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Alicia Svigals: The Klezmer Fiddle Revival
Patrice George
1998-12-01

Alicia Svigals is the fiery fiddler in the center of the cutting-edge klezmer band the Klezmatics. With them, she appeared in the PBS television special, "In the Fiddler's House," hosted by Itzhak Perlman. Her distinctive style of fiddling fuses historical study with personal passion. She has been active as a teacher, composer, arranger, and soloist. She was named "Best Klezmer Musician" at the Fifth International Klezmer Festival in Safed, Israel. Her new solo CD, Fidl, is the first album of klezmer fiddle music to be recorded in recent times. In November 1997, this extremely busy musician found a bit of quiet time to discuss the fiddle's place in the world of klezmer today. The interview took place in Svigals' Manhattan home.

Why did the fiddle in klezmer music have to be "revived"? How did the clarinet and other instruments become dominant in the klezmer ensemble?

The interesting thing about the klezmer revival and the fiddle is that the fiddle used to be the quintessential Jewish instrument, and it was the main instrument of the klezmer bands for hundreds of years. It's hard to know exactly how it was used, because the sources are scarce. Old European Jewish communities were destroyed. The fiddle is a Jewish iconographic touchstone, appearing in folklore and stories. It was the most important klezmer instrument for hundreds of years. In little villages there probably was only one musician or fiddler. With two fiddlers, one would play rhythm and one would play melody. When the klezmer revival started here, the fiddle was supplanted by "hipper" instruments, associated with jazz, like trumpet and clarinet. Maybe the fiddle wasn't loud or urgent enough for bigger halls and bigger urban populations.

...

When did the current interest in klezmer  the "revival"  start?

In the late '70s a few groups started the revival, including Andy Statman, The Klezmorim, Kapelye and The Klezmer Conservatory Band. The Klezmatics were part of the second wave. We were the first to try to do something more than imitate the old recordings. Older groups took the old recordings and transcribed them, trying to achieve the sound that they heard. We really owed a lot to them, but were ready to do something else with the old material. We said: "This was our grandparents' music, but now it's ours."

We're Jewish-Americans and this is our native musical language. We decided to integrate the music into something that made sense to us, as if it were Led Zeppelin, Philip Glass, or other music that we also identified with. We came together when each of us answered an ad in The Village Voice that a mysterious clarinetist put in, who then disappeared! We never heard from him again, but we've been together for twelve years now.

Most klezmer bands don't have violinists, or haven't featured them prominently. The Klezmatics do, partly because there are only six of us. The fiddle really ended up being a big component because we are a collective, so everybody is a soloist with a voice.

Interest in klezmer fiddle increased with the founding of Klezkamp. Unlike other camps which are in the summer, this is in the winter, in one of these old resort hotels in the Catskills. Around 450 people come, ranging from older folks to families. It's become the focal point for klezmer music all over the world. It offers a place both for students and the professional musicians to get together, exchange ideas, do collaborations, start new projects, and start new bands. It's a community that's very close knit and wonderful.

Part of the problem with learning to play klezmer violin has been the absence of old fiddle recordings and older players to learn from. There was one older violin player in New York, Leon Schwartz, who died a few years ago at age eighty-eight. The violin didn't record well in the early days. There are more senior clarinet players, and also hundreds of old clarinet recordings.

In the '70s most fiddlers who tried to play klezmer didn't have a concept for it, so would play in a schmaltzy gypsy style. In the old recordings you can hear that the fiddle is really imitating the old cantorial style of singing. It's a mystery until you unlock the key to exactly what to do with the violin to make those strange, sobbing sounds. I studied old recordings and worked with Leon Schwartz to figure it all out. I've fused those old fiddle techniques for Jewish music with the more virtuosic clarinet music. 

...

[For the rest of this article, as well as a transcription of Alicia's tune "Beckerman Honga," purchase the Winter 98/99 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Patrice George lives in New York City, where she plays fiddle and hardingele.]