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At 82, an Experimental Musician Returns to Her Roots With a Little Help from Google Translate

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Image of smiling older woman overlaid on clouds with album cover beside her
The album 'Under an Endless Sky' from Dorothy Moskowitz and The United States of Alchemy (her collaboration with Paolo Paladino and Luca Chino Ferrari) comes out March 17 on Tompkins Square Records. (Portrait courtesy of Tompkins Square; background by Serg_Velusceac / iStock; collage by Sarah Hotchkiss)

When Dorothy Moskowitz first listened to work by the Italian composer Francesco Paolo Paladino, she heard something in his music that reminded her of the sound pieces of her youth. “I was astounded at how much chaos and mischief there was,” she says.

Now 82, Moskowitz has been involved in composing, recording and performing music for over seven decades. She was the lead vocalist for the experimental rock band The United States of America, which put out one eponymous album in 1968 and disbanded shortly after. Over the intervening years, Moskowitz has toured with Country Joe’s All Star Band, written original pieces for children’s musical theater, taught music and maintained her own recording practice out of her Bay Area home studio.

On March 17, her latest effort, Under an Endless Sky, a collaboration with Paladino and the poet Luca Chino Ferrari under the name The United States of Alchemy, comes out on Tompkins Square records. Moskowitz’s voice sits delicately over the electro-acoustic compositions, singing evocative lines that originated in Italian (Ferrari is a poet). Imagine Marianne Faithfull working with minimalist composer John Adams and you can begin to grok the shape of this lovely, sometimes eerie music. The team worked back and forth via email, with most of Ferrari’s lines passing through Google translate before Moskowitz refined the words and phrases in English and set it all to melodies.

“It’s part of the aesthetic, as far as I’m concerned,” says Moskowitz of her preference for collaboration over email. “I think there’s something that contaminates when you see people on Zoom and they’re in their pajamas. Not seeing or hearing each other keeps it very, very pure, very elevated. It’s coming from another world.”

There’s definitely something otherworldly about transmitting emails back and forth across two languages and international borders that helps to explain the seven ethereal songs on Under an Endless Sky. The album opens with a 23-minute title track of virtual keyboards, violins, a string trio (Trio Cavalazzi) and horns. Moskowitz’s vocals first enter at nearly the three-minute mark, underlining the sci-fi-esque nature of our modern existence: “How strange a thing is man / A blinded lab rat in a cage / Stuck in his house, elevator or car / His eyes engulfed by screens.”


Unlike Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” monologue, which moves from admiration to condemnation of these humans, “the paragon of animals,” “Under an Endless Sky” begins with someone trapped by their technology who still has a chance to experience all that the physical world has to offer. “We’ve lost time, but we do not despair / For there’s no other way to go / But to live in the here and now,” Moskowitz sings in her modular melody.

“My job was to turn these really profound and philosophical musings of Luca’s into something that could be sung that had euphony and alliteration and sometimes rhyme — if they allowed it,” she says. “I was the tailor, the dressmaker, to Luca’s fabric.”

The one song where she veered deeper into lyric writing is the album’s most affecting, “My Doomsday Serenade.” It’s a dense composition, full of tone shifts and overlaid vocals, with contributions from both Trio Cavalazzi and Italian electronic musician Riccardo Sinigaglia. Moskowitz is thrilled by this generational merger: the “kids” of Trio Cavalazzi; Sinigaglia, born in 1953; and Moskowitz in her 80s. “I think it’s really unusual that we have fused like that,” she enthuses. “Francesco pulled it all together.”

Two white men pose seated, smiling with ceramic frogs in their hands
Francesco Paolo Paladino and Luca Chino Ferrari hamming it up in Piacenza, Italy. (Maria Assunta Karini)

As for the lyrics, Moskowitz says she and Ferrari went back and forth about the context of “doomsday.” For him, it was about a weighing of the soul, not just in an afterlife but as part of our everyday existence. “He really likes the luster of having ambiguity,” she says of his writing style. “You don’t know whether I’m talking about my mortality or whether I’m talking about ethics or whether I’m talking about Egyptian mythology.” The answer, she says, is “all three, yes.”

This song hits differently with Moskowitz on vocals than it would with a younger singer. Clear and precise, her voice carries with it the years of experience that give the words “It pounds out a reckoning / And beckons me to face up to myself” real weight — more prophetic than theoretical.

And for all of Moskowitz’s claims to favor traditional and direct lyrics (she cites the 15 years she spent writing original songs for the children’s theater company she co-ran in San Francisco), she also loves a well-placed evocative word, like “threnody” (a lament). During our interview, she urged me to make her sound “more folksy,” even as she referenced philosophers and listed off her many collaborators and accomplishments. As a first-generation American, she says she has a tendency to “lard my sentences with four syllables” — another delightful turn of phrase.

Sepia toned image of white woman in glasses singing into mic
An undated photo of Dorothy Moskowitz. (Tompkins Square)

Throughout, she was adamant about Paladino and Ferrari’s roles in the music-making. “Both these guys are geniuses, I will reiterate, put it in print!” she says. The dynamic between the three seems to have been effusive and full of praise, hence the moniker United States of Alchemy. What they were creating, and how they were creating it, felt magical.

The album closes with “Unknown to Ourselves,” a spare track with just Paladino on virtual keyboards and piano and Mauro Sambo on saxophone. Moskowitz’s vocals — about the finite nature of life and companionship — dominate for its first three minutes, until the music fades and the ambient sounds of a chirping cricket sing the whole production to sleep.

It might sound lonely, maybe a little bleak, but Moskowitz has a very positive take on the song, which is fueling her artistic productivity. “The way out of being unknown to ourselves is through creativity,” she says. “I think from the neck up, I’m still young. It helps keep me young to be this engaged, to be this pressured. I think it’s very, very healthy.”

Moskowitz is definitely busy: she has a double album, The Afterlife, due soon with Swedish composer Peter Olof Fransson; a solo album called Rising to Eternity (about the Webb telescope) coming out at the end of this year; The United States of Alchemy is working on a second album; and she also has “many songs unfinished” with her regular collaborator, the critic, novelist and songwriter Tim Lucas.

“The conventional wisdom in the industry is that you don’t put anything out until something else is absorbed, otherwise you’re competing with yourself,” she explains. “And I think that’s good if you’re under 70 years old. But in your twilight years … I want to get everything out before the marbles go.”


‘Under an Endless Sky’ comes out Friday, March 17 on Tompkins Square. There will be a “low-key record release” on April 8, 1–3 p.m. at Oakland’s Mars Records (4125 Piedmont Ave.) with Dorothy Moskowitz present to sign copies.

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