A Project for My 68th Year

I wrote my first klezmer tune ("Wholesale Hora") in 1990 in the hours after I was invited to join the Wholesale Klezmer Band. It was a Friday, and I kept jumping up from the dinner table to write down the musical ideas that were buzzing through me like an electrical current.  There seemed no other, better way to express my joy at taking this step towards playing the music that I loved so much.

That moment of creation opened a sluice gate.  First as a trickle, eventually as a torrent, tunes poured out of me.  I used to turn on a tape recorder, pick up an accordion, play a note against a chord and listen to where the frequencies pulled me.  In our house in Brookline, back in the days before dishwashers got really quiet, our dishwasher used to drone along on a perfectly in tune D, making that lowly household machine a very effective composition tool.  Occasionally, I would bring a tune to the band and we would play and even record it, but the vast majority of them sat in a looseleaf binder.

When the body count of these neglected tunes got too high (well over 150), I finally had to impose a ban on composing sessions.  There seemed to be no point to allowing myself to create a lot of music that would forever go unheard.  Occasionally a tune would make itself known to me in a way that could not be denied, but the stream slowed again to a trickle.

About 18 years ago, I decided that I needed to record myself playing them all so that I could hear them as more than just the sounds in my head and feel what it was like to move them through my body and consciousness.  In order to do that, I first needed to figure out how to make Band in a Box, the wonderful auto-accompaniment program that I used, to sound more authentic.  After three years of intensive work that helped me reach a much deeper understanding of how klezmer works, particularly rhythmically, I produced Klezmorim in a Kestl, a disk containing two sets of traditional klezmer styles and a fakebook of 100 classic tunes already arranged.  The styles were quite fun to play along with, and I looked forward to getting all of my tunes recorded.

Then life got in the way.  I carted that looseleaf binder around with me, back and forth to Hawaii year after year, figuring that the winter would be a great time to do the recording, but the project remained a perennial item on my to-do list.

I first met members of the Mazel Tov Kocktail Hour in 2011, and it quickly became clear to me that the group and I both wanted and needed to work together.  The first fruit of that collaboration was Shoyn Avek Der Nekhtn, a recording I produced for them and had the honor of playing on for some of the tracks.  When we began that project, I made them an offer they didn't refuse:  in return for my producing it, would they be willing to help me get all my tunes recorded professionally before the arthritis in my right hand makes holding the clarinet impossible?  They accepted with delight, and said arthritis put getting my tunes in order on the very top of the to-do list.

When I was in high school,  I spent a couple of summers organizing a chamber music club among my equally nerdy friends.  I'd go to the Chicago Public Library and borrow scores for trios and quartets and we would get together to play.  I also spent a lot of hot days at the town pool followed by folk-singing sessions with another of my friends.  Music and swimming -- the perfect summer.

And that's what I've had this year.  For the past 6 weeks, I've honed and polished over 200 tunes and recorded them all with my Band in a Box styles, sharing them with my colleagues in preparation for spending this coming year working on getting them all recorded.  It's been a wonderful time for me, spending hours each day playing, composing and listening, often after an early morning swim.  How often is it possible to recapture a perfect time from one's youth?

So on this, my birthday, I am pleased to announce that by this time next year, we will have gone most of the way towards getting this massive pile of tunes, my creative legacy, recorded and made available for everyone to hear and use.  I'm very excited about this (they're great tunes!) and hope that others will enjoy them as much as I do.


Musings on Music, Country and Community

I'm beginning this new round of blog posts with some thoughts I've been having recently on the interrelationship of music, its place of origin and the community that it serves.  These thoughts were inspired by an experience I had the other week at the Greek Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Lament from Epirus.jpg

My friend and colleague, Chris King (whom you may know as the engineer who is responsible for the amazing digital transfers of all the records in my collection), recently published a book, Lament from Epirus, about his fascinating and very personal journey into the music of Epirus and the geography which created it.  One of the aspects of the book that I found most compelling was his description of the way in which a recording, the eponymous "Lament from Epirus" recorded in 1926 by violinist Alexis Zoumbas, grabbed Chris by the lapels and dragged him forcibly into immersing himself completely in Epirote culture.  I could identify with Chris's experience because of my own relationship with both klezmer and Hawaiian music.

The event held on a lovely spring evening at the Greek Institute a couple of weeks ago was billed as a lecture with live music.  The room was small but absolutely packed, and most of the people there were clearly of Greek ancestry -- many spoke English with an accent.  Chris began by playing the 78 rpm disc that had started him on his journey, and as the room filled with the masterful sounds of the violin, the excitement in the room was palpable.  That music clearly spoke to that audience not nostalgically, but in the present, with the entire gamut of emotions experienced by people who were at once of a place and far away from it.  After Chris's talk, two very fine musicians playing violin and lauto performed a couple of traditional tunes, to an equally rapt and enthusiastic response.  But what was most interesting to me was what happened after the event was over, when everyone was milling around chatting and talking with Chris.  I heard person after person describing his or her own visits to Epirus or an experience with the music or a longing to reconnect with the place from which their family had migrated.  One young man (without a Greek accent) told Chris that he was in the process of getting his dual citizenship (American and Greek).

I found that response all the more striking because it's not possible for those of us whose Jewish families came from Eastern Europe to go back in that same way.  There is no "there" there any more, not really.  It's possible, I suppose, to feel nostalgia for the flourishing Yiddish culture on the Lower East Side of New York and other turn-of-the-20th-century urban enclaves, but they don't exist any longer, either.  Through KlezKamp and similar events and festivals, we have, however, managed to reanimate the music as the connective tissue of community.  Klezmer musicians again function as kley koydeshi, holy tools, helping to celebrate occasions (weddings, brisses, holidays) essential for the continuity of the Jewish people.  For many, the klezmer revival (actually a Yiddish revival) has led to a strong sense of Jewish identity, and people have embraced many of the traditions embedded in the music as a vital part of their own lives.  

This got me remembering a post-KlezKamp visit, one December long ago, to a Greek nightclub in Astoria, with Kurt Bjorling, Eve Monzingo and Alicia Svigals.  We went to hear a band with whom Alicia sometimes performed, and the whole experience was kind of mind-blowing.  Here we were, late on a Friday night, in a club full of young people dancing to music that sounded both traditional and modern.  It made us wonder what klezmer would have been like in the late 20th century, if it hadn't been uprooted.


And then there is Hawaiian music, the other culture with which I am most familiar.  From my very first visit I felt about Hawai'i rather like Chris describes his feelings for Epirus.  There was a sense of belonging to the place and the culture that makes no sense empirically but is very real nevertheless.  Hawai'i is a very musical place; every mall and shopping center has a stage with free hula shows, jam sessions and 'ukulele lessons, and so many of the people who visit yearn to interact with the music in some kinetic way, often regardless of whether they have ever played an instrument or danced before.  I believe the reason they are pulled in that way lies in the extent to which Hawaiian music is totally rooted in the land. Longing to be part of the music is actually longing to be connected to the place.  Most songs/hulas are about physical locations, at least on the surface, and the sounds and rhythms of performances are rooted in the movement of the waves, the roar of the surf, the rains and the wind and all the other natural phenomena that make Hawaii unique.  While music certainly binds the community, it doesn't serve it in quite the same way as klezmer, and communal aspects of the culture seem to recede in view of the preeminence of connection to the land itself.

Music, country, community.  All three are essential elements of human life.  How fortunate we are that we can explore cultures beyond what we find in our own geography.


TUNE OF THE MONTH: Mlody Bortnik

This month's tune is something a little bit different.  For one thing, there are no other recordings of it for comparison.  It's not even, strictly speaking, part of the Yiddish repertoire. But I think it will be very interesting for a number of reasons.

Let me begin by admitting that I have a certain fondness for polkas. When I was nine years old and wanting to sign up for band, my mother's cousin Seymour, who had played clarinet in an army band in WWII, took out his horn and played the Clarinet Polka for me, and I was mesmerized. It sounded like water splashing down a waterfall, and I knew I needed to be able to play like that.

"The Clarinet Polka" actually does have a Yiddish connection. Under one of its Polish titles, "Dyadushka,", Dave Tarras recorded it in the late 1950s with Murray Lehrer on volume 3 of Freilachs in Hi-Fi. The text on the sleeve says about this tune:

"The Clarinet Polka is a showpiece for Tarras' very live licorice stick. He has played it often under its original -- Dyadushka Polka (Grandfather's Polka).  If the granddads to whom it is dedicated can dance this breath-snatcher, more power to them and to Dave Tarras too, who though a granddad himself, can blow down many a younger man.  The trumpet's darker tones outline the Pierrot-like agility of the clarinet...."

That description of Tarras's playing applies equally to this month's tune, a polka that he wrote and recorded in 1920 called "Mlody Bortnik" (the Young Boarder). This was an exclusively Polish release on the Victor label. Tarras made a number of Polish releases, all billed as Instr. Kwartet Tarasiewicza.

What is special about this polka, and the reason that I chose to highlight it here, is that unlike most such tunes, its melody is modal rather than major in tonality, and it moves in very interesting ways between C freygish and F harmonic minor.

The polka begins with a four-bar intro that sounds like someone took a typical dance hall intro and klezmerized it.  

The cadence at the end of this intro, C maj - Bb minor - C major, is classic freygish, but when the actual tune begins, it is clearly in F harmonic minor.  It is an amazing, virtuosic melody that is pure Tarras, and classic F harmonic minor.  And he plays it purely, his notes clean and articulate, as befits a good polka.  Interestingly, despite the modal nature of the tune, Tarras's style includes none of the ornaments that give his Jewish playing its yidishn tam (Jewish flavor)

The second section again rests briefly in C freygish before moving back squarely into F minor.  The third section, a typical "trio" in F minor's relative major, Ab, offers no surprises but provides a nice contrast to the Eastern European modality of the main polka melody.

Tarras's exceptional playing contrasts rather dramatically with that of the the accordion player, who tends to express a somewhat simplified version of the melody and at times fumbles some of the modal runs.

 All in all, Mlody Bortnik would make a fine addition to any klezmer repertoire.

Downloadable versions of the complete chart and the Tarras recording can be found in the Resources section.