Times Will TellPiece released for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

29-year-old composer releases ‘Kaddish’ for survivor grandfather on top label

In new a cappella choral work, Swedish art music composer Jacob Mühlrad holds a dialogue with his deceased grandfather, using his harrowing testimony and texts by Elie Wiesel

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad. (Andre Garcia)
Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad. (Andre Garcia)

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad’s new work, “Kaddish,” begins with an amorphous rumble. To this writer, the deep tones were reminiscent of trains rolling on their tracks, truly an amazing feat for an a cappella choir.

Speaking with The Times of Israel from his Stockholm studio via Zoom ahead of the piece’s official release, Mühlrad smiled and diplomatically said the work, named after the Jewish prayer for the dead, is open to interpretation. It is meant to be meditative or contemplative, he said — a way to commune.

“In some ways, there’s a story that wants to break out from this sound,” said the 29-year-old composer. “Within the Kabbalah — Jewish mysticism — the melodies without words have a higher spiritual value. So for me, the beginning and a lot of parts in the Kaddish, it’s like the grief that you can’t put into words.”

The grief that Mühlrad succeeds in making so tangible in this work is inspired by the horrific experiences lived through by his now deceased Holocaust survivor grandfather, Michael Bliman, who survived both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

To honor his grandfather, Mühlrad is releasing “Kaddish” just ahead of the January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day as part of an album called “Time.” It is a collection of his compositions produced on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon classical music label, a distinction that basically means the young composer has made it to the top of the art music world.

The 32-piece Swedish Radio Choir used on “Kaddish” was conducted by Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin, and recorded prior to the coronavirus pandemic. A full version of the newly released “Kaddish” can be heard at the end of the Times Will Tell podcast (which also features an interview with Brussels-based Katharina von Schnurbein, who is the first European Commission Coordinator on Combatting Anti-Semitism.)

29-year-old composer Jacob Mühlrad (Amit Israeli)

“It’s a highly personal and emotional piece. It’s all about my family and my background,” said Mühlrad. Specifically, it is a means for Mühlrad to commune with his grandfather and probe the experience of walking in the shadow of death — only to miraculously come out the other side.

“In this piece, I’m asking the questions that I never had the chance to ask. Since I was an infant when he was alive, I wasn’t able to ask those very important questions that I think that we all, that humanity can learn from,” said Mühlrad.

Mühlrad’s questions are answered in Bliman’s own words. Recently, Mühlrad rediscovered video documentation that his father filmed in a home movie. “My father interviewed my grandfather about his experience and how he survived. And from those answers, I simulated an imaginary dialogue between me and my grandfather — one we never had,” he said.

The piece opens with a quote from the author Elie Wiesel about the importance of bearing witness, for the dead and the living. “For me that is the point of the piece, that we need to bear witness to ensure that this can never happen again,” he said.

In addition to “Kaddish,” many of Mühlrad’s other works — choral, orchestral and chamber music — are very influenced by his Jewish upbringing and former religious observance.

Composer Jacob Mühlrad also delves into popular music, including rap. (Pierre Björk)

“Liturgical Jewish music is one of my absolutely most important sources of inspiration,” he said. He wrote a piece called “Amidah,” based on a central thrice-daily prayer, and another piece released on the new album is called “Niggun,” a melody without words.

In a press release promoting the new album, Mühlrad is quoted as saying, “The core of my music is very much about trying to communicate the sense of spirituality I had from when I was a believer. Today I’m a non-believer, but I am in search of that state of being, of that feeling of God’s presence, that I now experience through music.”

One of the tools at his disposal is the language of the Jewish people, Hebrew.

Sometimes I feel like a visual artist painting, with the color of the beautiful language of Hebrew

“I have a quite special relationship to the Hebrew language, because I think it is so beautiful, but since I can’t understand every word, I really love to use it like a palette of colors for the choir,” he said. “Because the language itself has so many beautiful sounds, so sometimes I feel like a visual artist painting, with the color of the beautiful language of Hebrew.”

In addition to his growing classical repertoire, in Sweden, the sharply dressed Mühlrad is also known on the popular music scene and has collaborated with house music giant Swedish House Mafia and rapper Silvana Imam.

Currently, he said, he is working on a commission from the Stockholm Philharmonic on a large orchestral piece, to be released in another year.

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Check out last week’s Times Will Tell episode here:

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