My new CD, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, is coming out on Sono Luminus this spring 2024! It is my most personal CD yet, with premieres written for me in celebration of my my favorite book, the Master and Margarita, my Ukrainian-Jewish heritage, my poetry-music series Music/Words, my home town of Odesa, and my newly published memoir, Weight in the Fingertips, A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage, Music of Schubert-Liszt and Fanny Mendelssohn is also featured.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a famous line in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita – the retelling of Faust, the 20th century cult novel of an artist surviving in a Totalitarian regime, the love story, the burlesque with giant, vodka drinking cats and vampiric theater administrators.
I first read the book as a kid, growing up in Soviet Odesa. I took it with me when my parents and I immigrated, as Jewish refugees running from antisemitism, through Austria and Italy, to the United States. Crossing the border, I worried that guards would discover my book, and I would be severely punished. Throughout the years, the book played a role in my life. My childhood best friend from Odesa reread the book in adulthood and decided to find me – we are now together for 20 years, with two kids. I read the book to my mother as she was dying from brain cancer.
Bulgakov’s novel weaves through my own newly published memoir, Weight in the Fingertips – A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage (Backbeat Books, October 2023). I consider this very personal recording to be something of a mirror image to my memoir, as it intertwines the literal images from Master and Margarita with more autobiographical themes and layers.
The five premieres, written for me and recorded here, are vastly different in styles and esthetic. The understated, elegant Master and Margarita Suite by Veronika Krausas complements the wild, theatrical, brooding and extended techniques-filled “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” by Maya Miro Johnson. Mike Garson’s Psalm to Odesa, an improvisatory ballad, with bits of my own improvisation based a well known Odesan song, sets off “Voices” by Ljova, a piece for piano and historical recordings of Jewish cantorial and klezmer music. Both take me back to my home city, currently under vicious attack, like the rest of Ukraine. The poetry I recite, sing and hum while performing the four-movement Godai – the Four Elements – is rounded off by the propulsive bravura whirlwind of Hero. Fasil Say’s Black Earth takes the listener on a journey from Odesa across the Black Sea – a Turkish ballad and jazzy beats alternates with improvisatory melisma of a Turkish lute, played on muted strings of the piano. The rarely heard Notturno of Fanny Mendelssohn connects a gifted female voice to the others on this disc, as well as, perhaps, to the dark, impassioned character of Margarita. In Master and Margarita, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is spoken by Satan when he retrieves the manuscript of a novel presumed burnt – and in Clarice Assad’s “Godai”, Steve Schroeder’s poem depicts the loss of a manuscript in a fire.
The lieder of Schubert, transcribed for solo piano by Liszt, riffs on the mythical and the Faustian lore found also in Master and Margarita: Gretchen (Margarita) at the spinning wheel, a mystical love story by the sea, a monstrous Elf King and the death of a child, of innocence, of joy – one’s worst fear.
This collection of music speaks to my love of dialogue between music and words. As in my Music/Words series, where I pair poets with musical programs in the form of a recital/reading, the connections between text and sound here are not just literal but emotional, based on memory, intuition, dreams and hopes.