Judging from the response at the Lark Music Celebration and feedback from our customers, Klezmer music has been arousing a lot of interest in the musical community recently. The Lark's March was able to glean more about this exciting genre during an interview with Kevin Linscott, a member of the band "Klezmorim".
LM: Could you explain a little bit about how Klezmer music started?
KL: Okay, the actual beginnings of it are lost in the mists of time; the earliest references that we've uncovered about it have been literary references. Authors have mentioned the traveling Yiddish bands playing in the courtyard and that sort of thing. There are woodcut block prints of Klezmer bands from the 16th century. In terms of what the music was actually like in those days is a matter of speculation. We can hazard some guesses from the pictures of the instruments in the woodcuts and guess on what kinds of music was being generally played at that time, but since most or just about all of the Klezmer music was not written down (it was an oral tradition, like most other kinds of folk music), it's just pure guess.
The earliest hard evidence about Klezmer music really comes from the early 1900's, as early as 1910, there were some cylinder recordings made of Klezmer bands. In the 1920's when it was really at its peak, there were thousands of 78rpm records made and that is where our real sources are.
LM: What instrument do you play?
KL: I play trombone.
LM: Is that an instrument that is shown in any of the illustrations?
KL: During the later years, yes. In terms of instrumentation, apparently just about anything went. There's evidence of these little teeny ensembles of maybe two or three musicians: a clarinet, a fiddle, and a hammered dulcimer. Some of the large bands had trombones, trumpets, clarinets, tubas or string bass. Then of course in the 20th century when validity came to some of these small orchestras: they had whole string sections and two or three trombones, trumpets, clarinets, several percussion players and the whole bit. In terms of authentic Klezmer, just about anything went. There's even recordings of xylophones and such.
Early acquisition of military band instruments may be due to the fact that Klezmers were often drafted into the Russian army, and kept their instruments when they left.
The tradition was one of different musical influences and I think this includes us as well. The old-time Klezmer was a traveling musician much like a gypsy, and he wandered through most of the countries of Eastern Europe including Russia, Poland, Roumania, Hungary and probably Czechoslovakia. They picked up influences from many cultures and added them to their repertoire. This is because they were often the best musicians available to play any kind of music.
LM: What kinds of local repertoire would that cover?
KL: The dance music--they would learn some of the local dance tunes of that particular area. People would not only play for Jewish functions, but they would also be hired to play at the local festivals or dances. They were perhaps some of the best musicians available.
LM: Would they play for religious festivals, too?
KL: No, Klezmer music is non-vocal and non-liturgical--it is the dance music. It has no religious associations.
LM: So there's no vocal repertoire?
KL: Klezmer music is the instrumental folk tradition. There is another separate Yiddish folksong tradition. They were very much different traditions. There's a little bit of crossover in that there are a couple of Klezmer tunes that later had words written to them, but really the traditions are quite distinct.
LM: What kind of music would you say has been the most influenced by Klezmer music?
KL: American pop music from the 20's. Talking to people who played then: they can remember the black musicians and Klezmer musicians on their breaks going to the club next door to listen to the other guy's music and vice versa.
After the depression the Klezmer scene was virtually wiped out, mainly because of sudden change in immigration quotas. Also, people were trying to assimilate and forget all of their cultural roots, and at the same time the recording companies virtually wiped out their entire ethnic area, which was one of the main sources of work and income for the Klezmer bands. A lot of the young, hot Klezmer players of the day went into jazz: people like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Ziggy Elman . . . In certain pieces you can hear the Klezmer influence; "And the Angel's Sing" has a big trumpet solo in it--that whole tune is based on a Klezmer piece--played by Ziggy Elman, and he's playing the Klezmer bit the whole way through.
LM: What keys and scales are used in the music?
KL: They're similar to some of the modes used in Balkan music and other Eastern European music, but they're specifically their own modes and scales--I don't know if I should get too technical here. . .
LM: Well, go ahead and if it gets too technical we can edit. . .
KL: One of the most distinctive Klezmer scales is a major scale, but it has a lowered second in it--the augmented second being the standard exotic sound. With the lowered second and major third you have this very unique sounding scale and the dominant chord really becomes the seven chord--so you have the minor seventh chord resolving to a major one chord. Another real basic scale is a minor with a raised fourth. Those two are probably the most common. There's very little straight major, almost none. A couple of the more military march tunes have sections that will be straight major, but for the most part it's one or another of the more modal scales.
The key of D seems to be the most common key. We sometimes find ourselves a little hysterical because it sometimes seems like every piece we do is in the key of D. . .There are recordings of tunes in many different keys, but probably 70% will be in C and D. We speculate that part of that may be due to the fact that the brass and wind instruments may have recorded better than other instruments being used for this music and the clarinetist, say, would be using a C-Albert clarinet. That figures very well for the kind of ornaments that are uniquely Klezmer--they sit very well on that instrument.
LM: What type of ornamentation would that be?
KL: The ornaments are very vocal in quality, there's a lot of these kind of half glissando laughs. There are some things that we've given our own names to like the "boitia", which is a kind of a grace note between two notes, except that you don't play it. You start to play it and then choke it off in the middle. It's done glottally, with the throat, very hard to explain.
LM: What would you recommend to people who are interested in playing Klezmer music?
KL: My first recommendation would be not to listen to us! A lot of groups across the country have done this, but the best thing would be to go back to the original sources. There are some reissues now of 78's that were put out, I think, on Folkways. These have some really good cuts from some of the original bands.
LM: How long ago did Klezmorim get started?
KL: The band was started about ten years ago. As dedicated as we have been to figuring out exactly what the original players were doing, the fact of the matter is that we were born in the 50's and 60's and have heard all kinds of stuff that those players have never heard--we've had to update our approach to the music.
LM: Why don't you give me the names of the people in the band and what instruments they play?
KL: I'm on trombone. Lev Liberman on saxophone, Donald Thornton on tuba, Ken Bergman on percussion, Christopher Leaf on trumpet, Benjamin Goldberg on clarinet.