Cutting-edge artiste puts concentration camp recipes to music

In the Thereisenstadt concentration camp just north of Prague, during the Nazi occupation, a group of Jewish female prisoners documented their family recipes for foods such as flaky strudel, linzer torte and Czech cake.

Thereisenstadt was used by the Gestapo to trick outsiders into believing conditions were fine for Jews in the ghettos, so the prisoners there had a few very small liberties — such as the chance to perform plays and write books.

In the end, however, in a cruel twist of fate, many of the women who documented their personal recipes died from starvation.

Their stories and recipes were gathered and translated by Cara De Silva in her 1996 book “In Memory’s Kitchen.” After discovering De Silva’s book, Oakland sound artist Amy X Neuburg went to work on paying tribute to the women of Thereisenstadt in her own way — by reimagining the recipes in song form.

Inspired by the story and the women’s strength, Neuburg created a 30-minute sound cycle she dubbed “Fill as Desired” (“Beliebig Füllen”). Neuburg, who is Jewish, and the East Bay–based Solstice vocal ensemble will perform the piece Saturday, Oct. 17 at Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley.

Amy X Neuburg (center) with the Solstice vocal

The cycle consists of Neuburg’s overlapping vocals on a looping machine, her electronic drum kit and additional vocal sounds by the Solstice ensemble. She uses bits and pieces of the original recipes, then adds her own poetry atop. The lyrics are sung in English, German and Czech.

“What struck me was that these women were gathering and collecting recipes as a way to survive. Women were using this culinary fantasy as a way to get through their day,” Neuburg says.

The music in “Fill as Desired” draws from multiple genres — Eastern European folk, pop and cabaret. There also is an occasional operatic vocal burst, which is then looped live and repeated.

It was the first time Neuburg had experimented with Eastern European sounds. “I love the weird harmonies of it and the forceful singing,” she says. “The notes are very close to each other on the scale, so it sounds simultaneously edgy and sort of desperate.”

While the Eastern European folk genre may be new to Neuburg, mashing together uniquely different styles of music is not.  After growing up on a 24-acre farm in Maryland, Neuburg moved to Ohio and earned an undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, then got her master’s at Mills College in Oakland. At both institutions, she studied classical and electronic music.

“I realized I was a composer [in college],” she says. “I was singing the classic repertoire but became interested in exploring all the other things I could with my voice. This is cultural evolution — bringing brand new music to life, that is what it’s all about.”

Since her university days, Neuburg has created dozens of avant-garde song cycles and performance pieces. One of her more recent projects, “The Secret Life of Subways,” was inspired by mass transit and featured her voice along with three cellos and some electronic processing.

“People tend to glom on to whatever they are familiar with, and my songs are actually presented with a standard musical structure, though there are moments that might jerk someone out of their seat — I can be chanting something lovely and tonal, then suddenly something harsh with melodies that take twists and turns. It’s all very quirky,” she says with a laugh.

Performed just once before, “Fill as Desired” was originally created by Neuburg for an event at the 2006 Jewish Music Festival. Neuburg says she’s wanted to  perform the piece again, but hadn’t found the time or the appropriate venue until now.

Reflecting on the 2006 performance at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Neuburg says she was surprised to hear people laugh initially, as she had felt the topic was so heavy. But then it dawned on her — food can nourish many levels of emotion.

“I talk about fantasy as a means of desire and include many food metaphors,” she explains. “Food and sex, food and delight, and food and joy. There are so many food metaphors for the rest of your life.”

Neuburg says the “Fill as Desired” title also doubles as a metaphor.

“It comes straight from some of the recipes, there’s one for flaky strudel with instructions on other parts of the strudel, but how you fill it is up to you,” she says. “I thought that was such a lovely and evocative phrase.”

“Fill as Desired” will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. Co-sponsored by the 2010 Jewish Music Festival. $18.50 in advance, $19.50 at the door. Information: