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musical journey

I began studying classical violin in the Suzuki method at age four, busking for the first time at seven at Folklife Festival in Seattle, where I grew up. My musical repertoire expanded in my early teens, and by age fiftheen I began composing both for classical instruments and rock bands. I went on to study violin performance, and jazz and classical composition at Bard College, under the celebrated composers Joan Tower, Kyle Gann, George Tsontakis, and saxophonist Erica Lindsay. One of the biggest honors I received while in college was being chosen to compose an orchestral piece, entitled "The Feast", premiered by the American Symphony Orchestra, led by Leon Botstein.


After college, I continued performing and composing in New York, mostly for theater projects. My interest in songwriting in the American Folk idiom lead me to the Rural Academy Theater, becoming their composer in residence and band leader for a horse-drawn wagon puppet theater tour in North Carolina, and also composing original scores for two silent movies.

My search for ways to incorporate the folk music that was always in my head, understanding that the context of the music, its functionality, and connection to culture, was the force that drew me to it - and rather than try and extract the resources of these rich traditions like a musical colonist - I devoted my time studying the folklore and engaging in the living culture of the music, travelling across the globe with a fiddle and a backpack, learning from whoever I found along the way. This yearning for diverse, contextualized musical experiences, led me of course to Brooklyn, where one can travel the globe in one bus ride, and made it my home for almost a decade, until November 2015, when I moved to New Orleans. A couple years later the road called again and since 2018 I've been living in Berlin, where I play Yiddish music with the band Lebedik, Old Time American folk music with by trio Interstate Express, and Swing etc. with The Ragtime Nightmare.


I've visited with many folk musicians along this musical journey, amongst them the legendary American Old Time fiddlers Clyde Davenport and Joe Thompson, who was the last traditionally schooled African American fiddler. I was shy about playing American Folk music as a nice Jewish boy from Seattle, but the graciousness of these men and their acknowledging nod showed me there was a place for me in the music, and that I could adequately represent this culture elsewhere in America and abroad.

My journey with old time music continued after college with The Dust Busters, an old time string band I formed in Brooklyn. After a few self-published CD's, we released an album, "The Old Man Below" (or stream it here) on the Smithsonian Folkways label with John Cohen, contributed a song to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' film Inside Lewyn Davis, were part of the band along with Peter Stampfel, Jeffrey Lewis, Robin Remally, Kristin Andreassen, Baby Gramps and more on Have Moicy 2 - The Hoodoo Bash, a follow-up to the influential 1976 record, and performed onstage with such musical luminaries as Patti Smith, Art Crumb, Steve Earle and Alice Gerard (Hazel and Alice, Hiss Golden Messenger).  Having the titans of folk music John Cohen from The New Los City Ramblers and Peter Stampfel from The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders as mentors, was an immense educational experience, understanding how people with different approaches and sensibilities can find common ground and work together without compromising the integrity of their process.

In the Jewish music realm, I was largely self taught until I noticed a klezmer class in my university offerings with David Krakauer, and in the many years since have learned a ton in workshops and on the bandstand from some of the best like Michael Alpert, Mark Rubin, Lorin Sklamberg, Cookie Seigelstein, Deborah Strauss, Alan Bern and others. Now I am lucky to call all of these folks colleagues, having performed and recorded with most of them. I now teach at Yiddish music festivals around the world, especially Yididish Summer Weimar, the center of the German klezmer scene and by far the most important festival of its kind in Europe. 

Interview: why I play this music

The Dust Busters with John Cohen

live on KEXP radio

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