FJO: Aside from the significance of individual interpretation, western classical training in a way is about being true to a score of the music of the past. The period instrument movement is the ultimate manifestation of that. The score is the law. Now, you continue to work with a lot of composers. Paul Moravec whose piece featuring you won the Pulitzer Prize. You just mentioned David Schiff and Bruce Adolphe. They all write notes on a page and expect them to be played. Yes, there’s room for interpretation. But, you’re realizing their work. That’s a very different aesthetic.
DK: I think the work I do with composers is really different than my klezmer work, although with a few composers there’s been a blending. There are a few people who’ve done a successful synthesis of klezmer music and classical music. Composers I’ve worked with who’ve done great work are Betty Olivero, Osvaldo Golijov…. Recording The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind with the Kronos Quartet is one of the great experiences of my life. It wasn’t written for me. It was written for Giora Feidman and then I inherited the piece and started playing it with the Kronos and other groups. This piece is a masterpiece. It has really managed to find the folk music form and synthesize it with totally notated music.
FJO: So there’s no improvisation in it?
DK: Well, he wrote that it is for “klezmer clarinet” and string quartet. It’s not for “clarinet” it’s for “klezmer clarinet.” That, in and of itself, gives me the license to add the notes between the notes, the little sobs, the krechts, the glissandi. I do add some ornaments that are stylistically appropriate. And Golijov says, “David, you never play it the same way twice.” That’s always my goal, to be fresh with it every single time.
FJO: A “klezmer clarinet” also has quite a different tone quality than a classical clarinet. It’s much closer to an early jazz sound…
DK: My models from about age 11 were the great New Orleans players: Bechet, Johnny Dodds and Barney Bigard, so I was always after a weirder sound. Not like Benny Goodman or Buddy DeFranco, even though I admired their playing. It was not the sound I was looking for. I was looking for a stranger, edgier sound… dirty and doing more interesting timbral things. Before I started getting into klezmer and while I was freelancing as a classical musician, I was always trying to make the Boehm system clarinet sound like an Albert system clarinet. So I was doing these weird fingerings.
FJO: Could you explain the difference between these two systems?
DK: It’s just a different fingering system, but whenever you hear any of the old jazz players, any of the Greek players, the klezmer players, they were all playing Albert system clarinets. I think it was this guy Buster Smith who taught Charlie Parker, who said if you wanted tone, you went for the Albert system; if you wanted facility, you went for the Boehm system. The Albert system is a little-bit stranger to finger, but it has a really woody tone to it, something about the way the bore was shaped…
FJO: Are people still making those instruments?
DK: Yeah. In fact, I saw Duke Ellington in the early ’70s and Russell Procope was playing with him and he was playing a modern Albert system. That’s what he liked to play.
FJO: So nowadays, do you play both types of instruments?
DK: No. I’ve always played the regular Boehm system clarinet, but I always try to make it sound like an Albert system by using strange fingerings to get different timbral things going.
FJO: Now, there’ve also been composers who have given you space to improvise. John Musto when he wrote the Sextet, left room in there for a cadenza that’s entirely up to you. I remember you performing this with a 102 degree fever. By the end of it, the whole audience had a fever! It was so hot…
DK: That was fun. We were talking about a cadenza and Musto said, “Why don’t you just make something up. Start here and end there.” The difference is he was really giving me the license to create my own little composition in the middle of his composition.