JESSICA MOSS: When I sent you the piece [“Opened Ending”] to see if it might inspire some images, what were your first thoughts?
JEM COHEN: First thought: ‘I really love the track and maybe it shouldn’t have accompanying images.’ Almost wrote to try and talk you out of it! Second thought, while digging into the pile of hard drives in my closet: ‘Well, let’s see if I can find some things that really work with this.’ There’s a worry, a feeling of responsibility to not betray someone’s good music by overloading it. You don’t want to close down the range of options a listener might have otherwise had seeing their own pictures in their own head. Or maybe they’d just listen, have no pictures at all. I always know I’ll have to fight to maintain and even encourage uncompromised listening because images and sounds can jerk each other around too easily. It’s a problem, one that plagues me. I also love beating it, if that’s possible. So the real first question is, can the images leave room? And the next question is, is it possible they might even make more room? That’s where it gets really interesting. I’ve been wrestling with these things since I was about 20 years old, when I did slide-shows with live soundtracks in college. And it’s not theoretical, it’s physical. I never really know until I try. Editing is deeply mysterious.
There’s a worry, a feeling of responsibility to not betray someone’s good music by overloading it. So the real first question is, can the images leave room? And the next question is, is it possible they might even make more room? That’s where it gets really interesting.
This is the most explicitly ‘Jewish’ music I have released into the world on my own. How did this inspire the way you approached the images?
When you first asked me about doing this and mentioned that the track had Jewish connections, I realized I didn’t have many specifically Jewish images in my archive but I somehow remembered the bowl of borscht, just a shot or two, from years ago. Finding the shot, among thousands, was another matter, but I had to. It’s from the B&H Dairy restaurant.
Tell me about that restaurant, why it’s important to you…
The B&H is on 2nd Ave. in Manhattan’s East Village, between East 7th St. and St. Mark’s. It’s been open 82 years and I’ve eaten soup there for over 30 of them. A vegetarian Jewish dairy restaurant is a particular thing. (For the fullest history of such places imaginable, see Ben Katchor’s recent book.) There aren’t many left. It’s one of the most Jewish places in New York but is of course owned by a non-Jewish Egyptian who runs it with his Polish, non-Jewish wife and the workers are from Mexico, Ecuador, Egypt. It’s around the corner from where I used to buy records and up the street from Anthology Film Archives and down the street from the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s church – three of the last true compass points for me in this chainstore-ravaged, wealth-erased, Giuliani-Bloomberg-Trump-destroyed city. The B&H goes through bad paint jobs, it’s not a restaurant for “foodies” and I depend on it. The writer Aaron Cometbus and I have met there for years and he carved our names in wet concrete right outside the door. It’s had a very rough go during the pandemic shutdown and the cook/counterman was let go and some idiots smashed the windows during recent street protests, for no good reason. It’s an endangered species for sure. I mostly just get the soup, usually the borscht, which has a very specific color. Well, sometimes it goes more towards beet red, sometimes a little orangey, but it’s always unlike other colors in the world. The soup is pretty cheap, very filling, always free challah bread… They don’t like cell phones or picture taking there and I’ve got almost no footage inside the place. It’s a fucking anchor, though I wish they’d hire Mahmoud back.
I don’t know if you remember this, but when Ezra was first born I was feeling quite in crisis about my own relationship with Judaism. We had a conversation in your kitchen about it and I found your angle inspiring and moving; was loosely about how it is central to ‘being Jewish’ to be in a constant state of questioning. Can you say a few words about this?
I guess we talked about ways we’re still Jewish, or can continue to be Jewish, when we don’t feel tied to or comfortable with ‘organized religion’ and its strictures. I’m from Eastern European ancestry, Russia or the Ukraine, and my father put us in Hebrew School part-time when I was a kid in D.C. He just wanted us to be ‘good’ Jews. I hated going, eventually refused, and also refused the Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking once in that school: “If there’s a god, why is there a Vietnam War?” What I eventually came to realize is that this was my way of being Jewish, that for me it’s above all a questioner’s religion, a doubter’s religion. Isaac Bashevis Singer as a vegetarian, or painter Philip Guston struggling through abstraction and back to figures, or mighty Walter Benjamin, who didn’t feel so mighty in his day, lost in the Arcades Project for so many years… Kafka, Emma Goldman, Lenny Bruce. We have to dig out the parts that have strength for us. I loved the band you played in, Black Ox Orkestar, which retrieved Jewish forms and sonics while opposing Israel as an apartheid state…
I remember asking once in school: “If there’s a god, why is there a Vietnam War?” I eventually came to realize this was my way of being Jewish, that for me it’s above all a questioner’s religion, a doubter’s religion. Isaac Bashevis Singer as a vegetarian, or painter Philip Guston struggling through abstraction and back to figures, or mighty Walter Benjamin, who didn’t feel so mighty in his day, lost in the Arcades Project for so many years… Kafka, Emma Goldman, Lenny Bruce. We have to dig out the parts that have strength for us.
Anyhow, aside from the borscht, the religious images that recur in this video are not Jewish, but I’m o.k. with that. When I went searching through my footage, I was happy to find a silver hand used to hold Christian relics, and a blue ox on a page from an Armenian illustrated manuscript.
How did it feel to be assembling images that are so clearly from a time before distance became part of our shared lived experience?
Well this is one of the only pieces I’ve finished during the pandemic, where I’ve often had to lock down in my apartment. Some of it was shot on my roof, which is something I always have to work with, no matter how much the view changes. As a street photographer/filmmaker, it’s excruciating now to have the streets emptied out, and for faces to be masked. Shots from a crowded subway or peopled Chinatown have a terrible new resonance. Yeah, in a number of ways there’s distance in the piece, but some is unrelated to the pandemic. There’s distance we both try to maintain from corporate takeover. There’s the towers that take over every city. So much of my work, maybe most of it, has to do with moving through these places and looking for things that still hold. There’s a vocabulary that keeps resurfacing, because it’s just life. And I think the music itself has distance in it, a simultaneous separation and drawing closer to something…maybe the past, or maybe what’s coming? I felt that very strongly.
How does it feel to be collaborating in this way?
I love to collaborate and I’m often not the easiest collaborator. I love freedom, mine and other people’s, and I’m also a terrible control freak – until I’m not. As I said, when it comes to music that I really respect I still sometimes feel maybe it should be left alone, that it doesn’t actually need my images or anyone else’s. But you’re one of the musicians I’ve gotten along really, really well with and we’ve done Empires of Tin, We Have an Anchor, and the Gravity Hill Sound+Image shows together, and this continued to be a very solid collaboration. We could leave a lot unspoken. There was one element, just a couple of shots that I knew I was pushing my luck with, and those went away. So a little push and pull, but virtually no friction. I feel good about this piece, honored to have been asked and relieved that the images might not have done any damage. I’m proud of it, actually, and very proud of you for your music-making.
In a number of ways there’s distance in the piece, but some is unrelated to the pandemic. There’s distance we both try to maintain from corporate takeover. There’s the towers that take over every city. So much of my work, maybe most of it, has to do with moving through these places and looking for things that still hold.
How does New York feel right now?
New York feels skittery and stunned; I’ll be very surprised if we don’t end up back in lockdown soon. I’ve got lots of my own work to do but lost all paying jobs, and so on. It’s lonesome. I’m scared.
And America, well it feels trashed. It’s gone so far beyond the usual insanity. Cannot believe I woke up today to psychopath Trump telling people not to fear the virus, and to another black human, Jonathan Price, murdered by police. So all that and we’re barreling towards the election. Tense times. Music is crucial.
BTW I’m calling the piece “Opened Ending”.
I like that a lot. Sums things up. I was listening to the BBC this morning and a woman was talking about Shakespeare and said something along the lines of: it can’t be sublime if you can completely understand it, if you can pin it all down…