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Alicia Svigals: A New Role
Matt Merta
2015-11-20
In the world of klezmer music, Alicia Svigals is a household name. Ever since her band The Klezmatics came on the scene in 1986 with its unique take on traditional klezmer music (she remained a member until 2002), Alicia has been the go-to person for klezmer fiddle.
 
Since her departure from the band, she has put her stamp on numerous musical projects. She has worked with talent as varied as classical violinist Itzhak Perlman to Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Her performaces have appeared on A Prarie Home Companion, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Showtime’s The L Word. So it would seem inevitable for Alicia to delve into composing music for a film soundtrack. However, her first major soundtrack work is not your ordinary modern-day movie. Enter The Yellow Ticket.
 
This 1918 Polish-German silent film tells the tale of a young Jewish girl in Warsaw (portrayed by Pola Negri) who plans to attend medical school in Moscow. She learns that a single Jewish woman can only live in that city if she is registered as a woman of “unclean virtues,” and her citizen paper is then referred to as the yellow ticket. She locates a birth certificate of a friend’s deceased sister and uses it to enter medical school. The plot contains plenty of melodrama popular with films of the era, and is one of the first films to show the heavy anti-Semitism rampant in Tsarist Russia at the time.
 
During World War II, the Nazi Regime attempted to destroy all copies of the film. Fortunately, a copy was found in Berlin and was recently restored by Kevin Brownlow. In early 2012, Alicia was approached by the Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival to create a new soundtrack for the film. “They sent it to me and I fell in love with it! It is such a tantalizing glimpse into the lost world of my great grandparents.  I also loved the idea of playing for a silent film because in a way, that tradition led to my coming into the world! My grandfather, a pianist, met my grandmother while he was playing for silent movies at the theater that is now Symphony Space in Manhattan – just a block from where I live.”
 
From February to April 2012, Alicia worked day and night to create the perfect mood soundtrack for the film. In May of that year, she and pianist Marilyn Lerner first performed it for the Festival. The response was abundantly positive. The music blog Lucid Culture called Alicia’s work “exquisite,” stating her themes “unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably.” The website A Wider Bridge (awiderbridge.org) exclaimed, “Alicia Svigals proves that music can, in fact, speak louder than words.”
 

 
Alicia is quick to point out that, while the main characters are Jewish and there is a struggle against anti-Semitism in the theme, this is not necessarily a “Jewish” film. “The world depicted in the film is a multicultural one – Russians, Cossacks, Polish Jews and non-Jews, so I had a lot of musical sound-worlds to draw on in the score to bring out that variety.” Still, she feels that much of the Jewish tradition and culture was either missing or considered minor to the story: “For contemporary audiences, the most authentically Jewish moments are the amazing but brief views of the actual inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Warsaw. The father’s Jewishness in the film seems a bit hammed up to us now, so to speak. So I wanted the music to bring in a Jewish soulfulness that people could feel for themselves and felt real.” 
 
There are a number of composing challenges to writing a score for a film, as Alicia relates: “Writing music that feels happy, or sad, or lovelorn is easy, but shame was a tough concept to convey musically. For that I had to improvise with the scene over and over until it felt like the inside of the characters’ heads must have felt.” She also sees a dramatic difference in comparison to writing for a band such as The Klezmatics: “With a movie score, in some ways you are aiming for a subliminal effect; you want to heighten the effect of the storyline without the audience necessarily noticing how it is done. A band does the opposite – they are the ‘film’ and are front and center. I have loved playing for this film in the corner in the dark; having an artistic experience that is just between Marilyn, me, and the movie. That being said, I tend to write melodies more than atmospheric music, and I have been performing some of the tunes in the score at concerts and even for dancing at parties.”
 

 
[For the full text of this article, as well as Alicia’s transcription of the tune “Gasn Nign,” purchase the Winter 2015/16 issue.]
 
A trailer for the film The Yellow Ticket can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-w75T7RMPg .
 
There are many videos of Alicia on YouTube, including an excellent “Masterclass” series from The Strad magazine, in which Alicia teaches running semiquavers, the zhok, krekhts, slides, bends, and trills. Lesson 1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=muvjcMTX9Xw.
 
For more information on Alicia Svigals and her recent work, visit www.aliciasvigals.com/ .
 
[Matt Merta has been writing for various music magazines for the past twenty years. He teaches guitar and bass in Detroit, Michigan, and performs and writes songs under the pseudonym Mitch Matthews.]

Photo: Tina Chaden