Kenyon College

Alicia Svigals (American, b. 1963)


Alicia Svigals, violinist, a founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, is the world’s foremost klezmer fiddler. Alicia almost singlehandedly revived the tradition of Klezmer fiddling, which had been on the brink of extinction until she released her debut CD Fidl in the 1990’s.  She is also a composer who works in many genres, and most recently was awarded the prestigious New Jewish Culture Network grant by the Foundation for Jewish Culture for her original score to the silent film The Yellow Ticket

 She’s taught and toured with violinist Itzhak Perlman, who recorded her compositions; and was awarded first prize at the Safed, Israel international klezmer festival.   She’s been featured  in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, at Madison Square Garden with Phoebe Snow, Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon,  and Brooke Shields.  She’s composed for the Kronos Quartet, and composer Osvaldo Golijov was commissioned to create a work for her and clarinetist David Krakauer, entitled Rocketekiya.  She’s been featured on NPR’s New Sounds Live and at festivals like Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend and the Winnipeg Folk Festival. 

In Svigals’ band the Klezmatics, she created contemporary Jewish music that combined the joyous and mystical Yiddish tradition with a postmodern aesthetic and a political world view. She toured with the band for seventeen years and recorded albums which reached the top ten of the Billboard and European World Music Charts. They appeared on Prairie Home Companion, Rosie O’Donnell’s Kids are Punny, Good Morning America, MTV News, Nickelodeon, the BBC, and NPR’s Weekend Edition, and composed music for theater, dance and film, including the score to Tony Kushner’s A Dybbuk and It’s an Undoing World, Judith Helfand’s P.O.V. documentary A Healthy Baby Girl, and for poets Allen Ginsburg and Israeli singer Chava Alberstein.  Alicia’s multi-media The Third Seder, featuring Tony Kushner and the Klezmatics, was presented by La Mama and by the Jewish Museum in New York.  Alicia and the Klezmatics recorded two albums for EMI with violinist Itzhak Perlman, which became the best-selling folk albums of all time. They performed with him on PBS’ Emmy-winning In the Fiddler’s House and on David Letterman, and appeared in concert at Radio City Music Hall, Tanglewood, and Wolf Trap. Ms. Svigals plays and writes music from heavy metal to traditional Greek and she’s recorded on projects from Hasidic singer Lipa Shmelzer ‘s recordings to the L-Word.    

Most recently, she wrote and recorded string quartet parts for singer/songwriter Diane Birch’s debut, Bible Belt, and appeared on Gary Lucas and Najma Akhtar’s Rishte.  She was featured on Herb Alpert’s recording of Belz, arranged by Marvin Hamlisch, on the 2008 CD A Jewish Songbook.   She’s appeared in stadium shows with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, recorded for John Cale’s (Velvet Underground) album Last Day On Earth, and the Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen, and improvised with Marc Ribot and John Zorn. She’s written soundtracks to Judith Helfand’s documentary The Uprising of 1934 with singer Peggy Seeger in an old-timey score, string quartets for singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman at Carnegie Hall, music for choreographer Risa Jaroslow at Lincoln Center and for author Thane Rosenbaum.  She’s featured on Avraham Fried’s Avinu Malkeynu, and has arranged Lubavitcher nigunim (wordless spirituals) for her klezmer quartet on her CD Vodkazak, produced by a Chabad rabbi.    

Alicia also writes and lectures on Jewish music and culture.


When I was commissioned to compose a new score for legendary silent movie star Pola Negri’s 1918 film The Yellow Ticket, I found myself confronted with several intriguing challenges.  This wonderful and strange work is a story about Jews, but made by and (mostly) for non-Jews.  I wished to be the missing Jewish artistic collaborator who might bridge that gap, by providing authentic sounds drawn straight from the Jewish soul.   More than that, I wanted to bridge that gap between our time and theirs which might deprive us of an emotional response to the story – a response which its original audience would surely have had.  The social mores depicted are a little mysterious now, and the pressures that drive the characters not as self-evident as they would have been when the film was made.  The narrative conventions of film which are a second language to us have not yet been formulated, and our cinematic technology renders the action a little faster than it should actually be.  So I felt my task was to help the viewer overcome these obstacles; to use the soundtrack to clarify the story’s structure, and through the music to arouse in the viewer the profound emotions depicted in the film.

I went about composing by watching each scene over and over until I was familiar with each gesture of the actors and every movement of the camera; in some scenes I could almost detect a steady tempo, and I used this as a basis for the melodies.  Out and about in the streets of New York, I could still see the film in the corner of my mind’s eye, and sounds to go with it would pop into my head. The score is influenced by klezmer and non-Jewish East European folk forms, Béla Bartók and Ernest Bloch, European café music, the cantorial tradition, and my own particular fiddling style.  I chose new-music improviser Marilyn Lerner as my partner and wrote specifically for her, knowing her ability to take a melody and twist it into surprising shapes and her deep connection to klezmer. I hope our audiences will enjoy the film as much as we have — its beautiful faces, the pathos of its story, and the magic of another place and time – and I hope they will get even a fraction of the pleasure from listening to the music as we have had making it. 

I would like to thank the Washington Jewish Music Festival at the DCJCC for initiating this project, and the Foundation for Jewish Culture for allowing me the opportunity to refine, develop, and tour the production. 

-Alicia Svigals