Interview with Alan Bern, founder of The Other Europeans project

Alan Bern
Photo by Catherine Claes
The Other Europeans project set out to try to reconstruct and then re-inhabit bygone repertoires and styles of klezmer and lautar music in Europe (www.other-europeans-band.eu & www.othermusic.eu). There is also an online film about the band. The Other Europeans project was partly financed by a grant from the European Union. It was conceived and directed by Dr. Alan Bern, and has won awards from the German Music Council and the European Commission.

The musicians in the band include Kalman Balogh, cimbalom; Alan Bern, piano; Dan Blacksberg, trombone; Paul Brody, cornet; Marin Bunea, violin; Christian Dawid, clarinet; Matt Darriau, kaval (Bulgarian end-blown flute), saxophone; Csaba Novak, bass; Petar Ralchev, accordion; Stas Rayko, violin; Adrian Receanu, clarinet; Mark Rubin, tuba; Guy Schalom, drums; and Adam Stinga, trumpet.

Founder Alan Bern, a native of Bloomington, Indiana, has been based in Berlin since 1987. He joins us in this exclusive interview where he explains how he put together this unusual band, their musical vision, and his plans to create a year-round interdisciplinary academy.

How did you form the group, The Other Europeans?

I find that Yiddish and Roma music often get thrown together in a kind of pan-Balkan melting pot. But as my colleague, Dr. Walter Zev Feldman, points out, there are only two places in Europe where Yiddish and Roma musician communities really interacted closely. One of these was pre-World War II Bessarabia (in today’s Republic of Moldova), where klezmorim and lautari worked and lived in close community. I wanted to try to understand how their shared music sounded and to create a new, contemporary music based on this real history. But there seem to be no surviving recordings of the music from that place and time. So I put together a band of 14 world-class experts on Yiddish and Lautar music from 8 countries to try to find clues in the music we already know and in the memories we have from still older generations. Together, we became a group of explorers, researchers and musicians, all together.

What is your message to your audiences?

The Other Europeans
I hope that the beauty of this music touches the listener’s heart, body and mind. If audiences explore the background of this project, then I hope they will appreciate how we brought together ethnography, musicology, history and our own musicianship to create a beautiful music with much integrity.

Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?

There are so many! In classical music, of course the great composers as well as the great interpreters such as Rubinstein, Gould, Heifetz and that generation. In jazz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In pop, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix. Countless musicians from traditions all around the world. In Yiddish music, Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Abe Schwartz, and many others.

What can we expect to hear at your upcoming performance?

We have no fixed arrangements, believe it or not! So every performance is new and different. Our instruments are all quite well known in European music, maybe the cimbalom is the least well known.

How do you blend different musical influences and genres?

We tried very hard in this project to understand the history of our musical traditions very deeply, and we had many challenging discussions about it. That forms an important shared background. But when we play, we rely on our trust and respect of each other’s musicianship.

How would you describe your musical journey?

I started life as a classical musician, then came the 1960s and I felt how music could be part of social change. That fascinated me, and I also discovered that every music challenges me to grow in unexpected ways. So I fell in love with pop, jazz, many traditional musics, even country and western, and found my own voice in all of them. Yiddish music was one of these, and it has taken on a special importance to me. But I considered myself a citizen of the world, not of any country, and my interest in music reflects that, I think.

What is your vision of what music can do in this day and age?

Music can be directly political, but we have seen over and over how this can lead to abuse on a huge scale. I prefer to view music as “meta-political” – that means, for example, it can help us learn to love differences rather than to be afraid of them. People who love differences will obviously act in different ways politically than people who are afraid of them.

What have been your previous highlights in playing across Europe?

Actually, I love playing in small clubs just as much as at large festivals. Wherever the audience really connects with the music, that’s a highlight!

Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?

Yes. I created and direct a summer institute for the intercultural study of Yiddish music in Weimar, Germany and a winter institute for the study of improvisation. These are the building blocks for the coming Other Music Academy. Yiddish Summer is in its 12th year, with about 300 students and teachers from more than 20 countries around the world, and what makes it special is not only how seriously we explore Yiddish music, but also the educational philosophy, which includes team teaching and a holistic way of learning focused on learning by ear and with the body rather than primarily through written music or texts.

What music influences did your family have on you?

My mother was my first piano teacher when I was five, and my father was a violinist as a young man and had a beautiful voice and a beautiful soul. Whenever I played, it was always my goal to try to make him cry. If I succeeded, I knew that I had played well!

What new album or video are you working on now?

My largest project right now is to create a year-round interdisciplinary academy in Weimar, Germany, that will be a think tank, an educational institution and a community/cultural center all in one. The working name is the Other Music Academy, but here the focus is on “other” and the meaning of “music” is the old Greek sense of the Muses, not just music as sound.

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One thought on “Interview with Alan Bern, founder of The Other Europeans project”

  1. Got to know so much about the music and the interview very interesting! Thanks Mr.Madanmohan Rao!

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