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G Force

Stillman talks about her songs of resilience and hope


Judith Lynn Stillman, pianist, professor of music and artist in residence at Rhode Island College, composed ‘‘Phoenix From the Ashes,’’ seven songs inspired by and set to poems and stories written during World War II by children at Terezin concentration camp.

On Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the college, Stillman will give a free concert of the music, with vocals by soprano Lori Phillips, followed by a screening of the 2011 documentary, ‘‘The Boys of Terezin.’’ The film highlights the lives of several Holocaust survivors, including Sidney Taussig, who with other children at Terezin created a secret literary publication titled ‘‘Vedem.’’ Their writing provided the inspiration for ‘‘Phoenix From the Ashes,’’ and Taussig is slated to be in attendance. Stillman will also perform the music Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Rhode Island College’s Sapinsleycq Hall in Providence. Information is at


Q. How did you come up with the idea to put music to these pieces of writing?

A. It was entirely unplanned, and it happened so naturally. While I was on tour in Canada, I spotted this book of poems from the Holocaust on someone’s coffee table during a dinner party. As I was reading them, I was astounded by how poignant and imagistic they were. I was frantically scribbling down the lyrics on a piece of paper, trying to get as much down as possible. On my way home, I was driving through Vermont and it was like I had an epiphany. I just heard a kaleidoscope of musical colors in the text, so I pulled off at a random exit and found a music store almost immediately. It was kind of like fate. The man in the store sold me his last ream of staff paper, and I just started writing.

Q. How did you wind up connecting with Sidney Taussig?


A. A lot of Googling, to be honest. During my research, I found that there were five boys who had survived from this certain barrack that had founded “Vedem,’’ and one of them was Sidney. Thankfully, he’s still alive and well, living in Florida. We’re so thankful to have him; he’s such a vibrant person.

Q. Will this performance be the first time Taussig has heard his friends’ writing set to music?

A. Yes. He’s never heard them in this manner, so we’re hoping to do it justice.

Q. What are you looking to convey to the rest of the audience?

A. We’re hoping to celebrate the miracle and resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to overcome. We want to show that there was a poetic and creative life that blossomed despite suffering. There was still the freedom of creativity and imagination that escapes the confines of imprisonment.

Q. Was there any piece of writing or drawing that spoke to you specifically?

A. Yes. One poem was called “The Thaw,’’ and it was just beautifully written. It’s about the way in which snow can cover the horrors, but there’s this inevitable sense that you know it’s going to melt and you’ll return to the devastation. One phrase that encapsulates the tone of the writing is “We are all children playing with the globe.’’ It really exemplifies the maturity and awareness that these children had of the world around them. Another favorite of mine was a piece about the blossoming of a flower, and the boy juxtaposes that with “when the blossom comes to bloom, it will be no more.’’ He’s so clearly making the connection between a blooming flower and the death of a child. It’s beautiful and tragic, and we’re hoping that the musical component of this event will only add to those feelings.


Q. Do you find it easier or harder to compose music to lyrics that you haven’t written yourself?

A. That’s a really hard question. This happened so naturally that I guess I didn’t really think about that part. It was almost like a conduit for a life force that was channeled through me. There was just this flowing force of inspiration brought forth by the poetry.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Erica Thompson can be reached at