Music For Writers: Krakauer The Klezmer On ‘Isaac The Blind’

iStockphoto / pinhn
iStockphoto / pinhn

Boys Who Have Seen Stonehenge

Klezmer struck me as the voice of my grandmother in music. So even though I consider myself to be an atheist, I’m deeply culturally plugged in as a Jew. For me the “spiritual” aspect is a sense of this deep cultural connection that goes back thousands of years, and a sense of awe related to that. Like being at Stonehenge, in a way.

I’ve just told David Krakauer, perhaps the best-known clarinettist performing today, that my Methodist-minister father took me for my first visit to Stonehenge when I was about 13 — because Daddy, always more theologian than pulpit barker, wanted me “to feel spirituality.” It worked, and defined for me the fact that Methodist mysticism usually involves tourism.

And Krakauer? “I went to Stonehenge ‎when I was about 12 or 13, as well, and it made an incredible impression on me.”

So having bonded with the bliss of the boulders — and exchanged gasps that we’re missing each other by only two days in Frankfurt, a stop on his European tour and a week for me at BuchMesse— we quickly get down to talking about the man’s extraordinarily exuberant work in Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 The Dreams And Prayers Of Isaac The Blind.

David Krakauer | Photo: GMD Three
David Krakauer | Photo: GMD Three

It’s the centerpiece of a new album, Dreams And Prayers, from the Boston-based string ensemble A Far Cry on Crier Records.

The album was featured as an Album Of The Week offering from Q2 Music, the 24-hour free stream of contemporary composition, an international service of New York Public Radio’s WQXR.

The album also includes A Far Cry’s very effective interpretations of:

  • A Hildegard von Bingen invocation, O ignis spiritus paracliti, in a spartan, affecting arrangement for violins;
  • A commission from US-based composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, VECD; and
  • The Heiliger Dankesang from Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 132, in a lush new arrangement by A Far Cry.

What you’re going to hear holds, perhaps, special meaning for writers, in that Isaac the Blind was just that, a writer. Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, lived from roughly 1160 to 1235 and was a writer in Kabbaleh, Jewish mysticism. As the Argentine composer Golijov (heard frequently on Q2 Music’s programming), tells the story:

[Isaac] asserted that all things and events in the universe are product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters: ‘Their root is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal’. His conviction still resonates today: don’t we have scientists who believe that the clue to our life and fate is hidden in other codes?

And in the five sections of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, you hear what Golijov understands as the attempt of musicians, “reaching a state of communion,” something with which many writers today are familiar with, as well.

For Krakauer, it’s a chance to perform in a way that he says is:

One-hundred percent me. Completely “unchained.”

I play Isaac the Blind with the same freedom and exuberance that I utilize in my work with my band. I always joke with Osvaldo telling him that I play all the notes he wrote plus give him 30 percent more. I add a fair amount of ornamentation (including little ghosted sobs between the notes…krechts in Yiddish), and bring the whole concept of klezmer phrasing and inflection to the table. The piece is written for “klezmer clarinet” and string quartet, so that’s the mandate for performance.

Nobody could be better up to such a mandate.

‘Into A Virtual Trance’

Dreams & Prayers coverIn case you’re not familiar with Klezmer? –oh, yes, you are. You may not know what it’s called, but you know this sound. With their artistry based in dance and celebratory traditions of the Ashkenazi Jews, the players — klezmorim, in the plural, each of them a klezmer — came along with the Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century to the States. Jazz may have had almost as much influence on klezmer as parts of its vocabulary had on jazz.

What we hear today as klezmer — and what Krakauer probably does better than anyone else — is an immensely chatty, boisterous sound that can giggle, guffaw, bellow, whisper, even weep and wail, in a pattern of near constant glissandi and staccato conversation.

What Krakauer is hearing, he tells me, also has the genius of the cantor’s song at synagogue:

For me Golijov has created a perfect marriage of classical composition, unbridled ‎‎”folk” performance and cantorial singing. However, to authentically and adequately convey the “off the page” ecstatic quality of the work , the clarinetist needs to be sufficiently conversant in the klezmer style — plus totally aware of the deep influence of cantorial singing on klezmer.

As soon as you hear him say this, it makes perfect sense. The abandon with which the artist attacks this music is exactly that of a singer of psalms, a man charged with voicing the ecstasies of the edge of religious consciousness. Krakauer:

Towards the end of the K’vakarat [the third movement, Teneramente], the clarinet goes into a passage that’s a complete outpouring of pure emotional supplication. For all intents and purposes the player needs to go into a virtual trance. That can’t be faked.

And, boy, nothings faked in this remarkable performance. If you’d like to have found a kind of definitive exploration of what klezmer has come to mean to us, listen to just that third movement. All questions answered.

And what a treasure to have something like klezmer, a unique form that lies somehow so far away from us, brought right up into our world now with the immediacy and urgency of a profoundly raised eyebrow.

“For me,” Krakauer, a native New Yorker, is telling me, “the big connection with this music has always been a deep sense of cultural continuity. While on one hand my parents — along with many people of their generation — had rejected the Eastern European Yiddish culture of their ancestors and made a concerted effort to assimilate, for me there were many subtle elements that were nonetheless transmitted.

“Most striking was the strong Yiddish accent of my grandmother. So when I began to learn klezmer music in my early 30s, there was a lot of work to do, but at the same time it also seemed completely easy and natural.”

A Far Cry in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts | Photo: Yoon S. Buyn
A Far Cry in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts | Photo: Yoon S. Buyn

‘A Political Act Without Waving A Flag’

No, not in the States does Krakauer find his strongest followings. Known for telling audiences to react in any way they wish to his music — quietly sitting, clapping along, dancing, shouting — he talks to me about where the fanboys are. And what he says is an important evocation of what

I think I’ve found much more acceptance for my music in Europe. I play in Europe almost once a month and my biggest fan base so far is in France. I’m not a sociologist, but I sense there are concrete reasons for this. Before World War II, Jews were the multicultural Europeans. Now, as Europe struggles with racism, a rising far right, and the need to embrace an increasingly multi‎cultural society, coming there to play Jewish music seems to be a kind of political act without waving a flag.

I see it as a statement for humanistic values, and that’s very gratifying for me. Plus of course the Holocaust occurred on European soil. So given the events of the past along with the current political situation, I sense that Europeans have a specific context in which to relate to this music and “get it” on a deeply multi-faceted level. That being said, the Golijov and this music in general is incredibly emotional and has tremendous power to both transport and profoundly move any audience. I believe that it stands on it’s own without needing to have any “cultural baggage” attached to it.

And maybe that’s what time does for music, as it does for many writings.

Stonehenge, after all, has managed to escape the “cultural baggage” our era would love to attach, its precise uses and meanings still obscure to us. Something about spirituality and the deepest, riskiest elements of any faith — mysticism — always thrives in that strangeness, a silken, quick ability to dart out of our glance as soon as we think we’re close. They’re just rocks. These are just notes on a perfectly common reed instrument. Until you avert your eye — or your ear — just slightly. Then something moves. And when it does, when the mystical blindsides you, it sounds like Krakauer and Golijov at work.

“The most difficult section in terms of ensemble” in Isaac the Blind, Krakauer tells me, “is the first movement, right after the Prelude, the so-called ‘accordion’ section.‎ For me the cohesion and precision that A Far Cry achieves is absolutely amazing. That along with their incredible passion and musicality is just dynamite.”

And that, in case you didn’t catch it, is how a master artist works. At the very moment he’s about to show you the real trick? — he diverts you, graciously. “I adore working with A Far Cry.”

“I always joke with Osvaldo telling him that I play all the notes he wrote plus give him 30 percent more.” David Krakauer on playing Osvaldo Golijov

You’ll find that for work in language, Isaac the Blind is a something you can’t put easily aside. Krakauer is too good, and Golijov is too clever. But you’ll go back to what you’re working on with those images of Isaac’s characters as “flickering flames.” Krakauer:

I’ve been involved with this piece since 1996 when I recorded it in it’s original version with the Kronos Quartet. By that time, I was already deeply ensconced in klezmer music. I was just finishing a 7-year tenure with the Klezmatics that had included two major recordings plus had just made my first CD under my own name on the Tzadik Label. So when I took on Isaac the Blind I had already started to find my own voice in klezmer.

And those flickering flames, this torch of klezmer, was passed again, and handsomely.  It’s in good hands now. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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