For most Jews, the word Kaddish evokes images of loss, mourning, death. But for Hal Willner, “Kaddish” is a spoken-word piece — some would call it poetry — by Allen Ginsberg that evokes a very different image: family.
Willner, a record and concert producer, and the music supervisor for “Saturday Night Live” for most of the 1980s, found himself with a conundrum a couple of years ago. The Tune-In Music Festival came calling with a special request. “They were putting together this Philip Glass night, a festival for his 75th birthday, and they asked me if I wanted to do something,” Willner said in an interview. Willner’s mind immediately went to the late poet Ginsberg.
Ginsberg and Glass had been friends and worked together on a number of occasions, and Willner thought there could be no better way to honor Glass than to perform a Ginsberg poem in his honor. As for which poem, “Kaddish” was the immediate first choice.
It all traced back to a job offer Willner had gotten more than two decades before, which ended up changing his life. “A guy named Michael Minzer, who had a production company/label called Paris Records ... asked me if I wanted to do an album with Allen Ginsberg, in 1986.” At the time, Willner knew little about Ginsberg beyond having seen him on the cover of The Atlantic magazine when he was growing up, but that didn’t deter him. “It was the kind of project that appealed to me, because I love to do projects where I don’t know anything about the subject. You get to learn about it and research it, and then there’s a certain discovery that one has that the audience will go on with you.”
So Willner took the job, and it turned out to be a great decision. He and Ginsberg clicked and ended up recording a number of albums over the years before Ginsberg’s death. And of all Ginsberg’s poems, it may have been “Kaddish” that spoke to him the most. “One of the great memories of my life is sitting in my old apartment with Allen proofreading the text.”
But there was a big difference between feeling an affinity toward a poem and transforming it into a theatrical piece to perform in front of hundreds of people. Willner immediately called in a pair of his friends, Bill Frisell and Chloe Webb, and asked them to help.
Hal Willner and Chloe Webb read during “Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish,” which features visuals by Ralph Steadman and music composed and conducted by Bill Frisell, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Photo by Stephanie Berger
Webb, 56, an actress best-known to most people for her prominent roles in films like “Sid and Nancy” and “Twins,” was hardly a novice on the spoken-word performance scene. She’d been working with Willner for more than 15 years and had been doing theater since she was a kid; she jumped at the chance to do a Ginsberg piece.
“The thing that I really loved about Allen was that he was so upfront about his journeys through everything,” Webb said. “He was comfortable with things that other people would be afraid of.”
Webb and Willner began the process of taking the poem and turning it into a performance piece. “We worked on it over months and months,” Webb said. They’d fit in the time to rehearse between their many trips out of town. “Since there’s just two of us, we don’t need a rehearsal space. We’d read it in the park, then we’d read it in his house. ... Sometimes we’d switch parts — I’d play Allen, and he’d play [Ginsberg’s mother] Naomi. Then we’d do the comedy version, read it really fast, read it really slow.”
While Webb and Willner worked on the text, Willner asked Frisell, a musician and composer, to work on music for the piece. For inspiration, Frisell listened to records of Ginsberg reading as he composed the score.
Asked why he thinks there’s such a long history of collaboration between jazz musicians and poets, Willner was quick to answer: “I think it had to do with the time and the attitude, and they hung out together.” Willner also noted that jazz musicians and poets are prone to improvisation.
The initial performance of the piece in New York was well received by most. It also included filmed segments made by Webb, and art by artist Ralph Steadman. “We have our purists who show up — poetry purists, jazz purists,” said Willner, noting that the performance irked some of the more rigid audience members. “But I remember when he [Ginsberg] was talking about the song ‘A Day in the Life.’ It was a TV show about ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ and he said, ‘ “A Day in the Life” is the best poem.’ ” And in that sense, Willner is sure Ginsberg wouldn’t mind what he’s done.
“Music is a foundation, a framework. ... The music can also convey the emotion of what you’re reading,” Willner said. The beat poets, of whom Ginsberg is the most famous, were hardly rarefied in their performances. “Everyone was drunk. Allen’s asking everyone to shut up. These guys had a wildness, a little craziness ... and it’s almost like that’s disappeared a little bit.”
When “Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish: A Hal Willner Project” makes its West Coast debut on April 17 at UCLA’s Royce Hall, people can expect to see a version of the piece that has been revised somewhat since its New York debut. “We made some musical changes. I made some changes to the film,” Webb said. One section that was previously more of a song is now spoken again.
Webb said the opportunity to work on the piece again is a blessing. “I’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare,” she said. “It’s that deep.”
And “Kaddish” has been cathartic for the actress in many ways, which she hopes will be apparent to the attendance.
“Just to be with Allen’s words in a place where everyone loves him and appreciates him is a pleasure.”
For more information about the show, and to purchase tickets, visit cap.ucla.edu.