Bending Rules

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Semantically the words conservative and progressive are polar opposites. These days, their seeming irreconcilability seems even further enhanced by political sloganeering and the sound-byte approach of most of the media. Yet, somewhere beyond lowest common denominator definitions, so-called progressives are fighting to conserve the environment. Go figure.

The same is true for music…

The identity of classical music is all tied up in carrying the weight of hundreds of years of repertoire and somehow preserving it. While this core value frequently makes the very notion of “new music” a disconnect, new music within that tradition is ultimately what connects this music to our time and place. And though we often have heated debates amongst ourselves arguing over what “new music” means, it’s ultimately healthy to not completely know what it is since definitions tend to stifle new ideas.

Klezmer, the joyous dance music originally created by the Jews of Eastern Europe more than a century ago, survives mostly through recordings made by émigré musicians in America. It has become more than a historical footnote because of the revival that has taken place over the past few decades. Although it initially began as an attempt to re-create the exact music of the great masters of the past (a very “classical music” aesthetic), it soon simultaneously became a hotbed for wild cross-genre breeding and experimentation. Somehow the musicians who came to klezmer found a way to simultaneously revive a tradition and take the music forward (while also taking audiences along with them). It is a lesson those of us in the classical music community and other parts of the new music community should learn from.

I spoke with David Krakauer who came to klezmer as an active freelance player in the New York new music scene. He described how this music opened up a whole new world for him both artistically and personally. Baltimore-based jazzman Seth Kibel, downtown experimenters Ted Reichman and Anthony Coleman, quartertonalist Harold Seletsky, and Debra Kreisberg, from the Isle of Klezbos (which wins my award for the best-named klezmer band I’ve ever heard!) explain what made them turn to this music and how they’ve been able to continue experimenting as a result. And Seth Rogovoy, author of The Essential Klezmer, fills in the missing links in this trans-Atlantic musical history. Dave Douglas asks if you think it’s possible to remain authentic while opening something up.

The question of ethnic and/or religious specificity comes up a lot in discussions about klezmer music, including many of the ones featured on these pages. I find it strangely ethnocentric that some people continue to subscribe to the notion that the classical music coming out of the Central European tradition is the only form of music with universal implications and a potential universal listenership and that everything else is some form of world music to which we’re either connected through geographical accident or as tourist wannabes.

My own geographical accident of growing up in New York City has made me feel connected to music from all over the world. Though Mozart’s Vienna often feels further away than the mariachis of Mexico (it is) or even the gamelans of Java and Bali (it is and it isn’t), all are part of my own musical language. David Krakauer heard klezmer from an apartment window overlooking Zabar’s. Today I got a smattering of Peruvian huayno on the Times Square subway platform. Tomorrow it might be Senegalese kora improvisations or classical Chinese erhu solos.

All of these musical traditions need to be preserved, but a big reason for that preservation is so that people from all over the world can take the lessons that can be learned from these traditions and do something new. I have yet to fully process klezmer creatively, but those bent notes completely push my microtonal buttons so who knows…In these first years of the 21st century where even 20th-century music is now old, the new will emerge from a realization that the world’s wealth of musical traditions are available to us and it is our obligation as cultural custodians to simultaneously ensure that they survive and to progress from them.