Tamar Barzels first book, New York Noise: Rad­i­cal Jew­ish Music and the Down­town Scene (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014, with a com­pan­ion web­site with audio/​video), explores the strange and com­pelling Jew­ish music that emerged from Manhattan’s down­town scene of the 1990s. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

A few nights ago, by some very cir­cuitous means I need not go into here, an e‑mail from some­one famous popped up in my Inbox. Well, maybe not famous. More like well-known. More to the point, even though I had nev­er met this per­son before, I had always looked to his/​her work as a source of great joy, solace, and pen­e­trat­ing­ly weird truths about life. As it turns out, this person’s fam­i­ly was known by some­one who I had recent­ly bumped into. When she found out that I was an admir­er of her famous fam­i­ly friend, one thing led to anoth­er and she sent him/​her (the famous per­son) a link to my book. So this bril­liant person’s e‑mail appears in my Inbox. And it says, tell her [i.e., me] that her book looks like a bril­liant work of life-chang­ing genius.” ok…I’m para­phras­ing here. She did say it looked inter­est­ing, though. And then: I loooove klezmer music.”

Now, this was inter­est­ing to me. The word klezmer” doesn’t appear any­where on my book cov­er, blurbs, or any­thing else that would have been avail­able at the time. But the pow­er of asso­ci­a­tion was strong enough that the title phrase, Rad­i­cal Jew­ish Music,” scanned, for this per­son, as klezmer. And that was iron­ic, because I once had a long chap­ter about klezmer in the book, which I ulti­mate­ly took out because it no longer seemed that time­ly. I had writ­ten the chap­ter in the first place because in the ear­ly 2000s, when I was doing the first research for the book, every time I told some­one what I was writ­ing about, in a no doubt very con­vo­lut­ed way, there would be a pause, and then a light would dawn on their faces and they would say, Oh, you mean klezmer?” And when I said no, every­one got con­fused again. Klezmer, which was every­where in those days at the height of the klezmer renais­sance, was easy to assim­i­late. Sec­u­lar Jew­ish music that wasn’t klezmer, that was in fact in some ways anti-klezmer, was hard­er. When the musi­cians I write about were first get­ting it into their heads to make what I have come to call Jew­ish­ly usable music,” they were invari­ably asked the same ques­tion. And the answer, again, was no. What they were doing, in fact, was inves­ti­gat­ing how to do new Jew­ish music with­out klezmer.

Some oth­er musi­cians, though, felt a bit hemmed in by the assump­tion that if they were going to do Jew­ish music, it would have to be klezmer. They’re exper­i­men­tal­ists, and they’re icon­o­clasts. They want­ed to make some weird new Jew­ish music, and they want­ed to do it in their own down­town­ish way. (Check out Shel­ley Hirsch’s O Lit­tle Town of East New York, John Zorn’s Masa­da Live in Jerusalem, and Antho­ny Coleman’s The Abysmal Rich­ness of the Infi­nite Prox­im­i­ty of the Same.) Ulti­mate­ly, I came to under­stand that they want­ed their music to do some cul­tur­al and emo­tion­al work that they felt klezmer couldn’t do. As Cole­man wrote in the lin­er notes to one of his record­ings with the band Sephardic Tinge (a ref­er­ence to Fer­di­nand Jel­ly Roll” Morton’s famous phrase about jazz’s Latin tinge”), Poor klezmer! A music which most of us nev­er heard until the mid- to late-70s has to stand for a com­plete­ly hybrid and frag­ment­ed cul­ture — New York Jew­ish Cul­ture.” What did they come up with in its place…? That’s real­ly what the book is about. 

Still, I’m fram­ing the e‑mail.

Tamar Barzel is an eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist and lec­tur­er at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty whose research address­es the inter­face between cre­ative iden­ti­ty, cul­tur­al her­itage, and adven­ture­some sounds. She is cur­rent­ly immersed in field­work on the cre­ative impro­vi­sa­tion scene in Mex­i­co City.

Relat­ed Content:

Tamar Barzel is an eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist and lec­tur­er at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty whose research focus­es on exper­i­men­tal music, with an empha­sis on late twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry jazz and the Jew­ish avant-garde.