Putting the fiddler back on the roof

Alicia Svigals

by Seth Rogovoy

(SPENCERTOWN, N.Y., December 18, 2003) – When Alicia Svigals first began playing klezmer in the mid-1980s, she was at a disadvantage as a violinist. Even though the violin was historically the lead instrument in the Old World klezmer ensemble, its role had been usurped by the clarinet in the New World for most of the 20th century. There were hardly any violinists around who could teach her the specialized techniques that give klezmer its unique sound, and few of the old recordings featured violin -- even though it was a fiddler, not a clarinetist, on the roof.

That situation has changed over the past two decades. Now, violin classes at the annual KlezKamp workshop are overenrolled with youngsters brimming with enthusiasm to learn how to play klezmer fiddle. New bands, even ones that play klezmer-rock fusions, typically feature violin as often as clarinet. And Itzhak Perlman, perhaps the world’s best-known classical violinist, popularized the sound of the klezmer fiddle on several CDs and concert tours and in a public TV documentary.

Most of the credit for this change in the violin’s status in klezmer goes to Svigals. In her solo work and in bands like Mikveh and the Klezmatics, she has restored the violin to its rightful place as the lead voice of the kapelye, the klezmer band. After mastering the particular techniques that make the distinctive cries and moans – the laughing and crying sound – of Old World Jewish wedding music, she has generously passed them on for the last 15 years as a teacher at KlezKamp. And it was Svigals who taught Perlman how to play on violin the achy, bent notes of klezmer derived from the synagogue chant of the cantor.

Svigals will showcase the artistry of the klezmer fiddle in a duo concert at the Spencertown Academy on Saturday night at 8. Accompanying her will be tsimblist Pete Rushefsky.

Earlier in the day, at 2:30, Svigals will offer a 90-minute workshop in playing klezmer on violin and other instruments.

“I’m going to teach people on whatever instruments they bring the basics of playing klezmer, so they can go home with the secrets and mysteries of the klezmer sound revealed,” said Svigals in a recent phone interview from her New York apartment. “I’ll bring sheet music, and we’ll do stuff by ear. I’ll show the fiddlers how to make those strange sounds.”

Svigals learned how to make those strange sounds by necessity, with a Marantz tape player that had a slow playback setting. After hours and hours of listening to recordings first issued on 78 rpm disks in the Teens and Twenties, she had a eureka moment and figured out how to reconstruct sounds that can’t be notated but only learned.

“I listened and listened so closely and finally I could hear what they were doing,” she recalled. “I knew how to make those sounds, and everything changed after that.”

With the Klezmatics, Svigals took those old techniques and built upon them, helping to create a new, modern style of klezmer that incorporated influences from jazz, rock and world music. To some, this may have seemed an illicit fusion, but in fact what the band was doing was in the longstanding klezmer tradition of reflecting the accent of one’s time and place, whether it be 19th-century Gypsy music or early-20th century jazz.

“We had such a real grasp on the tradition,” said Svigals, explaining how the group was able to meld the ancient with the modern. “Otherwise, when people do something new with it who don’t really know the tradition, it often comes off as slick or superficial. But all of us immersed ourselves in the tradition.”

On her own, Svigals has further explored the sonorities and melodic dimensions of the Old World sounds. Her CD, “Fidl,” remains the single best example of the art of the klezmer violin. Like her concerts, it features Svigals’ arrangements of traditional melodies as well as original compositions written in the Old World style.

After 20 years of playing this music, Svigals hasn’t lost any of her passion for it. “As a genre of music it’s so compelling in itself,” she said. “It has such a range of human emotions. That’s what keeps me interested in anything, if there’s some emotional dimension to it.

“It’s a very profound style. Rhythmically, it’s rooted in the idea of variation, and that means you never get bored. You’re supposed to keep playing it differently; that’s part of doing it right.

“The challenge is always to think of new things to do with the melodies you know. There’s a lot of room for creativity there. You can make it more atavistic, or more sophisticated. To my mind, you have to stay grounded and recognizable.

“I stick with it because I’m very identified with it. It feels so much like my music. I can express myself when I do it, and that’s always gratifying, to have the opportunity to express yourself. I feel like I have my thumbprint on it, more than maybe if I were playing Bach. I love Bach, but.…”

For reservations for the concert and workshop, call 518-392-3693.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 18, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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