Am 9. und 10. Februar veranstalten wir einen zweiteiligen Online-Workshop mit der israelischen Musikerin und Performerin Victoria Hanna. Unsere Kollegin Kathrin Schön sprach vorab mit ihr über ihren Werdegang als Künstlerin, unsere aktuelle Wechselausstellung "Die Weibliche Seite Gottes" und den geplanten Vokal-Workshop.
Ihre Single Alef Bet (Hoshana) ging in kürzester Zeit viral und begeisterte mit der Mischung aus Rap, Hip Hop, Folklore und einer Neuinterpretation philosophischer und religiöser Texte ein riesiges Publikum. Ein zentraler Bestandteil der musikalischen aber auch künstlerischen Arbeit von Victoria Hanna ist die Auseinandersetzung mit Sprache, Klang und Körperlichkeit, über die sie immer wieder neue Zugänge zu ausgewählten mystischen, philosophischen und religiösen Texten des Judentums sucht.
Kathrin Schön, Leiterin der Vermittlung am Jüdischen Museum, traf Victoria zu einem gemeinsamen virtuellen Kaffee bei Zoom.
Dear Victoria, thank you so much for your time to do this interview. I am sure, that a lot of our readers, digital visitors and especially fans will surely enjoy finding out more about your music and the digital vocal Workshop which you will host next week at the Jewish Museum, focusing on the Hebrew Alphabet and the physical and spiritual impact of langue and music.
Let me ask you first: How would you describe your relationship with and approach to language and music?
This is a very deep question to start with. I think I could talk about it for hours. (lacht) I would describe my relation to language and music as a constant search and research, based on the fact, that I don’t take music or language for granted.
When I take a look at the subject of music, I keep wondering what music is at all, how it is different from sound and whether there even is a difference. Because if I am closing my eyes while standing in the city, just listening to what is happening around me, to all of the sound that surrounds me, I wonder: isn’t it some kind of music, too?
I really like to think about what turns sound into music. And I do the same with language, asking what language actually is by artistically researching the connecting between signs, sound and meaning.
For me this topic has a strong philosophical aspect, because I think that concepts of music and language were created with words by human beings. And I wonder about how our world would look like and sound like if those concepts would not exist. After all language shapes our awareness and our understanding of the concepts that shape our world.
In my artistic work and especially in my workshops I experiment around questions like: “How can we focus on the sound itself and less on the meaning of the words we use to create sound, in order to experience and explore what can be revealed – physically – through the acoustic dimension? And how does the aspect of sound contribute to language?” After all I feel that sound affects my body, it’s a vibration which might open up a whole new dimension of meaning to a letter connected with its sound.
Music is something very deep. It’s not just about compositions that follow a certain logic. For me everything can be music, because I look at life from an artistic perspective. For me art is an approach to perceive the world through which you appreciate the world even more. It’s an invitation to have a poetic perspective on things.
Victoria Hanna im Interview mit Kathrin Schön
For me everything can be music, because I look at life from an artistic perspective. (…) It’s an invitation to have a poetic perspective on things.
Can you tell us more about your journey in becoming an artist and about where and how it all started?
I was raised in an orthodox household; my father - of blessed memory - was a rabbi and the concept of art was very alien. I didn’t grow up with the awareness of art. I grew up with a spiritual awareness, which was the bottom line of the household. My childhood influenced my inner world. You know, we can accept it, fight it, embrace it or go against it, but we cannot erase it. It is stamped, engraved in our being.
So, in my family home we had a lot of books, holy books, and I could feel that the books had a life of their own, they were living entities, they were more than items, because they were always being opened, read, referring to one another, relating to one another, and there was a continuous relationship among the books with what was coming out of them in real time. I found that very fascinating.
Those books, they somehow build a network. And when I see my brothers, who are rabbis, connecting the “younger” books with the Torah, somehow they’re connecting different layers of time which is very beautiful. But in the center of it all is the Torah which is based on a combination of letters coming from a void. They appear on white paper, they come from the unknown, from the eternity.
I think this is a very poetic and beautiful approach to literature, which reminds me of the oral Torah, the Mishnah. We are able to reconstruct when and by whom it was edited, but the content itself has a rather divine author, who laid the base for a constant ongoing contextualization and actualization of the Jewish religious law.
Yes exactly. Reading, understanding, reflecting: It’s a vivid and constant relationship. For me the Torah is not a museum, nor an archive. For me it’s an invitation to connect with the text in the specific moment. Through this, books become living entities, they come alive through us, and we are the ones who bring them alive.
How did you experience growing up in an orthodox family as a girl, when it came to studying the Torah and exploring your artistic talent?
As a girl of course I was not pushed like the boys. My father would always take the boys to the synagogue every morning to study Torah with him. And I was quite happy that I wasn’t a boy, because I didn’t have to get up so early. (lacht) But every time I was there with him, I absorbed everything.
But somehow I was a little bit different in the area where I grew up. I didn’t feel I was in the right place. Some parts of me felt very connected, some parts of me felt like they were in jail; and I think that the artistic path for me was a kind of rescue, a crucial alternative to exist. And you know, I know a lot of women before me, generations of generations, who didn’t have the opportunity to become an artist, they needed to adjust their existence to the system in which they were born. And sometimes the system can be very hard. You need to get married and then you need to serve your husband. I think of my grandmother from Iran: She never really learned how to read, she taught herself. She wasn’t even allowed to sing – only when in private. And even I as an artist, wasn’t allowed to sing at my sons bar mitzvah, because it wasn’t considered modest with one part of my family.
So I would stay in a position in between. I know I would not be where and who I am now, if I had not followed my path. But if I would say “Bye bye!” and leave everything behind, I would lose a lot of things to which I am very much connected. So for me I have always had the feeling that I don’t entirely belong anywhere and so I am creating my own field, my own scene. It’s not easy and it can be very lonely in a way. But the only place where I feel at home is the artistic zone. I don’t have to explain. Whatever you do is fine because it’s in the name of art; and in that sense I feel so lucky to be born now and that I have the opportunity to be like that, because so many women before me, like my grandmother, didn’t have the chance to live like that.
Victoria Hanna im Interview mit Kathrin Schön
I think we should embrace our own femininity with all the different approaches to it, finding our own voice, our own way of creating and living in this world, and not follow concepts of expectations.
Some people have referred to you as a feminist. How do you feel about that?
Yes, some people think that. They also think that for women everything is okay now; we can do whatever we like and the story is over. But when you look at women and how some of them behave, also in social media, it seems that women present themselves as objects, as items. I think that some women don’t know what it actually means to be a powerful woman… For me it means, to have a reflective attitude to the freedom and the rights that we have and that we should embrace them and find confidence to express ourselves in a way that we want to, not in way which is expected from us. Otherwise we don’t develop as women, as human beings. I think we should embrace our own femininity with all the different approaches to it, finding our own voice, our own way of creating and living in this world, and not follow concepts of expectations.
Your comment reminds me of our current temporary exhibition The Female Side of God, where we not only focus on female elements in conceptions of God with their cultural-historical traces in the three monotheistic religions, but also on courageous women who have chosen exemplary paths to become empowering role models. From a woman who was a synagogue leader in late antiquity, to Bertha Pappenheim, a philanthropist and women’s rights activist, to personalities like Regina Jonas, who was the first women ever to be ordinated as rabbi. What I admire about them it that they weren’t trying to be someone else but themselves. And that reminds me of your own story of becoming an artist.
Yes, I tell you, for me it was not a decision to become an artist. It was something bigger than me. Even when I was a little girl, seven years old, I took myself to a singing contest in Jerusalem for children – and I won. And it was like I was singing in front of the mirror all of the time – to myself. When I was in school as a stuttering child I could not bring out one word. But still, I was always in the leading role in theatre plays, and the other people knew: when I am on the stage there is no stuttering. So the artistic expression came to me very naturally.
With your first Single, the Alef Bet (Hosha’ana) song, you became very popular not just in Germany but all across Europe. The song however doesn’t solely focus on the Hebrew alphabet, but offers an interpretation and new musical version of the Hosha’ana Prayer, which is traditionally recited during the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot.
Numerous other songs on your first album refer to language, letters and sacred texts. In 22 letters you connect the Hebrew alphabet to its power of creation according to the Sefer Yetzirah, in your song (Torah) Orayta you sing a hymn of praise using the words of Rabbi Shimon, a tannaitic sage from the 2nd century CE, trying to describe the beauty of the Torah.
What role do sacred and mystical Jewish texts as well as Kabbalistic traditions play in your art and what makes them special to you as a source of inspiration?
Those texts, they are part of my DNA. Those prayers, songs, traditions, they were part of my life. When you are close to somebody who is connected to something, then you feel it. And this was the way with me and my father; and I inherited this connection, so for me it was natural to draw inspiration for my art without making a conceptual decision.
But nevertheless, for me it was and is very fascinating to pronounce ancient words and feel their vibration in my mouth; I am curious about it. The pronunciation is even more fascination for me than the meaning. It’s basically the beauty of sound that outplays the meaning of the letters. It’s a physical action in space.
Victoria Hanna im Interview mit Kathrin Schön
The beauty of sound that outplays the meaning of the letters. It’s a physical action in space.
Is there a particular reason why you choose certain prayers or text passages, like the Hosha’ana Prayer or aspects of the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation? Do you have a special connection to them?
Yes, in the case of the Hosha’ana Prayer I really loved the lyrics. It’s like a poem and it’s very musical. It follows the order of the alphabet. But the story behind the song is very simple: I was in New York in the subway. I was opening my siddur and then I saw it and thought: “Wow, this text is so nice!” And I just did it. (lacht) And about Rabbi Shimon (Anmerkung der Redaktion: to whom the Zohar is attributed in orthodox Judaism): I mean, the Zohar is amazing. You can really feel the psychedelic energy the people were in when they wrote it, so for me it is something special to recreate the world and the words of Rabbi Shimon, because I feel that I am connected. On my next album I will even have a few more songs from his texts.
As an icon of pop culture, you steer the attention of a broad and young audience to Jewish texts and traditions that – for some – might seem inaccessible for different reasons.
Yes. I think it’s a pity that people would think, if they want to connect with their spirituality and their heritage, they have to be behind the time. Because the Torah offers us to connect with our spirituality right now and it can be very cool. There a 1000 ways to connect – this is also why we say “the Torah has 1000 faces” – but what is important, is to find your own way in the right time. And although I don’t have any agenda and want people to connect, I am very happy if it happens.
But for me it’s important to say, that the tools that I found in my artistic practice to work with the texts are not specifically Jewish. You don’t have to be Jewish to connect with texts from Jewish tradition or the Hebrew letters. For me, they are spiritual symbols that have to do with the universe and with sound. Sound is something cosmic. It doesn’t stay in a certain closed culture. It exists beyond that, and that’s what I would like to share in the workshop. I would love that the people will be able to use the experience as a practical inspiration for creation and their own self-empowerment.
In your past workshops you have reflected upon the spiritual and physical dimensions of the Hebrew Alphabet, the power of letters, which, in your songs, sometimes sound like a magic spell, and the meaning of names. Tell us, what can the participants expect of the upcoming digital workshop at the Jewish Museum?
In the Workshop I will invite them to my studio. And my studio is the universe inside my mind. So it’s an invitation of an artist to her own world, her own research. I am inviting the participants of the workshop to do research with me and I will show them practically how I do that. And hopefully they will learn some tools which will be helpful to each one in their own path. Because no matter what we do, we always use our body, our voice, our language. We always use sound in our everyday life.
So the Workshop will offer an opportunity to pause, to reflect, to learn not to take everything for granted and to explore the dynamics of space, vibration, voice and body.
Thank you so much for the interview and your time. I’m looking forward to your Workshop.
Der digitale Vokal-Workshop „22 Letters“ mit der israelischen Klangkünstlerin Victoria Hanna findet am 9. Februar 2021 von 14:00-16:30 Uhr und am 10. Februar 2021 von 19:00-21:30 Uhr online via Zoom statt. Workshopsprache ist Englisch. Hebräisch-Kenntnisse sind für die Teilnahme nicht erforderlich. Die Teilnehmerzahl ist begrenzt. Das Angebot richtet sich besonders an Frauen*. Anmeldung und weitere Informationen unter Besuch.JMF@stadt-frankfurt.de