Program Note

Matti Kovler’s Cokboy (A Jew Among the Indians) is a highly personal setting of a highly personal, and also political, poem by the New York-born poet Jerome Rothenberg (b.1931). Rothenberg, who has also been an anthologist, translator, and anthropologist, included Cokboy (parts 1 and 2; only part 1 is set here) in his collection Poland/1931, published 1974. The premise is that of a Jew, narrating in the first person, finding himself among the American Indians (Rothenberg lived on a Seneca reservation for a time), a displaced Jew among a people whose culture has become displaced from around them. Between them mistrust and sympathy go hand in hand, the narrator blending the elements of his culture with that of the Indians: “silk of his prayershawl-bag beneath/cover of beaverskin above/savor of esrog fruit within/horn of mountaingoat between/feather of dove….” His “vot am i doink here,” the deliberately assumed Yiddish accent, is both comic put-on and expression of his insecurity. Kovler in his setting carries it a step further, incorporating very naturally an ancient Hassidic chant that adds texture to the stream-of-consciousness, multi-layered meaning and perspectives of the poem.

Musically the piece works with similar blending of materials and shifts of focus. The opening passages are aleatoric, asking the players to play almost randomly, creating an unsettled, fuzzy surface before the entry of the narrator and suggesting his unsettled state. Identifiable figures gradually coalesce, becoming melody and counterpoint. Following a return to aleatoric music a culmination, a strongly diatonic and sustained section linked to the words “the old man watches from the cliffs a city/overcome with light”—a great G major chord, marking a kind of false epiphany for the narrator. A gradual recapturing of the complexity of the opposing cultures of the poem, with the interpolated Hassidic melody, demands a less straightforward, but more satisfyingly realistic, musical conclusion.

Written by Robert Kirzinger


Boston Modern Orchestra Project,
Conductor: Gil Rose, Actor/Narrator: Matti Kovler

«…To make metaphysics out of a spoken language is to make the language express what it does not ordinarily express. It is to make use of it in a new, exceptional and unaccustomed fashion; to reveal its possibilities for producing physical shock; to deal with intonations in an absolutely concrete manner, restoring their power to shatter as well as to really manifest something and finally, to consider language as Incantation.»

–The Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud

American Academy of Conducting Orchestra,
Conductor: Sasha Makila, Actor/narrator: Daniel Hellmann


“Boston Modern reveals in a conservatory connection”
January 20th, 2009, by David Weininger

A setting of a Jerome Rothenberg poem that surreally evokes the experience of Eastern European immigrants in America…the music was notable for its pacing and the bold colors of the orchestration.

“Boston ConNECtion Concert Review”
January 19th, 2009, by Sarah Canice Funke

Selected from the BMOP/NEC composition competition, “A Jew Among the Indians (Cokboy)” was a setting of Jerome Rothenberg’s poem and movingly captured the anxiety and placelessness of the immigrant transported to a new world and finding himself among other disenfranchised peoples. The orchestra provides a wandering backdrop to the poem’s narration, performed Saturday night by the piece’s composer Matti Kovler. Tonal displacement predominates through much of the work, interrupted only by a G major chord corresponding to a vision of the sunrise and again when the music fades into a Hassidic delivery of Psalm 139 (“Where can I go from your Spirit?”). Overall, an intensely moving piece about immigrant experiences in America.