We sat down with Lorin Sklamberg and Polina Shepherd for a conversation about their recent collaboration – 150 Voices. Lorin is a member of the New York based Klezmatics, while Polina is based between Brighton and London, where she leads multiple choirs.
Highly recommended: Selected Yiddish folk songs from 150 Voices and a rare find by the way of a vocal quartet including Polina, part of our 21/11/2020 radio broadcast.
Ramya Bommareddy: Lorin and Polina, thank you very much for joining us.
I’d love to start with your thoughts on what music means to you, personally.
Lorin Sklamberg: Well, the family lore is that I sang before I could talk. My mom was singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you’ and I said ‘are…’- like perfectly in tune. That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth. I don’t know if it’s true, but music has been important to me since I was very, very young.
When I was five or six my mom was a single mom raising three kids. Broadcast radio for us in the States was much more important as a resource than it is now.. One of the things that she did was constantly play music at home and I became very adept at assimilating what I was hearing. I had various mechanical devices, so I would record stuff and play music, and I became an avid collector of vinyl when I was very small. I’m old enough to have seen the Beatles on television on The Ed Sullivan Show, for their debut on American television, and, you know, I bought ‘I want to hold your hand’, and ‘I saw her standing there’ in a 45.
So it’s always been, other than English, my second language in a way.
Ramya: I’m curious now, how did it feel, watching the Beatles like that?
Lorin: You know, I’d probably already heard them on the radio. Even in the car, my mom would have the radio on, always. In the early 60s, we were listening to Neil Sedaka, the four seasons and the singers of the day. It was a transitional period where we were getting out of the sentimentality and feel-good music of the post war era.
Of course, the Beatles came along – they were just very young, and exciting, and writing song after song after song. It was a very exciting time, hearing what was on the airwaves.
Polina Shepherd: Funny you mention the Beatles. I was 12 when the Soviet Union had opened up the borders and we started getting all these records from abroad. My first record was ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ on sale – I was so excited I put the amplifier out my window for the whole yard to hear. Understandably, the neighbours were quite pissed off.
Another big impression was studying Mozart’s 40th symphony when I was 10. Something happened and I realised how much music actually meant. I ended up with 17 years of academic training and music became my everything.
Ramya: Polina, where did this training take place?
Polina: At first it was a music school in a small Russian town of 700 people, then in Kazan- the capital city of Tatarstan. It was an Islamic Republic but it was quite secular back then, a melting pot of different cultures and ethnic groups. That’s where I got involved in Yiddish music.
Ramya: I’m enjoying the history 101 here! What’s the one thing an unfamiliar audience should know about Russian and Yiddish music?
Polina: Oh, it’s really difficult to talk about these humongous musical universes! It’s a music of several styles and rich history. There’s a choral tradition, a classical tradition, the church singing tradition, then there’s newer styles. There’s Russian rock going all the way through the 20th century, popular music called Estrada and modern music. So borderline, it’s universal music, but mostly in the Russian language. It’s a huge, huge, huge universe.
Ramya: That was an unfair question on my part…
Lorin: I actually appreciate interesting questions that aren’t the usual run of the mill. We have told some stories soo many times. But when asked interesting questions, you will get the same information, but maybe from a new perspective. And for us, we’ll be a little bit more engaged.
Ramya: Thank you.. I sincerely hope you still appreciate it when we finish this interview.
Lorin, what’s your take on that? What’s the one thing you’d share about Yiddish music?
Lorin: Jewish Music is also diverse in its way. Jews ended up living all over the world, and the music has changed and developed differently in different places. The sort of general thing that people say is that everything comes from the synagogue or from religious music. But in reality there’s all this migration: Jews started to assimilate wherever they are, having to be adaptive.
For instance, Yiddish music develops a long way with the English language, which is what my Jewish heritage comes from. It can be traced to one German town but they had originally come from the Middle East. So as for the music, it’s music that came in that direction, and spread out to Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Russia, acquiring surrounding musical elements. Unfortunately, the war chopped off the continuation and development of this music.
Some Jews were lucky enough to have immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, at the beginning of the 20th century, like my family. Consequently, that connection with the synagogue or the Yiddish language was sort of broken. The initial music stopped being actively developed in the 1950s after the war. People started turning to the newly established Israel for their cultural sustenance – Israeli popular music, folk dance and such.
This thread was picked back up again in the 70s and 80s when people started to ask, ‘what was our music?’. Firstly it was this wedding music – how it was probably played, what the instrumentation was, and its development. You can also hear fragments of this in early 20th century recordings, and by the handful of commercial recordings that were made.
Secondly, it was the song repertoire. Folk songs, which were mostly in Yiddish, were mostly the creation of women. Because Yiddish was a language that was spoken at home. In the States, this song repertoire was preserved between the late 1940s and the early 70s by several people who had the intuition to preserve the music of the songs. It was only in the ultra orthodox / Hasidic community that this music has continued to be performed and developed in relation to the spoken language. We who study this music can see how these musical strands are related. It’s very much an inspiration for me as a singer. Not just in getting ideas for composing in this tradition, but also the ways in which one uses their voice.
Polina: I just noticed both cultures having this big interruption in the 20th century. The Second World War, certainly for the Yiddish speaking Jews. The 1917 revolution, for Russia. In the 1920s, right after the revolution, Russian folklore had been changed, tidied up and carefully monitored.. rural folklore was seen as secondary. It’s now experiencing a revival in modern Russia. That’s interesting, I never thought of this commonality between the two cultures.
Lorin: True. Although I’m mostly familiar with the Ashkenazi musical tradition, there’s whole other traditions of the Jews who either ended up going through Spain or remained in the Middle East. In fact, in those traditions, most musicians were Jews – wedding music in Iraq, for example. When you hear the Bukharan Jews, the Jews from Uzbekistan, their wedding repertoire is the repertoire of Uzbekistan, not particularly Jewish.
When the Iraqi Jewish community decided to leave when their survival was jeopardised, the Iraqi Government wouldn’t allow the musicians to leave Iraq until they had trained other musicians to do what they did because there wasn’t anyone else who was playing except for Jews.
Well, it’s interesting how the music in these different places where Jews ended up is so different and related to whatever was around?
Ramya: I sometimes find it unfortunate when ‘so and so music’ is used as an exhaustive identifier for both the culture and music. I want to keep talking about this, because there’s so much engaging history. But let’s move on for the sake of the audience.
A big part of our interests here extend to musical diversity. What does that mean to you really? When I say musical diversity what personal thoughts are coming up for you?
Lorin: In the case of my band, The Klezmatics, each member is conversant in different musical languages. When we first started in the late 80s, our first major concert in Berlin came with a deal to record our first album at the Radio Free Berlin (Sender Frei Berlin).
The producer said, ‘what you do is very nice, but there’s this whole explosion of music from all over the world’. It was around the advent of the compact disc, which made music dissemination much easier and less expensive.
And he said, you should really think about playing with your entire personality, and think forward rather than backward. So we took that to heart. We had people in the band who were conversant in the language of jazz, or salsa, or in Irish music, or, in my case music of the Balkans. The idea is to sort of try and flavour what we were doing with our entire musical personalities. We started experimenting with different kinds of ideas, and it really did free us up to experiment.
I would call that musical diversity. We all came to this music in our band as professionals in our 30s. We had some time to develop our musical knowledge, and it made it much easier to collaborate and find common ground with people from different musical traditions.
Polina: Well, initially all we had was classical, Soviet and a bit of Tatar music. Suddenly, in the 80s and 90s, we started getting all these different music into Russia. It was mind bending, because I didn’t didn’t know that other musical traditions existed!
I remember writing my first arrangement for a Klezmer band. The band leader turned to me and said, ‘Why do you arrange it in a classical way, with all these lines, polyphony and 6ths and 3rds..? There should be more heterophony!’. As a classically trained musician, that’s when I realised there is actually some diversity in music. When I started studying English music specifically, I really heard these different sounds, different kinds of tuning, and very different approaches to aesthetic values.
When you get outside of your box, musically, you not only start appreciating your own music more, you deepen the context of its development
Ramya: Speaking of the compact disc… there is an increasingly important digital paradigm at play over the past two decades. What do you note about this digitalisation for music?
Lorin: Our musical ideas aren’t so affected by that, I still sit at a piano or play the accordion. Certainly with the pandemic, it’s affected our ability to play together and it’s inspired some things out of necessity. For instance, some of my band mates still can’t follow that Instagram videos ideally shouldn’t be longer than a minute. So it’s sort of influenced me to do these little tiny, one minute expressions, like a musical distillation.
The best thing that came out of that was that I repurposed a Yiddish song from the early 20th century about women now having the right to vote. The original song, like many of the era, was supportive and sarcastic at once. So I changed it to be about how everyone has to get out and vote in Yiddish, using this acapella app to make a four part vocal arrangement.
My second job is as the sound archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, a library and archive of Jewish cultural artefacts. Here, digitalisation enabled me to communicate with the world, what I believe is important to share.
Lastly, it’s affected the possibility of interacting with other musicians. It inspires one to be creative – collaborating with musicians that you might not have done otherwise.
Polina: I mean I’ve performed with a mix of tapes and live musicians but I definitely prefer spontaneous and acoustic music that is not digitally processed. I’m slightly traditional that way. I like interacting with the audience and I often get them to sing with me.
Ramya: I could tell from your YouTube videos!
Polina: I’m all about communities and singing together, even with my solos. I think within recording, it changed the expectation of what one should sound like. Because you can really tidy up digitally – chop up, twist, manipulate – make it as perfect as it can be. When it comes to live performance, it becomes much less forgiving because the standards are so impossible. People don’t sing like this! People are not perfect. But that’s the expectation we now have with recorded music.
There’s benefits to it too, obviously. Our recent recording about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, had 3 singers and 3 instrumentalists. But because of the overdubs and all these possibilities, we have a five piece brass band and five voices instead of three. We have all these digitally twisted things and they sound great.
All these possibilities, like Lorin recording four versions of himself for the accapella, it’s amazing. But I do think it disperses our attention and over simplifies our audio space. With all these opportunities of connecting, we are missing greater depth in connection and musicality.
Ramya: I wonder if there’s more saturation in terms of music availability as well… What are your thoughts, at least as concerns music appreciation?
Lorin: I find that I am much less inclined to seek out new stuff because everything now is much more complicated. On the one hand, there’s something like Spotify, where the world of music is available to you and it’ll make a playlist based on your tastes. But the problem is, that while you’re doing that, you’re probably shopping in the store or running in the park. When I was younger, there was less available and listening was a much more active phenomenon.
You would wait for Joni Mitchell’s next album to come out – she always did her own artwork, and all the lyrics. You would sit with your friend in your room and listen to this stuff. She was a good example of someone who continued to develop and change, and it was very exciting to follow that.
Now, it’s like a glut of stuff. That sort of discovery and appreciation is just not the same, you know?
It makes me sound like an old fart, but here we are. Something has to be really, really exceptional in some way for me to really latch on to it and want to explore more of it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just sort of the way it is for me these days.
Polina: Well, it certainly makes our lives more difficult, in terms of choice and what to listen to. There’s so much over production, it’s difficult to see what’s actually what. Everyone says they’re the best band in the world and there’s so much, I just give up.
When there were only five kinds of cheese, I knew what to buy. Now when I see supermarkets with 200 kinds, I just go home without any. I just can’t cope with that volume of information. We can only embrace so much with our mind and we keep stretching ourselves and stretching ourselves. I do think we are trading depth for breadth in musicality.
I still listen to friends whose opinion I value. It always comes back to community and personal trust. By the way, Lorin, what should I listen to when I go running next?
Lorin: Funnily enough, individuality of performers seems to be eroded too. It’s much more common now to listen to a classical singer and notice that there’s not one identifying factor about the way they sing. It used to be that part of a singer’s makeup was the way that their voice related to pitch, so that you would hear a singer and know them.
For instance, Janet Baker has a very pronounced classical, mezzo soprano. But aside from her other gifts as a singer, she had a very specific relation to pitch. If you were to track her singing now, a digital device would be constantly tuning her voice into the centre of the pitch, because she had a certain way of pitching. It’s not that she sang out of tune, just that it was a quirk of the way she sang.
Firstly, it made her instantly identifiable, so I want to hear what she has to say musically. Secondly, it was an interpretive device that was part of her vocal makeup. A lot of that has been sort of trained out or manipulated out of what we hear now. Which is not a good thing…
When I look at my recordings of the past 30 or 35 years, like me and Polina’s recent recording with all these choirs during the pandemic- for the most part there’s nothing in the way of tuning. I’ve been given the opportunity, for whatever reason, to develop my singing in a natural way. I listen to myself now, and I think my tuning is pretty good without relying on some sort of artificial thing. I’m pretty grateful and proud of that.
This used to be true of a lot of people who developed as artists over their career. And, I mean, I remember someone asked Johnny Mathis ‘Well, what do you think of your singing now?’ when he was a vocal statesman and Johnny said, ‘Well, I sing a lot more in tune than I used to’. I mean… you know, I identify with that. (laughs) I mean, you know, I never talked about this stuff.
Did you know that in live singing today, the singer voice is being corrected in real time? The tuning is being corrected, as they sing! I mean, that’s crazy. That’s really crazy. I don’t know how. I never tried it but I don’t know how you could sing like that – you’re singing one sound and a different sound is coming out the speaker. You hear yourself back in a twisted way – how do you control how you sing?
We’re getting singers who are emulating the extreme uses of tuning applications like melodyne, where it’s notched and you hear it ‘ugk-ah-agh’. That’s how they’re teaching themselves to sing in relation to what they’re hearing. It’s really funny, how this technology is influencing how people perform.
Polina: I hope that people will realise the importance of live music and connection. Certainly during the pandemic, I’m receiving lots of that feedback. So I hope it’ll bring some realisation of how important it is to have something happening right here in front of your eyes. Also because of this digitalisation, I think one can no longer be ‘just’ a musician. I have to be an agent, a promoter and run my own business. This little business of making music.
That was very, very interesting.
Tell us about 150 Voices – isn’t this a massive choir project?
Polina: If I died of Covid, I’d die happy knowing I released this CD. It brought everything together- Russian choirs, my compositions, the singing with Lorin (which I love), and these different musical traditions. There’s my four choirs here in London, Lorin Sklamberg in New York and the Boston choir in the USA – we are talking about communities and how music brings them together. So that’s all in that one little thing here.
It’s been a personal lesson for me, how so many people invested their time, music and heart into this. Given the pandemic and being deprived of the ability to sing with other people, this has been the one positive thing that kept me going.
Lorin: I’m very happy that we have that. We explored this other aspect of our music and I really appreciate being able to participate in this and sing with others. And the breadth of the material- a third of songs are songs that people need to hear. It’s really, really important to me.
Polina: My choir members are not necessarily Russian or Jewish, they are simply drawn to the music. Only five are native Russian speakers – it’s fantastic they make an effort to sing in that difficult language!
Lorin: Yeah, when you’re in a sacred space like a church or a studio, and they all sing to create this powerful, enveloping sound…. we were managing to make music together! The recording captures the experience of what we did.
The idea is that it will lead to us being able to share this experience with other choirs all over the world. We hope this comes to fruition when we’re able to travel and interact with people in person again.
Ramya: It very much sounds like a global project, we look forward to hearing more.
Some resources to explore Russian and Yiddish music: