Story by Chris DuPre, UW Foundation
Two years ago, when Anna Volodarskaya received an email from Hillel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about a weeklong “Jewish music camp,” she thought it sounded intriguing.
“I was just starting to lead a Jewish a cappella group on campus, so I thought this would be the greatest experience ever,” she said. “I told all of my friends and I said, ‘Let’s go!’”
Volodarskaya couldn’t persuade her friends to give up their winter break, but she decided to go to KlezKamp with Professor Douglas Rosenberg, director of the Conney Project on Jewish Arts, and his son. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” she said. “I came back and I could not stop talking about it.”
KlezKamp, a weeklong festival of klezmer music and Yiddish culture in New York’s Catskill Mountains, was founded by Henry Sapoznik to kindle the flames of centuries-old traditions. Inspired by a growing relationship with Rosenberg, Sapoznik brought his KlezKamp Road Show to the UW-Madison campus for a very successful residency two years ago.
That visit helped sow the seeds for Sherry Mayrent and Carol Master, via the Corners Fund for Traditional Cultures, to establish the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture within the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. Sapoznik has been named the Mayrent Institute’s director.
Volodarskaya, who was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to the Milwaukee area with her family at age 11, was transported when she first entered the KlezKamp space.
“It’s hard to put the experience into words,” she said. “You walk in. It’s a hotel. Then you meet people who talk differently, with different accents, nuances to their way of speaking. It’s a whole culture. It’s hearing Yiddish everywhere. The way people interact is so different. You’re in a different world for a week.”
With that experience under her belt, Volodarskaya, a UW-Madison senior, was able to promote KlezKamp so well that three of her classmates decided to make the trip with her and Rosenberg for the 2010 edition. Those student trips were made possible by the William & Marjorie Coleman Fund for Undergraduate Learning Enhancement.
“The Colemans, who are from Brooklyn, New York, set up this fund for professors to do something with undergraduates on a one-to-one basis,” said Rosenberg, a professor of dance in the School of Education. “It’s a marvelous opportunity. I applied to take students to KlezKamp. All of these young people were musicians, and outside of Anna, they had no real idea what to expect. …
“Our students were helping people in classes with music,” he said. “They were very much involved with people in their groups, and they were highly thought of.”
One of those students was Miles Comiskey, a graduate of Waukesha West High School who just finished his senior year at UW-Madison. “I’m a music education major, so a big part of going for me was gathering all sorts of materials for teaching my students in the future,” he said. “This past summer, I went to Ghana for three weeks and studied West African dance and percussion and songs as well.
“When Anna came to me with this opportunity – I was in choir with Anna for a long time – I didn’t know what to expect at all.”
Comiskey’s main focus is voice, but he started playing classical violin at age 4. He later picked up guitar and mandolin and played in an Irish band. He brought a violin to KlezKamp and once there found himself drawn to the mandolin orchestra.
“I meant to listen to a bunch of klezmer music before I came, but it was really nice that I came to it fresh in a way,” he said. “It was great to be completely immersed in it. At first, I didn’t really know what I was listening to. But within the first 24 hours, when we were going to classes and talking about all the different forms and genres, you realize all these techniques that they have. …
“The coolest is the use of scales and the minor tonalities in Jewish music generally and especially in this music we were playing at KlezKamp,” he said. “There were sounds and modes that I hadn’t experienced before. Given all the music I’ve been exposed to, it’s hard to get myself completely out of my comfort zone. This was a really amazing break from that.”
Comiskey was taken with the way Yiddish music was woven through the fabric of its creators’ daily lives. “There was this one choral arrangement that was taken from work songs,” he said. “This swirling motion starts happening, and you can feel the factory going on around you, kind of like being worked to death. You can see where this music came from.”
Comiskey, who is not Jewish, said the KlezKamp environment was very welcoming. “Even though I wasn’t the ‘normal’ person coming to KlezKamp, people were excited I was there and to teach me about it,” he said.
For Volodarskaya, who sings in the UW-Madison Concert Choir, klezmer struck a familiar chord. “Growing up in a musical family in Russia, you hear it,” she said. “I didn’t know that it was called klezmer, that it came out of Eastern Europe in the 19th century, no. But you hear it and say to yourself, ‘That sounds familiar.’”
Volodarskaya’s mother is a pianist, and Anna started studying piano at age 4 and carried it through middle school, picking it up again in high school.
Her first year at KlezKamp, she found a piano and took part in entry level jam sessions. She took the Jewish Studies course “Yiddish Song and the Jewish Experience” after going to KlezKamp.
This time, she used a borrowed portable keyboard at KlezKamp. “There’s an ‘ear band’ and a reading band. I joined the ear band, which performs without any written music. The instructor will play a really complicated melody, and you’d think, ‘I’m never going to learn to play that.’ I was part of the rhythm section with piano, accordion, saxophone and percussion.
“We learn the melody, and the instructor says, ‘OK, rhythm section, make up the accompaniment.’ Depending on what kind of genre it was, that’s what we would go with.”
This style of learning mirrors how klezmer music was passed through the generations. “People learned as apprentices,” Volodarskaya said. “There were no official schools. People didn’t learn by writing music down, typically. Then, later on, when there was a renaissance, that’s when people went through these recordings, listening to them and transcribing them.
“These virtuoso musicians had other careers,” she said. “They worked during the day and played at parties, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs.
“Western musicians might hear something in a minor key, and think, ‘Oh, that’s sad.’ That’s not necessarily how it works with klezmer music. For me, it wasn’t all that foreign, because I knew where those motifs came from: Eastern European music, even Middle Eastern music with the scales,” she said. “For me, it was kind of a call to a distant past.”
The Madison Summer KlezKamp will be held July 10-14 at UW-Madison.