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December 2015
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Hear New Music Composed of Old World Sounds



Classical composers and musicians have always been fascinated by folk tunes. Violinist Lara St. John’s new album, Shiksa, is a collaboration with jazz pianist Matt Herskowitz, featuring 14 folk melodies that she fell in love with during her travels. Nine of the songs – of Jewish, Roma and folk origins – have been completely reimagined by contemporary composers. The others have been arranged and improvised upon by St. John and Herskowitz.

All week on the New Releases, you can hear excerpts from Shiksa. Below, you can learn about this interesting project and hear some of the recordings that inspired St. John.

What was your inspiration for this album?

I was 11 the first time I went to Hungary, and that place oozes music out of every window and pore. I felt this is where I really belong. After that, I went back and just listened and collected. At that time, I was buying records and cassettes. And then I ended up actually living in the Soviet Union for a year. I was 17 and at that point went to the Caucuses, the former Yugoslavia and all over the place just listening and learning and loving that whole area for the music that it gives.

About five years ago I thought to myself I’ve got these tens of thousands of tunes in my collection and in my head and I know all these young and terrific composers. Why don’t I put these together and make the music new for the concert stage – these old tunes? So that’s basically what happened.

Nine different composers set for me what really resonated for them. I basically would give each composer between four and eight tunes and say pick two. I would give them cross-cultural tunes but they generally ended up going with the backgrounds that they had. (Hear one of the recordings that inspired St. John below)


Can you describe the role of the violin in these kinds of traditional music?

Violinistically, the great traditions come from Central Europe. Hungarian bands and Romanian bands all have violin as their leading instrument. For them, it’s such a great tradition of violin playing, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so fascinated by it. The other ones, for example Armenia or Russia, they tend to be more song-oriented – voice accompanied by balalaika or oud. And so I learned a lot just listening to singers from those areas.

Another violin tradition is the klezmer tradition and I continue to take ‘klessons’ to this day. I call them ‘klessons’ – klezmer lessons – from Alicia Svigals, who is a fabulous klezmer violinist. She taught me those styles that I hadn’t really known before. Actually, there is no vibrato in klezmer violin. It’s all half-step trills or bends, or the biggest thing that is different from the other styles is this thing called krechz – a sob on the end of a note. So I learned all those techniques from her.

It’s very, very different from an Armenian song, which will be full of vibrato and very romantic. And Arabic violin tends to sort of fall. I think it’s the same idea as the klezmer sob, but for them it’s kind of a fall after notes which I think is their way of expressing musically a sob. A lot of this music is very sad.

Can you describe some of the Jewish musical traditions you’ve explored a bit more?

From the Jewish tradition, we actually have four very different tunes. The klezmer tune would have been from, we’re not quite sure where, Poland, Germany, a couple of centuries ago, so that’s Ashkenazic. And the Ladino songs which David Ludwig set are Sephardic – they come from Istanbul from the Judeo-Spanish tradition. And of course Hava Nagila is Israeli, and Misirlou, nobody really knows where that came from. It’s the Jewish Diaspora. So within that tradition, there’s a lot of difference right there. There’s a difference in how I play the Sephardic stuff rather than the klezmer.

Can you explain a bit more about your arrangements?

They’re not exactly arrangements because they’re not really written down. For example, for one of them, I just took an Oltenian tune that I learned off a scratchy old 78 and then just added a whole bunch of typical Romanian violin twists, turns, twittles and bird sounds and all this stuff. (Click below to hear the Oltenian tune.)


So that doesn’t actually have a piano part – just play in D then in E, G, E and D. There’s no music for that one. Some of the others I just kind of learned. One of them I learned from an old dude in a bar – a little Serbian kolo which has a little swing to it. That was in Belgrade. It’s not like I arranged them, but nobody really did.

  • Ann Raven

    This music is wonderful – lovely and exciting! Thank you for playing this on WFMT, Lisa Flynn!