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Music

Giora Feidman: 'The clarinet is the microphone of my soul'

In an exclusive DW interview, the "King of Klezmer" Giora Feidman explains why contemporary culture ignores people's need for spiritual nourishment, why he can't stand popular music, and what klezmer is truly about.

DW: You were born in Argentina, but your parents emigrated from Bessarabia, today's Moldavia. What did you inherit from that musical culture?

Giora Feidman: The first music I heard when I was in my mother's womb was the kind my father brought from Bessarabia. But it's more than an influence. Like the tango, it's in the blood. If you are in that society, you absorb it. If you're a German, Schubert is folklore. With him, and with Wagner, you feel the atmosphere of Germany.

This music my father brought from Bessarabia plus the tango were the initial part of my musical life. After that, my father did what his father had: He sent his son to a music academy.

But I don't really connect with the klezmer label. If I play Mozart, Piazzolla or Gershwin, I don't feel the label, I feel the music. My father taught me that there exists a single language called music.

Giora Feidman in the Berlin Synagogue. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa

At a synagogue in Berlin during the Jewish Culture Days, 2013

A newborn baby will say to its mother: "You want to communicate with me? I know only one language: Sing to me!" And every mother on the planet will sing for her baby. The baby cannot say, "Sing me English songs or Schubert songs." We have forgotten this.

In younger years, you played in the orchestra of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, and later in the Israel Philharmonic under great conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Rafael Kubelik, Eugene Ormandy and Zubin Mehta. Was one of them a particularly strong formative influence?

Yes, yes and yes. Kubelik and Bernstein were unbelievable. I can list so many great musicians I experienced first-hand then. I played with all of them, the violinists Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrach and Jascha Heifetz, the cellist Pablo Casals, the pianists Artur Rubinstein and Peter Serkin, you name them!

Those 18 years in the Israel Philharmonic were of tremendous value. But one essential moment for me came even earlier. I was 19 years old, sitting in the Theatro de Colon with my father and listening to Strauss's opera "Der Rosenkavalier." And in the middle of this incredible music, my father said to me, "You know something? If you become a billionaire, you cannot buy me a moment like this!" It is that certain moment when you say, "This is music!"

In past decades we've seen a klezmer revival. It's being played everywhere, and there are even festivals dedicated to it. But what was the situation like in your youth?

There is only one point that I will accept, and that's when people say, "Giora, you are responsible for the revival." I'm not responsible for the results. The word "klezmer" derives from the ancient words "kley" and "zemer," which translate as "instrument of song." Every human being is an instrument of song. We use our bodies to express the language we call music. Every human being is a singer.

Giora Feidman with jazz musicians. Photo: I. Schiffler/Future Image

With Jazz Experience Live at the Elbjazz Festival 2015 in Hamburg

On today's klezmer scene, some take a traditional approach oriented on a particular culture. But you have reached out and combined klezmer with jazz and other idioms. Is this in the nature of klezmer, to be all-encompassing? Or is it legitimate to have a more purist style? Because you must assume that those people are playing from their souls too.

We are in a process. If you say that klezmer is connected to Judaism, that's incorrect, because every human being is an instrument of song. But if you want to associate it with Judiasm, in 2000 years of disaspora, Jewish people were everywhere on the planet, and the defining point of their culture was the Torah. But you cannot read the Torah. You must sing it.

At the same time, Jews everywhere absorbed the influence of the places they lived. My father grew up with gypsies, so we were of course tremendously influenced by their society. This teaching of klezmer gives us some freedom.

Music enriches our lives. But does it make us better people? I'm thinking of the West-Eastern Divan for example, made up of Israeli and Palestinian musicians, and the express purpose of this orchestra is to make people overcome internal boundaries and hatred. Yet, to cite another extreme, we know that many Nazis loved music too, and in fact, it happens to be the same music that I love. So is there a moral component of music? Or is it value-neutral?

Music is a tremendous glue that provides unity. If, as a Jew, I were not allowed to play "Ave Maria," what kind of world would that be? Human society needs spiritual nourishment.

I'm so convinced that in all of today's terrible conflicts, even those surrounding the country of Israel, the aggression has to do with the fact that people are cut off from their spiritual food. And today's religions do not give us this. You cannot live without spiritual food, and it is provided by any form of art.

Several decades ago, we had basically three or four genres of music: classical, jazz and pop covered most of it. But if you look at what people are listening to now, there are, 20, 30, 40 different genres, split into tiny categories, from urban contemporary to who knows what. People say, "This is my music," use it to identify with a group and even to exclude those who don't like that particular kind. So music doesn't just unify, sometimes it divides. Or do you view that differently?

Today, rock'n'roll is 50 or 60 years old, so it's classical music, having involved generations. But why is it so loud nowadays? This is not music! I went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago, and what the kids were singing there was absolute poison. The lyrics were awful too. That kind of material is propagated by television, and television in Israel is terrible. I asked a friend why, and he said it's because sponsors pitch their products to consumers between the ages of 15 and 21. If they like this music, they'll watch the program.

So now you have the result of a society that is basically business. We must be very careful not to abuse the need of the soul for spiritual nourishment.

Klarinettist Giora Feidman in the Stuttgart Theaterhaus. Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

There's enough room in klezmer music for everybody

Every time you play a symphony or sonata of Beethoven, it's one time. I'm not a CD. As far as I'm concerned, every performance is the first one in my life. It's not about a theme or a topic, because I don't know what the soul will say today. It won't be the same thing it said yesterday.

When I project my soul, nobody thinks about my technique or what I'm wearing. After a concert, I don't hear people saying, "Oh, what a sound!"

But to project the music, you must feel what the audience feels. I try, and I practice, to bring the sound of my innermost voice to this instrument that we call the clarinet. I can't express it any other way: the clarinet is the microphone of my soul.

Yes, I understand that people identify with a particular sound and a style. That's ok, I won't criticize that. But this is how I am. Period.

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