An interview with the composer and singer Dana Sandler

I am living in the neighborhood. 20 minutes away from Boston. I am looking after my children, still very young, possessive, energetic, playful, free, and happy. I am so full of joy that I can not feel it anymore. This was when I decided to take two hours off and go to a jazz concert. I love jazz. A dark-rainbow velvet title appeals to my curiosity — “I never saw another butterfly — a musical setting of selected children’s poetry from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942- 1944.”

Maybe it is too personal, I told myself. I should keep this experience for myself. I don’t want to trivialize it. However, I had a second thought. I know the experience of knowledge is a personal journey, at the first level, and simultaneously as individuals, we can open gates to the world. Therefore, I choose to go, listen, feel, learn, meet the people behind this emotional and meaningful artistic project, and share with you almost everything that I would find out.

I had a very touching evening, and after one hour, I went back home to my beautiful and happy family at the end of the performance.

I listened to this album time and again, following the music, soaring with the regrets and hopes of the children imprisoned in the walled city of Terezin until I was ready to talk about it with the composer, arranger, and singer Dana Sandler.

Everything was perfect; the message reached out to the audience. It was truly inspirational and sensitive. I did my research, and I didn’t find another similar project. I mean, I did not find a jazzical approach to these poems.

Dana Sandler: I don’t know anyone to put these poems to jazz music, but I do know there are classical compositions, choral settings, theater performances.

Yes, I know about the very appreciated Charles Davidson’s choral music that could be listened to on the Milken Archive of Jewish Music website. The one-act play written by Celeste-Raspanti is also well known. I enjoyed listening to all these compositions inspired by the same subject, but I fell in love with your album! I found it tender and kind.

Dana Sandler: I really wanted to write something that my children would love to hear also. I did not want to make it so dark. I wanted people to hear their words (the children’s words from Terezin-e.n.), and I wanted them to enjoy what they are listening to.

The first concert performance took place on January 27th, which is an important day in history — the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the day recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although, you wanted this album to officially be launched on Yom Hashoah, April 20. In Israel, Yom Hashoah is one of the most solemn days of the year. Ceremonies include the lighting of candles for Holocaust victims and listening to the stories of survivors. Jews in North America also observe Yom Hashoah within the synagogue as well as in the broader Jewish community.

Over time, a few artists have foreseen these poems' artistic potential written by the children imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp. Still, your musical proposal, you say, is a premiere. What makes it unique?

Dana Sandler: Definitely, there have been other people who have certainly used their voice as an inspiration, and Alena Synkova (one of the poets who survived the Holocaust and died in Prague in 2008, e.n.) in her interviews welcomed this. Of course, she knew the people used her words as a medium for their music and arts. I guess the first one that I recall was in 1968. It was the choir that you might refer to above. My proposal is a premiere in the sense of its unity as a composition. I chose to share nine poems in a chamber jazz musical setting.

Why nine? Was it something that you chose before starting the writing of the composition?
Dana Sandler: I did not decide on it before. This was when I felt it complete. There were four sections, three known poets, and an anonymous one. It came together organically, and it just happened to be nine poems.

Every section has a dedication, an introductory musical piece honoring each voice that inspired your album.
Dana Sandler: Exactly. Each instrumental dedication is meant to set up either the overall tone of a piece, to set up the center key, or a rhythmic figure of the poem that follows.

One of your pieces is inspired by a traditional Hasidic melody left behind by David Azriel Fastag. You inserted an excerpt from his melody and words of the twelfth Jewish faith principles, “Ani Ma’amin,” in addition to a poem signed by Alena Synkova. It came out a moving, cultural, unique musical moment, I would say!
Dana Sandler: That was one of those magical days when you step away from the writing, and you do some more research. The other day you will be amazed at how everything comes together miraculously. That particular poem by Alena Synkova, “I’d like to go alone,” had an extraordinary message. She says at the end of the poem, “maybe more of us, a thousand strong will reach this goal, before too long,” and in my head, I was thinking of these thousands of people, all singing together! Then I decided to research Holocaust-related melodies, or “niggunim”, Hasidic melodies. I came across a story of Azriel David Fastag, a well-known singer, composer, and chazzan (cantor e.n.). He was on a train to Treblinka, and he started to sing this melody for an already existing prayer, and it had spread throughout that train. Here is where I got the image of those thousand people gathered in one single voice. That song survived the Holocaust. It seems that somebody escaped from the train. When I learned the melody, I had already written a lot of the composition for “I’d like to go alone,” so I already had those chord changes. I played the melody, and it fits over those chords. I was just blown away. It was kind of meant to be in that section. That was just (and she snapped her fingers as you say, “this is it” e.n.) a morning revelation.

Dana Sandler, you have a beautiful voice, a soft and a warm musical stamp. I would say it is like touching a butterfly wing. Your composition is also expressive, having many facets: heaviness, melancholy, resignation, expectation, sorrow, hope. The same as Terezenian’s poems. What are those songs about? What would you like the people who are listening to them to learn?
Dana Sandler: I certainly want these children’s memories to be preserved, so this music does serve as a vessel of their memory, but listening to these words today, I could also imagine myself as a child in those circumstances. I could see my children saying those words, and I feel there are parallel situations today. Therefore, I hope people hearing this music and listening to these lyrics realize that it really was not that long ago. If we don’t keep this memory and talk about it, it can happen again. I hope my music will serve as a reminder, and it will contribute to the conversation today in the face of rising antisemitism and hate. That is what I want them to take away!

The artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis organized secret art classes in the ghetto.

Your work, Dana Sandler, is dedicated to an exceptional educator and artist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the woman to whom we need to be thankful for inspiring and nurturing the hope of Terezin’s children. She was not only an educator but a great artist also. Nevertheless, she is most remembered for what she accomplished in the Terezin concentration camp and the inheritance she tried to save, and which she ultimately left to successors. Would you like to tell us more about her?
Dana Sandler: She had a pretty important history before Terezin, and she was a well-known Austrian artist. She was in the same school as Paul Klee, and she taught with him at the Bauhaus School of Art, Design, and Architecture in Germany. In 1938, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, while in Prague, got a visa and had the chance to go to Palestine and essentially save herself, but she felt that here is where she belongs. Four years later, in 1942, she and her husband were deported to Terezin. By the time she was transferred to the concentration camp, she was allowed to have two suitcases or 50 kg of things that she could bring there. This was the same for everyone who was taken into the ghetto. However, she had the foresight to know what she would need there, in a different way. Thus, instead of necessarily packing certain personal things, she took many art materials like pencils, paper, and supplies that she knew would be useful for teaching children from the camp. When she got there, she did end up creating secret classes for the children. She allowed them to use their imagination and to escape what they were going through. Children did not even speak her language of German, but her goals were carried across without words. It was art. In 1944, her husband was transported to Auschwitz, and she desperately volunteered to join him in his fate. So she followed him on the next train alongside many of the same children. Before leaving, she packed as much as she could in two suitcases. An amount of about 500 pieces of art, drawings, and poetry. She left them with a tutor, one of the girls in the girls’ barracks, and that girl took care of them, hid them. And so the children’s art survived. Yet, not Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who died together with some of her students in a gas chamber in the extermination camp, Auschwitz. But, yes, she gave the children a gift, and they let us see the beauty of their souls.

I found the Jewish Women Archives organization has a detailed biography of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis that is worth knowing. I need to say that, also. I fell in love with this album. How did you get to the process of this composition? Was it painful?
Dana Sandler: The day-to-day process of the emotional rollercoaster could be a whole talk itself. It was consumptive, to some degree. Otherwise, I wanted to be sure that my mind is in a light and beautiful space because when you write music, and it’s raining or dark and cloudy, your mood makes the music into that as well. I had to be very conscious of what was going on around me and sit down and write the music the way that I wanted to.

The act of creation demands a certain state of spirit for sure.
Dana Sandler: Yes. If it were one of those days that does not fit with writing, I would reserve it for research — reading books, watching documentaries, listening to interviews with Holocaust survivors, trying to get in that space.

Did it happen that you would start one of all these songs on a particular day and then stop and come back to it the day after?

Dana Sandler: Oh, yes, it happened. Sometimes a song could take twenty minutes, but others have sections that really took months to develop over time, to realize: Oh, this is going to be the answer for this part. Then, there were different ways that I did it. Sometimes I would take the words and say them out loud, and I would find the poem's natural rhythm. Then I would take a break, and that would help me figure out what rhythm to use and also create some interesting… ( some other voices crossed her voice: ”mama,” the kids are home; hm — they are here, but we try to come back to our dialog) …so, some interesting phrasing. It was not necessarily done all in the same time signature. Other times I read the poem, and then I was just feeling it, emotionally and sitting at the piano, and writing some music like it was a response to what I was feeling. Afterward, I looked at the words to see if they fit. In the beginning, I did not realize how I was going to do it. I chose poems that I felt some connection to. It was outstanding when I learned about Franta Bass (one of the child poets at Terezin and a student of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis) who was so young!

How old was he?

Dana Sandler: He was 11 when he was transported from his home to Terezin, and then, when they took him to Auschwitz, he was only 13. Yet he was so profound, and so real, and so mature.

he little garden,

Fragrant and full of roses.

The path is narrow

And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,

Like that growing blossom.

When the blossom comes to bloom

The little boy will be no more.

When the blossom comes to bloom

The little boy will be no more.

Franta Bass

Dana Sandler: This one was heart-wrenching to me. That was the one that was just piano and voice. Just simple, as simple as it could be. You know you think of major keys as happy and minor keys as sad when you are composing. I was writing in a major key to show the innocence and delicacy of his heart. It was major, but yet it was, ah, heavy. This opposition made the melody so special. It took a while for me to accept the simplicity that it needed to be. That’s a heavy one, they are all heavy, but this one was particularly intense.

Has this experience related to the children’s suffering and hope enriched you?
Dana Sandler: Absolutely. It gives you a circumstance of appreciating what you have, gives you another perspective on life itself. I do feel that they are now part of me.

What would you like to teach your children? What is the most valuable thing that you would like them to know? If you should be in the situation of choosing only one, what would be that thing that you would teach them?

Dana Sandler: This is a tough question! (pausing for a second, she then continued) Honestly, I go towards what Friedl Dicker-Brandeis wrote in a letter in 1942 to a friend in which she thought the more important thing was to make sure her students avoided the uncertainties in life. But in the end, she realized that it was not about that. It was about raising creativity, and I think this is what I want my children to take from this. To always be inspired to ask questions, until ultimately they will be creative because no matter what, nobody can take that from you!

You have included your 10-year old daughter Rory in this musical endeavor. She has inherited your gift, a beautiful voice, and your husband’s love for music, for sure. Rory’s short but powerful presence made the composition even more valuable. However, could there be a different reason why you wanted her involved in this project?

Dana Sandler: Certainly, she is very close in age to Franta Bass when he was writing those poems, and to hear that coming out from her mouth put a different meaning into it. So I was honoring him! She has also been a part of this process since the beginning. She has been hearing the music the entire time, and, you know, when she is not thinking about it, she would just hum the melodies. As I said, this is a validation that it was reaching the right audience because it was relatable and accessible at any age, including hers. She was the one who said, “I want to be a part of the project.” It came very naturally to her. So it was pretty much to honor both the next generation through her and, of course, Franta Bass.

I know you love children. You are dedicated to your family. You put your passion for music on hold for a while, several years in fact, and started medical school. You became a pediatric physician’s assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. Someone would wonder — music and medicine! — what do they have in common?

Dana Sandler: There are a lot of commonalities I would say between music and medicine. Some people would go to the science of it and say it is a special orientation, but I hear more about how music and medicine go together. I know a lot of people in medicine who love music.

They both have the attribute of healing.

Dana Sandler: That is right! When I was in the final moments of saying goodbye to my grandmother, she did not remember much at that time. She knew who I was, but she really wasn’t fully there. We were on the phone, and we were singing a song together, and that was jazz. It was “ I remember you,” and she remembered the entire set of lyrics. There are definitely, some connections when it comes to music and the mind and the heart. What we had together was a very emotional moment, a very touching song. It was something that I have always had with me when I am thinking of my grandmother.

I do like science and life and the biology of life.

You like more things that you let us know.

(She is laughing again. If it is something that I would really like to say about her, it is the fact that she is a very open soul, decent, friendly, non-judgemental, and simple, but not simplistic .)

Where did you keep your passion for music hidden all this time while raising your children and working in the medical field?

Dana Sandler: In my heart!

“I was an avid listener of music.”

In your heart, in your house, in your basement.

Dana Sandler: Yes, pretty much, in the basement, yes. My husband was actively making music, and we’d hear music through him, basically. I just kept my stuff inside of myself and lived through my husband’s music, supporting my musician friends, and listening to their music. I was an avid listener at that time of my life. In fact, our children have seen their parents performing together only on this project. [Dana’s husband, also a composer, was a drummer for this project.] This was very new for them. ( She is really excited when she speaks about that, as about something she has always wanted. )

You grew up in Florida, graduated from the University of Miami School of Music, where you earned a degree in Jazz Vocal Performance. Afterward, you relocated to Massachusetts, where you followed with a Master of Music degree in Composition at New England Conservatory and got close to klezmer music. Did this style influence the songs on this album?
Dana Sandler: It did, at least one piece. I worked with an incredible clarinetist who really took an entire group of jazz musicians and introduced it to klezmer music and brought it on that journey with him.

Michael Winograd

Dana Sandler: He is wonderful, and he is so enthusiastic and energetic, and it just spreads. When I heard the melody “Ani Ma’amin,” I also heard the traditional klezmer clarinet playing the melody in my head, so I honored that with Michael Winograd. He does guest on my album that one song because that is what I heard in my head.

This is song number 8, I guess! I don’t know if you did it on purpose or not, but I found Cuban-American rhythms in your composition. You came from Miami, and you were a singer on a cruise ship a while ago. We do learn from everywhere, even when we are not fully aware of that.

Dana Sandler: Indeed, you don’t know where those influences are coming from because they could come from everything you have been introduced to throughout your life. For me, it could be classical music, Debussy or Ravel, the impressionist composers that I like, there was musical theater sometime, and of course, jazz that may come from so many different areas, and klezmer. All these came together in some way. It is interesting what you said about Cuban jazz, though. The pianist Carmen Staff, who is on the record, spent a year in Cuba after she graduated high school, so there might be some influences from there, too. What I really loved about this particular setting were the improvisation moments, the spontaneous composition going on. If you have trust in your group of musicians to bring whatever influence they have come with, that is when you really get to the heart of the audience. It makes each performance a little bit different because everyone is coming with something unique.

I can not wait for the next one!
Dana Sandler: I am always excited to sing with new people and see where the music takes us.

Even though from different states of America or other countries, the musicians here on this album, like Jorge Roeder, who is originally from Peru, you said, they all met eventually at the New England Conservatory.

Dana Sandler: Yes, around 20 years ago! They have been in each other’s lives, and they have developed over time.

You know young people have different music preferences now. There are different trends in music; there have been a lot of changes since the jazz age. Is jazz still popular?
Dana Sandler: Yes. There are certainly young students who are considering studying jazz in school, so it is still popular. Nevertheless, it is hard to define jazz at this point. It is really made up of so many different things. This is a tough question!

Jazz was a very generous musical style and very challenging from the perspective of the social impact of arts. Somebody told me once that as long as jazz has meaning, it also has relevance. Is jazz still relevant?
Dana Sandler: I feel that if there is content, you can relate it to something and give it meaning. That heightens the experience no matter what genre of music it is. For me, having meaningful content is what stimulates and enriches people. When I decided to explore jazz after learning classical, it was an expression of freedom, it allowed me to breathe differently, and it just left options open, so I love it!

I would make a comparison. Jazz is like grounding your body down and letting your spirit free, discovering the real you, the one who you are, not the one you are supposed to be.
Dana Sandler: Yes, exactly!

You have honored those children’s voices; we hope we could honor your voice. What is next? Would you continue to write music to sing?

Dana Sandler: Yes, this is just the beginning. For years and years to come, my hope is this music will continue to be spread around the world. I hope to bring this to many places and not just temples, but to campuses or universities, to high schools, museums, libraries, to Prague, to Terezin itself, where it all began. I want this to really be a vessel to preserve the memories of all those children. I want to make sure that this particular project stays relevant and keeps going. I do plan to continue composing, and I love poetry settings in general. We will see. I don’t know where life will take me. As I said, there are some similarities to what is happening in the world right now, even in our country ( USA). Some people have said that maybe I will be inspired by some of the artwork and writings coming out today about the children on the southern border. I feel that is the purpose for me as a musician; that is how I can contribute and change some things.

Here is where our conversation stopped because already two hours had passed, and her children were buzzing around, and my kids were sending me messages to come back home. Thereby, we both returned to our, at least for now, peaceful, protected, light-hearted family, and, with this story in mind, life seemed to be more beautiful and joy more alive.

Producer, journalist, founder, poet, in love with jazz and art in any form