Mojo SEPTEMBER 2007 - by Al Hutchins


This month in the annals of the obscure: an album described by Brian Eno as "the most frightening record I have ever heard."

Towering Inferno: Kaddish

"It made everything else at the time seem totally trivial. Even the good stuff like P.J. Harvey or Tricky. It was as if this beast had entered the room," says Bernard MacMahon, formerly Towering Inferno's manager. He taped Brian Eno enthusing about Kaddish and took the transcript to Island Records to secure a deal. That deal took a Birmingham duo's 1993 tiny self-release and made it global. The no-budget multimedia production of Kaddish that MacMahon saw play to fifteen people at The Arches in Glasgow would end its run with three sold-out nights at the State opera House in Melbourne in 1999.

This Cinderella story involves two classically trained musicians, Richard Wolfson and Andy Saunders, who met in 1972 through their mothers' involvement in the Jewish Graduates' Society. They found they had spookily identical tastes (Soft Machine, Caravan, Miles Davis, Stravinsky) and formed the experimental group Missing Morris in Birmingham and later, in 1982, piano-sax outfit Art Hammer Duo in London.

Irked at the ego-driven limits of the rock group and the middle-class confines of the classical night out, they became obsessed with a new form which could incorporate their love of film (favourite directors included Tarkovsky, Herzog and Jarman), music and theatre.

A version of Kaddish was performed at venues including the Battersea Arts Centre in the mid-'80s, but UK gigs were scarce. Along with their friend and visual director Roger Riley, Wolfson and Saunders took their army of Super-8s and slide projectors in a Ford Transit to the underground circuit in Europe. For Riley these thousands of miles on the road were crucial to Kaddish's evolution. "We played on volcanic islands off Italy, the imperial riding stables in Berne, a slaughterhouse in Switzerland, by the frozen sea in Sweden, visited Dachau while performing in Bavaria, and these all provided images and ideas. The long gestation of the project gave it a depth and richness it would not otherwise have had."

Pivotal, too, was the first meeting with Hungarian poet Endre Szkárosi, at the Bologna Festival in 1986. "We were knocked out by the passion of his performance," says Saunders. "He became a huge influence, both musically and philosophically."

The touring also prompted the duo to look into their own roots. "A lot of Kaddish was influenced by sounds we'd heard as kids in synagogue," says Saunders. "Shofar, kaddish, choirs - amazing, powerful sounds and music. It struck us that a lot of Jewish musicians - Dylan, Lou Reed, Cohen, Ligeti - never talk about their Jewishness. We though it was weird that this terrible thing happened in the mid-20th century and while black Africans were making music about oppression, Jews just seemed to go into denial."

The recording took place over three years in Budapest and London, using a Fostex 8-track and an early Akai 1000 sampler. A number of Wolfson' and Saunders' musical heroes - folk singer Márta Sebestyén and saxophonist Elton Dean among them - got involved. Described by its creators as a "dream history of Europe in the wake of the Holocaust", Kaddish - literally a payer for the dead - yokes extremes of musical genres within the same frame. Minimalist ambient meets metal meets classical piano, jazz and string quartets. Plaintive folk morphs into tribal rhythms, sampled loops join lone wailing and massed choirs. Its texts and songs range across cultures from Psalms to traditional Cretan song to Hungarian funeral oration. It is a sonic tapestry of thousands of years, lamenting what is lost in periods of great destruction.

From 1995, the deal with Island meant there was a £80,000 budget and an eighteen-string crew to perform Kaddish live. All who saw the production testify to its power which, by dint of three large visual projectors, was able to further intensify the Kaddish experience. Walkouts at the sight of burning swastikas and stars of David were not uncommon. For Szkárosi, the show deepened the emotions and nuances of the piece, its "beauty and spirit of resistance", but for Saunders, the big stages and budget squeezed much of the creativity from what had started as an underground event.

A second Towering Inferno project, The Other Side, was in progress when Wolfson died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm in 2005, aged forty-nine. Endre Szkárosi's words from Kaddish - "this sky will cover you when you fall down" - are on his gravestone. Saunders admits that the pair had a fiery working relationship which involved much mutual censorship, and that the absence of this is the hardest part of bringing the new work to completion. But, hearing him describe a recent three bagpipe/three fuzz-guitar collaboration with his current neighbour (and Canterbury rock veteran) Mont Campbell, it's clear he still intends to.


Tracks PART 1: The Rose / Prayer / Dachau / 4 By 2 / Edvard Kiraly / Memory PART 2: Not Me / Reverse Field / Occupation / Sto Mondo Rotondo / Organ Loop PART 3: Toll (I) / Toll (II) / The Run / Juden / Pogrom / Partisans PART 4: Modern Times / The Rose (II) / The Bell / Kaddish / The Weaver

Producer: Towering Inferno

Recorded: Diorama, Lavender Hill, Camden Lock and Porcupine (London); LGM (Budapest)

Released: November 1993

Personnel: Richard Wolfson, Andy Saunders and a cast of thousands