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Interview with Abigale Reisman

Nat Seelen

February 23, 2022

From the moment I started planning this series, I knew that Abigale Reisman was going to be one of our featured artists. It was only a question of which month would work best with her busy (even during the pandemic!) schedule. I’ve been performing with Abigale since she moved to Boston ten years ago for graduate school at New England Conservatory and got roped into rehearsal with Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band. She played her first concert with us in October 2011. Almost exactly one year later, we were onstage together at the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam and the rest, as they say, is history.

I sat down with Abigale for a few minutes to chat about her upcoming performance, where her music comes from, and more. Here’s a bit of that interview, lightly edited for grammar, clarity, and me not sounding like an idiot when asking questions.

Nat: Okay, so let's start from the very beginning, with a little bit about you. I know you well, but some of our audience members have literally never heard you before, so could you just tell us a little bit about who you are, how you got your start in music, and your path from being a young person to music to being a professional musician who's writing your own material, touring, teaching, and doing all the amazing things that you do?

Abigale: So from the very beginning, starting from the very beginning… I'm from Atlanta, Georgia. And I started playing violin when I was a month shy of five, and was just doing the violin path for my childhood and high school years and playing classical music, but alongside that I did go to Jewish Day School for eight years, and synagogue, so I was immersed in Jewish melodies.

Strangely, I didn't know anything about klezmer, which I think is a shame. For some reason I didn't really know about Ashkenazi musical culture, even though I played the instrument that is sometimes considered the soul of that music.

But fortunately, when I was in undergrad at Manhattan School of Music, in New York, I came across klezmer music. And it just so happened that some of the leading klezmer musicians lived in New York. I went to Klez Kamp one of the last years it was still happening and I met Deborah Strauss, who is just an incredible player, a moving musician, and just so knowledgeable on klezmer tradition and how to play violin with it. And she kind of took me under her wing; I learned so much so quickly from her.

Yeah, so I started playing klezmer when I was 19, or 20, I think. I was also fortunate that I was at Manhattan School of Music and the head of the chamber program encouraged me to start their first klezmer band there, which I did, and then it just so happened that David Krakauer was on faculty. So he was our coach.

Klezmer was an opening for me into creative music. I was on that classical music path, practicing all of the orchestral pieces and practicing violin pieces and concertos and things like that, and really honing that skill. But there was always a part of me that wanted more from music. I wanted to be writing music. I wanted to be arranging music. I wanted to be improvising music. And I just felt like the path that I was on was not whole in that way, it was missing a huge chunk of musicality and creativity.

Not to say that people that play classical music aren't creative; interpretation is an extremely creative process and I really respect what classical musicians do. But for me, I wanted to write music and to improvise. I fell in love with klezmer when I heard it, and I was like, this is a place where I can improvise and be creative and write down things and arrange for a band and so I started doing that pretty quickly.

I found out about New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation program, and decided that that was the only thing I wanted to do for my Masters, so I took a year off and tried to learn how to be an improviser and a composer and, you know, pretend my way into it.

Fortunately, I succeeded in pretending, and got to go to NEC and the CI program. It was the only place I wanted to go and I showed up there and all of a sudden they're like, “okay so you're an improviser, a composer, arranger, all those things,” I was like, “actually I'm not. But, okay, I guess I have to be.” It was very painful.

Right before I went to NEC and moved to Boston, I went to KlezKanada for the first time, and I still have this memory. It was one of the first nights, and we were in that building, the one with air conditioning. I think that there was a show or something, maybe a talent show. And then afterwards, there was this group of musicians hanging out. And at this point I barely knew any klezmer tunes, maybe fifteen or something.

And all of a sudden I heard one of the tunes that I knew, it was “Firn Di Mechutonim,” which is from the Ultimate Klezmer, which was the first book that I got - the first book that a lot of people get - and now nobody plays those tunes because I think they were overplayed and you're not cool if you play them, but they're good tunes!

Anyways, I heard this group of people playing and I was like “oh my god, and I know this”, and I took my violin out and started playing. And there's this other violinist and we were playing together and I was like, “oh, this actually is really nice.” I like playing with this violinist, we kind of have a similar musical sensibility, and this is before we ever spoke to each other, we played the song, and that violinist was Jon Cannon.

So, Jon Cannon was the one that pulled me into Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band. Literally pulled me into it. I had no choice. No, I did. I was excited to do it but we started talking, after we played music, and he found out that I was moving to Boston in less than a month and he said, “you have to join my band.”

…I don't know if he said that, I think he didn't want to scare me. I think he just said “you should meet some of the people that I play with.” I'm pretty sure that's what it was.

I was really grateful for Ezekiel’s Wheels. To come to the CI program and then having Ezekiel’s Wheels as a practical place to work on things that I was learning, and a supportive place with really nice people, that was really great. It was the beginning of seeing what my new life as a fuller musician could be.

That’s a very long answer to your question.

Nat: So when you went to NEC, you started playing a lot of different types of music, too. And I feel like everyone I know who's gone to the CI programm by the way, comes in as a virtuoso at some instrument and ends up as a singer-songwriter. Maybe not exactly, everyone comes out singing. It's a really neat thing.

Abigale: Yeah, singing, not everybody but there's such an emphasis on singing in that program. The idea is that when you're singing, you're accessing your musicality from a very pure place. Your instrument is tied up with so many things: your fingers are involved, and your fingers do things that maybe your inner heart or inner song wasn't thinking of doing. So there's this strong emphasis on connecting your voice with your playing.

So there's a lot of singing, which I was happy about because I've always loved singing. Yeah, I don't think a lot of singer songwriters, that's not fair, but it’s astonishing how many people I know who've gone through the program and come in really good at their instrument and come out, “now I will be singing in this concert and reading my own material.” It's a really cool thing.

Nat: Yeah. And that’s a good segue, because what you're doing now for this project is very specific and really different from what you did in undergrad. It probably wouldn't have happened without this path that you've taken since then. Can you talk a bit about it?

Abigale: Yeah, I'm so wildly different from that path for sure. Yeah, I'm not really a classical violinist anymore. I think it's a hobby. Now, I practice the Sonatas and Partitas, the Bach solo pieces all the time for fun, which is really fun. It's a place where I get inspiration.

One of the klezmer pieces that I wrote, that I will perform at this concert, was inspired by Bach. There's some Bach that's really similar to klezmer.

What I've noticed after becoming an improviser and playing classical music is that coming from classical music and then becoming an improviser after that, is that you can start accessing that improviser mind while you're playing written music, and sometimes I start accessing it, and accidentally play other things that I hear, instead of what's written on the page, and probably 90% of the time it turns into klezmer. Like, this just turned into a klezmer cadence and that is not what Bach wrote but, you know, sounds good. I'm sure he certainly went to synagogues and heard Jewish music. I'm not sure the Jewish music sounded then the way that it does now, but there were some similarities.

So this concert: very different from what I was trained for in my undergrad, very similar to what I was trained for in my master's program.

When I was at NEC, I would say more of what I studied was jazz, free improvisation, and composition. Klezmer was kind of peripheral, actually, while I was there. I definitely worked on it with Hankus, but we all worked on a lot of jazz, just to access that improvisational musician self.

I was really into free improvisation - I still am - and experimental music and avant garde, and so at this point I’m trying to find a way to bring those parts of my musicianship together. This concert is in some ways that.

For a long time, I've just wanted to have the time and space to sit down and say: what is it that I want to write? What is it that I want to create, what type of Jewish music really comes from my heart? This concert is just that, it’s what I've been thinking about. It's what I've been studying. I'm writing songs for it. I'm writing violin pieces that I've learned about in my research on klezmer music. I'm writing a piece in a form of klezmer music that apparently was very popular, but we have no recordings of it, and I'm, you know, just like going off of folklore, to write it.

I realized that at this concert, I will have been playing klezmer for 13 years. So it's kind of my bat mitzvah of being a klezmer musician!

Nat: Oh my gosh. Can we please mark it as Abigale’s klezmer bat mitzvah?

Abigale: Yeah I mean I thought about that. I feel like I'm finally ready to say something honestly, as a musician. It takes me a long time for things to just swirl around my head and my heart. I feel like I'm finally speaking in the style and singing in it from a place of sincerity, because I understand the language. I've been alive in it for 13 years, and according to Jewish tradition, you can think for yourself and make a covenant at that point.

And you know I've been studying Yiddish now for four years. So that's a huge part, as well, of what I'm working with and I'm connecting singing Yiddish with speaking Yiddish through my violin and singing it through my violin as well. It's all those things.

Everything on the concert is going to be something that I've written, and most of it is going to be stuff I've written this year, almost all of it. Some of it hasn't been written yet, but I know what it is.

Nat: Let's actually go a little bit deeper into that same topic, creating a lot of new music for this. When you come out and you perform a new song, whether it's a song or a new instrumental piece, where did that music come from? How did it get from nothing to something performance ready for you?

Abigale: I often work through issues, and thoughts and things that are bothering me through music. Oftentimes I start with an idea. And it gives me a catharsis, to put it into music.

So with the violin piece I was talking about: it's called a gedanken, which means a meditation in Yiddish, kind of. Supposedly, it was a narrative and programmatic in some ways. So I'm really working with ideas and concepts and turning them into music. That's often what I like to work with. One of my big goals when I'm writing music is to create a very strong vibe of something. Could be anything. Especially in songs.

Two of the songs that I'm writing are using the poetry of Kadya Molodowsky, and if you've read any of her poetry, the vibe that she creates is so strong. You read it and you're transported into such an emotional place. And that's what I'm trying to capture with the music. I really like working with her poetry. I've written a lot of stuff with herpoetry that no one will ever hear, because it's all mostly bad, but I do have two songs that I think are going to make it with her poetry. I'm really excited about it because I've known about her ever since I started playing klezmer. Deborah Strauss introduced me to her poetry, and I was super inspired by it.

And I'm really happy I learned Yiddish, because I can read it in Yiddish! In the book that I have for poetry, each poem has an English translation and the Yiddish. So you have to know Yiddish, to be able to read it in Yiddish. It's not transliterated, it's in Yiddish, with the Yiddish characters.

So there's those songs.

I'm also working with climate change. That’s really important to me, so I'm writing a song around that, and probably those concepts are coming up in multiple places in the concert.

And there’s the klezmer tunes. Those ended up just being, you know, I'll get a tune in my head, or I'll just be playing. I'm constantly learning the old violin recordings that we have, because that's just the treasure trove of how to play klezmer violin. Basically, to get all of the inflections and the phrasing, the ornaments and things. And sometimes after a very concentrated period of that, I'll just start improvising and tunes will start coming out.

So yeah, I think that covers all the pieces that I'm writing and how they come to fruition.

Nat: When you have a piece that has words, are you always using lyrics from somewhere else, like setting a poem, or are you writing your own now, too?

Abigale: Yeah, for the first time I'm writing my own lyrics. Not to my own music, though. Switching it up. I’m taking a pretty famous Yiddish song and changing the words for something else. I have been working pretty hard on that. It is very difficult with my elementary Yiddish, but you know, I am in the advanced intermediate class! And it's becoming easier and easier to think in and to say what I want to say in Yiddish. Fortunately, I had the help of this creative Yiddish meetup online, and they're pretty fluent in Yiddish, and they helped me out with some stuff and that was helpful.

So yeah, I am writing the words to a song, and I have an idea for another song that I want to write. And it might happen, like actually writing the melody and the words.

So I have a lot of work to do between now and then!

Nat: I'm actually really curious. How do you think learning Yiddish has affected the way that you both write new music in this style but also just interpret music and the style, or has


Abigale: I think it has, I think in a very subtle way, but that was honestly the real reason I wanted to learn Yiddish, was just to be able to speak it on my violin. I think it has affected my phrasing, because I listened to it so much. I definitely listened more than I speak it, because I'm in classes, and I go to meetups and things, and there's just a cadence of the language that I'm hearing. And I feel like learning the language has elucidated a lot of the gestures in klezmer that I've heard.

I have had a lot of “aha!” moments, you know, especially with these old violin tapes on the phrasing, and I really think it is because I've learned Yiddish. Because I sing in Yiddish pretty much every single day, sit down at the piano and go through the Mlotek books. It's very cathartic. And the fact that I know Yiddish is much more helpful when I sing them. I know where the emphasis is I just love speaking it. I love singing it. So it's in. Yeah, the answer is yes. Yes, learning Yiddish has made me a better klezmer musician, for sure.

Nat: So I'm going to change tack a little bit away from the music itself and towards the context. Because this has been a year and a half, a very weird time, especially as a performing musician. What gets you excited today about being a musician, and why are you excited to take this new music that you're writing and put it out into the world right now?

Abigale: First of all, I should say that it's hard sometimes to see my role as a citizen of this world, as a musician. Especially going through the pandemic, you're seeing all these people suffering. And you're not on the front lines, a nurse, or making the vaccine, or things like that. But it also made me think about it a lot. I read this quote that was helpful, from Ai Wei Wei.

I think he was talking about art as what makes us really human. As artists, we are in some ways the keepers of history and culture, these very important things. I take it very seriously.

Being a klezmer musician, I’m trying to learn everything about this music and where it comes from and the people that were creating it. Then I’m taking it with whatever sensibilities I have, and hopefully a lot of people have that can be universal, and I'm developing it. Especially since this tradition was so close to not being well known. Not that it's that well known now, but it's much more vibrant and alive than it was in the 60s.

So I take very seriously how important it is to continue to play the music and respect it and understand it.

As a musician and a performer, I hope to give people joy, to make people think, to share a collective experience and hopefully move people.

I think about this a lot, and it's not totally organized in my mind. It's very circular. I want to say that I'm really grateful for the opportunity to create new music for this concert. Because sometimes it's just hard to do it on your own, because you're like, what's the point? And then you have to find what the point is. And sometimes, if you don't have another outside thing pushing you to create, then you just get stuck in the questions and don’t really make anything out of it.

There's another quote that I really like. Anne Lamott talks about it in her book, Bird by Bird. It's so good. It's so free. It's really good for people like me. I guess we all have crippling self doubt sometimes when creating things - like what am I doing? But she says something about it, what is it… You could spend your whole life like you're on stepping stones, and you're so focused and concentrating and looking at your feet, making sure you're getting to the next stone, and never fall. Or you could run across the stones happily, looking around and taking everything in, and fall a couple times. And the people who do it that second way, they're going to have a lot more fun.

So, I don't need to always create something that is the most meaningful, the most well put together, just has the perfect whatever, even though that's what I want. That's why I'm really grateful for things like this concert and some of the grants that I've gotten that just pushed me to put something out in that moment and say, okay, it's there. And that's just me this year. Maybe in five years I'll look back and say okay, that was me then that wasn't the ultimate summation of my life's work, just an illustration of who I am as an artist.

No given moment has to be your life's work. Which is really silly because, you know, I'm still young. I don't need to do my ultimate life's work in my 30s.

Nat: Well, speaking of advice on things to read, or things to listen to, is there anything that you've been listening to lately that's just going to blow my mind, that I can't believe I've never heard of it?

Abigale: I'm really into Ray LaMontagne’s latest album. It's so cozy. It's just really good songwriting. I can't remember what it's called because I never know the titles of anything - I’m a klezmer player. That's why I play klezmer, because there's no real names. If there are, they don't really matter!

Yeah, so his album has been really great.

I've also gone back to listening to Brave Old World, I've been talking to Alan (Bern), you know, I worked with Alan this past summer. And that just inspired me because I listened to so much Brave Old World when I first started playing klezmer. So I've been going back to that, too, and just being like, oh my god, this is so good!

What else am I listening to…

I mean I really enjoyed the Bubbe Awards. The Yiddish songs. There was really cool stuff there, like that Nirvana of Yiddish song. It was like what happens if Nirvana and Yiddish song writing came together. I think it was like Maria Ka. I think she's Polish. I was like, oh my god, this is so cool. So I was very interested in that.

What else, what else…

I mean, Michael Winograd. His latest album, it's just ridiculous. I listen to that for inspiration sometimes. And the album that Dan Kahn just put out, too. That is very cathartic in a lot of ways. I think it's an older album. I talked to him about it, and I think that he it a while ago but just recently put it out. There are some songs in there that I relate to very strongly, and I appreciate that. I appreciate music that a lot of people can relate to and I definitely felt that with some of his songs. The Fourth Unternational.

Sufjan Stevens’ album just came out, that's really nice, too. Yeah.

Nat: Okay, one, one more question for you, because this is the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music. You've been in Boston for a number of years now, you've come from a city that is much larger to another city that's even larger still that you've, you've made your home here in the Boston area and now up in Gloucester. What's your favorite thing about the Boston area and what's kept you here?

Abigale: I like the community of people. It's a little smaller. New York was just overwhelming. So it feels more tight knit in that way. But it's also really special that we have all these schools, not just music schools but other schools, so there's this constant flow of ideas happening, and thinking that's happening and going on, and creativity.

I think I like how it's a manageable size for me to handle but jam packed with a lot of good arts things and opportunities. I'm really grateful to have been part of some communities that really support the arts here in Boston, to have gotten some grants that really support us, like Passim and the Boston Foundation's Live Arts Boston. It's like Boston is trying to keep up with the arts of New York, and, and somehow in doing that, it feels more supportive than New York did.

And that is nice. It's really nice. I mean the fact that yeah you're able to create the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music, that there's support here for that, and that there's a community of people that are really excited by it.

I was playing for a community of retired Jewish immigrants in Boston, and I was singing Yiddish songs for them. They're all in their 80s. I was doing this over the pandemic online and I was saying songs for them and they were really happy and excited and then one of them was like, “Well, I love the songs you're singing, but when are you going to write your own?” Oh, that's so nice. Maybe it was just that one lady, but it was nice to hear that there is this need and want for new Jewish music here in Boston. And now I live in Gloucester, which is amazing, too!

First, join Abigale on Wednesday, March 9th at 7pm for her concert at the Boston Synagogue.


Then, buy her albums at https://ewklezmer.bandcamp.com and sign up for her mailing list at https://abigalereisman.com.