Sunday, December 28, 2008

Some Comments on Beyond Boundaries: Klezmer Music in the 21st Century

I attended the Beyond Boundaries: Klezmer Music in the 21st Century Symposium hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies at CUNY in NYC last week.

I haven't seen any coverage of this event, so I'm going to share some comments.

The event consisted of a series of presentations followed by an evening concert. Scheduling conflicts precluded my attending the concert, so I'll have no thoughts on that part of the event.

The event was moderated by Dr. Marsha Dubrow, Resident Scholar in Jewish Music, The Center for Jewish Studies Initiative in Jewish Music Research and Performance, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York.

The symposium participants and their topics were:

Dr. Hankus Netsky (New England Conservatory of Muisc), Multi-instrumentalist, Founder, Klezmer Conservatory Band
"As We Move Forward, Don't Forget To look Back"

Alicia Svigals, Violinist, Co-Founder, The Klezmatics
"The Audacity of Hora: Fiddling With The Future"

Dr. Joel Rubin, (University of Virginia), Clarinetist, Founder, The Joel Rubin Ensemble
"Transmigrations of a Genre: Reflections on the Uses of Religious Symbolism in Contemporary Klezmer"

Eve Sicular, Drummer, Founder, Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos Bands
"Hidden in Plain Sight: The Yiddish Celluloid Closet, J. Edgar Klezmer and Retro Pop Culture"

Stephen Dankner, Composer, Commentator, Aouthor of "Klezmer Fantasy" Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
"Klezmer Goes Classical: Folk Dance Forms Meet the Concerto"

Yale Strom, Violinist, Filmmaker, Author, Founder, Hot Pstromi Band
"In the Key of klezmer: The Soundtrack for Jewish Renewal in America"

Seth Rogovoy, Cultural Commentator, Editor-in-Chief, Berkshires Living
"Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Beyond Klezmer and Beyond the Jewish Soul"

I thought the presentations varied wildly, from a content and quality standpoint. To me, the most effective presentations were by Dr. Netsky and Alicia Svigals.

Dr. Netsky spoke movingly about the importance of looking back, even as this music in its current incarnations moves in new directions. He played a short clip of the late clarinetist Marty Levitt to begin his speech. His message is one that Jewish musicians would do well to internalize.

Alicia Svigal's presentation was a bit unorganized, but interesting. She played different clips demonstrating contemporary approaches to playing klezmer, and her approach included both clips of her own performances (and some live playing) as well as a Josh Dolgin aka So-Called music video about Jewish cowboys.

Dr. Joel Rubin's presentation seemed too focused on minor details of mostly the work of two artists, Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg. His attempt to extrapolate a trend out of it seemed a bit forced to me. Perhaps he needed more time to develop his presentation. The fifteen minute time limit per speaker was quite limiting, I suspect.

Seth Rogovoy gave a nice talk with some nice audio clips to illustrate.

Yale Strom's talk was a bit over the top. Strom even laid credit for Chabad Houses across the world on the klezmer revival. A grandiose, but inaccurate claim. I was quite surprised to see this assertion pass without challenge. I'd have raised the question, but it was tangential to the main point of the conference, and since the presentations were followed by a panel discussion with very little time alloted for audience questions, it seemed silly to take people's time on that.

The other speakers, Stephen Dankner and Eve Sicular spoke about their current projects, which might/might not be representative of trends in Klezmer in the 21st Century.

To me, the notable omission, particularly given Dr. Netsky and Dr. Rubin's talks, was any mention of the Chassidic/Simcha music traditions. There was one brief reference made, during the panel discussion, wherein Alicia Svigals and Dr. Netsky, in talking about the early days of the klezmer revival, made reference to the fact that they did not consider simcha music to be klezmer.

It seems to me, that any serious look at klezmer, ought to consider looking sideways as well as back, to see how klezmer has developed within the chassidic communities who still perform/sing this music. It's not all Genghis Khan, you know.

In particular, some of the chassidic communities in Israel have been the ones who brought in/developed the Meron repertoire, a very fertile area for musicological research. As well, I believe that looking at the evolution of Chassidic nigun is very worthwhile for klezmorim. Drawing an arbitrary boundary that leaves out what in some cases is an unbroken chain of transmission of this music seems limiting.

This is especially important in light of contemporary trends on the simcha music scene. I believe that there is a window of opportunity now for researchers to interview and record both musicians/experts as well as people from within the community with strong memories of how this music was used. However, due to the changes on the simcha circuit over the past few decades, we've reached the point where there is a younger generation that is not familiar with certain dances, dance styles, melodies, or even genres, that until recently were common within the various communities.