& Klezmer Music
|The Uncut Interview with
Q: When would you say Klezmer came to exist in this country?
Henry Sapoznik: What we now recognize as Klezmer began at the end of the 19th century, during the large-scale emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. What these people brought with them, in addition to their language, history, and culture, was this Yiddish musical tradition. Their culture had already existed for a thousand years, and they were bringing music used at weddings for hundreds of years: listening music, music for rituals. Once immigrants came into contact with American leisure and popular culture, they started to find other outlets for Klezmer music beside weddings. Yiddish theatre was rising at the end of the 19th century, as was musical recording, so suddenly there were different outlets for the music to be heard and commodified.
How did these kinds of rituals function, not just at the turn of the century in Europe, but here? Did it become something else, or was it used for something else?
You would still have the music played at weddings, but the context changed. In the Old World, you had weddings that would last a week or two weeks, because they took place in a hermetically sealed society. You couldn't do that in the United States. There was no history of entertainment in Eastern Europe for its own sake. In Europe there was Yiddish theater, beginning around the same time as anti-Semitic pogroms and government actions that encouraged large-scale emigration. Here you had theaters, cafes, vaudeville, roof gardens, what were called "landsmenschaffen," fraternal organizations of people from the same towns. Suddenly there were all these potential outlets. The music came in contact with different social situations, different sounds. Yiddish music and the whole Klezmer thing are a musical roadmap of where we've been, who we've interacted with, and what we have maintained of our identity.
Do you think that is still the case today?
It is just a new version of the road map. The difference between what's happening now, with the radical Jewish and neo-Klezmer musical movements, is that in the old days, musicians used Yiddish culture as their core repertoire. Other music they assimilated through shared cultural interaction, but it was farther from the center. These days, it's exactly the opposite. The core repertoire for most of the musicians is rock, jazz, classical, and edge, so Klezmer is the thing that sounds the most foreign and least authentic. There's a constant shift, but now the roadmap happens to be in English, whereas the other map was in Yiddish or Polish.
What do you mean about a shift?
The shift is not only about geography but also cultural change. There's a story in the film THE DYBBUK about a guy who makes a promise to marry his son off and then retracts it. He takes his son over to a window and says, "What do you see?" The son says that he sees people. So the father says "Now look up, what do you see?" and the boy sees himself. With the introduction of silver, which backs the mirror, you no longer see out of the window, you only see yourself. Were the musicians a mirror on their community? Or were they a window enabling the community to see what was going on around them? Because the musicians were working for a living, the introduction of silver shifted their whole view. They were reflecting the way the community wanted to see itself and its cycle of events. This was the music's most telling element, its reflection of how people wanted to see themselves. The shift happened very early. By the turn of the century, critical Yiddish dances were being discarded in favor of the waltz, the tango, the hesitation waltz, the two step, and the foxtrot. As cultural dynamics shift, the musician works in tandem with them.
What is the relationship between neo-Klezmer and radical Jewish music? What are the major differences between the two in terms of where they were coming from and where they were going?
The major difference between traditional Klezmer musicians, who brought their traditions from Eastern Europe to the United States with them, and contemporary musicians is that the former were in a service industry. They reflected the aesthetics of the community; they weren't artists. Now musicians come from a concert background, so their musical choices are based more on a personal aesthetic. What is the community? There is no community; it's so stratified. You have the Hasidic world, the Israeli world, the assimilated Jewish world. Each one has its own parameters and boundaries about what they want to hear, saying, "Play this music and this will reflect me." But very few of the young musicians who have come up in the last twenty years want to play weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, because it's a reactive, not an active, way of creating music from your own world.
Do those different considerations show up in the music?
That's where it shows up most clearly. One reason the neo-Klezmer movement is popular is that it arose at the same time as the World Music movement, and the two fuelled each other. American pop music can be seen as a sort of musical Esperanto; it has had such a profound influence on traditional music across the world that it has created a resource in which to find all this different music. It has a precedent. Back in the '20s, there was a group called Joseph Cherniavsky's Hasidic-American Jazz Band, but it was an immigrant's concept of what jazz was, not an insider's view. James Reese Europe's Hellfighters had just played at Carnegie Hall when Cherniavsky's band was playing. Now when people from the downtown scene play jazz, they come from playing edge jazz, you know, third string post-op, and their Klezmer is at kind of an arm's length. Andy Statman is probably one of the only players today who doesn't come out of a classical or jazz background. He was in the bluegrass scene, and I was in the old-time music scene. Andy got his musical education the old-fashioned way, at the feet of his teacher, Dave Tarras, who was one of the last great European players. But he does a conscious welding of all of these different forms. Dave Tarras would not have known what to make of Andy's playing. It would have sounded like dial tones to him, even though he would have heard the essence of Andy's sound.
Because he was of a different generation?
Totally. There's a whole thing in linguistics about retention of accents: Noam Chomsky says that after a certain age in puberty, if you learn a new language you'll always retain the essence of your previous language; you'll always have an accent. The older you get, the more prevalent that accent becomes. Well, when Dave Tarras came to the United States in the mid-1920s, he was in his middle-to-late 20s, so he never lost his Yiddish "accent" in his music. Even when he tried to play jazz -- and he had two young musicians who were trying to push him to play fusion, Yiddish jazz, Yiddish swing as it was called -- he never lost his Yiddish sound. A lot of young musicians now can't lose their jazz sound or their classical sound when they play Klezmer, because that's their core aesthetic, that's their core sound production.
How do you feel about people who are trying to make what they call Jewish music, when their grandparents lost that "accent," their parents never had it, and they've never had it either?
The term Klezmer; it's like jazz. You get two jazz musicians together and you say, "You're both jazz musicians," but they have nothing to say to one another -- why? One guy plays the straight New Orleans style, he plays just Baby Dogs and Louis Armstrong, and another guy is playing Sun Ra. Now, they're both jazz musicians and they both speak in the broadest sense about jazz, but the term has become so elastic and amorphous that it no longer has any real meaning. Well, that's what has happened to Klezmer. The term has become so amorphous that you now have stratification in Klezmer. You can get people together who say, "Oh, I play Klezmer," and someone else says they play Klezmer, but they don't share a common repertoire; they don't share a common ability to produce the sound, ornament, phrasing, or rhythmic structure. But it's all Jewish, Jewish as opposed to Yiddish, as Jewish really refers to a much broader worldview.
Why would you say that it's all Jewish?
Jewish identity is so reflective. Sartre said, "A Jew is someone who's identified as a Jew," and he was talking about Fascism being the delineator, of Nazism defining who was a Jew by saying: "You are." But when you identify yourself, you meld aspects of your own identity. Not everyone who's Jewish says, "I'm going to move to Israel," since we're not Israeli. You would have to be a Zionist; you would have to feel that. You can be a hyphenated American and use Judaism as a point of departure. "Yiddish" is a subheading. Yiddish talks about a specific civilization, Eastern European, with its own language, its own literature, and its own particular history. "Jewish" is a more flexible term. You can use it as a way to express an inclusive attitude that allows different ways to identify yourself.
There are different kinds of attitudes about Klezmer and its essential characteristics, and then there are the critics who say this radical music is un-Jewish. How do you define Jewish music?
If you're talking about the radical Jewish music scene, about people like Mark Ribot and Anthony Coleman, it's the musical equivalent of the Israeli Law of Return. The national law of Israel is that if you were born a Jew you can return, you have a free ticket in, and this birthright allows you a particular self-identity without having to prove anything, without having to prove cultural literacy or any kind of shared attitude towards their community. By taking that particular birthright and superimposing it onto their culture, they've made it very easy to say, "Hey, I'm Jewish, ergo anything I do is Jewish music." Cultural literacy is not transmitted genetically; it's not like having brown hair or slate-gray eyes. It's the responsibility of each generation to be active in passing on the action, the language, the DNA of cultural literacy.
Andy Statman is a throwback to the apprenticeship process, in which a young player would sit at the feet of an older player and learn the building blocks of the language in a sequential way. Duke Ellington said you have to know the rules before you break them, and what we have is an Andy Statman, who breaks the rules as he pleases, simply because he breaks them from a conscious place; he knows what he's not doing. When he chooses to meld his music with space jazz, he's doing it with complete musical knowledge. If someone put a pistol to his head and said "play traditional style," he could do it, but if any of the musicians in the downtown scene were to have that happen, they couldn't, because they have transcended the need to learn the bedrock repertoire and style. There doesn't need to be continuity.
Why doesn't there? What keeps it from becoming just a mishmash?
Some people say it is a mishmash; some people say that what's happening in the downtown scene is attitude over aptitude. A willful melding of incongruous styles is a kind of cultural promiscuity; we do these things because we can do these things. We as contemporary citizens hear more music in a year than our ancestors heard in a lifetime. We hear stuff just in passing that whole generations would never ever have heard, so it is much easier now to meld these in a seemingly haphazard way. Ken Molz, who plays with me in Kapelye, once quipped that Fusion is short for Confusion, and for people who believe that process precedes knowledge; it's like a game of telephone. You want to start at the first message. If you come into the game of telephone the fifth message in, you're getting the fifth message and are not really in touch with the elemental communication. Which is why, again, the term Klezmer is not a workable description. In a way, calling this music "radical Jewish music" makes more sense because it doesn't claim to be part of a cultural continuity. It identifies itself as its own stream that draws upon its own elements. It's like treating culture as a smorgasbord. You can fill up on hors d'oeuvres, but that's not really having a meal, that's just like having little essences.
I went to see John Zorn's group last week and I found it to be interesting and musically satisfying, and well played, and musical.
But is it Jewish music? Jewish music allows a much more inclusive, overarching quality, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Klezmer music, except in that it takes certain hand-chosen elements, certain sounds, certain intervals, maybe certain melodic or modal themes. As far as being identity art, it's peak identity art.
What is identity art?
"Identity art" lets you define yourself through music. Some people are stateless culturally; they see themselves as being part of a world that defies borders and boundaries. But when you engage in identity art and say, "I am a Jew, and I am using this music to identify myself in this specific way," you can pick and choose from both the in-group and the out-group, and that's what Zorn and a lot of people have chosen as a path.
What do you like about John Zorn's music? What is Jewish about it?
I think that what's Jewish about it is that it uses historic themes. For example, he refers to his group as Masada. The name Masada has a very powerful sense of historical identity. It talks about an unwillingness to give in to overwhelming oppositional forces, so it takes a powerful chapter from Jewish history, not from Yiddish history. By choosing to take historical, philosophical and political themes to a musical venue that is not necessarily a Jewish musical venue, Zorn creates a language and a literature that reflects his view of being Jewish.
Are there things musically that you find in his music that reflect on the Jewish origins?
He has Jewish themes that you'll hear as either themes up front or sub-themes, or he'll use certain intervals or certain ornaments. When he sits on stage conducting his group, he is creating. But just because somebody is Jewish doesn't necessarily mean that they embody Jewish literacy. That has been one of the things that we need to deal with. No one embodies that literacy just because they come from an ethnic community. When I first met Zorn in 1983, he had not really heard Klezmer music. I gave him an anthology of Klezmer recordings that had just come out the year before on 78s. Up until that point, he had a very strong appetite for themes from American popular culture, Mickey Spillane and stuff like that, that nobody would have considered worthy of creating art statements about. It's pulp. This stuff was meant to be used and discarded, but he had an avant way of seeing; he and Andy Warhol and others were seeing popular culture as a well from which you can draw to create a personal art form. But it was not about immersing yourself in it. You worked on becoming a Hasid of the music, giving up being a part of current society in order to immerse yourself and then come out the other side.
So in a sense, it is a kind of a contemporary culture. He embraced popular culture as we all do, as a way of not denying that kind of contemporary existence and yet also exploring things that are Jewish in terms of his music. Just how important is continuity at this point?
Some of us have made a conscious effort to create a bridge to an earlier generation, so that we have a point of departure. For us, the term "revival" that has been appended to Klezmer music suggests that something had to be dead in order to be revived and used. For people whose parents and grandparents were not culturally literate, getting into playing Jewish music is in fact a revival. My late father was a cantor; I studied the traditional modes and scales and just thought that that was everyone's upbringing. But it wasn't; it was mine. There was continuity, not in a ballyhooed way, but in an age-old way of creating a smooth transition. There was no real rupture, just a kind of "ongoingness."
But those kinds of experiences [of people whose parents were cantors] are very rare for people of our generation, if you look at the Jewish population as a whole.
Oh, it's the exception rather than the rule. But that's not to say it's not possible to create your own bridge. Andy did it with Dave Tarras; Margo Leverett has done it with Sid Beckerman; and other people have done it. There are the exponents of the musical tradition who, like runners in a relay race, are still there to have their baton passed on. Out of this you can craft identity art based on a bedrock of cultural literacy rather than a willful statement that "I don't need to know all this because I'm Jewish and I can bypass this whole thing." I think there are people who do it every day in other communities. People find mentors with that kind of folk literacy who are more than happy to pass it on and who realize that you have to take an active responsibility in creating these bridges. For exactly that reason, the percentages are against us.
Do you think that there is a sufficient core mentor group, of a large enough number, to make it possible to pass on that cultural literacy to current generations and future ones?
Well, as a matter of fact, I do. Fourteen years ago, I started the Yiddish Folk Arts Program, "KlezKamp," whose whole purpose was to reanimate the apprenticeship system, to identify senior members of the community, like in the Ray Bradbury novel FAHRENHEIT 451. Bradbury's premise is that the government has outlawed all books. So people memorize books and verbally pass their content on to the next generation. The books are gone, but their content and meaning are still transmitted. My goal, and I'm certainly not the only one to do this, was to create a cross-section of tools that people can use, like reissuing a series of 78s made by immigrant musicians in the twenties.
We don't have an old country to go back to. Every other community has an old country. If you play Irish music you can go back to County Sligo and attend the All Ireland Fiddle Contest. Or if you play Romanian music, you can go back to Transylvania and play. But we don't have an old country to go back to. The few surviving members of our community we do have in New York are a group of twenty senior musicians, not European-born, who learned from the Europeans and who now represent our oldest link to that community. These are the teachers whose feet we now sit at, as they sat at the feet of the older players. If we want those old players, we go back to the Old Country of the 78s. We go back to old records and we decode them. We take this one little piece, and out of this three-minute Rosetta Stone, we craft an entire language. Twenty years ago, Andy Statman was playing; Kapelye was playing; a group in California called the Klezmorim was playing. Today there are over two hundred groups playing Klezmer music in America. No one could have predicted that. No one could have predicted that the center of Klezmer music outside America would be Germany. That's where the big scene is. We're allowed a kind of cultural coda that lets us reclaim something earlier generations not only allowed to slip away, but in some cases jettisoned as fast as they could. So we now have a very gossamer-thin moment. Andy is continuity, playing Dave's clarinet. He plays on Dave's actual instrument, and when he chooses to, he breathes as Dave breathed. Margo Leverett breathes as Sid Beckerman breathed.
Tell me about that gossamer-thin moment. What do you mean by that?
What I see as the gossamer moment is the moment of transmission, when one tune that you learn has the ability to reveal an entire civilization. And if you choose, you could use that one tune as a passport to take you to this other society and bring it back. We're not talking about nostalgia. This is totally anti-nostalgia, because obviously you can't have nostalgia for something you yourself didn't experience. And even the old players, Ray Musiker, Sid Beckerman, Danny Rubenstein, Pete Sokolow, none of these guys wish it was 1936 again. Maybe they would if they could fit into their old suits, but the point is they know that this music is inevitably forward-moving. History is like a glacier; it's going to move forward. But for us to connect with a previous generation, to arm ourselves with their literacy, with their language, with their worldview, we have to make decisions from an informed, positive place rather than by default. A number of people are not part of this continuity. They make it up as they go along and are reduced to engaging in what I call "fakelore." They make up what the history and the past were like in order to justify their actions. And again, they'll say, "Well, I'm Jewish, and this is what the whole civilization was about simply because I read a book," or, "I remember seeing a movie [about this] once." But when people take the trouble to humanize their history before making decisions about what to do, it's not revival, it's renewal.
And music can be a key to that?
Music can be the easiest bridge. It's a welcome mat, because you don't have to have a language to understand it. If you choose to woodshed, actually choose to go in and not just learn the tunes or one or two ornaments, you can use it as a way to unlock something much greater. That's what KlezKamp was about. The entrée is instrumental music, but the programming surrounding the music is the point. There are classes in history, literature, folklore, crafts, film, theatre, and radio, everything that puts a civilization into a broader cultural context. If you only look at the music, it ends up being a stereotype. If you reduce any culture to one aspect, like if all people know about African-American culture is the blues, you've just negated an entire society that is multi-layered beyond that one form. It's an entrée in, but it's not a cultural be-all and end-all.
What do you hope music would do for Jewish people's relationship with their own past, as Jews look into the future?
Again, I think music is a bridge. It is an entrée into a much broader and more multi-leveled society, and if you choose to use the music as a way in, it allows you not only to rediscover but to reanimate this society. There's no way we're going to recreate this large Yiddish-speaking world; it's gone, it was murdered, it will never be what it was. The music can still retain the quality of what Yiddish society was like, but that can only happen by internalizing it, not treating it as a stereotype, a merely capricious choice between one thing and another. It's work. It really is work.
Do you see this as a new focus on what it means to be Jewish, as it were, to the future? What is the value of having that kind of identity?
I think in a society like ours, which is based on brand-name recognition, it's very easy to lose sight of that. You have to know where you came from to know where you're going. If we all become rootless and anchorless, then we lose our frame of reference. Whatever the next trend is, whatever the next fad is, that's what we become. But if we're anchored in a sense of where we're from, we can use it as a compass point to really define what we want. This Jewish music scene, this very, very broad Jewish music scene, is an excellent case in point. Not everyone chooses to use Klezmer as a way to define themselves. Real Hasidim who live within their community look at Klezmer music and don't get it at all. We could be doing Mandarin court music for all they know, because Klezmer doesn't contain what they want, the glory of God and a heightened, fundamentalist religious fidelity. But it's much the same with the Israelis, who look at Klezmer and think it's primitive stuff, that they're in technicolor and we're in sepia tone. So they all say, "But hey, I'm Jewish," and they all have music which is their anthem, their marching band music. I think music is a pulse, a soundtrack we hear in the back of our minds as we try to identify ourselves in a society that chips away at how we see ourselves. Again, multiculturalism is a two-edged sword. We are part of one society that has other societies to our right and to our left, and we can't claim not to be influenced. By the same token, we have to understand that the cultural baggage we bring with us is on a par with everyone else's. Yet it also contains some of what everyone else has brought, and we all choose consciously to say, "We want 32% of what goes on around us," as opposed to people like the Hasidim who say, "I want 0.4% of what goes on around us." There's still going to be a resonance from our environment, but it originates from what you understand of your own identity.
What decades are we talking about having to bridge over? What happened specifically to Jewish music in its peak? What happened to that particular musical cultural expression?
Dave Tarras is a good example of what you're talking about. When Dave came to the United States in the 1920s, the concept of the melting pot held sway. The idea was to melt our different ethnic identities down in a vat and become faceless Americans with no rough edges. It must have been incredibly difficult for someone like Dave, being in an ethnic group whose identity was being chipped away by the dominant American culture. Then there was World War Two, which brought the influence of assimilation on one hand and the rise of Israel on the other. People like Dave found they no longer represented Klezmer music, Yiddish theatre and other stuff that marked their identity. Those were now deemed passé, obsolete, because now there was a Jewish state that was crafting a monolithic identity; for the first time in thousands of years, there was an attempt being made to create a single Jewish character. Dave and people like him were dwindling away, because it's very hard to go against the cultural grain. They were being worn away by the forces around them and by community education to "get with the program," and to "stop living in the past." It's the same reason Penn Station was torn down. And then what happens? Three years after you get rid of it you realize you've just destroyed something that gives you cultural entrée. You know, its like saying, "Rip down those Pyramids, who the heck needs them anymore, those guys are dead." We are a disposable, commodity-driven society, and the more we jettison these traditional aspects of our society, the more unmoved we are by them. Dave held on to his stuff, not because he's a traditionalist, not because "somebody's got to hold onto this music," but because it meant something to him aesthetically. He wasn't thinking about preserving a tradition. He wasn't trying to play like his father.
I just want to go back to the Penn Station example. It was torn down; many people see it as lost. Now there is talk about whether we should rebuild it in some way, even though no one is going to be fooled two hundred years from now into thinking that the new Penn Station is the original, like Grand Central Station. And in the same way, I wonder if that's true about Jewish music? No one's ever going to be fooled into thinking that it's the same as if it hadn't been destroyed. It's kind of re-rooted within Jewish culture in New York.
Right. We can't revive Sanford White and have him come out of the grave and rebuild Penn Station, but we do have people who are in a post office across the street that is from the same era and evokes some of the same aesthetics. So we use Penn Station as a warning. Because of the destruction of Penn Station, we now have a landmark preservation law on the books. Cultural literacy is more delicate, more fragile than a building, because you can't really say, "This guy stood, this guy used to play this music." We can't revive the society in which this music came to fruition. What we can do is offer it as an option to a culture that wants to find its own way in today's world. We can reintroduce the stuff. It's kind of like reintroducing wolves back into the environment. There were bounties placed on wolves in the past, and now we have more wild deer in North America than we did when Columbus discovered the continent. So by reintroducing the stuff back into the environment, you begin to shift the natural landscape. You can never make it back to where you were, but you can attempt to redress the loss.
We know we don't sound like Europeans, although Andy Statman can, when he wants to, sound like he comes from Europe. Merman Shepherd is another clarinetist who can do that. Very few of these players really evoke this suspension of belief; we can suspend belief, but that's a little bit like re-enacting the Civil War. Who wants to re-enact the Civil War? Living history is an oxymoron. We talk about giving a society the tools to re-establish a sense of continuity, of belonging, and I think that's an incredible gift. I don't think we're going to replace anything that's lost, but it's not right to say, "That stuff's gone, so let's just forget it. Let's just move on and make believe we are the first generation." That's a little too self-anointing.
If this weren't good music, I wouldn't be doing it, and I don't think anyone else would be. You can't say, "Oh, you have to play this music or otherwise you're defaming the six million." Forget that. It happens to be great music.
What do you think of David Krakauer?
David is a great player with chops to spare, and he's one of these people from the "pistol to the head" school. You put a pistol to his head, you say "play traditional," and he can play traditional. I think he's very courageous, and I think he's really making his own statement.
Do you think that if you put people like him and Andy Statman together you can make a statement, and make something that's compelling in a musical sense?
We've already done it, and we're lucky to have them. There are a couple of other people like them.
What do you think of Joel Rubin?
I think that Joel's playing reflects less of Joel Rubin than Andy's playing reflects Andy and David's reflects David. I think that Joel's playing is a historic recreation. He plays the music exactly as it was, and I think that's important because he is a model for us. Dave Tarras didn't play exactly like his father. It's different. It's art; what does it become? Everyone is looking for something different in the music.
How would you describe the musical characteristics of Klezmer?
There's the superficial stuff that a lot of people latch onto, that laughing sound on the clarinet or the glissandos. Those are the really thin superficial elements. The deeper stuff is harder to define. What's great when you listen to the old records is that any of these old guys could have overplayed the music, any of them could have played thirty ornaments because they knew the ornaments, but they played five. That was part of the beauty of it; they knew how to underplay it, they didn't need to go like this and point to themselves by overstating ornamentation or phrasing or articulations. There's something called a Jewish ear that you get by playing. Once you've heard it, you understand what makes the music sound as if it comes from somewhere specific. I could say, "Well, the trill could be faster than you're used to playing it," or "This ornament could be a thirty-second instead of a thirty-minute one," but these are technicalities that don't transmit the essence of the music. What does work is immersing yourself in a soundscape, which is what we try to do at KlezKamp. Not everyone who comes out of there is completely literate, but at least there's a chance of having experienced a living, breathing, functioning community. And then if you choose to take on that role, you can sit down and woodshed with those old records and use them as teachers, as guides, and slowly begin to internalize the technical stuff. Then you can begin to make an informed, intelligent decision about how to reconstruct it that not only reflects where you came from but where you want to go.
So people went through a central creative process of rediscovery?
I was "luckier" than most in that my parents are both Holocaust survivors, and that they came over to America with their culture completely intact. We only spoke Yiddish at home for the first few years; my mother tells me that when I was six I sounded like a seventy-five year-old Jewish man because I was learning to speak English along with my family. So in my case it was just a ho-hum kind of thing. I just thought everyone grew up in that kind of an environment.
So that wasn't the typical process of rediscovery?
It was relentlessly atypical. What was more typical were people like the Klezmorim, or Andy Statman, who had been looking for meaning within the whole thing. Alex Haley showed us that history doesn't need to be top-down, it can be bottom-up. You can use your own community history, your own family history, as an entrée into another, much bigger history. For example, if you read anything by Barbara Tuchman, you'll see that she frames the big history against the biography of a single person so that you have an easily identified individual. It's a brilliant way to empower us, to reconnect us.
They use the recordings as this abracadabra to make their way back into the culture and rekindle its continuity. Some of us were lucky that we came out of it, and some of us were luckier still that we had role models which could transcend the stereotype. When you just learn to play off a record, sometimes the depth of your understanding is the thickness of that record. If you don't have a real person to study with and to show you how to humanize the music, you end up with rubber chickens and claims that the music was used in Betty Boop cartoons, because there's no one to disagree with you.
You're talking about that kind of Yiddish expression. What is Yiddish about Yiddish music?
It's indefinable. It requires a musical intimacy that you just sort of know. When we play for older people, it's not uncommon for someone to come over and say, "That music sounds exactly the way I remember it." Then someone else comes up and says, "That music doesn't sound anything like the way I remember it, because we had a trumpet player, and you don't have a trumpet player." So they're looking at the sound as being made up of this, this, this, and this rather than saying, "This really sounds like it, even though they didn't have a banjo." But you're using the banjo in a way that replaces and augments something that existed before. Of course, if there's some genre that you feel incredibly literate and comfortable with, and you hear someone from outside of that musical world playing and you say, "Wait a second, this doesn't sound right," you know. Like you hear Eastern Europeans playing jazz and you say, "There's something wrong here," because, for whatever the reason, that's the prerogative of your internalized literacy. I wouldn't say it's instinctive: because it requires learning, it's active. You're not consciously thinking about it, but when you hear the music you know whether it sounds right. Then it's as if you kind of lean back in your chair and sit back; it's like you're driving. I'm sitting in the back seat. When it happens, its a phenomenal experience; it's the exception rather than the rule.
When what happens?
When you hear someone who is really in control, who really knows what they're doing, and can call upon it at will, without having someone say, "You are now going to hear x." I don't need you to tell me, just do it, and if you can do it, I'll hear it. Most people have to frame what they're doing and say, "I'm Jewish, and this is Jewish music, and you're now going to hear this." But the music is the final arbiter of that, and when they can do it, when you know what you're hearing, you can tell. That's the thing with this kind of continuity. I mean, if someone is a classical violinist, I can tell if they're a classical violinist, as opposed to a fiddler. Someone like Alicia Svigals transcended her classical violin training and became a fiddler, not only evoking but embodying the sound. Not many people can do that, because again there's the whole accent thing. You learn how to create a sound within a hierarchical universe. Classical music has a very rigid hierarchical structure about what is good sound and what is bad sound. And Alicia transcends that because of her dedication to the music and to herself as an artist.
Is there anything that we didn't touch upon that you would like to comment on?
Basically, no. Well, we discussed what's Klezmer and what isn't. Just: for every two Jews, there are three genres.
& Klezmer Music