’s one of those people who are a rare combination of an incredible musician — so diverse and creative — and, at the same time, also an incredible human being. Such a sweet, giving, loving person, who is a joy to be with regardless of his amazing artistry. It’s really something to see both of those things existing so intensely in one person. I really wanted him on the album.

The same goes for Eylem. We played in Vancouver with Meredith Bates, who is also an amazing violinist. I love her and I will do other things with her in the future, I’m sure. But when I played it in New York with Eylem, it felt right. She and I have known each other since Nigun Conservatory, since I moved away from Jerusalem. I was twenty. We’ve known each other a long time. She has this really unique combination of the Mediterranean, Turkish music, combined with klezmer. She played with Snarky Puppy, she played in free improv settings. She does a lot of things, but her foundation is in Turkish music and I love that sound — it resonates home for me. And the fact that she could narrate the Turkish poem.

From the first gig it was Aram and DB where I felt I don’t want to let those sounds go. In New York it was Jay and Eylem. Everyone who played was amazing but those are unique sounds where you feel like it’s the right one for this project. I can’t imagine it without those sounds. Those four people were the ones I timed everything around. That was the core.

I had just moved to Montreal a couple of months before, so I didn’t really know bassists and drummers and singers. People in my community suggested Stéphane and Ivan, so it was a trust thing. With the singers also, a bunch of different people who run choirs of this sort — it’s not just any choir, it’s an improvisers choir. Everyone in that choir had to be really strong improvisers and quick thinkers who respond to  DB’s cues and who are able to fly off when they are given the freedom. A bunch of improviser choir directors gave us names and that’s how we assembled it. It was this kind of magical situation where people come to your help, which is part of the story of this album. It’s a very familial experience where people come together and help align the pieces.

With Jay, obviously, when you invite someone like her onto a project like this…. it’s such an amazing thing to have her there that I wanted to give her a big stage, as big as I could, to do her thing. A lot of her parts are not spelled out. I gave guidelines and structures, but a lot of freedom. She even spoke about this in the first Lunar Conversations. She mentioned that as being something she really appreciated. She says that it’s her favorite way of working, because she’s bringing in all of her expertise of all of her life to interpret a text however she imagines it and to give it context within the music. It was my job and DB’s job to create the tapestry for that, but she did her thing. Even in a song like “Moon over Gaza,” where we’re really intertwined, her parts were very unstructured. I told her, “Sing from this part of the text to this part of the text and then improvise and then sing that part and the last phrase needs to be this or that.” That was the depth of my instruction. Everything else was hers. The melody — she improvised it. It was different in every take.

That’s how you bring a full person to a project. Otherwise it’s just a voice.

Exactly. So that’s why she’s listed as a lead vocalist. She’s taking the lead in the songs that she’s leading. And some of them were co-leading and other times, like with “Patience” and “Mond” — I’m not even singing in those. She’s narrating them and improvising on them and I’m sitting on the side and listening and enjoying it tremendously.

That was part of the idea also. Because I’m bringing in all these voices, I don’t have to actively participate on every track. I composed the pieces, I curated them, I assembled the texts and envisioned the music, but I don’t need to sing on every track. It’s nice sometimes to not do that.

I think, in the contemporary world, the composer is the person who creates the container. If we go into the studio and create a fully improvised record, then we’re all the composers in that context. We co-create the container. But if I made the container and you come and bring yourself into it, then I’m still the composer. You’re the interpreter of my composition, even if that interpretation leaves a lot of space for you to bring whatever you want into it, there is still a composer without whom this would not have happened. Sometimes it’s about spelling it out and writing notes on paper and sometime it’s a graphic score. Sometimes a composition is a little paper with a bunch of instructions. That’s also a composition.

There are so many layers to the music, from the different voices, to the lyrics, to the languages you used. Language was a very powerful thing throughout the album. I found it fascinating that, in “Mond,” that’s the only German word that is being said and yet it informs so much of the aesthetic of that piece. Please tell me a bit about the creative process. You started off with the texts and built the music around them, right?

Yeah, that was ground zero. What I knew I wanted to do was write a piece about the moon for the choir and the band and I knew I wanted to ask different women to bring in their voices. Then I chose the women and the girls. Some of them were really little, like Bes (Davies), who is now in her teens but was eight years old then. My little girl was four when she did hers. So that was a given.

I wanted to start from whatever they give me. That’s why it kept morphing also. There was a part of it that was out of my control. I mean, it wasn’t completely out of my control, because I received the texts and then I chose whether to use them and how to use them, but the first thing was to receive them. The way I work with text is I just read it until something starts to pop out. Sometimes it’s almost visual. I can see specific sentences and words ascending from the page and asking to be composed. (laughs) If that doesn’t happen, then I won’t compose that text. Even if it’s an amazing poem. If I read it repeatedly and nothing comes to me musically, then it’s not the right time for it.

Things evolved over time, also. I started composing the songs and some of them were really intuitive, like Anna Smaill’s song, the first track, or “Venus and the Moon” or “Yare’ah.” Those were born as complete songs.

Then, some of the texts really required a different kind of attention. For example, Gem Salsberg’s poem, “Traveler Woman.” That one took a lot of revisions, because it’s so long. I had this feeling that I wanted the two narrators and then the composed sections, but I had to find the right pacing, to eliminate specific things in order to create the arc of it. There were a bunch of versions of that song. Same for “Patience,” the Sams I Tebrizi one, which was chosen by Nihan Devecioglu. I loved that one right from the start, but it used to build up really slowly. I kept trying to find the right pacing for it and the right way to communicate it without it being heavy or lagging.

“Tsuki,” Kyoko Kitamura’s song, was really clear to me from the start. It was like a drawing. It’s very abstract. I could hear the overtones on the string instruments and the improvisatory exchange. That improvised, very abstract vocal melody over the overtone bass and violin, that was there from the get-go. At first, I did it on my own but luckily, in Montreal, we had Maya Kuroki, who is an amazing Japanese vocalist and improviser who could work with Kyoko’s text. Every time we performed it, it was different, but it was the same kind of feeling — this suspended space between waking and dreaming.

Every song really had its own journey. There are also songs that didn’t make it onto the album, like “Luna,” the song for Sofia Rei’s poem. I loved that text, which is why it ended up on the album, but there is a whole composition around it that didn’t end up making it. Something about it wasn’t perfect. But I didn’t want to let go of the poem.

It’s a really beautiful poem, yeah.

Yeah, it’s wonderful.

Stéphane did three takes for the bass intro for “Moon Story.” Every take was profoundly beautiful; I had a really hard time letting them go. So we used one take for “Moon Story” and, instead of tossing away the other two, I took one and superimposed Sofia’s reading on it. They never met, but it sounds like it was made for each other. It just felt like her voice plus Stéphane’s beautiful playing was enough.

You mentioned before that you shifted the order of the songs once you decided to close with “Desert Moon.” Is track placement usually important to you?

It’s always important to me.

How did you decide the track placement for this album?

Initially, there were all kinds of thoughts, but once Jay said that thing about “Desert Moon” being at the end, then that reshuffled everything. You can’t just move one song, as you also know as a fiction writer. (laughs) If you move one piece, all the pieces move, nothing stays in place.

After a lot of trials where nothing felt right, I realized that there were songs for different phases of the moon. Each writer approached a different part of the process. Suddenly, the order made sense, as a whole album but also as individual sides. Because it’s an LP, it has to make sense as a smaller unit as well as the larger unit.

I’m an old-school listener. For the Pneuma record that was released last year somebody wrote, “The 1950s meets the 2050s” and I love that. (laughs) I think that’s very accurate for a lot of my work. There is always something new and I’m willing to try things that maybe weren’t tackled in that way before but, at the same time, I am an old-school listener. I love vinyl. I want to make things that take a space in the world. I don’t listen on shuffle. I accept that some people listen that way or will check out a track but, on  my end, I will do the work so that if there is someone who wants to sit and have an experience, it will be an experience. It’s not just a random collection of songs. You don’t have to listen to it that way, but I encourage you to. (laughs)

When you listen to an album sequentially, you have an interaction with the maker, because they curated the thing. There was probably some thought behind it. Especially if you’re going to go out of your way and make vinyl today. Nowadays, maybe people put in less thought about that but before, people always curated their albums. I don’t have perfect pitch but, with records that I know really well, I always know the pitch of the next song when one song ends. It’s embedded in my experience. You have that embodied feeling of where the next song is going to take you. That is meaningful to me as a listener, but also as a maker of music.

I love that this side of you appears in your music, because you are a curator. So much of your activity within the Orchard of Pomegranates involves that, from the Listening Hours to the Vocal Intensives to the house concerts you organize. It’s nice to see that reflected in your music as well.

That’s something I always enjoyed. My life has been such a puzzle for a long time. I moved a lot because of my work and my husband’s work. I never had that stability in one place to curate things in an ongoing way. But it’s always something I enjoy. Like all ’80s kids, my brother and I would make each other mixtapes all the time. We would really curate them. We would think about that so deeply —the sequence of the songs and all of that. Now, thanks to the pandemic in some ways, I get to expand that.

I’ve always done it within my own work. When I’m mentoring people with their own projects, which is something that’s been happening more and more, I always emphasize that part — the sequence. I’m doing it now also through my teaching and the Listening Hours. You’re right, it is a part of my personality. I never thought of it that way. I like putting unexpected people in the room and seeing what happens. (laughs)

Like a chemical experiment.

Science for the musician. It’s never blown up so far. Worst case scenario, there’s just no chemistry. (laughs)

The same goes for Pneuma. It’s three of my favorite clarinetists. I don’t know if Michael knew François. They were just three individuals I love and whose sound I love. The Vancouver Jazz Festival commissioned that and, for this piece, it was DB. I’ve been lucky to have received support for that. You know, to have those people who are curators themselves give me space to sub-curate. (laughs)

Speaking of this, tell me a bit about the Orchard of Pomegranates. How did you decide to create that cultural space for all these diverse projects?

It was one of those a-ha moments. Like I said, this moving around so much made me feel like my life was really fragmented. Then, when we moved to Montreal, we found this house that we live in now. And this house is on Old Orchard Avenue. Suddenly, I had a physical space where I could hold workshops and have rehearsals and all of that. It was a huge thing for me because for many years I didn’t have that, and I didn’t think I would.

I was walking on the street one day and this quote from the Song of Songs popped into my head. I did a whole song cycle based on the Song of Songs, so it bears a lot of resonance for me. And the quote is, “פרדס רימונים עם פרי מגדים” which translates to, “An orchard of pomegranates with luscious fruits.”

I suddenly realized it’s all really one thing. Everything I do, other than making my albums and touring them, all the rest is one thing. That thing is the Orchard. There are different trees but they’re all in the same orchard. That feeling was a huge relief for me. I stared having ideas about what I wanted to do with that. I still have a fantasy — and hopefully one day I can do that— of having Listening Hours where we all sit in a room with a stack of vinyl records and listen to music. Wouldn’t it be fun to do that? Like old-school listening parties.

The Listening Hours on Zoom were really fun. There was one time somebody texted me in the middle of the thing, going, “I can’t believe you’ve created a space where people are silent and actually listening to something.” It was a really special thing. People were really present with the music and responsive to it and paying close attention to what was going on. That was wonderful and I hope to do that again at some point.

I love the Lunar Conversations series. Nowadays, of course, you can’t go on the traditional route of releasing an album and then lining up gigs to promote it, so this is a great way to keep the focus on it for an extended period of time. It also expand on everything you’ve been doing. Everything is kind of connected within this multidisciplinary story. Do you have any other plans to promote the album going into the second year of the Covid pandemic?

The Lunar Conversation series is a huge part of it. Then there are things that are up in the air. We have a few festival gigs lined up, but nobody can know if they’re going to happen or not. We’re hoping for that. We would love to perform it with the choir but, right now, who knows how far away that is? Even when things get back to normal, I think it will be a while before we can populate a small stage with eighteen people. So DB and I started thinking months ago about creating some kind of a digital choir that would enable us to still perform the music, but in a more contained kind of way. We’re trying to be creative about it and not let it bring us down.

Right now, we’re living in a world that says “can’t” a lot. That’s really depressing. I don’t want to live in that. So I’m trying to think — in music and also in my parenting and life in general — about what is possible within these limitations. Being a musician and being a vegetarian and being a Jew, you kind of know that limitations are part of the deal. As a free improviser, I also think the concept of free improvisation is tainted, because it’s never really free. You superimpose your own limitations on something. Those can even be unspoken sometimes. As musicians and improvisers, we are familiar with the concept of working within a limited structure. That’s all this is — as long as everyone stays healthy. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. It’s just the discomfort of limitation.

To me, that’s also an opportunity to explore different things. The Vocal Intensives would not have happened this way if not for the pandemic. We did one in October of 2019, where Jay came over and she was here a whole week. We both taught workshops and, at the end, we did a concert. And it was awesome. It was wonderful. But there were ten people max and the house concert had maybe fifteen people. It was really fun, but this is a whole other thing. We get to interact with eight or nine phenomenal artists, including Jay, who contribute all kinds of ideas. It’s like this bath of inspiration and ass-kicking.

You leave that weekend with so many tools and so many ideas of things that you could practice and do and write. That’s something that really evolved out of the pandemic. It enabled me to call people from anywhere in the world and have them all in the same space. It also enabled me to open it up to participants from all over the world — people who are complete beginners alongside people who are experienced musicians. Everyone finds themselves inside that. That’s a really feminist space, for me. It’s an inclusive space. It’s something where there’s resonance. It’s the way that I want the world to be, beyond the Intensives and beyond my little world. It’s that kind of world where people are together, sharing their ideas and everybody’s welcome to the table, as long as they check the cynicisms at the door. (laughs)

What is also interesting is that, since the Lunar Conversation series expands over 13 months, it allows the album to keep growing and developing organically even after its release date, which is uncommon. How did you come up with it?

As we were approaching the end of making the album and everything was coming to a conclusion, I felt that I was going to feel this huge void when this thing is finished. That happens with albums. You put a lot of effort into making them and then they’re out and there’s this big void. I feel like the feedback from the listeners usually comes at the gigs that follow a release. In a time like we’re living in right now, where the gigs are not really possible in the foreseeable future, there’s this void. You don’t really get feedback from your listeners. We can’t even go out to toast at a bar. (laughs)

So I was sitting with that and thinking, “How can we give life to this album beyond the release date?” I don’t even remember what triggered this idea but, once I had it, I liked that we could really give space also to the writers. Because on an album, the info is there, but you don’t know that much about these people. Even in the press release, you can’t go into that much detail. This gives me an opportunity to host them and the artists and the musicians and have all the different collaborators sit at a table, as if we were having a glass of wine somewhere.

I found these wonderful people who make gorgeous lyric videos out in the UK. They actually found me. In collaboration with them, I’m making a new video for each song, which is kind of exciting. I get to experience these songs also through this visual medium. It gives access to people who maybe aren’t as focused on listening to the words. The fact that they’re on the screen actually helps you focus on that.

We called the Lunar Conversations an “Alternative Tour.” It feels like that a little bit. It’s a way of giving life to the album without forcing anything. Just putting it in the world. We want to feel this album and unfold it and unravel it.  

Get your copy of 13 Lunar Meditations: Summoning the Witches on Bandcamp.

You can follow Ayelet’s 13 Lunar Conversations series on Youtube. The next one is on Feb 11, 6pm EST.

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