About Klezmer Music

You may have heard the word Klezmer before – or maybe not! Learn more about this distinctive style of Jewish folk music with Musical U’s Content Editor and Product Manager Andrew Bishko, who has developed a very close musical relationship with the genre over the course of his decades-long career.

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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. Today I’m joined by Andrew Bishko from our team to talk all about a style of music called Klezmer. Now you may have heard of this on the podcast before, I have to confess I have not heard of it until meeting Andrew. So if you haven’t heard of it outside the podcast don’t worry, and if you haven’t even heard of it on this podcast before don’t worry about that either, we’re going to explain it all. Or well, we’re going to attempt to scratch the surface anyway. So we previously had Andrew as a guest on the show where we went in depth on his musical background and story, and Klezmer was a huge part of that learning journey for him. It was also mentioned in our interview with David Asher Brown when he talked about recovering and old opera manuscripts in the Klezmer style, some of them. And so you might have heard of this style, you might even have heard Andrew demonstrate a bit in articles on our website or in that interview.

But I wanted to sit down with Andrew and really dig in because this is a very distinctive style, and I know it’s one that had a big impact on Andrew’s own musical development and how his musicality came to express itself. So Andrew, say a quick hello and if you wouldn’t mind, I’d love if you could just recap a little bit of the story of how Klezmer entered the picture for you, in your musical journey.

Andrew: Oh yes. Well, I was from a young age very interested in many different kinds of music. And every time I’d hear something new, I would say “Oh, that’s it!” You know when I first heard jazz, I was like “OH!” That’s it, that’s what I’m going to do or when I heard the blues, or then I would often go to the library and I’d get out records, recordings from different places in the world and I heard some music from Egypt, some Arabic music, “Oh, wow, that’s it, that’s what I want to do; or I got into Irish music, and “Oh yeah that’s the one”. And I was always interested in jumping from one thing to another. And then a very curious thing happened in my life, I was at the time just finishing up a four year stint touring with a reggae band, and I had decided that I wanted to go back to school, so I could become better at communicating with my fellow musicians about the musical ideas in my head.

And I went to a tour of the New England Conservatory and I walked into this classroom and they were teaching the style of music called Klezmer music. Now I had grown up, Klezmer music is the Jewish folk, instrumental folk music of the Eastern European tradition and this would have been the music that my great grandparents had listened to and danced to at weddings. But I was at that time rather far from anything Jewish in my life and I had been actually very disappointed in it because it hadn’t provided me when I was younger the congregation that I was a part of was very watered down and hadn’t really provided me with a satisfying spiritual experience. And I went into this room and a guy named Hankus Netsky was teaching a class in Klezmer music.

And I had this huge emotional reaction. Unfortunately I was not sitting anywhere near the door so I couldn’t really escape. I was, I felt like crying and laughing, and I know I turned three shades of pink, purple, and red. And I just, it was so uncomfortable. And I said, “Okay, if there’s some music that makes me feel this uncomfortable, it’s something I should be looking into”. So that is where I began my journey with the Klezmer act in New England Conservatory. I wound up studying with Hankus and I learned about this music that had been the music of my ancestors. And it was very powerful for me because of, this is a typical lesson I would go, I received a cassette tape that was like a fifth or sixth generation recording of a rare recording that was made in like 1911. You know so it was totally scratchy, very difficult to make out and Hankus says “Okay, that’s the first piece we’re going to work on.” So I’m listening, and listening to this music. Now at the time there weren’t a lot of flute players playing it and the main instruments in Klezmer music were considered the violin and the clarinet, the main melody instruments.

So I was attempting to reproduce these sounds on the flute and I was listening to these very old recordings, and it became quite an experience. I’d go into my lesson, and I’d play and he’d say “Well no, not yet go back and work on it some more”. And listening back at these recordings, I had to use a lot of my imagination to fill in the timbres and fill in the sound of the instruments in distinct articulations and it was, almost like accessing a sixth sense to reach back in time and pull this out. At the same time I was working with a kind of music that was part of a whole culture that I was familiar with through my ancestry but that was really in other ways very distant from me. Part of a language and a culture, and in that culture music and language were very close together. And they spoke the Yiddish language, which was something that I’d heard but didn’t know how to speak.

And it was, I heard an anecdote once that people in the old Jewish villages, they would only stop singing to talk to you. You know, so everyone was always singing, always have a little melody going. And it was this characteristic melody and all the different cries and complaints and intonations and tones of voice that had been saturated into the way that music was played. In so in order to learn how to play this music, and in the absence of any flute players that were really doing what I wanted to do with the music; I had to develop many of my own techniques of playing it.
So I’ll give a little demonstration, this is actually that very first piece that I was learning by ear, but instead of playing it how it was played on the recording, I’m going to play these notes how they would sound if they were written out, if they were written out on a page. (music)

Okay so right off the bat, you may notice some different scales that are involved, but that isn’t how the music is played. I’m going to take that same little bit and I’m going to play it in the Klezmer language. (music)

Christopher: Terrific, well I’m sure everyone listening can hear the stark difference there, but I wonder if you could help open up our ears to what exactly we’re hearing. What are the different things you changed there or added, or did differently that suddenly made that sound so different in style.

Andrew: Okay, well the first thing that many people here when they’re listening to music is the ornaments, you know, the little trills. (music) That ornament right there is called a kvetch, which means to complain. (music) But what I’m doing actually, musically is I’m going up, I’m going in between two notes (music) those two notes, but in between them I’m going up to a higher note next note up in the scale and I’m cutting it off, so it sounds like I’m going (singing) is sort of a complaint that you would hear in the singing, you know so this is very closely related to the singing styles.
And so, but there’s a lot more going on even in just the ornaments, one of the things I learned had a huge part of what I was doing, was what I called in my mind micro dynamics. Where I’m using dynamics to shape every moment of what I’m playing. So rather than just playing ahead it’s like “Okay this is forte, this is piano”, I’m (music) dynamics to shape the notes and to shape each thing and in conjunction with the ornaments.

Another thing that’s really important in Klezmer music is that the rhythm is very very flexible. And yet it has to stay constant because this music was really for dancing. SO it’s like you have this box of your beat, but within it you have a lot of little, a lot of wiggle room, a lot of stretchiness. So one exercise that I learned was to instead of playing notes like this (music) yeah but I’m playing four notes (music) what I rush in pairs or (music) rush three notes and then land on the fourth note or rush four notes and then land, so it’s this idea of these little rushing things that you do and then it accentuates the beat where you land square on the beat. You have this little hesitation and then pouncing on the beat.

Kind of like coming off a diving board and hitting the water there’s that little moment of air time in between. And this kind of flexibility of rhythm and these kind of techniques, it’s when you know you’re leaning a foreign language for example, and you’re really working on your accent, you want to sound more like your speaking that language. You know let’s say you’re leaning Italian, and you want to say butter you want to say “burro” which is butter, but you have to roll that r. “Burrrro” or you know you’re not going to sound, it’s not going to sound right. It’s learning these little tricks and all these little things that you’re doing and very much with the flute it’s very much in my mouth and throat and breath and things like that; so it’s even more like speaking.

Where I just develop so much more facility and control of my instrument in the process. Which really changed my playing and my musicality for everything that came after. So when I stopped playing Klezmer music you know like exclusively, because for fifteen years that was like my thing, when I started to branch out again, those techniques, and those that sensitivity went into all of my musical expression.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. I was really reminded hearing you talk about that of speaking recently with David Barrett from bluesharmonica.com he was talking about how he had developed his understanding of how to do things on harmonica purely from listening to old recordings because there wasn’t really teaching material explaining how to do these techniques. And yeah, his story really parallels your own of having to listen really intently to these recordings and kind of reconstruct what the players might have been doing. And I imagine for yourself it was doubly difficult because you weren’t necessarily even listening to the flute. Let alone just trying to do it by ear.

Andrew: That’s very true, there was a couple of very old flute recordings that are interesting, but it still, it just I can’t tell you how many hours I spent with my headphones to with the cassette deck, and rewinding and listening and listening and imaging and putting myself back in that too, and of course you know I wasn’t thinking about this before we started but that’s affected the way I listen to all music now.

I listen to it with such a greater amount of detail, and it’s just helped me open up my ears. In a very deep way. And it helps me to learn different kinds of music, learn different styles and really to get into that style. And you know for me it was Klezmer and it, because it struck such a strong emotional chord in my body at that time period of my life; and which led me to a more spiritual chord as well. It, you know it was something that I was able to focus on and then branch out. But it could be the blues, which has a very particular language or anything and or classical music.
It made a huge difference in my classical playing where I was able to play like passages, you know when you play classical, you have these passages, you might have something like this (music) you know which you could play very metronomically and that’s how usually we learn it, you know? But if I add a little bit of my lessons from Klezmer music, just a little bit more dynamics, a little bit more shaping, a little bit more flexibility in my rhythm. It brings in a lot.

So more dynamics, and more shaping but the phrase in where it’s really speaking it’s you know there’s also a connection there because much of classical music has very strong Eastern European roots. And so the Klezmer music, there is a correlation, as different as they might sound, there is a connection there as well. Making things more expressive, I don’t know if that was clear in that example but felt like it to me.

Christopher: Sure, and I think it’s a fascinating thing because you know clearly there was this kind of global reward for you in doing that intensive listening, it trained you to have critical ear and to do active listening to whatever music you were tuning into. And there are clearly also these very specific ornaments or trills or vocabulary as it were of Klezmer music. But it seems like in between there are these transferable skills or transferable musical ideas that you’ve been able to redeploy. Now are there other places you’ve seen this come out in your playing in other genres?

Andrew: Well, I know it’s huge, not long after I began to expand my playing from just playing Klezmer all the time, I got involved in the Native American flute, and this you know, those techniques in the breathing techniques and the ornaments really serve well in this other context. (music)

So I have a lot of control over the different vibratos that I’m using, different ornaments, doesn’t sound like anything like Klezmer I don’t think. But I have all these techniques now that I can use and that transfer to that style of music. If I’m playing jazz, if let’s say that I’m playing (music), you know playing Summertime which is by Ira Gershwin who would have grown up hearing a lot of Klezmer music, but playing, I have so much more expressive capability than I did before. Because of the techniques I learn and the sensitivity to melody and where phrases are going; and what their meaning. You know that was one thing that I worked on tremendously in Klezmer music. Rather than just playing a slew of notes really just knowing where every phrase, every little, every little nuance was leading to. And finding a lot of meaning in the melodies, that’s a kind of universal now, sensitivity that I can use and that I do use all the time.

Christopher: Terrific. Well I want everyone to take two big things away from this episode. And first just to say a big thank you Andrew for coming on to share a little bit about your Klezmer, I was about to say journey but it’s more a immersion I think, a treasure quest. I think the two things are one is, the specific richness of Klezmer music. I think we’ll have to put some interesting links in the show notes for people to follow up on because it is such a distinctive and rich tradition of music that people should dive into. And the second I think is this generalizable or transferable idea that all of your appreciation for the subtleties of dynamics and phrasing and articulation and technique or maybe it’s overstating it to say all of your, but it’s certainly a great part of your skill with those things came from this deep dive into Klezmer; and I think that’s such a powerful idea for people to take away, you know whatever style of music moves you the most or whichever you’re most passionate about.

Take the time to really listen intently and see if you can kind of reconstruct things from first principle yourself rather than just jumping straight to the sheet music or jumping straight to a tutorial because as David Barrett and Andrew’s stories both show there is such treasure to be gleaned from doing that hard work of figuring things out by ear, and you know you don’t necessarily need to go to a scratchy 1920’s recordings, but take the time to pay attention and be willing to put in the effort to figure out yourself because as is I think very clear it really pays off. Any last words Andrew for those listening?

Andrew: Well thank you all for listening, thank you all for the opportunity to share these ideas and I hope that you’re inspired to whatever music you love to give it a big love up. Give it up your music a big hug, and just get into it.

Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much Andrew.

Andrew: You’re welcome.

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