Noam Morgensztern: “Playing the Bible, a crazy bet”

Noam Morgensztern: “Playing the Bible, a crazy bet”

You didn’t discover the Bible until you were 35. So far, she hasn’t interested you that much?

I come from dual Jewish parentage: Poland and Lithuania on my father’s side, Algeria on my mother’s side. The Bible, at home, came through festivals, songs, bits of history: the story of the exodus to the desert, the ten plagues of Egypt, the Passover… Stories that we try to remember at home. table, recipes that we try to make every year. There is something nostalgic and very strong at the same time, precisely because we start again every year. But I did not have precise knowledge of the biblical text. It was more of a folkloric tradition.

What made it click?

My reading of the new translation of the Bible, by Bayard, and the meeting with the person who directed it, the writer Frédéric Boyer. Associating contemporary exegetes and authors: a great idea! Because suddenly, this translation provoked in me an explosion of meaning, of stories and images that finally became accessible, at an age when I was available for this discovery. And that’s how I called him to offer him this somewhat crazy bet: to play the entire Bible. And make it into an audiobook.

Concretely, how did you work?

With the musician Théophile Blanckaert and Thomas Pégorier, the sound engineer, it took us three years. A year to record, in the basement of a Parisian nightclub closed during Covid; a year to compose the music; and a year to mix it all together. While playing, I had an iPad on which I discovered the text for the first time. Previously, Frédéric Boyer had explained to me the nature of the text and the desired effect on the audience.

I also read the notes at the end of the work: knowing that a certain word, in Hebrew, means “unloved”, or “twisted”, allowed me to associate a gesture with them. So, what we hear is me moving forward in the biblical text, letting myself be carried away by it. And each time, we only did first takes. I really didn’t want to have to re-record.

You brought a curious microphone in the shape of a head, which allows you to envelop the listener in immersive sound. Why did you choose this technique?

The objective was that the listener, when listening to my voice in his headphones, could feel different sensations. Is he alone, or in a crowd? Is he my friend? Is he a family, a child, a group, a queen, a king? For each text, I therefore imagined a specific placement in relation to this head: lying, standing, above… To play Genesis, for example, I imagined myself in a starry night, speaking to the listener as if to a friend. And so, I’m right next to the head, talking in his ear.

It’s long, a hundred and three hour audiobook! Do you think the listener will play the game?

To listen to this Bible, I suggest giving yourself some time. If it takes an hour and twenty minutes to listen to the first 40 psalms, well, we put on our headphones, we go to a place that we like, and we listen to them for an hour and twenty minutes. In this frenetic world where we always have 100,000 things to do, it’s done on purpose. To give the work time to settle. Besides, I have the impression that this is what we come to look for in a church: a distended time, different from that outside.

And for those who prefer a less intimidating format, an abbreviated, eleven-hour version has just been released on a USB key: “Les grands chants”. There are five great biblical books: Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. The texts are not sung, but hammered out, chanted, with litany music that plays like whirling dervishes. It’s music to abandon yourself, to lose yourself, so that at one moment, the listener says to yourself: “I let myself do this. I give up trying to understand everything, I let myself be flooded with meaning. »

It’s funny: you had to go and find God, the Word “from above”, in a nightclub basement. Do you prefer earth to heaven?

Speech is vibration in the air. But what interests me is the vibration in the earth. I have a particular relationship with the ground, I like to dig, you could even say that I have a propensity for holes (laugh) . I spent a lot of time as a child breaking rocks to find what was inside them. I loved seeing the inside of anthills, inspecting the tree trunks in which swarms of bees nested…

In the Tarn where I grew up, there were vineyards, forests, and corn fields that the tractor claw turned over every two years. This exposed shards of bottles that glinted in the sun. I felt like a treasure hunter! The biblical text is a word that is extracted from the sand and brought to light. I have the same caution for her, the same immense joy as an archaeologist discovering a shard of broken vase.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t dare open the Bible?

This was my case: I was full of preconceptions, of distance from the Book. I did this work for the undecided, the doubtful, the ignorant, the discouraged. Throughout my recording, I was imagining these people who have a big question mark inside of them. I threw myself into the text without knowing how I was going to react. Sometimes with a slightly cynical posture. But I wanted to give the texts a chance.

Why their luck?

Because these texts take risks! With their dazzling dramaturgy, they do everything they can to touch us. The biblical word is not at all engraved in stone, it is unstable, it seeks its balance. God, for example: he is angry all the time in the Bible! He is upset that no one gives credence to his word. He yells at Moses, he yells at the people: “You want me to save you, and there is no one following me! » I have enormous affection for this exhausted God: what effort it costs him to make himself heard…

Your reading of the Bible has not made you a believer. But now are you a different unbeliever?

Absolutely. Now, when I enter a church, I am much more attentive. The staging of miracles on the stained glass windows, a representation of purgatory or Saint Agatha… It speaks to me. The great artists have all translated the Bible in their own way. Basically, we should approach biblical texts as a jewel of literature. And in which case, we won’t be afraid.

Literature… And more, if you like?

Spirituality is an intimate adventure. There are bedside books that are as strong as a prayer. For me, biblical texts are like family photos that we find, and whose faces we look at and say to ourselves: “Hey, this face reminds me of my grandfather. I must still have that nose, that mouth… There you go: the Bible is our face from before. These stories are part of our culture. They constitute us.

The biography of Noam Morgensztern

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