What made you choose to express yourself through the medium of klezmer, a musical tradition that had long been ostensibly codified, culturally-specific, and mostly forgotten? Anthony Coleman

What made you choose to express yourself through the medium of klezmer, a musical tradition that had long been ostensibly codified, culturally-specific, and mostly forgotten? Anthony Coleman

Anthony Coleman
Photo by Sara Valenzuela

I was in Vienna—at the Jewish Museum. I went to the bookstore. I was amazed by the variety, the selection. Virtually everything that could in any way be construed as Jewish was there: the folklorical, the analytical, the disenfranchised, the rootless cosmopolitans, the selfhaters, the abstract…all the Singers, all the Roths, Celan, Scholem, Benjamin, etc…and then the CDs: a few klezmer bands, a few cantorial items. Moments like this, I think being a musician/composer/conceptualist is pointless. Imagine New York’s Jewish Museum with one Chagall exhibit after another! I’ve seen the work of Boltanski, Segal, etc., there. I know they’ve shown Barnett Newman‘s work. But the world of music! It brings to mind what the Frankfurt School guys called vulgar mimesis.

Virtually no one wants to do the work of analyzing tropes—work that literary and visual art people do on a regular basis. The thing has to sound like what you expect the thing to sound like. And klezmer—its gestures, its scales, its instrumentation—are the basis for the signification of Jewishness in nearly all the New Jewish Music. And that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. It’s not that I haven’t used it—you can surely hear it in my piece “Jevrejski by Night” (Disco by Night [Avant]). But the challenge for me has always been to figure out a way to use the tropes and signifiers in a more abstract way—Barnett Newman, Morton Feldman. That’s my Radical Jewish Culture too! I’m looking for an image, an abstraction with traces of figuration—like DeKooning’s women, Beckett‘s haunted landscapes, the dates and places in Celan (read Derrida‘s essay on Celan, “Shibboleth”).

The two CDs of my group Selfhaters Orchestra (both on Tzadik) have often been called both my most radical and most personal music. I started from an idea of born-again Jewish pride: ‘Playing klezmer brings me in touch with my roots’ and all that—creating a relationship to East European music out of a wish, a hope, an idealized relationship to their personal histories. I asked myself ‘What about de-ethnicized Ethnic Pride? Pride in having been nowhere, with nothing … Suburbs, TV, Christmas trees, station wagons, Passover and ‘Never Again’… What is can be more important to thematize than what we wish would be….

Then, take a look at the instrumentation. Standard klezmer: clarinet, trombone, keyboard, drums—and look at the roles, look at the scales and the phrases—consider all of that in relation to Webern‘s ‘expressing a novel in a single sigh’, Beckett’s theatre, DeKooning’s women: abstractions where the ghostly traces of figuration remain as hints to a past, hints to a narrative, hints to a culture which no longer exists; read the quotes from Bellow and Beckett which I used (in the notes to the first CD)… and then there’s the joke about all the businessmen with goyishe names who all turn out to be Cohens—my father (obviously) was one of them…. the pain of de-ethnicized American Jewish mediocrity (my relatives) contrasted with knee-jerk, self-hating urban intellectual mainstreaming (my parents) led me on my various paths: Yugoslavia as a surrogate home (the subject of Disco by Night), Rad Jew, BJ (B’nai Jeshurun synagogue—I arranged and produced the CD With Every Breath that features the music they use in services), etc., but no transcendence for me—at least, not yet…

A less radical version of this desire to engage with Jewishness can be found on the three CDs of my piano trio Sephardic Tinge (all Tzadik). The name of the group riffs off Jelly Roll Morton‘s statement that you can’t have jazz without the Spanish Tinge—the tango and habanera rhythms—the hemiolas that are encountered on a regular basis in New Orleans Jazz. Even though I am 100 percent Ashkenaz, I set as a goal encountering another group of signifiers of Jewish music.

Having grown up in New York during one of the great periods of salsa, the music of Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón was a half-conscious backdrop to my formative years. I decided to go deeper into this music. At the same time, I was interested in the use that all the great jazz composers have made of the Spanish Tinge. And I investigated the classical Sephardic repertoire, looking for links and connections. The CDs are a mix between Sephardic traditional pieces—not “jazzed up”, but contextualized; my original pieces written with awareness of what I was trying to do linguistically, and some jazz/Latin covers from Monk, Morton, Herbie Nichols, and Kurt Weill.

And on it goes…I’ve played a bunch of Jewish music festivals; I’m going to play some more…I feel, however, that the most important thing about the influence of Jewish music on my music is this: many of us who came up in the late ’70s/early ’80s were fascinated by collage and references. Many of us who were came from Jewish backgrounds. And yet Jewish music was missing from our palette. So many things were there: Asian and African music, all forms of jazz, blues and folk music, “contemporary classical” music, etc. Hankus Netsky, who as performer and educator, is one of the most important figures in the klezmer revival, gave me cassettes of recordings he had collected. I took them on my first trip to Eastern Europe in 1981. It was very evocative to be riding the train through the Yugoslav countryside with klezmer blasting out of my headphones. A frisson…and there it is. Now it’s part of my vocabulary. It can never go away. A reconciliation of sorts. But honestly, I’m looking for something much closer to a palimpsest. Traces…traces of language, traces of experience. That’s what fascinates me.


Anthony Coleman is a composer-keyboardist who has performed and recorded throughout the world. His projects include the piano trio Sephardic Tinge, which has released three discs: Sephardic Tinge, Morenica, and Our Beautiful Garden Is Open (all Tzadik) and has performed at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival (with support from Arts International), North Sea Jazz Festival, Saalfelden Festival, and the Krakow and Vienna Jewish Culture Festivals. His Selfhaters Orchestra has issued two CDs: Selfhaters and The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same (both Tzadik). His compositions for other ensembles include Latvian Counter-Gambit for chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Crosstown Ensemble, Mise en Abime, commissioned by the Bang On A Can All-Stars/Jerome Foundation, Goodbye and Good Luck, commissioned by Neta Pulvermacher and Dancers/Meet The Composer, as well as commissions from Rel‰che, Aspen Woodwind Quintet, and David Krakauer/Concert Artists Guild. Coleman’s compositions can also be heard on the following CDs: Carol Emanuel’s Tops of Trees (Koch); Guy Klucevsek’s Manhattan Cascade (CRI); A Guide For The Perplexed (Knitting Factory Works); A Conspiracy of Dances (Einstein); and Polka From the Fringe (Wave/Eva).

Coleman’s other major projects have included by Night, a series of pieces based on experiences in the ex-Yugoslavia (Disco by Night [Avant]) and the duo Lobster and Friend, with saxophonist Roy Nathanson (The Coming Great Millennium, Lobster and Friend [both Knitting Factory Works] and I Could’ve Been A Drum [Tzadik]). He has also produced several recordings for other artists, including Marc Ribot, Basya Schecter and Pharoah’s Daughter, Romanian singer Sanda, as well as the acclaimed With Every Breath – the Music of Shabbat at BJ [Knitting Factory Works].

Anthony Coleman has received grants and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Djerassi Colony, the Civitella Ranieri Center, the Frei und Hansestadt Hamburg Kulturbehšrde and the Yellow Springs Arts Center. In the last year, Coleman has been the subject of a three-day festival, Abstract Adventures, in Brussels, Belgium. He presented a concert of his music as part of the Interpretations series at Merkin Concert Hall, NYC. He spent the spring semester of 2003 teaching theory and composition at Bennington College in Vermont and toured Europe with his new trio, Professionales, featuring Brad Jones and Roberto Rodriguez.

He has degrees in composition from the New England Conservatory of Music and the Yale School of Music and attended Mauricio Kagel’s seminar at Centre Acanthes in Aix-en-Provence, France.

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