Tag Archives: Elizabeth Schwartz

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer (Book Review)

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, edited by Yale Strom, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. 153 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The past decade or so has witnessed a flourishing of books tackling various aspects of klezmer, a term referring both to a style of Eastern European-born Jewish folk music and the musicians who perform it. Growing interest in the centuries-old genre has spurred the printing of a variety of songbooks, fake books, instrument-specific collections, historical analyses and ethnographic studies. All of these areas find a home in Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, a slim yet information-rich volume edited by accomplished klezmer violinist and ethnographer Yale Strom. Filled with historical details, practical advice, technical instruction, musical examples and illustrative anecdotes, this all-in-one book gathers the wisdom of renowned klezmer performers, specifically Peter Stan (accordion), Jeff Pekarek (bass), Norbert Stachel (clarinet), David Licht (drums), Yale Strom (violin) and Elizabeth Schwartz (vocals).

The book begins with two chapters of condensed history from the Middles Ages to the present. These introductory surveys, written by Strom, ease through the somewhat disjointed development of the genre, from the dance halls of twelfth-century Germany, to the Hasidic ecstasy of seventeenth-century Poland, to the army bands of Czarist Russia, to the immigrant ensembles of the United States, to the Yiddish theater, to the modern revival and profusion of the art form.

In the limited space of roughly thirty pages, Strom manages to lay a solid historical foundation while sprinkling in several amusing vignettes. For instance, he includes a story of a man who grew up in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. During his childhood, a fiddler would come through his neighborhood around seven a.m., just after the men had gone to work. As he played a slow waltz, the wives would lean out of their apartment windows. When the music finished, the women clapped in appreciation and threw down money accompanied by rolled-up pieces of paper. The papers contained numbers corresponding to horseraces, which the fiddler brought to a bookie on the women’s behalf (p. 18).

The other chapters continue in this vein. The well-chosen authors elegantly combine the performance history of their instruments, profiles of legendary masters, insights about style and technique, stories from their own experiences, and a handful of musical illustrations. Though they are presented in unique authorial voices (Stan, Pekarek, Stachel, Licht, Strom and Schwartz) and profile unique instruments (accordion, bass, clarinet, drums, violin and vocals), they do address similar issues. It is therefore possible, if not entirely fair, to generalize their content using a few examples.

The topic of stylized embellishments appears throughout the book. This is to be expected, as the use of specific ornaments is largely what defines klezmer playing. Roughly half of Stan’s chapter on the accordion is devoted to this subject (pp. 35-39), and Strom describes the nine core embellishments, or dreydlekh, of the klezmer violin: glitshn (portamenti); mordent; krekhtsn (“moan”); kneytshn (“fold”); tshoks (“bend”); turn; harmonic; trill; and ponticello (pp. 100-101).

The authors also stress that klezmer is a lived heritage, and one rooted in a vibrant and still expanding continuum. As Stachel writes in his chapter on the clarinet: “folk music such as klezmer is a living testament to the history and collective emotional experiences of that culture and its people. It has been passed down from one generation to the next; and that transcends any professor’s attempt to mechanically and coldly ‘explain’ in a theoretical way the essence of Ashkenazi music” (p. 64).

Another theme is the influence of Eastern European cantorial music on klezmer playing and singing. Instrumentalists emulate cantorial adornments and phrasings, and vocalists cannot help but pay homage to chazzanut (cantorial art). As Schwartz puts it in her chapter on vocals: “To sing klezmer in the folk style, one must . . .  harken back to the vocal traditions of the synagogue—not because the songs are liturgical, but because these ornamentations have become an indelible part of the music’s performance” (p. 129).

Many more subjects are addressed in this useful and readable volume. Of course, as with any book, there is room for criticism. For instance, some familiar klezmer instruments were omitted—like the mandolin and members of the brass family—and some chapters offer more technical insights than others. But these objections are minor. Performers, scholars and fans of klezmer music will benefit from the book’s informative discussions, pedagogical elements, personal stories and enthusiastic tone.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.  

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