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Recently I’ve been chewing over the joy I take in this profession due to my love of music vs. the satisfaction I take in the process
I enjoy when instruments employ artifice to imitate non-instruments: a violin channeling birdsong, a piano representing a heartbeat, the summer storm in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony. American Steve Reich recorded speech and then had members of a string quartet imitate the spoken melody in his powerful work “Different Trains.” Being Jewish, Reich couldn’t help but be aware of Ashkenazi Jewish music, called Klezmer, which has a particular fondness for imitating the human voice, employing a technique called sprechspiel (speak-singing) with klezmorim (musicians) executing techniques such as dreydls, krekhtsn, tshoks, and kneytsh (turns, moans, downward fades, and note bending).
Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish storyteller (his works inspired “Fiddler on the Roof”), described a master klezmer:
He would grab his fiddle, give it a swipe with his bow – just one, no more – and already it would begin to speak. But how, do you think, it spoke? With real words, with a tongue, like a living person…speaking, arguing, singing with a sob, in the Jewish manner, with a shriek, with a cry from deep within the heart, from the soul…Different voices poured out all kinds of songs, all so lonely, so melancholy, that they would seize your heart and tear out your soul, sap you of your health…Hearts would become full, overflowed, eyes would fill with tears. People would sigh, moan, weep.
While not a violinist, the musician who most recently exemplifies this craft is Argentine-Israeli clarinetist Giora Feidman. Listen how he laughs and cries with the instrument.
Of course, composers were notating speech well before Reich. Czech composer, Leoš Janáček, in particular, filling notebooks with his delightful transcriptions. Around the same time, over in Vienna, Schoenberg wrote “Pierrot Lunaire” where the soprano does a hybrid cross between singing and speaking. It still sounds creepy 100 years later (and I love it).
If you travel far enough in one direction you wind up on the other side. By the 1950s, in jazz, we started seeing vocal music imitating musical instruments: Scat (which down the road, I’m guessing, led to Rap). The Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, was a virtuoso in this technique.
I took a stab at Rap myself, but with a Semitic twist, as the centerpiece of my piece “Three Wishes” Here are the lyrics, all based on the cooking I grew up with.
B'Tayavon! (Bon appétit)
David Yang, Artistic Director
Thank you so much for all your emails flagellating my beloved instrument.
Art expresses our deepest emotions. Ecstasy and grief, tranquility, bustle, anger, even frustration