The Klezmatics

Rhythm & Jews

by Robert R. Calder

2 July 2003


Klezmaticism ('Rhythm Saved The World'?)

If this majestic ensemble can call a suite “Klezmatic Fantasy (A Suite Mostly in D)” why not the term Klezmaticism? Calling the suite what they do, they raise some complex ironies—and the spectre of J.S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy” (guess the key?). Klezmaticism is a moral as well as a musical or harmonic term. It is a contrary of Cashmaticism (which means using pieces of plastic to draw money from machines).

If I have vast reservations about the form of words “Klezmer for the 21st Century” it’s because the phrase could mean something thoroughly un-Klezmatic: something following tides of ignorance and corruption, if what’s to count is the economic idolatry of the times, rather than musical and other non-Mammonite values. None of the Klezmatics (with any of whom anybody’s free to disagree on different points of detail) is a big clay manikin with a dollar sign on its brow (accepted everywhere). The 21st century can be a Baal or Moloch if the mass-hysterical worship of time is let prevail. Human and godly rhythm is something different.

cover art

The Klezmatics

Rhythm & Jews

US: 13 May 2003

The Klezmatics’ fiddle player, Alicia Svigals (quite a singer, too!), has been quoted in interviews as being against musical purism. She cites the old Jewish musician who recognised a good tune without caring that it was, say, Gypsy in origin. Also, she pretty much says that, while her concern is with music against puristic rectitude, it is the same musical concern which leads her to insist that there are characteristics of idiom which in the end can’t be done without. There is a force of idiom, and as she and fellow Klezmatics expand the ranges of their musical activity qua Klezmatics, this matters very much. Purism takes too long distinguishing a living human being from a corpse: by the time all the other characteristics have been studied, it’s a corpse. What can you listen for in music of no idiom at all?

The old Jewish musician had no very broadly-based abstract idea of ‘“good music” independent of any idiom. The music he played was music, was his, and was his best attempt at good music. He was aware of differences between traditions, between one range of idiom and another, between what was to him good and to him bad. He may even have recognised merit he couldn’t understand in any depth—why wouldn’t he have liked, for instance, Mozart?—but every musical intelligence is in some respects limited, human.

This half-hypothetical virtuoso might have wondered how far his own different idiom might go or have gone—or his learning, experience, questioning and range of expression. This was certainly one object of Klezmatic musical ambition, but active, when putting together Rhythm & Jews. (This corny title antedates by a dozen years a current lawsuit in the UK between an ensemble which has been calling itself “Blue” for thirty years and a recording company marketing with some success an ensemble using the identical name! Perhaps in court both bands could do the old pop-song “Am I Blue?”.

Some blurb-writings and journalism suggest that Rhythm & Jews is a kind of jazz-infused or rock-directed adaptation of Jewish music—I studied Zoology at university, and know that what the Dinosaur populations did was (self-)ADAPT AND DIE. Any Klezmatic adapting here is adapting of any importations—I remember the musicologist startled by a passage of (wait for it!) chromaticism in one African performance—which turned out to be a parody of a harmonium, in a satiric song about a bumptious missionary. The African musicians involved had no other use for those (to them) bizarre noises.

While jazz and its progeny (and maybe military or Souza bands) bequeathed the drum-kit and some of the mechanical techniques deployed by Dave Licht on Klezmatics performances, the rhythmic vocabulary and, well, discourse, are thus varied only in accent. The rhythm is Jewish music, not anything else. Like some poorer cases of “third-stream” neo-jazz, the run of “World Music” performances, it’s not wholly unfair to say, can settle into a succession of interesting beginnings each followed by the same same again. Do I detect an occasional parody of this yet again-ism (as of other things) in Klezmatic concerts? Colour is never allowed to drain away.

Odd times I’m reminded of phrases like Kurt Weill, now and then of a ragtime strain, details maybe from borrowings unconscious or otherwise, but not necessarily directly by the Klezmatics. More likely they were in repertoire from earlier performers Alicia Svigals has researched. I recognise a sort of dance medley common to Klezmer bands and urban ensembles once inevitable at Scottish lowland wedding receptions, and a predictable range of social functions, with much the same squeezebox, drums, bass or piano and one or two melodic instruments. Of course not everything that’s there is to be listened to in music played to be danced to. The story of jazz apart, when Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements for Benny Goodman fascinated audiences who hadn’t the dances for such music, everything would come to a stop or a pile-up. Which dancers know where this or that tune comes from? Or worksong? One Scottish Gaelic worksong has a claim to be the last (after centuries unidentified) audible survival of a classical harp-tune from a dispossessed and destroyed lordly court, a tune known otherwise only as a name and in period verbal description. The Klezmatics (maybe especially on this CD) ask of this or that tune what they can do for it and what it can do. Without at all needing to move into jazz, they make startling discoveries.

So here’s a setting of Yiddish adaptation of a passage from “The Song of Songs”; and a love-song, a couple of near enough mystical songs, and in “Clarinet Yontev’”, a three-section suite, whatever else it may be called, for the ears as not mere servants of the feet.

The first of “Klezmatic Fantasy”‘s four movements, “Der yidisher soldat in di trentsches”, has a title sounding like Pidgin English, but the implication of a complex of feelings which don’t lack earlier and momentous expression in poetry and in instrumental music, let alone in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The yidisher soldier is only differently unknown from the men whose bones lie in Westminster Abbey and elsewhere. That the suite turns to dance-music is perhaps only evidence that its roots go all the deeper. The Klezmatics are neither so serious nor so lightweight as not to command attention. I may be reviewing a reissue of music recorded more than a dozen years earlier, but this is not like the album photo of little Freddie aged seven. Looking back from the Klezmatics’s subsequent work, this still isn’t a phase gone through or left behind; it’s a permanent place where people can also dance.

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