Edward W Batchelder

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“I Don’t Have to Cross Over; I’m Already Over”
An Interview with David Krakauer

photo of David KrakauerAs a child, forty-four-year-old David Krakauer certainly didn’t foresee being one of the leaders of the late-twentieth-century revival of klezmer, the centuries-old celebratory music of Easter European Jews that has bloomed unexpectedly in Boston and New York. He began playing the clarinet at age ten and, although inspired early on by the New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet, decided at the end of high school to pursue a rigorously classical career—studying with Leon Russianoff, spending a year at the Paris Conservatory and two summers at Marlboro, and receiving a master’s degree from Julliard. Professionally, he’s been principal clarinetist for the New Haven Symphony, Martha Graham, and the American Ballet Theater, as well as logging in time with the Aspen Wind Quartet, Continuum, and New York Philomusica, among others. It wasn’t until the late eighties that he began, almost as a musical hobby, to explore klezmer by playing at nursing homes and weddings. Within a few years he was a member of the popular klezmer-revival band the Klezmatics, whose witty interplay of Eastern European Jewish and contemporary American elements is only barely suggested by CD titles like Rhythm & Jews (1990) and Jews with Horns (1994). While the Klezmatics can in no way be considered rote traditionalists, Krakauer’s solo work since 1996 has probed even more intently the boundaries of the music with an impassioned and lyrical virtuosity. In 1997 Krakauer and the Kronos Quartet recorded The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, composed by Osvaldo Golijov in memory of the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic and kabbalist. Much of Krakauer’s 1998 Klezmer NY, on the other hand, imagines a musical encounter between Bechet and Poland-born klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, both of whom lived in New York from the twenties to the forties. (Bechet was known to perform “A Yiddishe Momme” later in life.) Krakauer’s most recent release, A New Hot One, advances klezmer even further into the future with its torrid mix of clarinet, accordion, drums, bass, and electric guitar (one cut is titled “Klezdrix”). At the same time, Krakauer has maintained an active classical career, and is currently on the faculty of Mannes College of music.

You’ve participated actively in three different musical traditions: classical, jazz, and klezmer. How did you become involved with them?
In high school I played jazz and classical at the same time. I went to the High School of Music and Art with [downtown musician] Anthony Coleman. I was in his band and we did jazz repertoire before jazz repertoire became popular. I also played with the high school jazz band. At the same time, I studied with Leon Russianoff—that was my early training, playing chamber music, and playing in these different jazz groups. After high school, I wanted to pursue classical music. In jazz I had so many heroes that I felt—wrongly, I think—that I couldn’t do anything original, that I would be a pale copy of Benny Goodman, so I decided to focus my energy in classical. But there was another side of me, the improviser side, that was unfulfilled. Through a series of chance meetings and a desire to connect more with my Jewishness, I started klezmer music as a sort of musical hobby. Actually, at that moment, I realized I had found the perfect place to play my music, I had found the perfect place for all three of my musical personalities—interpreter, composer, and improviser. Klezmer music was my musical home. I was hearing the inflections of my grandparents.

You’ve said that klezmer was like the sound of your grandparents speaking. If you think of these different traditions as different musical languages, what are some of the problems of speaking three languages, as it were?
When I play a Mozart quintet or a Brahams quarter, it’s about going to a certain place, and I inhabit that emotional place. When I play klezmer, that’s a whole other emotional spot. If you immerse yourself enough in different things, you won’t mix them up. When I went into klezmer, I went into it full-force. I took the old recordings of Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein as the Berlitz tapes of the language. Then I’ve allowed all these other influences—rock, funk, jazz, etc.—to creep in. It’s like learning slang, or idiomatic expressions, or an unusual dialect. Because I grew up playing both classical and jazz, I was lucky to already have a dual training. When I go to classical, I don’t feel like I’m going to break out into klezmer. And there were certain technical things I’ve done—I have to play with a different mouthpiece and reed in klezmer than in classical. Those things helped me, I could physically feel the separation between the different kinds of music.

What are some of the benefits?
I think there are so many points in common—with any type of music, I’m trying to do interesting things with phrasing and color and trying to get to the emotional core, trying to connect with the other musicians and find the emotional spark in the ensemble.

Do you find it easier to find that spark with improvised music?
In improvisation, you have the advantage that you can steer the thing into a certain area, to create it right on the spot. If you want to create an ecstatic explosion, you can up the ante. It’s harder with Brahams because you have to limit yourself to what the notes are telling you. But if you have a chamber music group and you understand the piece in the same way, you can experience something similar. You’re finding the piece together.

Was that your experience in playing with the Kronos Quartet?
Recording The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was one of the great, thrilling experiences of my life—coming to San Francisco, meeting the people in Kronos for the first time, sitting down and working with them in a tremendously concentrated way with the composer present, and then three days later having the interpretation ready. And then going out to play it in these great halls around the world. To have the opportunity to continue playing it, it’s just what you want to do with any piece of music. I’ve enjoyed the process of watching the piece grow as we played it. Their dedication and musicianship has been an amazing experience.

To get back to klezmer, you’ve said that the clarinet is the electric guitar of klezmer, yet both Klezmer NY and A New Hot One actually feature electric guitar quite prominently. It’s not usual instrumentation for klezmer.
The electric guitar establishes a certain kind of modernity to the music: rock, funk, those sorts of things. If you grew up in the sixties or seventies, even if you didn’t listen to the music, it was all around you. I didn’t listen to every rock band, I was more of a jazz fan, but the sound of a screaming electric guitar is everywhere, you can hear it in any pizza parlor. To bring it in creates a certain modern sound. At the same time, in having the savage intensity of the electric guitar, I’m able to return to a primitive, raw, uncut emotion that you hear in the older recordings of Brandwein and Tarras. To bring the guitar in brings that savage, almost folkloric energy back into the music. That’s the danger of musical revival—if you copy how something sounds, it’ll never sound the same. You have to find it another way. When I listen to some of the newer klezmer, it lacks the raw energy of some of the older pieces.

You’ve made some statements indicating that this you see similar dangers facing jazz.
Jazz has reached an interesting point now because you hear a lot of players play who aren’t doing anything too different from what Sonny Rollins was doing forty years ago. It’s almost reached a sort of classicism—there’s classic free jazz, classic hard-bop, and so on. My feeling at that point when I got out of college was that I didn’t know where I personally could take jazz. There are certainly people doing original stuff, but for the first fifty or sixty years you had this clear linearity—New Orleans, swing, bop, hard bop, free jazz. The music was moving fast and furious, and the whole point was to create and to change and to revolutionize. I don’t see jazz making those big movements now. It’s either a classicism of fixed styles, and the odd and assorted original thinkers and creators who do their own things, but I don’t necessarily see those things as being part of a bigger movement.

How active are you now in the jazz world?
I’ve done things with Anthony, the occasional piece at Knitting Factory, and I’ve worked in John Zorn’s game ensemble Cobra. I don’t consider myself a jazz player, but people who follow jazz follow what I’m doing. I hope we can find some common ground and place of exchange.

What are you doing in the classical realm?
I’m continuing to do festivals, I’ve been playing some with the Tokyo String Quartet for for a concert at Duke University next year. I’m doing my teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College of Music. And I perform my “Beyond Crossover” recital on April 21 at Merkin Hall—I’m doing a Brahms sonata, a Messiaen solo, a piece by Steve Reich, and a klezmer piece of my own. It’s a one-hour recital without intermission. I’m continuing with New York Philomusica, and other groups on an invitation basis. I continue on with classical music.

It sounds very busy.
It’s very busy.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from Chamber Music)

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