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Interview with Ilene Stahl

Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey

October 6, 2022

Klezmer Old, New, and Newer: An Interview with Ilene Stahl

On the shifts, rifts, and undulations of America’s modern klezmer music scene

Ilene Stahl is no newcomer to the American klezmer music scene. Having played clarinet in the beloved Yiddish folk style since the 80s, she is well-versed in the ins, outs, and in-betweens of contemporary klezmer and its relatives. But this wasn’t always the case.

Stahl grew up in a suburb outside of Hartford, Connecticut, studying classical clarinet on the only track available at her high school. She describes her upbringing as very secular: no religious education, not Bat Mitzvah, mostly non-Jewish friends peppered with the occasional non-observant Jewish one. Though klezmer music was a part of her roots, Stahl explains, “it was not in the air of my family culture.”

It wasn’t until her time as a student at the Five Colleges in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she had enrolled in order to study under a particular dynasty of distinguished clarinetists, that Stahl was first exposed to klezmer music.

On her very first day of a class called “Music Of The Whole Earth,” a favorite at Amherst College, her teacher played a few tracks of the first LPs from the klezmer revival, still pretty new for the time. “It blew the hinges off my mind,” Stahl recalls excitedly. “This is ostensibly the music of my ancestors, but I had never heard it until I went to college!” From that moment forward, Stahl grabbed her clarinet and dove headfirst into her prolific career as a klezmer clarinetist.

While focusing her studies at Hampshire College on klezmer clarinet technique, Stahl auditioned for the Klezmer Conservatory Band. She earned the clarinet chair, and thus managed to receive her Bachelor’s degree while on tour with the group. Later, Stahl teamed up with the late Evan Harlan to form the funky and eclectic group known as Klezperanto, which infuses the traditional Yiddish style with the same bold energy and creativity that shone through in our interview with Stahl. And, as we suspected, she proved to be quite the expert on the American klezmer music scene throughout recent years. Below are some of the most interesting portions of our conversation.

BFNJM: Your band, Klezperanto, has been around for almost 25 years now, and you have been playing in The Klezmer Conservatory Band since 1987. How have you seen the modern American klezmer music scene change over the years?

Ilene Stahl: That is such a great question! I love that question. Well, when I first was introduced to klezmer music, the klezmer revival in the United States was really new. The bands that were at the helm were on the larger side, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band was the largest. It really had the instrumentation of a dance hall big band, with a full horn section and everything, so it had the ability to play more lush arrangements than some of the other bands in the revival. But soon after these larger ensembles took off, the economy in the United States started to decline, and there was a new interest in an earlier European klezmer sound, where musicians were playing not brass instruments so much as string instruments, like the tsimbl, the mandolin, the fiddle. It was a smaller, more intimate sound, an older, pre-jazz-age sound, the sound of klezmer musicians before they came to the United States. The result of these two facts meant that music festivals were booking these smaller bands particularly because they had fewer people to move around, and they didn’t need as much infrastructure to perform. So, the big bands like Klezmer Conservatory Band were sort of “out” in the klezmer circuit and these other, smaller bands were “in.”

Then, after that, there were all these waves of bands like Klezperanto and Naftule’s Dream, where people like me who were steeped in traditional klezmer music from the klezmer revival started to explore other music that they liked through a klezmer lens and in a klezmer-informed way. A lot of great music came out of that period, and some not-so-great music also came out of that period, because, you know, when you do things experimentally, some things are gonna turn out great and some aren’t. But most of it was wonderful.

Now, after about one or two generations, there are all of these young people going back to very traditional Yiddishkeit and Yiddish music, certainly in terms of serious engagement with the music in places like KlezKanada, and Yiddish Summer Weimar, and Yiddish New York. When I was coming up in this world, the music was so new, and there was literature and there was theater on the edges of that, but for me and the people with whom I was playing, the music was the access point. But, now, a lot of the people who are interested in Yiddishkeit are interested in the music as well as the literature, and they’re studying Yiddish, and they’re interested in creating new works of theater, and there’s a lot of energy about the social movements that had came with Yiddishkeit. So, I think that the future of klezmer music, and of Yiddishkeit in general, is in really good hands, and it’s so wonderful to see all of this engagement with it, excitement about it, all this expertise, and how many great musicians and artists are coming up through this world.

BFNJM: Klezmer music is a very historical genre, yet, as you said, its future is bright, because it is a modern genre as well. How do you navigate the historical-yet-modern, Ashkenazi-yet-global nature of your musicianship? And what does it mean to you to preserve the integrity of klezmer while also bringing non-klezmer concepts into the picture?

Ilene Stahl: Oh, that’s also a really good question! So, I came into the klezmer music scene near the start of the klezmer revival: I learned about this music in 1984. And, for a lot of those years, when bands were trying to render what they were hearing on these old 78s, there was a fair amount of discussion and argument and anxiety about presenting this music faithfully and authentically. There was a lot of controversy about stuff like, “Should we play Hava Nagila? That’s not a klezmer song, and we’re a klezmer band, but we’re playing this wedding and that’s the song everyone is going to get up and dance to.” And it wouldn’t be because people didn’t like klezmer music, but because oftentimes to get people up and dancing, you have to play something familiar, you know, like Hava Nagila. So, there was a lot of discussion about that and there were, as you can imagine, a lot of really strong opinions. But all of this came from a genuine desire to preserve the music.

Then, in the next wave (of which Klezpeanto was a part), there were plenty of people who didn’t like musicians taking these traditional melodies and going somewhere else with them. After all, a lot of work had been done and a lot of scholarship had been invested in changing the fact that this music was unknown to people as it was completely unknown to me despite being an American Jewish person. Plus, klezmer had begun to take a bit of a backseat to Israeli music after the founding of the State of Israel, and there were a lot of sad memories associated with Eastern Europe that no one wanted to revisit. Klezmer was a part of that for a generation. So, klezmer music also had to be revived and rediscovered because it had been subsumed by much more modern, Israeli music.

And, as I said before, after the initial preservationist movement, people had started doing new things with klezmer. Most of the time people had a sincere, informed engagement with the music before going to riff on it, but there were some people who were like, “I’m going to get in on this klezmer thing and I’m going to say that I play klezmer music because I played this tune, but I’m not interested in anything else about the music.” And plenty of people had anxiety about that because there were these crappy uninformed versions of music that people said were “new klezmer” or “real klezmer” and it just wasn’t good. But, you know, nobody owns any kind of music, so that was just part of the process.

Now that klezmer music has been out there for decades and people know what it is, I think that we have really come around to a different understanding of it. Because people are more familiar, there are wonderful cross-cultural musical groups, and they are more informed, exciting, and deeply rooted as well as deeply cross-pollinated in ways that are even more meaningful and exciting than before. There has also been a mainstreaming of a certain kind of musicological scholarship that has expanded beyond people who are college academics to musicians in the field. I mean, there have always been musicians and ethnomusicologists outside of academia getting grants to explore music, but now there are wonderful foundations devoted to cataloging this music and really committed to inviting the whole community into being part of its preservation instead of restricting access to scholars with certain credentials. People are like, “You love this music? Fantastic! On this day, we’re all going to have a group activity where we listen to this tune and transcribe it.” Or, “Here is this new transcribed song, and you like klezmer – great! We’re all going to play it together tomorrow.”

I am very optimistic and happy about the preservation of klezmer music, and I think it’s really fantastic that the number of people internationally who are stakeholders in this music is ever-expanding. It is so exciting to see how far and how deep engagement with this music, and scholarship about this music, and love of this music goes, and the high quality of musicians who are playing this music all over the globe.

BFNJM: If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from you and your music, what would it be?

Ilene Stahl: Music is like food. I’m a person who likes to cook; I am interested in seasonings and cooking processes and techniques and how food is made, but, really, at the end of the day, food should taste delicious. What everyone who cooks food and cares about food wants is to have somebody taste their food and find it delicious – instantly delicious! Whether that person trained at a fancy cooking school and understands all the elaborate techniques that went into it and can say, “Oh, that’s an interesting use of basil,” or not, it should just be instantaneously delicious. This is what I want klezmer – Klezperanto – to be. For the people who really know about this music and they have an idea of, “Oh, I recognize that tune,” and “Oh, what a funny way to turn that thing around,” and, “Oh, they mashed this up with that and that’s really cool,” I am so happy that they recognize that I use this seasoning in this nontraditional way. But, mostly, I just want people to receive it as delicious, to say, “Oh, that was great. Where can I taste more?”

See Ilene Stahl's Klezperanto at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on April 26, 2023: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ilene-stahls-klezperanto-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-431252155807?aff=blog.