Quarried in Air - Jewish Review of Books

Excerpt from Shai Secunda's article:

"Of the countless uses and abuses of this text over the past millennium or more, perhaps the most faithful adaptation has been achieved just recently. The self-titled album of the Israeli vocal artist Victoria Hanna includes lyrics taken from Sefer Yeṣirah, and its aesthetics realize the book’s embodied and evanescent view of language. Here, from the liner notes, is a translation of the beginning of the second track, appropriately called “22 Letters”:

Twenty-two foundation letters / Engraved in voice / hewn in wind / fixed in mouth in five places / In throat / In palate in tongue / In teeth in lips / Twenty-two letters he tied in his tongue / and revealed his secret / He drew them up in water ignited them in fire sounded them in wind set them on fire in seven / Led them in twelve constellations / Twenty-two letters / He engraved them / hewed them / weighed them / exchanged them / permutated them / And created with them the soul of all created / and of all future creation / He created substance from chaos / Made no-thing some-thing / Hewed great stones / From air that cannot be conceived.

Victoria Hanna in a still from the video for "22 Letters." (Courtesy of Victoria Hanna.)
Victoria Hanna in a still from the video for “22 Letters.” (Courtesy of Victoria Hanna.)

Victoria Hanna is a stage name combining the names of the artist’s paternal and maternal grandmothers. The album Victoria Hanna, like Sefer Yeirah, is actually two works fused together, the first dedicated to her Egyptian grandmother Victoria’s holy and sensuous rebellion against her childhood marriage, and the other inspired by her Persian grandmother Hanna’s pious response to similar travails. (The artist herself was raised in what her website describes as an “ultra-Orthodox” Mizrahi community in Jerusalem.)

The “Hanna” section of the album is a collection of haunting melodies with lyrics mainly taken from the Bible and Jewish mystical literature, and the instrumentation soothingly frames Hanna’s incantation-like utterances. The “Victoria” collection pulsates with the frenzy of creation. Punctuating rap-like renditions of passages from Song of Songs, the Zohar, the Hoshanah prayers recited on Sukkot, and, of course, Sefer Yeirah are drums, horns, and strings, including zither and oud. Yet the most versatile instrument is the artist herself, not only her voice, which ranges across “oriental” scales, and her tongue and teeth, which hiss and click rhythmically, but also her entire body, which reverberates with Sefer Yeirah’s vision of simultaneously carnal and other-worldly language.

Victoria Hanna was released in 2017, after many years in which the artist toiled away in relative obscurity. She had spent time in New York, in association with the saxophonist and new Jewish music impresario John Zorn’s downtown scene, but she also traveled to the four corners of the earth, often performing for audiences who had never heard Hebrew before, let alone considered it the Adamic language of creation. Throughout this period, she experimented intensely with the language, breaking it down into its smallest particles and recombining them. Like the talmudic rabbis’ Friday afternoon study sessions, it was an arduous process of creation.

A few years before the album’s release, the first two tracks went viral and launched the artist’s now meteoric career. Of course, the popstar Madonna had already produced songs incorporating kabbalistic ideas and imagery, but there is no comparison between the profound depths of Victoria Hanna’s work and Madonna’s New Agey adaptation of third-hand mysticism imbibed at the Kabbalah Centre.

In “The Alphabet Song,” Hanna brilliantly embodies the instructive voice of Sefer Yeirah, teaching Orthodox schoolgirls the aleph-bet and its honeyed mysteries. The song “22 Letters” is also an act of instruction, though more for mystics in training than elementary-school students. Dressed in a dark and demure dress, the artist uses her hands to count, point, and mime the ways in which the Hebrew letters are grouped, where they can be found in the body, and how God “engraved them / hewed them / weighed them / exchanged them / permutated them.”

With her eyes wide open in awe, and her mouth working sonorous wonders, it occurs to me that in our generation, Sefer Yeirah resides nowhere more than in the person of Victoria Hanna."

Check out the full article here