TORONTO – A series of poems written in a concentration camp about romantic love, betrayal and hopeful dreams of faraway places is being delivered to life in album form, sung in Czech by the writer’s granddaughter.
Lenka Lichtenberg’s album “Thieves of Dreams,” released in 2022, is competing on the Juno Awards next weekend in the worldwide music album of the yr category.
Mixing chamber music and jazz, the albumdraws from poetry that her grandmother, Anna Hana Friesova, wrote while imprisoned within the Theresienstadt concentration camp through the Second World War.
It’s also nominated for global roots album of the yr and the Oliver Schroer pushing the boundaries award at this spring’s Canadian Folk Music Awards.
Lichtenberg first began the project after the death of her mother, the author Jana Renee Friesova, in 2016. She says a yr after her passing, as she was going through papers in her mother’s apartment in Prague, she discovered two small notebooks stuffed with poems that her grandmother wrote between 1940 and 1945.
“Writing anything was actually strictly forbidden,” Lichtenberg said of the Nazi concentration camp. “My suspicion is that she actually wrote these on little scraps of paper that she kept hidden.”
She says when the Soviet army liberated the concentration camp in May 1945, her poetry was one in every of the few things she took along with her.
Lichtenberg spent her childhood partaking in musical theatre in Prague and studied classical music on the Prague Conservatory, specializing in voice. Once in Canada, she received a bachelor of education from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from York University.
From 1997 to 2005, she taught music appreciation at Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University, after which became a Yiddish singer before specializing in music celebrating her country of birth.
Lichtenberg didn’t know what to do with the poems. At first, she thought they were historical records fitting for a museum. Nonetheless, them through a viewpoint of making meaningful art helped her come to the choice to make her album.
“This was so extraordinary and private, so being a musician, I made a decision to offer life to those poems through music,” she said.
She then received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council to commission musicians for the album.
“Thieves of Dreams” features arrangements from 19 musicians from the Czech Republic, Canada and Germany. But working on the album through the COVID-19 pandemic meant she wasn’t in a position to spend time togetherwith the othersin a studio.
Nonetheless, pandemic restrictions that shut down live events also meant musicians were itching to become involved in musical collaborations, even when it meant figuring out of their home studios.
“I discovered people extremely receptive and desirous to do stuff and that was an actual pleasure,” she said.
She would make a track along with her vocals and keyboard accompaniment and send it to her collaborators, includingCanadian bassist George Koller, who would then addhis instrumentalsand send it back. That approach was applied to the opposite collaborations and was how the album was put together.
“The range of sounds that is available in the album is a results of that type of approach,” she said.
When she began to read the poems, she said she could envision her grandmother going through various emotions equivalent to passion, love and disappointment. Lichtenberg said her grandmother wrote about how her marriage to her grandfather was falling apart and the way she felt at a loss. Her grandfather, Richard Friesova, was executed in a gas chamber on Oct. 10, 1944 in Auschwitz.
“It was so unexpected how any individual, after they are in a concentration camp and never knowing in the event that they’re going to live the following day, who’s ravenous more often than not, to take into consideration and write concerning the state of their marriage,” she said.
Within the song “What Is This Place?,” Lichtenberg says her grandmother was describing how being in thecamp affected herrelationship and the hope she still carried despite the situation.
She says in other songs, her grandmother touches upon romantic love and the breakdown of her marriage through the war equivalent to “Feet Are Marching, Two and Two.” Others are love poems unexpectedly written as the potential for death loomed, as when she explored her romantic exploits in “That Monster, Custom.” Some poems, like “My Paradise of Solitude” discuss her dreaming of faraway places and Lichtenberg connected to that aspect probably the most.
“I get so strongly affected by the writing since it’s in my blood, she’s my blood,” she said.
She says when she gave the originals to her friends and colleagues who’re Czech, they were strongly affected by the writing as well.
“That is powerful poetry that deserves its place on this planet,” she said.
Lichtenberg originally had plans to make a double album, with one album being in Czech and the opposite being in English with a distinct set of poems. She says it was hard to choose from the 65 pieces of poetry, nonetheless despite knowing the album sounded more authentic in Czech, she’s committed to creating an English version to succeed in a bigger audience.
“I even have chosen many of the songs for the album and I’m getting a few of them recorded,” she said. “The songs shall be more accessible and understood.”
Lichtenberg says she is giving herself more freedom to explore quite a lot of different sounds. She says the English project shall be more experimental in comparison with the Czech-language album, including improvised pieces and spoken word.
“I’m one piece that can probably be 11 minutes long that can undergo a complete bunch of various sounds and styles and the story shall be really thick in there,” she said.
She says she’s excited to receive one other grant from the Canada Arts Council for the project and says she will be able to commission 4 or five musicians. She says she wants those musicians to explore where they will go musically and creatively on the album, which she plans to release this summer or fall.
In terms of the prospect of winning a Juno, she’s grateful to be nominated and blissful whether she leaves a winner or not. She says the nomination itself shows her music isn’t just meaningful to her and to her community, it’s also meaningful to others within the industry.
“That is amazingly rewarding,” she said. “It means every part. It really is smart of my life in Canada as a musician.”
Take heed to a playlist of 2023 Juno Award nominees on Spotify: https://bit.ly/CPJunos2023
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2023.