Black Ox Orkestar is a Montreal based quartet formed in 1999.They released their record Ver Tanzt at the end of April through Constellation. The band features: Thierry Amar (contrabass - also Silver Mount Zion/Godspeed You! Black Emperor/Molasses) - Jessica Moss (Violin, bass clarinet - Silver Mount Zion/Frankie Sparo) Gabe Levine (clarinet, guitar- Sackville), Scott Levine Gilmore (vocals, mandolin, cymbalon, drums, etc.) Word asked Scott Levine Gilmore some questions about their style of music and the ideas they wish to express through this release.
SCOTT - We chose to play klezmer because of our personal experiences with Jewish music. Thanks to the revival of klezmer and Jewish folk music that began in the 1970's, the traditional music of European Jews (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) has become an important means for Jews to connect with their identity outside of the normative approaches of religious orthodoxy and identification with Israel.
Music has been a central aspect to secular and religious Jewish culture in the Diaspora. I wouldn't say that our goal was specifically to reconnect with Jewishness or anything like that. It's more that, having been exposed to this musical culture, we recognised the beauty in it and its potential for exploration. Much of Jewish music bridges the divide between folk song and art song.
There is a complexity to the music that demands an initiation into its modes of interpretation and improvisation. It is this complexity that allows you to play these old songs without sounding quaint, to breath fresh ideas into it. We certainly aren't the only band to recognise this. The Klezmatics have been modernising klezmer and Yiddish song for years. While they tend to draw more on theatrical music and rock elements than we do, their innovation definitely opened the doors for younger musicians. John Zorn has made a great contribution to contemporary Jewish music. His work with Masada and the Tzadik label have in many ways established the field of alternative Jewish music.
I would say that we desire to break out of the Tsaddik mould a little. I don't mean to knock what the New York scene has been doing for the past decade, but there does seem to be a certain sound that you find across the Tsaddik roster. I would hate to see that sound define the new boundaries of contemporary Jewish music.
In Black Ox Orkestar, we have tried to interweave new and old elements without falling victim to eclecticism and fusion. If we can remain true to the intensity of the old music, to its hypnotic weirdness, and use its musical elements as a vocabulary than I think it is possible to create seamless new sounds with it.
SCOTT - Absolutely. I think Constellation is a great example of how far you can get by really sticking to your principles. Not only are they consistent in their aesthetic standards, but they hold true to their ideals in their business practice as a socially conscious record label. In a time where many independent record labels seem to be just talent-farms for the majors, they have stubbornly insisted on remaining truly independent. I think that their interest in putting our record out is partly an effort to show that indie economics needn't apply only to 'rock' music. It might be a bit of a gamble on all our parts, but since the outset, we as a band have always wanted to be making independent Jewish music. It's just being honest to our values and the values we see in the music. Klezmer has already been co-opted in a mainstream, corporate manner. It makes sense that radical Jewish music should make its way out into the world through radical means.
SCOTT - Forgive me for waxing theoretical here, but I should confess that both of these projects have been pretty intellectualised. Gabe and I have certainly seen elements of our band and our theatre influence each other. In terms of performance, we have always sought means to break down or play with the boundaries of performer and audience. Puppetry is a form of stage magic that allows the performer to create a world for the audience and invite them inside to laugh at it, poke at it, walk away from it, or critique it. We always refer back to Bertholt Brecht's concept of alienation, whereby the audience sees both the character on stage and the mechanisms of performance. It creates the illusion and reveals its artifice at the same time. If you do it right, it allows you to be really thought-provoking without being too didactic. You disarm the audience with your cute little puppets, and then let the puppets speak the uneasy truth about power and history. People always seem much more willing to listen to a puppet make bold political statements than some earnest, breathless activist. In a way, we try to do the same with our music. Jewish music has its campy, irreverent elements. To a lot of people it sounds like circus music. Like the clowns, we can speak the sad truth through silliness. So, the bounce and energy of klezmer can be very disarming. And then there is the matter of singing in Yiddish, a language that is practically dead. I feel like I am doing a masked performance sometimes when I sing in Yiddish. There is a certain ambiguity to it; people must ask themselves, "Who is this person, this young punk, singing like an 80 year-old ghost from Poland?". It all leads back to Brecht's idea of alienation. People can see the multiple layers of identity that go into the performance, and somehow that critical position opens up a place for thoughtfulness. That's really what I want for people to get out of our music; I want them to feel charmed by it, but also to ask, "what's this all about anyway?". Yep, charmed & puzzled.
SCOTT - It's very important for me to sing in Yiddish for two reasons. Firstly, Yiddish is the language in which this great, beautiful body of folk music was sung. If we want that music to survive its history of genocide and disappearance, somebody's gotta sing it. Secondly, I think Yiddish is amazing because it's such a mishmash of different languages. It's an embodiment of cross-borders culture of diaspora Jewry. Although I love Hebrew, the prospect of it (or English) becoming the mono-language of Jewish culture strikes me as being unfaithful to the far-flung, polyglot nature of Jewish history. As far as multiculturalism goes, I think it is already an undeniable feature of the 21st century. There's no fighting it. Nationalists can tighten their borders and try to homogenise their education systems till the cows come home, but the circulation of populations has been a growing feature of global capitalism since the 19th century. There's no turning back, so we should celebrate it and figure out what kind of interesting stuff it opens up to us.
Regarding anti-globalisation, I would make of Yiddish a humble but sturdy cudgel with which to strike fear into the hearts of plundering multinational corporations and their well-catered forums.
SCOTT - Sharon's latest policies are atrocities, just like his old policies. This man seems to be incapable of seeing the light. I don't think any positive change can occur until the Israelis get him out of office and break the stranglehold of the religious right-wing. The recent IDF campaign in the Rafah refugee camp seems to be a bloody and crude attempt to win back the support of the settlers and zealots after Sharon's referendum on a Gaza pullout blew up in his face. I would say that many, if not most, Israelis realise that they are spinning out of control. But no one really has any idea what to do or what can be done. The uncertainty and panic in Israel is fertile soil for strong-arm solutions. There are many shameful precedents of the right-wing wresting control in times of crisis through the unequivocal language of violence: Fascist Spain, Nixon-era America, & hell, post-9/11 America. There is an internal struggle in Israeli civil society and I believe that this struggle has to be played out. My earnest hope is that this can happen peacefully. I certainly don't have any brilliant proposals to bring peace to the middle east. Clearly, I believe that occupation in the name of ethnic nationalism must end. And of course, the bombings have to stop. The brutal antagonism that has led to generations of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli militarism must be somehow pacified and reconciled. If I knew just how, I'd be devoting the rest of my life to carrying it out.
SCOTT - I chose to write music for this poem for a reason that few will be able to appreciate. I encountered Feffer's poem in a university course on Soviet-Yiddish literature and I was immediately drawn to it. The quality of his Yiddish is amazing. The poem is perfectly minimalist. Its verses are tightly coiled in repetition and rearrangement. It describes the sight of women frozen to death in Russian train stations during the civil war and famine of the 1920's. The writer merely observes a horror that defies meaning. He doesn't try to eulogise. In this poem, I always found something that lays out the future for Yiddish poetry. It's modernism is a glimmer of future developments that weren't fated to come. There's a line in the poem, "they waited for trains that didn't come". Well, the train for Yiddish never came.
SCOTT - There are a number of Kabbalistic images in the album cover. It's not that we are Jewish mystics or anything. There are aspects of Kabbalah that I find interesting and parts that strike me as beautiful. A sense of exile and alienation run through Kabbalic mysticism. The image on the front of our record is a representation of the ten layers of separation between the divine and the profane world. I find this image of a labyrinth as a sort of representation of isolation and loneliness that we have to struggle to find our way out of. The drawing on the back cover is a bit of an esoteric collage. The building is the alt-neu shul in Prague which, according to legend, was where the body of the Golem was put to rest. The Golem is like a Jewish Frankenstein, created by a Rabbi from clay to defend the ghetto from persecution. Without a soul and without the ability to discern right from wrong, the violence he is charged with overpowers him and he becomes a threat to all around. This has always struck me as being somewhat analogous to the creation of the state of Israel. And so, the helicopter in the drawing is an Israeli chopper. I guess I wanted to suggest the Golem idea and just put in contrast the realities of old-world and contemporary Jewish life.
SCOTT - I don't think we had any particular characters in mind, though I think we've been possessed at times by the spirits of Emma Goldman, Karl & Groucho Marx, Moyshe Oysher, Meyer Lansky, & some Ziegfried Follies girls. I had a dream once that I was taken over by the dybbuk of Sigmund Freud, but it was probably just my own guilty conscience.
SCOTT - We have begun writing and researching new material for a follow-up album. We will be recording in August. We don't have any plans for a European tour, but it is definitely a possibility for spring 2005.
<<Ver Tanzt>> was released on Constellation on 29th April 2004
Review of albums and Download HERE