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Thoughts on the new CD, "Wedding Without a Bride," Buda Musique Nr. 92759-2, Paris, 2000
It all started when we heard Majer Bogdanski for the first time ... when we first asked him if we could interview and learn from him, we had no idea of the extent of his memory and knowledge of Jewish Music. Sure, we had indulged in endless discussions among ourselves about what it means to harmonize old melodies, to exchange forms, to modernize, to alter and adapt to the times and how to develop all this from within the confines of the specific klezmer style, etc, etc. But in fact, one thing was missing - no one had ever really tried to recreate the Jewish wedding completely, allowing it to speak to us directly. Everyone was changing, improving and modernizing (we ourselves, too and gladly) but one thing was left out of the picture: We had no music of the entire East European Jewish wedding from beginning to end. You would think that would be a prerequisite for development - I mean, would you say, I'm going to improve on the Parthenon, without having measured its proportions, analysed its materials and understood its function? How can you develop upon something you haven't internalized? Isn't your development then actually a kind of "karaoke kunst," with the new ideas simply stuck onto the top of a pre-existing foundation? So you take the ostensible elements, recreate them in a truncated way, leave out the more time-consuming techniques of construction, then allow that to serve as a fundament to build upon. But then we stumbled upon the age-old priniciple of form follows function and realized that we couldn't submerge ourselves in this project without observing its laws first.
The first time we heard Majer Bogdanski sing an entire bazingns, we were amazed. For 10 years we had been searching for someone who could at least tell us something about this rare and forgotten form. Musicologists agreed that it formed a key to understanding important central questions as to how klezmer music has developed in this century - questions of modality, of the atmosphere of the Jewish wedding, of the origin of the forms which later took their place, in short, it was a kind of missing link. And yet, like most important discoveries, it appeared when we weren't looking for it. In a kami-kaze mood at the question and answer portion following his wonderful lecture at the London Symposium on Yiddish Music in 1997, we asked Majer if he could remember portions of the kale bazetsns ritual of the East European Jewish wedding. Without batting an eye, Majer reeled off the entire instrumental and vocal parts of the ritual, and continued without hesitation to sing a complete khosn bazingns, which we had never intended to request, as we had already considered the kale bazetsns an unreasonable challenge. Only a few people in the audience understood the gravity of what was happening. One of them, thankfully, was Majer himself. Merlin and I couldn't be subdued. We grabbed Majer at the first opportunity and asked him to repeat what he had just done, and he did so next to the coffee machine in the faculty lounge while we stood there transfixed, forgetting to drink the cooling liquid in our styrofoam cups, while Majer effortlessly but intensively sang the violin and bass part. I kicked myself for not having surgically grafted my recording equipment to my hip for moments like these.
Our next step was to schedule sessions with him to record him, and within 3 months we had gotten a small grant from the David Herzog Fonds in Graz, Austria, to do 3 days of audio-video documention of Majer at the BBC studios in London. Our first concern was to get as many versions of his bazingns as possible, to check for variants to determine what were the improvised and what were the fixed portions of the genre and to see how his ornamentation changed, whether the candences were exchanged, etc. We recorded Majer so many times that he eventually laughed, "Are you trying to torture me?" After getting his life history details and documenting more than 50 units of music (not including the bazestns!) we left it for 2 years, after which Merlin went back to re-record him again in 1999, repeating the torture tactics which we had subjected Majer to already in 1997.
The detailed task of transcribing the parts and arranging the music for the Budowitz ensemble included listening to all our surviving early 78 r.p.m. record satires of kale bazetsns in our collection, as well as analyzing the written manuscripts we had gathered. Majer amazed us again by sending his own transcription of the bazetsns session, and after months of combing our entire collection of everything we had at our disposal, we were able to piece together the sequence to create the version on the wedding CD. In addition to our meetings with Majer, we also visited the Polish badkhn and former Yiddish Theatre actor, Toyvye Birnbaum at his home in Brighton Beach, New York. Toyvye is a master of the age-old art of improvising couplets in Yiddish, called "gramen". As it happens, Toyve could improvise brilliantly both the kale and khosn bazingns, so we were able to learn and compare his style with that of Majer's, which proved essential to us in understanding questions as to what is perhaps common to all bazetsns and what is variable, as well as the strophic structure and what the emotional nodal points of the ceremony are. In processing the instrumental portions, we were guided in our choice of repertoire by an instinct of combining tunes whose motives were at times related to those found in the bazetsns, and which seemed as though they grew out of a common "musical DNA code."
Following our meetings with Majer, Merlin and I visited Jeremiah Hescheles in Manhatten with Zev Feldman to interview him. Jeremiah was overjoyed when we played for him and assured us that our style was just as it should be. Jeremiah gave us so much information we've yet hardly even begun to process it. I still call him to chat and learn more from his immense cache of experience and knowledge. Because Jeremiah came from Gliniany, not far from Piotrkow, we were able to add bits of the puzzle together to help us to understand the questions of regionality in klezmer music. The string players in Budowitz, Tamás Gombai, Sándor Tóth, and Zsolt Kuertoesi, are experts in playing the "duevoe" style of accompaniment commonly played throughout the Transcarpathian region of Romania. This style involves a rhythmic legato bowing technique which is also used by Polish Goralsky musicians in southern Poland.The styles apparently have a common source. When Jeremiah mentioned that Rabbi Shapiro of Piotrkow loved the Goralsky style and asked his klezmorim often to play prayers in that style, we were overjoyed. When Merlin tried out one of Majer's Piotrkower Nigunim with this style of accompaniment, the effect was gorgeous. No rehearsal was necessary. We recorded it as part of the table music (track 13).
In our search for the most fitting themes possible we were again faced with the question which is posed again and again in our work: How can we bring out the most expression from our material and make it personal. To not only record it, but to make it specific to our own style? We have never seen ourselves as revivalists, despite the label given to us at times. A central part of the work of Budowitz is to see ourselves as part of the tradition we are working within. In realizing this, some of us in the post-modern world would tend to use any techniques at our disposal. However, we soon discovered that the less we did, the more energy was released from the melodies. Our accompaniment became so sparse that we found ourselves saying "Yes, that's it, that's the perfect acompaniment!" just as no one was playing anything anymore. In truth, our ears became even more sensitive to the overuse of "harmony" than they had been till now, and we had already been accused of being "spartan" by our critics. We found that certain melodies immediately took on a sappy character as soon as we so much as used the third of the chord in the wrong place. But if we played, say, only octaves, a beautiful lean and powerful emotional energy was released from the melody. At times you can hear basic harmonies played in the accompaniment on the wedding cd, and at other times you will hear only single notes or octaves. The choices were made on the basis of our emotional response, and not by a striving toward "authenticity" for its own sake. In fact however, the written accompaniment of the Unter der Khupe, which is a related genre and was notated in situ by Moshe Bick at a Moldavian Jewish wedding, also used only octaves in the accompaniment, and this fact supported us in our decision to restrain ourselves while arranging the music. My late composition private composition teacher, Hugo Norden, olav ha shulem, was very clear about this artistic principle: The more restrictions you put upon yourself as an artist, the more freedom you have. The biggest danger you face as an artist is the endless sea of choices you can choose from at any given moment. Confine your field of possibilities and you will still have too many choices. Confine it even more and your selection process becomes concentrated into an essence. Stravinsky said the same thing in different words. Having studied intensively with the South African pianist and homeopathist, Alain Naudé, I understood this releasing of energy as similar to the process of trituration, whereby a substance is diluted exponentially, until so little of it is left that it's healing energy is released. Substitute "emotional" for "healing" and the same process can be found in music.
To describe the details and problems of reconstruction would take too long, but one deserves mention: In the writings of the Jewish Ukrainian musicologist Moshe Beregovski of the 1930s, it is mentioned that one constant characteristic which he noticed in the kale bazetsns he had observed in the Ukraine, namely that the vocal parts were always in Mogen Ovos (scalar form: D E F G A Bb C D), whereby the instrumental interludes were always in the Freygish mode (scalar form: D Eb F# G A Bb C D). The fact that Majer's example came from his Polish town of Piotrkow-Tribunalski would not have made us more vigilant, because all of the kale bazetsns we had observed up to this point, regardless of region, showed the same characteristics Beregovsky noticed. But this was not the case in Majer's example. The vocal and instrumental portions were uni-modal. This raised important musicological questions concerning regional differences of the repertoire, which had hitherto been assumed to be fairly uniform as regards the core repertoire of the East European Jews. Was the modal difference in Majer's example the exception which proves the rule, or was there in fact regional variance of the ritual portions of the wedding, and were these differences by analogy present in the overall repertoire throughout all of the klezmer regions?
For most people playing this music, such questions seem of a strictly musicological nature. Budowitz has unwittingly but gladly been the center of debates about retrogressive vs. progressive in contemporary music circles, but mostly because we figured that controversy was always a form of promotion, be it good or bad. Yet I don't think anyone could claim that a revival which uses 78 r.p.m records or printed examples by Ukrainian musicologists from the 1930s as sources for pop-jazz-klezmer mixes are any more modern than one that uses living sources of genres never before heard on record in complete form in a traditional (and often conjectural) style. In fact, to date no members of the current revival have presented the complete former ritual aspects of Klezmer music on record, often for the simple reason that noone has been sure how they are supposed to sound in their entirety, and perhaps also because it is quite a risky thing to do, perhaps comparable to European folk band presenting a Kyrie and Gloria for half of a record. Aside from a handful of 78 r.p.m. theatrical satires and some scant pre-war written sources, no models have been unearthed which have given present-day klezmer music practitioners a model by which they can feel comfortable to stretch the limits of these forms through modern renditions. Without the original model of a genre, musicians will not venture to build contemporaneously upon it. How could they? As regards the kale bazingns, where only satires could be heard on record, the problem has even been as crass as deciphering what is satire and what is not in the texts and music; or determining whether part of the text sung to the bride is filler for the recording or genuine traditional fare? And do the musicians really start and stop in a recitativo secco manner, or do they play a continuous blanket of slowly changing chords in the background, like the doina, which some believe eventually "replaced" the entire kale badekns ritual? Are the interludes always played in Freygish while the sung parts are in Mogen Ovos as Beregovsky writes, and does the clarinet or the violin play them? How long does the whole thing go on? And why did it ever die out? Can we revive it and will it stand reworking or is it a form which has had its day and will never again find relevance, even when severed completely from its original function?
When we embarked on this project of condensing the basic form of an entire wedding into one coherent CD, we had no idea how beautiful and complete the entire form was, when all that was left was the musical elements of the old style wedding. It's as though we discovered a huge symphonic form which showed far more complexity and emotional range than even the average symphony. Usually, when planning a recording, you do think of the entire sequence of pieces as a whole, and try to lead the listener logically through the entire recording, though everyone knows that people rarely take the time to listen to an entire record in one sitting. These decisions, however, are usually based upon abstract musical criteriae and not functional ones such as tempo, tension and release, sometimes keys, etc. I remember Alicia Svigals mentioning how difficult it was for her to determine the sequencing of her wonderful CD Fidl. One version showed too many consecutive tracks in the same keys, but when she changed that, there were too many slow pieces, etc. Like my Zeyde used to say in one of his pithy moments when criticizing cosmetic surgery: "Fix the nose and the mouth don't work." But in the Budowitz case, the main problem was first finding the sequence of the old Yiddish weddings as they once were. And once we found that, we had no idea how emotionally and formally complex the entire construct was. Until we heard what we were doing ourselves. The fact that the entire ritual portion was in one basic key didn't seem to weaken anything. We dispensed with the idea that you have to change keys to sustain musical interest. It wasn't applicable here.
Of course the experience of a wedding and that of a recording are two completely different things. As soon as you take music out of its original context, you have changed it, whether you choose to do it on a stage, a recording or elsewhere. This is reason enough to make no pretense of being "authentic" in spite of the favor that term finds among our listeners and critics. Rather than deal with that superficial semantic problem, we have decided to view and present the music here as a complete work in and of itself, a work which makes use of as many of the musical characteristics of the old Jewish wedding as possible within our knowledge. Closer we can't come. In simpler terms, we're simply following the instructions of the badkhn himself when he implores at the beginning of the khosn bazingns, "Oh, my brother's klezmorim, play for the bridegroom before the khupa, just as it used to be in the days of our holy Forefathers..."
Posted by Josh Horowitz to the Jewish-Music mailing list, 3 Jul, 1999.