Out in Berkeley: Ben Goldberg’s Orphic Machine

The best educators don’t just impart information, they provide intellectual tools that can be applied far from whatever topic they’re ostensibly teaching. For clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg, the experience of taking several undergraduate courses at Brandeis with poet and essayist Allen Grossman in the early 1980s has continued to reverberate, gaining amplitude rather than fading through the years. Grossman’s cryptic writing is the source of inspiration for Goldberg’s most ambitious work yet, “Orphic Machine,” a song cycle that premieres on Sunday at Freight & Salvage as part of the 27th Annual Jewish Music Festival (which commissioned the piece with Chamber Music America).

“I took two or three classes with Grossman at Brandeis and I continued to remember that encounter as a mind blowing experience,” says Goldberg, a long time Berkeley resident. “When he reads poetry it’s like the Old Testament, a real force of nature. The main memory I have is of him reading the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh,’ and whenever he’d say the monster’s name, Humbaba, he would stamp his feet and the entire classroom would rattle.”

He didn’t think much about Grossman’s writing for a couple decades, and in the ensuing years Goldberg paved the way for the radical Jewish music movement with his New Klezmer Trio. But a series of life changes sparked by a divorce led him back to poetry, particularly the verse of MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient Susan Stewart (he included his tune “Learned From Susan Stewart” on his acclaimed 2006 Cryptogramophone album “the door, the hat, the chair, the fact”). He sent Stewart a copy of the album (“She was charmed,” he says), and he ended up getting a hold of a book of her essays “Poetry and the Fate of the Senses.”

Ben Goldberg

“I couldn’t understand a word,” he recalls. “But something clicked and I asked her about Grossman and it turned out that they’re friends. That reconnected me. I realized how important he was to me. He was having a retirement celebration from Johns Hopkins, and they invited me to come out. I played a couple of songs, and I got to hear him read.”

Delving back into Grossman’s writing coincided with a new twist in Goldberg’s creative journey from klezmer renegade to free jazz explorer to his recent emergence as a fount of melodic invention. That evolution was on brilliant display with the avant chamber ensemble Tin Hat, which premiered a program of songs last year turning the poetry of e e cummings into beautifully detailed songs. It’s a typically Goldbergian move to find unimagined musical subtexts in texts of all varieties, whether klezmer, bebop, or the music of Steve Lacy. With Grossman, he keyed on the book “Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics.”


“This book contains the foundations of his poetical thought, presented as a group if interrelated aphorisms,” Goldberg says. “It examines some basic elements of civilization – the impulse toward song, the relation of self and other – in view of their place in the development of human consciousness, with a text whose structure itself replicates and illuminates the ideas being discussed.”

Stretching himself musically

It’s not just that he’s composed an evening of songs with lyrics like, “The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.” What’s most alluring is that Goldberg is stretching himself musically, orchestrating arrangements for a nine-piece ensemble featuring some of the most vivid and inventive improvisers in American music.

There’s Tin Hat’s powerhouse violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, and intrepid Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker. Denver trumpeter Ron Miles plays with preternatural poise and compressed lyricism. Drummer Ches Smith, who shook up the Bay Area scene 10 years ago, has been making a similar impact in New York City. Tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth is an underappreciated Bay Area treasure, while Berkeley pianist Myra Melford deserves the voluminous international esteem she receives. Kenny Wollesen, the New Klezmer Trio’s original drummer, returns to his native Northern California to play vibes on this gig, joining forces with his frequent rhythm section partner, the ridiculously prolific New York bassist Greg Cohen.

“Duke Ellington is the absolute model for this, for writing for these kind of strong musical personalities,” Goldberg says. “It’s astonishing not just that he wrote all that beautiful music, but that he knew what to ask Johnny Hodges and Tricky Sam Nanton to do. That’s the model.”

Andrew Gilbert, who writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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