Sounds of Sensibility

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Appeared in "Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought"; Issue No. 185. Vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1998), special issues on klezmer music, pp. 49-788.

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Catalytic Ruptures

A delay in the heritage process prior to the klezmer revival not only left Jewish party music to the vicissitudes of sensibility, but also spared it from the very ideological attachments, from the political and religious engagements, that gave other forms of Jewish music and musical practices a competitive advantage at the time. The music of American Jewish wedding musicians faded from view for some of the very reasons that would make it attractive to the generation that later picked it up. No movement, whether political or religious, had claimed this kind of music. Israeli music was sustained by the Zionist movement, the labor movement had its songs, mandolin orchestras, and choral groups, and both had their youth groups and summer camps. The synagogues had their cantors, choirs, and schools. In contrast, professional instrumentalists worked for a market, not a movement. Though movements also constitute a market of sorts, movements give precedence to ideological considerations.

To better understand why the lapse was catalytic, it is useful to compare the turning to "klezmer" music during the seventies, described by Frank London and Alicia Svigals in their contributions to this issue, with the turning from the "old but little-known happy Jewish music of the old country" that Mickey Katz was still playing in the fifties.59 The two moments are deeply implicated in one another, both musically (Katz's material has made a kind of comeback) and in terms of structures of feeling (his stigmatized irreverence is a badge of honor for a subsequent generation). As Don Byron explained, he was attracted to "the mischief in [klezmer] music" and found in Mickey Katz, a master of mischief: "I tend to gravitate to whoever is playing the trickiest, outest stuff, and that's where I live," whether the music be "klezmer, jazz, big band, or improvisation."60

That the music was not previously picked up cleared the path for receiving it in purely aesthetic terms. This is how many musicians first became interested in it--London is emphatic on this point. So is John Zorn. A saxophonist and composer, Zorn curated the Radical New Jewish Culture Festival at the Knitting Factory in New York City in 1993, and has issued klezmer/jazz/funk fusions on his Tzadik label. For Zorn, "All music is on equal grounds and there's no high art and low art." His compositional approach has been described as jumping "from style to style the way a television picture does when a deranged channel surfer has the remote control."61 The "roots" of this radicalism are more likely to lie in avant-garde aesthetics and Jewish political activism than in religious orthodoxy or folkloric heritage, though there are exceptions like Andy Statman.

It could be said that Statman is reconfiguring the relationships between tradition, heritage, and orthodoxy in his live connection to Hasidic nigunim, spiritual take on jazz, and religious orientation to performance. Statman's newest CD, Between Heaven & Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics, reclaims "klezmer as sacred music" and produces "a sort of Jewish/new-age fusion," according to Rogovoy.62 As I noted earlier, Statman insists that this music was always religiously mandated and insists that it is Hasidic, not klezmer music. Though he calls his band The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, Statman has said, "I don't like to use the word 'klezmer.' It becomes very limiting," a statement that hints at shifts in aesthetic and not only religious sensibility.63

The very name of his ensemble aligns it with such early bands as the Abe Schwartz Orchestra, Harry Kandel's Orchestra, Art Shryer's Modern Jewish Orchestra, rather than with the revival bands. Revivalists are more likely to invoke other musics (Yid Vicious, The Freilachmakers Old-Time String Band, Mazeltones, Jumpin' Jazzy Jewish Music). Revivalists tend to display a playful, even nostalgic, relationship to the tradition (Di Ganeyvim, Shir Fun, Kudzu Klezmer, Take the Oy Train). They are likely to identify with the immigrant history of the music and musicians (Greena Kozinas, Hester Street Troupe, and Ellis Island). And, most of all, they proudly identify themselves and their music as klezmer, a term that earlier generations of musicians considered an insult.

Whatever its status might have been when it was a functioning part of East European Jewish life, as outsider music (The Klezmorim called it "underground music"), the instrumental tradition was vulnerable to a rupture in transmission. That rupture has given shape and direction to the new klezmer music and its various sensibilities and ideologies. That the music was once stigmatized is an asset for a generation committed to new forms of radicalism like the Queer Yiddishist movement identified by Svigals. For prominent Jewish klezmer performers like the Klezmatics and their Jewish audiences, klezmer music gives voice to what they call the Radical Jewish Culture movement.

Klezmer music has become the sound of particular forms of identification, as can be seen in Svigals's "Manifesto." Whether defined positively (queer Yiddishism, socialist Jewish past, serious approach to the music) or negatively (no nostalgia, no "tourism of the past," no cuteness, no apologetics, no fetishizing of authenticity), "the identity music of Jewish American youth" envisioned by Svigals articulates distinctive sensibilities and their sounds. While the scene (actually several interlocking scenes) has many of the features associated with youth subcultures, as Svigals shows, it is also intergenerational, a feature that London specially values.

London, who is now drawn to "the secular, social activist Yiddish song tradition," did not start out that way. Quite the opposite. Klezmer music initially captured his interest because it is "good, just on its own terms." It is one of many kinds of music he plays. When he says of his first experience with the music that "It really started in the middle of nowhere," he is describing what it is like to engage with music that is literally separated from its source.64 Recordings make it possible to circulate the sounds of music without circulating the musicians. This disjunction not only heightens the experience of "nowhere" that London describes, but also his sense that "one can study and assimilate the elements of any musical style, form, or tradition by ear," a legacy of the historical avant-garde.65 This aesthetic practice is intensified by the situation of music without memory--or, in some cases, in spite of memory.

If London could play any kind of music then anyone could play Jewish music--and they did, though doing so was not so straightforward. As Don Byron explained, "I've played klezmer music since 1980. But it hasn't been easy to feel entitled to play it. A white man plays world music, and no one questions the ethnic connection. But not too many brothers are playing music from Bulgaria. I spent hundreds of hours transcribing Katz's records: I feel entitled to the knowledge, entitled to participate. But what amazes people is that I'm a black guy doing the music of people who are supposed to be white."66

London says he played this music despite, not because, of the fact that he is Jewish. Being Jewish was actually an obstacle because his experience of growing up with Jewish music had left him feeling that it was corny. When he embraced klezmer music, London was also refusing "all the shlock, all the shmaltz, all the things about Jewish music that never interested me, all the Israeli music, all the Yiddish theater music, about all that sentimentality." Not roots and heritage, but technical challenge, fun, and the market drove his initial interest in the music, much as it did his captivation with jazz.

It is precisely this disjunction--music coming out of nowhere--that allowed London to engage klezmer music at all. Not only had the music been detached from its historical moorings, but his generation could come towards it with a detached attitude, an attitude they had willed and cultivated. "Nowhere" is a space of abstraction where sounds unmoored from other times and places can be engaged as sound for its own sake. In that place called nowhere, musicians can play anything. They do so in the "theme concerts" London describes. Jewish was a theme. It was resolutely not an "identity" or "heritage."

Jewish, he soon discovered, was also a "scene" and it is this scene that London and Svigals speak to in their accounts from the inside, as musicians who have been part of it, each in their own way, for almost two decades. It is telling that London speaks in the spatial terms of nowhere (and scene), not in the temporal terms of revival and heritage. David Krakauer also uses a spatial metaphor when he says of klezmer music that "I felt in a certain way that I had found a kind of musical home," though it is not the only place he lives.67

While he attributes the secret of the Klezmatics' success to their being "a great rock band--that is, they swing hard and get people emotionally," Michael Dorf, who owns the Knitting Factory, adds that "there is something in their music that reaches the Jewish part of me."68 This statement marks the distance traveled from the sixties, when Milton Gordon in his study of assimilation in American life could still warn his readers that "the individual who engages in frequent and sustained primary contacts across ethnic group lines, particularly racial and religious, runs the risk of becoming what, in sociological parlance, has been called the 'marginal man'."69 Gordon's marginal man, derived from Chicago sociologists working in the twenties and thirties (Robert E. Park and Everett V. Stonequist), was a "social deviant" on the verge of nervous breakdown. Nothing could be further from the sensibilities informing the klezmer music scene.

The Jewish part of Dorf is clearly not all of him. The other part, to which he attributes the Klezmatics' success, has helped the music travel far beyond the wedding circuit to which Jewish instrumental music had become confined. During the first half of this century, the music could be heard not only at simkhes, but also at banquets and social and political functions of various kinds, Jewish caf s and restaurants.70 By the fifties, it was most likely to be heard at weddings and in the English-Yiddish comedy shows by performers like Mickey Katz.

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