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Tooting Their Own Horns

Musical know-it-alls talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?

Alexander Gelfand
February 10, 2009

Some people love conferences. Me, not so much. The last time I set foot in one was nearly a decade ago, and it was not a happy experience.

I had gone to Austin, Texas, to read a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and seeing so many musicologists at close range only served to convince me that I no longer wanted to be one. Not long afterward, I left academia.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended “Beyond Boundaries: Klezmer Music in the 21st Century,” a symposium held at the City University of New York in December. Alas, much of that apprehension proved to be warranted.

People have been collecting and studying Jewish music for some time, but the modern klezmer movement is still very young, and much of what passes for research in the area amounts to a kind of “scholarship-lite” (all the verbiage, half the content). There are serious thinkers in the realm of Jewish music, to be sure, but few of them made it to this symposium. Instead, what we got was a mixed bag of genuine experts, mediocre performers, and cheerleaders. Several of the participants spent most of their allotted time patting themselves on the back and congratulating one another on the terrific job they’ve done reinvigorating Ashkenazi music.

There is some truth to this last claim. Klezmer was indeed once dead, and is now in rude health. But it was hard to listen to drummer Eve Sicular deliver an advertorial for herself, when her playing is so unresponsive and so devoid of stylistic nuance. And it was almost as hard to listen to violinist and one-man klezmer factory Yale Strom refer to himself as a balkulturnik, or “master of culture—both because it is embarrassingly immodest to make such claims in public, even when true, and because Strom demonstrates such poor command of his instrument. (He appears to suffer from what a colleague once described as “an unusual sense of pitch. )

Still, the event was not a complete bust, thanks in large part to the presence of violinist Alicia Svigals, clarinetist and ethnomusicologist Joel Rubin, and pianist and scholar Hankus Netsky—three highly knowledgeable and skilled artists who made most of the truly substantive contributions to the three-hour-long session. All had a lot of interesting things to say about the historical evolution of klezmer, its recent trajectory and the reasons for its enduring appeal.

Netsky floated the idea that klezmer enjoyed a successful comeback in part due to its long hibernation, suggesting that because it had “dropped out for 60 years,” the music had a frozen-in-time quality that allowed it to serve as a link to the past for those who rediscovered it—although, as Svigals pointed out, if klezmer seemed to return from the grave with its historic sound largely intact, that was because many early revivalists made a conscious effort to construct a canonical collection of melodies and performance styles from archival recordings. Successive generations of klezmer performers have taken an increasingly flexible approach to that canon, resulting in the efflorescence of creative klezmer hybrids that we see today.

Rubin, meanwhile, called attention to the increasing presence of religious imagery in klezmer since the mid-1990s. What was once an avowedly secular movement—“the new left,” as one audience member put it—now makes room for religious allusions in everything from CD cover art to pseudo-niggunim delivered in faux Hasidic style by non-observant Jews. This rising tide of musical religiosity jibes with the general trend toward heightened spirituality and observance among many American Jews, a correlation that was made explicit by writer Seth Rogovoy.

Rogovoy, who wrote The Essential Klezmer, asserted that “klezmer has a spiritual component at the DNA level.” As a result, once bitten by the klezmer bug, even listeners who were initially drawn to the music out of simple curiosity “will get drawn further in by the spiritual quality inherent in the music.

I happen to disagree with Rogovoy. I don’t think that klezmer—or any music, for that matter—is “inherently” spiritual; rather, I believe that spirituality is something that we invest in music, consciously or unconsciously. But I recognize that some performers do intentionally aim to give their audiences a spiritual experience, and that many people receive Jewish music in this way, regardless of the performer’s intentions. This may be one of the primary factors underlying klezmer’s contemporary appeal: it provides a convenient and painless means of establishing a connection to a religion, and a culture, that can otherwise seem unapproachable. (I don’t know about you, but I find that a nice freylakh goes down a lot smoother than a little one-on-one time with the Babylonian Talmud.)

This tendency to use klezmer as a means of approaching a great religious and cultural tradition goes a long way toward explaining why relatively mediocre artists can thrive on the Jewish music scene. With so many people looking for something that goes beyond mere sound, sound itself will sometimes suffer.

This does not demean the efforts of the many fine klezmer musicians out there who can really deliver the goods. But it does mean that, for the foreseeable future, they—like their scholarly counterparts—will have to share the stage with folks who can’t.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.