Klezmer music runs in Alicia Svigals’ blood. Onstage, her body sways and jerks in tune to the distinctive notes she draws from her violin.
“When I first heard it, I was thrilled by it because it was something that sounded very Jewish in a way that I felt went straight to my collective unconscious,” Svigals tells Xtra on the phone from her home in New York. “It belonged to me and I belonged to it.”
Svigals, an accomplished musician, teacher, essayist and composer, says she’s excited to enter new territory with her latest project, a violin and vocal performance of an original score she wrote to a 1918 silent film called The Yellow Ticket. Svigals will perform the score with Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner in Vancouver on Feb 17 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival.
The film, described as the first to explore anti-Semitism in Imperial Russia, touched on poignant themes for Svigals. “The film struck me as so odd in a way and so surprising,” she says.
In particular, Svigals says she was struck by what she learned about the status of women, Jews and prostitutes in late-19th-century Russia through the film.
“Jews were being kind of grouped with prostitutes — undesirables who would need a special yellow ticket to get around,” Svigals explains. “One of the interesting things was that prostitution was legal and regulated and needed protection. So sex workers 100 years ago in Russia had a more progressive environment to live in than we do here today.”
For Svigals, the film is also a glimpse into the world of her Eastern European ancestors. She calls the film an “eerie magical window” into the world of her great grandparents.
“It was amazing to see that world moving and breathing. I am so used to looking at old photos, the few black and white photos I do have of them,” she says. “And here were the very same group of people, but living and speaking. There was something quite incredible about it, like a time machine. I saw right away the musical potential.”
Women’s rights, anti-Semitism and homophobia are personal and political issues for Svigals, who married her partner of 22 years last year when gay marriage became legal in New York. She and her partner have two children, ages 11 and 17.
When asked about the relationship between her activism and her music, Svigals explains that she considers the two related but separate.
“Just being an out lesbian onstage and being a woman playing an instrument, I always hoped it would be good for little girls in the audience to see a woman playing an instrument,” she says. “And for gay people, young gay people, that there were publicly or openly gay musicians out there.”
“But as for the actual music itself — the notes — art operates much more obliquely,” she says. “And if it doesn’t, if it’s too direct, it becomes pedantic and propaganda-ish and . . . just two-dimensional, as art.”
Svigals defines klezmer as the traditional celebration music of East European Jewry. Since her first encounter with the genre as a teenaged violinist, Svigals performed with The Klezmatics from the mid-1980s to 2001, touring the United States and Europe. As a long-time fan of Led Zeppelin, she began slipping in power chords and bringing a tinge of rock to The Klezmatics’ performances.
In 1986, Svigals met the late Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper and her partner, pianist Marilyn Lerner. It was an encounter that coincided with Svigals’ interest in developing a more unique style of expressing herself through klezmer music.
“After The Klezmatics I realized that there was sort of further you could go with it,” she says. “That’s what I began to do with Marilyn, to take it in an art-music direction.”
Svigals formed an all-women Yiddish group, called Mikveh, with Cooper and four others in 1998. They debuted at Madison Square Garden as part of Eve Ensler’s V-Day celebrations, which included Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Calista Flockhart and other notable celebrities. Feminism, particularly from the members’ perspectives as Jewish women, strongly influenced Mikveh’s music.
“We would find or create songs about issues relevant to women because we found that was lacking in our repertoire in our other groups,” Svigals says. “We had a song about miscarriage; we had a song about spouse abuse. That one was an old Yiddish folk song, and the other one was one I composed with Adrienne’s daughter.”
Throughout the years, Svigals says, klezmer has become synonymous with her voice. “I forget sometimes that I share it with a lot of people,” she says, laughing. “But I want to share it with a lot of people. It’s just a language I speak in, kind of idiosyncratically.”
Here’s a trailer from The Yellow Ticket: