Yiddish Summer Weimar 2012 included a dance ball with Yiddish and baroque dances, and an instrumental workshop including baroque music alongside klezmer. I was invited to direct the orchestra in Playford dances, and to teach baroque improvisation.
The theme was the “Bridges of Ashkenazi”: that is, the migration of the Western European Jews (Ashkenazi 1) to Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi 2), and possible influences of earlier music on the Jewish repertory.
When I learnt that the ‘baroque’ orchestra would consist of no fewer than 5 accordions and 5 clarinets, I was not quite sure how it would work, but after a few days of rehearsing together with the dancers we quickly learnt what rhythmic impulses the dancers needed. There was indeed a similarity between Yiddish and baroque dances; for example, it seems that Yiddish Sher derived from the contredanse. Yiddish dances retained steps of baroque dances, although in a simplified form and with a distinctive style.
Learning to dance Yiddish dance, I discovered the same rhythmic vitality, sense of lift, and phrasing as in baroque music, and asked, might Yiddish dance help in understanding baroque music? How would changes in the music affect the dance, and vice versa? So when I discovered that Deborah Strauss, a teacher in the dance workshop, was also one of the teachers in the advanced instrumental workshop, and a violinist, we decided to work together and combine Yiddish dance and baroque music.
I worked on the Italian Rant, using diminutions to create solos; on a musette on a drone with question and answer phrases and canons; and on Greensleeves, listening to how the text influences the way we play. Deborah worked separately on Yiddish repertoire, with another ensemble. Then we put both ensembles together, and created a form moving seamlessly between baroque and Yiddish music.
In the end, we did not concentrate specifically on the relationship between dance and improvisation. But, we did discover a largely shared musical language, even though we were coming from two apparently completely different backgrounds. We talked about vibrato as an ornament, a ‘speaking’ manner of playing, relationship between musical and physical gestures, rhythmic freedom and articulation. And although we used these tools in our own way, their function within the phrase was the same. We even played the Italian Rant and a Yiddish Skotshne simultaneously with the two ensembles, and discovered they fitted together perfectly.
During the instrumental workshop, everything was rehearsed without music. The participants all had such well-developed aural skills- a higher level of musicianship, in fact, than many conservatory students. This might be partly because many were experienced folk musicians, used to working in an aural tradition, and also because many had participated in previous courses of Yiddish Summer which always stress the importance of learning by ear and playing without music. Music is not about notes, or even the interpretation of notes. It is movement.