Klezmer and the Art of Imitation (chopsticks provided)

Jewish Christmas dinner

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).

Kasha varnishkas (bowtie noodles with buckwheat).
Even the names for food sound musical in Yiddish

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.

Hamentaschen (jam-filled cookies)
I have the option to celebrate
Jewish, Chinese, and “normal” New Year
(Holidays are confusing)

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.

“Songs of Rejoicing” with Giora Feidman

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).

Janáček notated human speech

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.

Ella brings the house down in “Air Mail Special”

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.

He dreamed of heaping stacks of herring, and liquid vats of schmaltz,
Quantities of kishkes, kasha, kreplach, kichelach,

Magnitudes of matzoh brei and portions of pierogen,
Doggy bags of derma, and crunchy packs of grioven,


A bagel with a shmear, and scads of hot stuffed cabbage,
A mountain range of matzoh and braised brisket by the baggage
Heaps of hamentaschen, with cartonloads of kugel,
Rafts and reams of rugelach and don’t forget the strudel.

A little peck of cholent, a truckload of fresh challah,
Containers of chopped liver and some olives from Ramallah,

The rules of Jewish cooking dictate nothing goes to waste:
The longer it is cooked - the better it will taste!

A glass of Manischewitz, to wash the dinner down,
And if that swill won’t make him full he’ll call in Dr. Brown.
And don’t forget the favorite, of all that can be chewed,

The modern Jewish classic – take out Chinese food!

B'Tayavon! (Bon appétit)

David Yang, Artistic Director

If you need more Klezmer to brighten your day,
here is the hilarious “Man in a Hat” by the Klezmatics
Download File

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