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Episode 51: Alicia Svigals, Klezmer Fiddler (Transcript)

Episode 51: Alicia Svigals, Klezmer Fiddler

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.  

Einz, tzvei... einz, tvzei, drei! 

[Lively fiddle music plays]

That is Alicia Svigals, the world’s leading klezmer fiddler. Alicia has been performing, recording and writing music for nearly four decades. She played a central role in the revival klezmer: the quintessential Eastern European Jewish music that expresses both ecstatic celebration and deep suffering. Alicia was a co-founder of the Grammy-award winning band, the Klezmatics, and she has recorded, performed and collaborated with countless artists. She also played an unforgettable, freilach horah at my wedding. Alicia joins us for the second episode in our series on creativity in the pandemic.

[Theme music fades]

Alicia Svigals: A time like this is so anxious, it's so uncertain and losing yourself in music and having a wash of feelings... with music, even the bad feelings mysteriously become good feelings. No one's ever explained that mystery to my satisfaction. Why does it feel good to feel sad with sad music, but it does. 

[Violin niggun plays]

Alicia: I can think of nothing more therapeutic than listening to music and experiencing other musicians during the pandemic and during this crazy time in the world.

Nahanni: How has the pandemic affected your ability to work?

Alicia: The pandemic has made me basically unemployed because most of my work. In the past couple of years has been actually for the past few decades has been live performance. And I had a full touring schedule planned for the season. And of course everything was canceled just like for everybody else in this position. Uh, I haven't completely stopped working though, thank goodness, because I also compose and I've been writing music for silent film projects along with my collaborator, Donald Sosin. And that work continues. 

Nahanni: Has the pandemic and the current political craziness, um, affected your work, not just on a practical level, but sort of on a, on a creative level as well.

Alicia: The pandemic has affected my creative work in that although I have more time on my hands, it's been very hard to focus. I find that instead, I've been practicing a lot and my violin playing has made huge leaps technically. Well, practicing an instrument can be like going to the gym. Scales, exercises, etudes. You can turn a lot of parts of your brain off while you go through those paces and concentrate on just those things. And I never have time for that in normal life because I'm meeting deadlines and I'm traveling and I'm taking care of my family. And, but actually having that time to do that. It's been incredible. What kind of progress you can make. I feel like I'm a student again. And at the same time, I discovered, uh, I discovered these, uh, MP3s that you can buy online piano accompaniments dot com. And I downloaded all the Beethoven violin sonatas, Mozart and all kinds of stuff. And I've been sight reading with my virtual pianist, which for the pandemic is so perfect because you can't get together with an actual pianist and that's been a joy and I've been doing that for fun, but it turns out it really improves your playing as well. 

[Mozart Violin Sonata in E minor, second movement plays]

Alicia: There's a slow movement of a Mozart violin sonata, which is so painfully beautiful that when things are hard, uh, I put on that virtual pianist and I play that along to it. And it's so beautiful. I can barely play it, but it's worth it. 

[Mozart plays]

Alicia: And a couple of other cool things have happened. Uh, a violinist named Elana Cravitz out of London. Who's a klezmer Fiddler initiated the project, uh, in the spring called the klezmer fiddle lockdown project, where she had every klezmer Fiddler in the world, pretty much, record, uh, music from this amazing archive of a Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologist named Moishe Beregovski, whose material I have been working with for years. And in fact, my most recent album was a collection of Beregovski melodies, played with a jazz pianist, Uli Geissendoerfer, called Beregovski Suites. So people keep on working on this archive and discovering new melodies in it. And she distributed them to all these violinists and we all worked up arrangements and performances and had days of online concertizing that people tuned into from all over the world. 

[Violin niggun plays]

Nahanni: Can you talk a little bit more about what it's like to play for audiences over Zoom versus in person? Like there's obviously a different kind of energy there, but on the other hand, you get to be in your own house. 

Alicia: Playing for audiences over Zoom instead of in a concert hall is really an impoverished experience, of course. I never realized until I stopped doing it. What a holistic experience it is to travel and sleep in the hotel and wake up in a new city and go to the concert hall and, and be in a room with the sound engineer and other musicians and then you perform and you're in a room with people and they applaud and you catch their eyes if the stage lighting allows and afterwards you sign autographs and you speak with people and then you go out for drinks with maybe the presenter and. This is like a giant life experience. Now opening up your laptop in your living room. Actually you just finish the dishes. It's just not quite the same, you know, there's no way around it. On the other hand, I like to enjoy whatever there is to enjoy about a new experience and it's an intimate performance. People can see what books you have on your shelves, you know, so I've tried to go with that and seeing those little tiny boxes, the magic of people being there from everywhere, from all different continents. That is a certain thrill too, but the sound of a concert hall is completely different from the sound of your living room. Your living room is a great place to practice scales. It doesn't have, uh, it doesn't have much Sonic ambience. It doesn't have a feeling of bigness. It's just your darn living room.

Alicia, in Zoom concert audio: Welcome everybody to my living room, and I’m playing in the dining room. I’m going to play a program of klezmer tunes: old ones, new ones, some that I wrote. And feel free to sing along. I won’t be able to hear you, but go ahead! I’m sure it’ll sound great. 

[Violin tuning sounds]

[Niggun plays]

Alicia: I've written arrangements, during the pandemic where I am playing all alone. I'm employing, uh, melody, harmony rhythm, much like a Bach unaccompanied Sonata, but for klezmer music. And, uh, so I'm accompanying myself and it's very intimate and I sing and accompany myself on the violin. So working with the medium is really what you gotta do. You're not going to be able to recreate the other thing. And so that's been satisfying and has its own beauty and moving moments.

[Yiddish song plays]

Nahanni: you've spent so much of your career unearthing and bringing to life music from these particular periods in history and some of, some of which were very dark periods in history. And I just, I wonder if you relate to that now, and if some of some of those songs and tunes are surfacing for you.

Alicia: Dipping into the Jewish history of trauma, displacement, being oppressed, I always felt affected by those things, but now it all feels a lot more like it could be a hair breadth away for anybody, and that does give a different feeling of the nearness of history and of events beyond an individual's control. That's a different feeling to have in the world.  There isn't that luxury of visiting those feelings and then going home again. Everything feels a little bit more on, on a knife's edge. And that comes out, I feel, in how I play and write.

["The Plea" plays]

Nahanni: Do you feel like playing has, has become a sort of a refuge for you personally?

Alicia: Yeah, I guess it has. I guess playing has become a refuge for me. You know, the outside world, it's weird. Like, you know, we're stuck inside, but the outside world is inside. More than ever, because of all our devices and, you know, constantly tapping into the outside world. That way, when you're playing music, you can't be checking, you know, your news feed, you know, you're just, you are focused.

Nahanni: Yeah. And yet, with all of the connectivity that we have, we haven't really figured out how people can sing together or play music together in real time.

Alicia: No, we haven't. I wish there were that virtual technology with holograms and so forth. But nothing replaces the smells in the room, rosin, the unconscious sensing of, you know, the other person that way, nothing replaces, you know, real life. There's no way around it.

Nahanni: If there were a vaccine tomorrow. What would be the first thing that you would want to go out and do?

Alicia: I would go sit with my father and hug and kiss him. Without a mask. My elderly father. That's what I would do. Talk to him with no mask on.

[Niggun plays]

Nahanni: Alicia’s father, Edwin Everett Svigals, died just three days after our interview. He was an abstract expressionist artist who shared his love of Yiddishkeit with his children. He was 90. Alicia, we’re sending strength to you and your family and all others who are mourning during this excruciating time. You have given us a gift with your music, and we hope it can help carry you and others through. Alicia Svigals, klezmer fiddler, composer… and preserver and sustainer of Yiddish culture. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.  Our team includes Ariella Markowitz, Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Special thanks to Alicia Svigals for sharing her thoughts and beautiful music with us. In this episode, you heard excerpts of a klezmer medley, a Mozart violin sonata, a Yiddish folk song, and three melodies from the Beregovski Archives. Join us for the next in our series on creativity in pandemic times. Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Thanks for joining us. I’m Nahanni Rous. Until next time.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 51: Alicia Svigals, Klezmer Fiddler (Transcript)." (Viewed on March 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-51-alicia-svigals-klezmer-fiddler/transcript>.


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