The musical evolution of Brave Old World
[originally published in the Dutch journal, Mensh & Musik, 1998]
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Alan Bern is musical director and accordionist of Brave Old World. A duo accordion project, Accordance, with Guy Klucevsek was released in 2001.
About Brave Old World
Klezmer Music (Fenn Music Service, FMS CD 2030)
Beyond The Pale (Pinorrekk Records, PRCD 5013)
Blood Oranges (Pinorrekk Records, PRCD 3405027)
Jüdische Lebenswelten (anthology) (Wergo, LC 6356)
In the Fiddler's House (with Itzhak Perlman, others) (EMI)
Live in the Fiddler's House (with Itzhak Perlman, others) (EMI)
Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven & Earth (anthology) (Ellipsis)
Tanz & Folkfest Rudolstadt '94 (anthology) (RUCD 94-1)
The emails from Toronto began arriving while we were on tour in Germany. "From the Beth Shalom synagogue1 to Brave Old World: concerning your upcoming concert here, we have heard that your repertoire has become too serious and artistic, and there are deep concerns in our congregation that your music will not be what we expect from klezmer. Please assure us that there will be plenty of opportunity for the audience to dance and sing along during the concert, or we will be forced to reconsider the contract." Two weeks later, we are standing in a receiving line in Toronto. There has been no dancing or singing along, but two long standing ovations, one at the intermission and one at the end of the concert. The head cantor of the synagogue, an internationally famous Hungarian tenor now 80 years old, approaches us and says, "What you succeeded in doing this evening is something I would have said was impossible. Can you tell me how you did it?"
I'm pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the music of Brave Old World (BOW). Until now, although we've received significant media attention, its focus has usually been our cultural history, not our music. Meanwhile, we hear questions like those of the Toronto cantor more and more often. There's a widespread perception that our music has evolved in 9 years from something "traditional and folksy" to something "experimental and artistic," at the same time becoming more deeply Yiddish. I hope to cast light on that evolution and apparent paradox, first by placing BOW in the context of the klezmer revival2, and then discussing some of the most important musical and non-musical factors that have shaped our development.
In the liner notes to our first CD, "Klezmer Music" (KM, 1990) we wrote: "... the music of Brave Old World is at once an archeological exploration of the deeper strata of older traditions, and a geographical expedition to chart new territories." This metaphor expresses a tension between two at least apparently contradictory approaches; reproducing a traditional music vs. creating a new music. Not only the work of BOW revolves around this tension - it is present in the very origins and evolution of the klezmer revival.
Most Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th century wanted to become "American" as fast as possible. Yiddish musicians accomodated them by adding American popular music to their repertoire, and by adapting Yiddish music to American musical styles. This process of cultural assimilation was already advanced in the 1930s and continued in the post-war period. In the 1970s, when young musicians began to rediscover klezmer music, our first challenge was simply to reconstruct how it had sounded prior to its Americanization. It was not possible to turn for help to East Europe, where the Holocaust had annihilated Yiddish culture. The most reliable sources were old 78 rpm recordings that had been made in the '10s and '20s, and there were also a few older musicians such as Dave Tarras who graciously mentored students3.
Already at an extremely early stage of our research, the first klezmer revival groups, such as the Klezmorim, Kapelye, The Klezmer Conservatory Band and Andy Statman, began performing concerts. This was the first critical juncture in the confrontation of tradition and innovation, for Yiddish traditional music had evolved in contexts very different from the concert hall, intended instead for community celebrations. The "aesthetic distance" between audience and music, fundamental to Western art music, was a value foreign to Yiddish culture, as was the very concept of an "art music4." At this point in the klezmer revival, however, the question of how to present a non-concert music in a concert setting, and how that decision would affect the music itself, went largely unnoticed. At the level of individual pieces, most groups simply tried to reproduce what they heard on the old 78 rpm recordings, although such recordings had never reflected a concert performance practice. At the level of programming and presentation, the model quickly became that of an "entertaining show," with direct popular appeal to the audience. This was accomplished by mixing instrumental and vocal repertoire, humorous repartée and in some cases light theatricality. It may seem surprising that repertoires drawn from Yiddish theater, popular, folk, and even para-liturgical music were presented without much concern for their contextualization. In retrospect, most of us were still in the process of becoming cultural "insiders" enough to fully understand and value such distinctions. As a result of the quick success of the first klezmer revival groups, a number of conventions were established: concerts were not to be too "serious," audiences were encouraged to clap along or dance, and easily accessible musical values such as virtuosity, energy, and individual charisma dominated over stylistic authenticity and ensemble musicianship.
By about 1988, a number of us were dissatisfied with continuing along this path. It was distressing to be defined as players of an "unserious" music, whose performance demanded setting aside too many deeply held musical values. Further, many of us had gone deeply enough into Yiddish music and culture to recognize that the standard mish-mash of repertoire and styles had sacrificed both cultural integrity and musical depth in favor of easy accesibility. Around this time, BOW began to form as a quartet of musicians with many common musical and cultural commitments. We shared a deep love and respect for Yiddish traditional music and a commitment to becoming better and better at understanding and performing it. We also shared many purely musical commitments, such as the value of listening, responsive ensemble playing, and creative interpretation rather than rote reproduction. All of us were also performers and teachers of non-Jewish traditional musics that had been co-territorial with Yiddish music, such as Polish, Rumanian, Ukrainian and Russian musics, and as a result we perceived and were able to bring out the specifically European strata of the klezmer repertoire. Eventually, we articulated the goal of developing a new Yiddish music, whose language and forms would be consciously created for the concert stage and a listening audience, but still deeply rooted in Yiddish folk materials.
To be clear about this point, this was not a matter of "elevating" a folk music to the status of "art." We rejected that ideology in both its German Romantic and Social Realist forms. On the one hand, the project simply expressed our desire to perform music that demanded all of our own musical and creative abilities. On the other, it was driven by the challenge of genuinely adapting Yiddish traditional music to a new function, that of a true concert music.
Fundamentally, this has remained our goal up to and including the present. The process of realizing it has driven our musical evolution, including the apparent transformation from "traditionalists" to "experimentalists." I turn now to that process, referring to works from our three recordings5:
1990: Klezmer Music (KM)
"Klezmer Music" (KM)
(KM) extended forms
The strong European emphasis in (KM) is already evident from its titles alone, four of which refer to places in East Europe. The approach to rhythm throughout is also more European than American, driven by melody rather than beat, and correspondingly flexible. But the most significant musical innovations concern form and ensemble. The old 78 rpm recordings which had served as models for the klezmer revival groups were typically three minutes long, which klezmer revival groups adopted as a standard length for concert performances as well. Except for stringing several 3-minute pieces together, there had been little innovation in creating extended musical forms. In contrast, on (KM) 8 of the 10 pieces are longer than 5 minutes, and use both suite and extended song forms. The lengthiest, "Boris Muzikant" at 8:34, reproduces a traditional Yiddish performance practice known as "badkhones," in which a conferencier (badkhn) sings and declaims in alternation with a band which responds to his commands. While "Boris Muzikant" is largely a reproduction rather than a new creation, its performance and recording marks our commitment to finding and adapting forms which already exist as performance practices in traditional Yiddish culture. Badkhones offers a traditional "template" for the creation of contemporary works of extended form. Further, when viewed as a performance practice rather than a musical form, badkhones offers a dramatic and distinctively Yiddish model for the performer to address the audience directly, an alternative to both "entertainment" and "aesthetic distance," and different from any of the models inherited from classical music, jazz, or pop.
(KM) Ensemble: heterophony
The approach to ensemble on (KM) also represented an innovation among klezmer revival groups. Traditionally, Yiddish instrumental music had been highly heterophonic, with several instruments simultaneously playing the melody in differently ornamented versions. Heterophonic ensemble playing requires a deep understanding of a melodic language, in order to differentiate acceptable variance from unacceptable clashes. Listening to the old 78 rpm recordings it was very difficult to discern the heterophonic lines, and many of the clarinet-based small group recordings presented what seemed to be a basically homophonic approach, with the clarinet as the sole leading melodic voice and the other instruments providing accompaniment. As a result, a homophonic approach to ensemble became standard practice among klezmer revival groups. In contrast, on many of the pieces on (KM) BOW revives a heterophonic approach to ensemble, with the clarinet, accordion, violin or tsimbl as equal voices. Heterophony would later turn out to be the road to much more extended improvisations in BOW, but at the time of (KM) it represented an innovation simply by virtue of reviving a neglected traditional practice.
(KM) original Yiddish songs
Even before his involvement with BOW, Michael Alpert was writing original songs in Yiddish, unique in his generation in America. Alpert grew up speaking Yiddish at home, and also spoke Russian, Polish and other Slavic languages that had formed the linguistic environment of Yiddish in East Europe. As a result, his interpretation of Yiddish song has long been recognized for its authentic "Old World" qualities, including both musical and linguistic nuances. This authenticity is so convincing that it can even be somewhat blinding, sometimes with unintended comical results. For example, Alpert's original Yiddish song "Chernobyl" (KM), about the nuclear disaster that occurred in that city, is often referred to by critics as a "traditional Yiddish folk song," perhaps imagining nuclear power plants as part of the 19th century shtetl landscape. But this slight confusion reflects a deeper truth, namely, Alpert's seamless transformation of traditional Yiddish folk song to create a contemporary and original repertoire. Beginning with "Chernobyl" and continuing through "Berlin 1990" (BP), about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and most recently in "Welcome" (BO), Alpert's texts address the present world, using Yiddish with a naturalness that confounds popular prejudices that Yiddish is an exotic or even dead language. Without question this is one of the most powerful intersections of tradition and innovation in the music of BOW.
(KM) Summary: authenticity and tradition
People familiar with both traditional Yiddish music and the output of the klezmer revival groups recognized the ways that the 1990 BOW recording (KM) were innovative, particularly with regard to extended forms. But outsiders were mostly struck by the authentic sound of the music, and BOW acquired the reputation of being "traditionalist." That began to change with the release of Beyond The Pale in 1993.
Although (KM) was released in 1990, it had been recorded prior to the politically and culturally momentous fall of 1989. By that time, BOW was performing regularly in Germany, and two of us were actually living full-time in Berlin. The effects on our music were profound.
Already in pre-unification West Germany, there had been extraordinarily strong official political, cultural and financial support for the performance of Jewish music, in compensation for the Holocaust. As a result, groups like BOW found opportunities to perform long concert tours and conduct workshops in Germany at a time when America offered nothing remotely comparable. The audiences we encountered in Germany approached our concerts as serious events of both cultural and political consequence, not as light entertainment. It's a deep historical irony that just these conditions helped us to view ourselves as artists and supported our full development into that role. Equally important was the fact that German audiences could largely understand Yiddish. Performing Yiddish songs in America had always meant translating them into English for the non-Yiddish speakers. This constant shifting between performing and translating had made it impossible to create or even imagine a sustained dramatic and musical tension. But by staying in one language and one role from the beginning to the end of a concert, we were able in Germany to imagine an entire evening as a large, dramatic form. And the social upheavals that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall provoked in us a new seriousness and sense of purpose which demanded we do so.
"Beyond The Pale" (BP)
(BP) dramatic form
The sequencing on "Beyond The Pale" grew out of concerts conceived as a single dramatic form. Framed at the beginning by Berlin Overture and the end by Berlin 1990, the CD is a long, associative musical journey. The texts of the two Berlin songs reflect critically on the meaning of performing Yiddish music in Germany, and the musical pieces within their frame are mirrorings of that reflection, aspects of a very complex experience. Our need to develop a musical language with heightened dramatic and expressive force inspired a number of innovations, discussed below.
(BP) mode and harmony
Many if not all Yiddish melodies, both dance and vocal, clearly show their modal, monophonic origins. But beginning in the 19th century, a harmonic practice had developed as well, based on functional harmony. With few exceptions, that harmonic language had developed little in the 20th century. As a result, potentially dramatic or surprising melodic gestures were often made harmless by predictable harmonic progressions. In "Brave Old Hora," "Waltz Roman a Clef," "Rufn di Kinder Aheym" and the two Berlin songs, we step away from functional harmony, trying out harmonic approaches intended to directly intensify and heighten the expressive character of melody.
What began as heterophony on (KM) evolves into extended group improvisation on (BP). An important factor in this change was the replacement of Joel Rubin by Kurt Bjorling on clarinet. Bjorling contributed an understanding of both modal and harmonic improvisation, and a strong background in jazz. In concert, duos between Bjorling and Bern expanded the language of Yiddish improvisation to include timbral, tessitural and rhythmic considerations usually associated with free jazz or avant-garde classical music, but without imitating either of them. "Basarabye" (BP) shows the beginning of the creation of a rich and specifically Yiddish improvisational language, which has come to fruition in BOW's most recent work.(
BP) quotation and juxtaposition
Already in "Chernobyl," Russian melodies were quoted and juxtaposed against Yiddish melodies to create a commentary, ironic or tragic. "Berlin 1990" goes even further, in the end turning into a free-form collage of overlapping musical styles to portray the almost hallucinogenic atmosphere of the Berlin streets shortly following the fall of the Wall. The result is an innovative sound, which nevertheless belongs to a long Yiddish tradition of literary or satiric implication, expressing something indirectly through music whose direct expression may have been forbidden or dangerous.
(BP) recording studio effects
The collage at the end of "Berlin 1990" was created by multiple overdubs of BOW playing the same melody in different styles on different instruments, then faded in and out in the final mix. This is one of a number of places where we used the resources of the recording studio to intensify or estrange a musical moment. Doing so, we broke with a purist folk or classical ideology of recording and moved in towards the associative aesthetics of film music.
"Blood Oranges" (BO)
(BO) from klezmer to "New Jewish Music"
In the four years between the release of "Beyond the Pale" and "Blood Oranges" (1993-97) and over the course of several hundred concerts, the musical ideas discussed above have been reality tested by audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds in Europe and America. The two guiding questions remain: 1) Does the music "speak to" our audiences, engage their whole attention and move them in unexpected ways? 2) Does the music do the same for us, challenging our musicianship and the honesty of our artistic and cultural commitments?
In the same period of time, the proliferation of groups playing some kind of Jewish music has been phenomenal. If my thesis is correct, namely that klezmer groups in 1989 had not yet begun to question their performance models, the period since then has seen an almost incredible explosion of styles and approaches. There are now groups that promote themselves as following historicaly accurate 19th century performance practice, others have created hybrids of klezmer music and any number of contemporary pop genres, still others have cast Jewish music as a kind of avant-garde jazz, and that's just the beginning.
These developments have forced us to be even clearer to ourselves and to our audiences about our own artistic direction. Innovations in form, harmony, improvisation, ensemble playing and performance practice have all continued to grow in our music, but they now serve a new goal. In an age when our sensibilities have been fundamentally transformed by media, the most important facet of the concert experience is no longer the opportunity it provides for serious listening, for which the required aesthetic distance and concentration is better achieved at home with a recording, as Glenn Gould pointed out years ago. The most important facet is that it is a live performance, unique and unreproducible. This realization has caused a definite shift in our music. From concert presentation to the interpretation of individual pieces, everything which communicates the "liveness" of the event is highlighted. Badkhones (see above) is no longer just a portion of the concert, but the principle of performance throughout, and Alpert's improvised lyrics address each audience uniquely. Group and individual improvisation have gained greatly in importance in virtually every piece, and staging helps the audience both hear and see the interaction. Stuart Brotman has greatly expanded and innovated the role of the bass, incorporating techniques from traditions as varied as gadulka (Bulgarian) to jazz, so that the bass is now an independent voice in an ensemble of four equal voices.
The new emphasis on directness and live interaction includes our demands on ourselves. Each of us has re-opened himself to aspects of his own musical background. The Yiddish framework of our music has become natural and secure enough to permit all of the other American sides of our musical identities to emerge within it. Furthermore, the older generation of our mentors has largely passed away, leaving us no longer as students but as carriers of a tradition that we ourselves must create. Recognizing that the result can hardly be called "klezmer" in the traditional sense, we have begun to refer to our music simply as New Jewish Music. The CD "Blood Oranges" is then our first presentation of New Jewish Music. Extremely broad in its use of musical languages, including jazz and impressionistic harmonies, the thread holding it together is a contemporary badkhones, addressed to the CD audience wherever they may be.
To return to the Toronto cantor's question: we "did it" by having a commitment to creating a new Yiddish music for the concert stage, which meant following both our own musical ideas and being awake to the actual experience of our audiences. We began in 1989 by scraping away the layers and decades of American influence under which klezmer music was buried. Not quite ten years later we have come full circle in a sense, allowing our own backgrounds as American musicians to emerge again. The result is an eclectic but focussed live and contemporary Yiddish music, which resists simplification or caricature, and signifies a passing of generations. We hope it is an honest reflection of the diversity of our experiences and visions, constantly changing at the interface of performer and audience.
1 The story is true, but the name has been changed. [back to article]
2 The term "klezmer revival" refers to the renaissance of Yiddish instrumental and vocal music that began in America in the '70s, growing into an international phenomenon since then. Strictly, the phenomenon is neither a "revival" nor is it limited to "klezmer," which in any case is itself a modern application of an older term. In its original usage, "klezmer" referred to a professional Yiddish musician, not to a repertoire. In spite of these definitional problems, "klezmer revival" has become common usage with a fairly clear reference, for which reason I use it throughout this article. [back to article]
3 Through his ethnographic work, Michael Alpert of BOW made close musical and personal relationships with a number of older professional, semi-professional and amateur Yiddish musicians, including violinist Leon Schwartz, singer Bronya Sakina and drummer/badkhn Ben Bazyler, whose last recorded performance is the piece "Boris Muzikant," with BOw on the CD "Klezmer Music." [back to article]
4 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a school of Russian Jewish composers in St. Petersburg began to create an art music repertoire based on Yiddish folk music. The movement was brought to an end by the Revolution, dispersal and war. [back to article]
5 This discography does not include recordings on which we appear with other artists, the most notable of which are: In the Fiddler's House (with Itzhak Perlman, Andy Statman, The Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band), Live In the Fiddler's House (same personnel), Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth (a collection of many American klezmer revival bands), and Juedische Lebenswelten, from the festival of the same name in Berlin. [back to article]
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Contents and translation from Dutch copyright © 1998 by Alan Bern. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.