Alicia Svigals: Uncourageously Obscure

S02 E07

ALICIA SVIGALS:
UNCOURAGEOUSLY OBSCURE

Violinist Alicia Svigals talks about the erotics of dishwashing.

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Alicia Svigals is violinist, composer, and co-founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics. She has taught and toured with violinist Itzhak Perlman and has composed for the Kronos Quartet, has appeared in stadium shows with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, recorded for John Cale’s album Last Day On Earth, and the Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen. Her debut album Fidl was instrumentation in reviving the tradition of klezmer fiddling, and in 2018 she released the album Bergovski Suite with jazz pianist Uli Geissendoerfer. Recently she has been commissioned to compose scores for silent films, including The Yellow Ticket and Das Alte Gesetz. More info at https://aliciasvigals.com.

ALICIA SVIGALS:  I have, over the years, you know, since we got married in 2011, done that thing that I was doing before with “partner” and “my significant” – uncourageously obscured the fact that I’m a lesbian and…

NEIL GOLDBERG:  Uncourageously obscure could be the title of my autobiography.

NEIL:  Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg and this is SHE’S A TALKER. This is the first episode of season two, and we’ll be back with new episodes every Friday. Today I’ll be talking with violinist Alicia Svigals. If this is your first time listening, here’s the premise of the podcast:  I’m a visual artist, and for the past million or so years, I’ve been jotting down thoughts, observations, and reflections, often about things that might otherwise get overlooked or go unnoticed. I write them on index cards, and I’ve got thousands of them. I originally wrote the cards just for me, or maybe to use in future art projects, but now I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers, and beyond. These days, the cards often start as recordings I make into my phone here and there over the course of the day. Each episode I start with some recent ones. Here they are:

NEIL:  The particular Grim Reaper-gloom of a rolly bag coming up behind you.

NEIL:  Sleeping naked, but wearing a mouth guard.

NEIL:  People in New York get so jovial when they see you carrying a pizza box.

NEIL:  I am so excited to have as my guest, my dear friend, Alicia Svigals. Alicia is a world-class violinist who specializes in klezmer. If you’re not familiar with klezmer, here’s Alicia playing at the River To River Festival…

[Klezmer music plays]…

Klezmer was originally a type of Eastern European Jewish music that then came to the United States and became influenced by jazz. Alicia was one of the founders of the Klezmatics who won a Grammy. She’s played with all kinds of fancy people like Itzhak Perlman, John Cale of the Velvet Underground, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, which was just a brunch where we listened to Led Zeppelin, which turns out to be a great combination. Here’s our conversation.

NEIL:  Alicia Svigals. Thank you so much for being in SHE’S A TALKER. We went to college together. We’ve known each other for more than 30 years, but, um, I do like to ask everyone, I’m about to sit down next to you on a plane. Hey, what do you do?

ALICIA:  I’m a violinist and a composer. Uh, I specialize in a kind of traditional East European Jewish music called klezmer music, which, you know, in the past people would be like, “Oh, what?” And now they’re like, “Oh yeah, of course I know that.”

NEIL:  Right, right. It’s almost like the way coming out has kind of changed, although maybe without the shame element, or maybe not.

ALICIA:  I know that the shame element is there. It’s a little apologetic, like I’m a violinist composer, well, not like a classical violinist.

ALICIA:  I do this weird thing.

NEIL:  Yeah. Yeah. It vaguely reminds me of how my referencing my husband has changed. You know what I mean? When Jeff and I got married, we did kind of make an informal commitment that we would just always use ‘husband’ as a way to kind of desensitize the world to it. Yeah. If we were going to take advantage of that privilege.

NEIL:  Um, but now I, I usually don’t think twice about it.

ALICIA:  Wow.

NEIL:  How about you?

ALICIA:  I think about it practically, I mean, absolutely every single time, it always feels weird and awkward and like I’m pretending it’s no big deal, and there’s a social contract now that of course it’s no big deal, and everybody secretly in their mind thinks it’s a very big deal.

NEIL:  Exactly.

ALICIA:  I’m wondering, like, how has their entire vision of me now changed and are they, have they stopped listening to what I’m saying? Cause there’s digesting that…

NEIL:  Right. When you’re meeting someone for the first time and you just drop a “wife.”

ALICIA:  Yeah, or if I’m in a professional context.

NEIL:  For me, I always feel like, to your point, that every time I use “husband”, it’s a little micro acting exercise. You know?

ALICIA:  It’s like…

NEIL:  It’s performing casualness.

ALICIA:  Exactly. Like, and everybody knows it’s a performance. So the conversation was doing whatever it was doing and it was normal, and all of a sudden we’re faced with that moment like, what else are we going to do? We have no choice. Either we’re going to perform casualness and feel weird and fake about that, or we’re going to, uh, uncourageously obfuscate, or there’s a third possibility, which I’ve seen people do, which is to say like, be sort of transparent about all that, but then you’ve made a big deal of something perhaps unnecessarily.

NEIL:  Right. How has that sounded? Like, “I’m gay and I have a husband.”

ALICIA:  You know, I’m not even sure, I’ve seen other people do it and I haven’t liked it, so I’m not sure, but it… Yeah, exactly. “I’m gay and I have a husband.”

NEIL:  All right. Now, another question I like to ask people is, uh, what is something you were thinking about today?

ALICIA:  I mean, since I woke up.

NEIL:  I’ll let you define ‘today’.

ALICIA:  Okay. Okay. Okay. Cause I don’t usually start thinking till about one or two.

NEIL:  Oh, okay.

ALICIA:  And it’s still early.

NEIL:  So you haven’t thought about anything yet?

ALICIA:  Not very much, but some – okay, some of the things I’ll tell you, I thought, um… I hope that Ellen, my wife, hears me doing the dishes because she has told me that turns her on.

NEIL:  Do you think she’s saying that just as a way to get you to do the dishes?

ALICIA:  You know, I have discussed that at length with my therapist and she says, I need to take that literally.

NEIL:  Wow, okay.

ALICIA:  And all kinds of things turn people on. And that’s not even a weird one in her experience here. And hearing all kinds of things from all kinds of people, because, for a lot of people, having the other person do the dishes means they’re being taken care of.

NEIL:  Oh yeah, totally.

ALICIA:  You know, for some people, you know, they want to wear diapers.

NEIL:  Exactly.

ALICIA:  No, we don’t do that.

NEIL:  Okay.

ALICIA:  So maybe…

NEIL:  No judgement if you did though, but, but feeling taken care of doesn’t necessarily map directly onto being turned on. Like I feel very taken care of by Jeff often. I guess sometimes that can be a turn on. It lives in a different space though.

ALICIA:  Right.

ALICIA:  For me too. But apparently there are a lot of people, like it’s a very common thing. They won’t feel turned on until they feel taken care of. It’s really, really separate for me. Like I’m sure it’s connected somewhere in there, sometimes in some ways, in some fantasies and so forth. But, um, according to my shrink, who is a genius –

NEIL:  Yeah.

ALICIA:  And is the smartest person I’ve ever met.

NEIL:  Wow.

ALICIA:  Kind of hoping she’ll listen to this.

NEIL:  Do you want to do the dishes too, while you’re at it?

ALICIA:  Anyway, I tend to think that my way of thinking and feeling and… My brain is really the right way. And other people’s, if it’s different, they must be making it up, they must be putting it on. It must be a ploy to get me to do the dishes. And I wrote the quote somewhere, somebody who said, “Everybody’s got a weird brain”, and I really like it, and I try to remind myself, and everybody’s got a weird brain.

NEIL:  Absolutely. I love not being in therapy anymore.

ALICIA:  Oh you’re not in therapy anymore?

NEIL:  No. After, after, I think almost 25 years on the dot.

ALICIA:  Wow.

NEIL:  Um, we terminated like, uh, three or four years ago now, maybe three years. I love it.

ALICIA:  Wow. Wow.

NEIL:  You don’t spend the money and you have the time and you don’t have to kind of think about yourself in that same way.

NEIL:  You don’t have that accountability.

ALICIA:  Yeah, the time part I, you know, couldn’t relate to. Um, I feel like currently I’m like a snake in the process of getting ready to shed its skin. There’s no crisis. Knock wood, you know, cheap too. But I feel like a transformation is going to happen.

NEIL:  That’s great.

ALICIA:  I can’t imagine leaving.

NEIL:  Although, sorry, not to be a buzzkill, but, um, that’s the thing that I’m happy not to have going on for me in therapy, which is the feeling of like, okay, life is just ahead of you. You know what I mean? And, and when I would say this to my therapist, he would be like, that’s not the way to be holding this. But I found it hard to avoid that. I mean, toward the end, it, there was an alignment of like the, you know, the me who was in therapy, but also living my life and feeling like this is also my life.

ALICIA:  You know, you’re right. Like I’m, I am thinking of it as life is going to be so great once the skin – it’s very itchy now, but once I’ve shed the skin.

NEIL:  Yeah.

ALICIA:  And yeah, that’s problematic. And, uh, one day I think I probably would like to no longer be the kind of person who’s like talking about themselves and their therapy, which I think is probably boring to most people.

NEIL:  Oh, I know. I don’t think talking about therapy stops after your – case in point – stops after you’re in therapy. Here I am.

NEIL:  Alicia, let’s look at some of these cards now. Okay. I’ve picked out some cards, especially for you. Our first card is the diplomacy of saying a child resembles one parent or another.

ALICIA:  Oh…

NEIL:  You and Ellen are a very specific case of this, if you’d care to share with our podcast audience.

ALICIA:  Right. We’re a specific case of this, because, um, we each gave birth to one of our sons with the same anonymous donor. They’re very much alike in a lot of ways, and they’re each very much like each of us, and it’s, it’s a different case because we’re not competing to be the one whose traits appeared more.

ALICIA:  It’s just a lovely thing to hear that, you know, one of them looks like one of us, um, because it means our genes worked at all.

NEIL:  Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. Cause I feel very skeptical about whether my jeans would work.

ALICIA:  I’m sure they would, Neil.

NEIL:  Well, thank you. Isn’t it, it always grosses me out when one kid looks powerfully like one of the parents, you know what I mean? It speaks of like their parents fucking in it somehow, it’s like a big genetic smear or something like a litter of pups.

ALICIA:  There’s something like biologically obscene about it.

NEIL:  Exactly. Biologically obscene.

ALICIA:  Yeah, like an infestation.

NEIL:  Exactly. Exactly.

ALICIA:  It’s like it kind of, impolitely exposes biology too much and it’s rude.

NEIL:  Exactly, it’s like someone flashing you or something.

ALICIA:  It’s rude. Cause we’re supposed to be self-made individuals and we were supposed to have created our own faces. If I didn’t have our personalities and which we chose, which we selected using our moral rectitude.

NEIL:  We are not bodies. We are pure. You know, in that whole kind of mind.

ALICIA:  Ether, mind. Where my, like, Ooh, we must be bodies cause those two completely different people look exactly alike.

NEIL:  Oh yeah, exactly. Disgusting.

NEIL:  Next card. As soon as I stub my toe, I look for someone to blame.

ALICIA:  How did you know that about me?

NEIL:  I guess we’re similar in that way. Not everyone’s that way.

ALICIA:  Oh, it is so… When, when the boys were little, one of them, I’m not going to say who, cause you know, it’s a little personal.

NEIL:  50/50 chance though. Two kids, Ben and Philip.

ALICIA:  True. True.

NEIL:  If you’re listening, this is about one of you.

ALICIA:  But I’m respecting your privacy, cause it’s just, it’s all, you get all the plausible deniability if it’s a 50/50 chance. So if he, like, fell, or if he stubbed his toe, like let’s say he hurt himself on the floor, he would bang that floor, angry at the floor.

NEIL:  When he was a kid?

ALICIA:  Yeah, hitting the floor, mad at the floor. He was mad at the object that hurt him. But I absolutely, I stub my toe and I try to think of whose fault was that. Isn’t that nutty?

NEIL:  Absolutely. It’s horrible. Jeff is not like that.

ALICIA:  I don’t care if they hear it, but my parents are totally… My mom… Mom, I love you. But you know, you’re always looking for the blame. And I’m always like, and of course, you know, I’m always trying to blame Ellen, and right?

NEIL:  Right? Yeah, of course. Proximity.

ALICIA:  And it all seems like completely reasonable to me until I notice I do it even when I stub my toe. And then it’s like, wait a minute…

NEIL:  I mean, I guess it begs the question, what are the consequences of there not being –

ALICIA:  Someone to blame –

NEIL:  There’s no fault.

ALICIA:  Man.

NEIL:  What, I mean, in a way, that’s a beautiful moment somehow. I think it’s also like a very scary moment.

ALICIA:  Frightening, out of control, random.

NEIL:  Right. But also free somehow. I think? I don’t know, whatever part of the brain that assigns blame to discharge that.

ALICIA:  Perfectible. Cause if the person would only not. Then no one would stub their toe again if they’d only get it right.

NEIL:  Next card. I know you, at a certain point in your life, were a subway musician. I’m going to say something provocative.

ALICIA:  Okay.

NEIL:  We don’t need subway musicians.

ALICIA:  They need us.

NEIL:  I don’t care. We don’t need, we don’t need buskers of any sort anywhere. We don’t.

ALICIA:  What about parkour?

NEIL:  Parkour, they’re doing it for themselves. You mean where they rebound off buildings and shit like that?

ALICIA:  No, they do it in the subway car and they ask for money.

NEIL:  Oh, Showtime. Nope. Not that neither. That neither. I’m more disposed to that particular narrative than to like the heartfelt  acoustic singer or really anything, but I’m just ready to come down with a full, like no buskers anywhere.

ALICIA:  Uh huh. Well, you know, did you feel that way 30 years ago?

NEIL:  I think I might have.

ALICIA:  Really?

NEIL:  Yeah. Because for me, the subway is enough. The subway, everything is enough.

ALICIA:  More than enough.

NEIL:  It’s more than enough. Absolutely. This street is enough. The Plaza is enough, and I understand that that’s proposing a separation between the Plaza and the musician or the musician and the subway.

NEIL:  Actually, up until very recently, I was like not into putting headphones in when I was on the street. It’s like, the street will do just fine. Now, by the way, I do put the headphones in.

ALICIA:  To escape the street or cause you’re bored without them?

NEIL:  I think it’s for the same reason that I like not being in therapy. It’s like I’m going to choose not to use this time to think. Or my thinking will be directed by whatever I’m listening to, whether it’s a podcast or music. So I think I always felt that, yeah.

ALICIA:  I always loved street performers. They made me feel like the joy of humanity. Oh my God.

NEIL:  Really? If anything could make me change my mind, which it can’t, it would be knowing something like that, like that makes other people happy, I – maybe it’s my own narcissism or solipsism or whatever ism. It’s like, I just assume everyone feels a slight variation on what I feel. I mean, I feel like at best people are like, interested. Um, I didn’t know that, like it’s actively bringing joy to people like you.

ALICIA:  I would go out looking for them. I mean –

NEIL:  Wow!

ALICIA:  Partly it was youthful, naivete and enthusiasm, but it was like I would love to go to Central Park, and I would like, uh, street performer hop. I’d go from one to the next. That was my idea of an exciting , you know, adventurous Sunday.

NEIL:  Holy shit! My God. Who the fuck knew?

ALICIA:  Yeah. Um, and I would love, like if I had friends visiting from another country or city – to show off New York, I would show off all these different performers.

NEIL:  I might’ve  done that, possibly, possibly. Not go out of my way, but if I’m going into a subway platform and there’s the street musician, I could kind of inwardly feel like, Oh, I live in a city where we have street musicians. That. Well, at the same time, privately feeling like –

ALICIA:  Like stop!

NEIL:  Yeah, enough. We don’t need it.

ALICIA:  You know, in the seventies and eighties, it was new and I would love to see like a P pop player and then, you know, the Pam pipe players.

NEIL:  I just feel like the pan pipe, if I may, I just feel like pan pipes only have one emotional register, which is wistful. You know?. And I’m not into wistful ever, ever, ever. You don’t need wistful. What are you wistful for? What are you wistful about? Come on.

ALICIA:  I’m wistful in advance for the things I have now, but might not in the future.

NEIL:  I’m something else about them, but not wistful.

ALICIA:  Do you like Brahms, and Dvorak, and romantic chamber music?

NEIL:  I don’t really know it.

ALICIA:  You probably heard it and never pursued it because it was wistful.

NEIL:  Next card. Male singers showcasing their vulnerability by singing falsetto.

ALICIA:  Ooh. I always thought of it as supreme confidence, but showcasing your vulnerability is confidence. Isn’t it?

NEIL:  But I feel like it’s almost performing vulnerability.

ALICIA:  I just am remembering something, which I remember all the time for some reason. When I was in junior high, ninth grade I think, a friend of mine, a female friend… I said something like, Do know this guy? He’s got like longish feathered – okay, this is the 70s – reddish straight feathered hair. He, he was just walking by the principal’s office singing, you’ve got a cute way of walking, which is the BG’s and it’s falsetto, right?

NEIL:  It’s Leo Sayer.

ALICIA:  Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. It’s the era, but yeah, right. It’s not the BG’s. And he was singing that and, and she said, Ooh, sounds cute. Like the guy sounds cute. And that was a moment I thought, I don’t understand what girls see in boys. I was like, why is that cute? I’m so perplexed what my female friends think is cute and sexy about boys. You know? That probably was a clue.

NEIL:  And was that the moment you became a lesbian?

ALICIA:  Listen, it was not. I was just like, I don’t get heterosexuality. I didn’t really know there was an alternative at that point. So. I don’t get heterosexuality. I’m not empathetic. I expect heterosexuals to get homosexuality. I can’t, I don’t get like, it’s so hard for me.

NEIL:  You’re pretty extreme, pretty extreme lesbian.

ALICIA:  Not, not in entire, it shouldn’t entirely be hard because I think on some level, you know, I’m not a zero or a 10 on the Kinsey spectrum, but like I always have to like do the mental exercise very deliberately of, yes, this heterosexual couple really does love each other. They’re not just making it up. Yes, women really do fall in love with men and cry themselves to sleep, and you know, go into deep depressions of if it doesn’t go right and they obsess over them and you know, just like I would do with women, like it’s so hard. It’s so hard for me. I have to believe that truly.

NEIL:  And the emotional part is hard for you to believe. So it’s not like the idea of like heterosexual people have sex.

ALICIA:  No, that’s easy.

NEIL:  Interesting. The idea that the affective, the emotional part, is hard to believe, that they love each other.

ALICIA:  That, that they’re out of control, you know, in love with each other or that, I mean, I love men. Like I love you, my friend.

NEIL:  I love you too, Alicia.

ALICIA:  And I love my sons to infinity, you know. And I, I, they’re, they’re like no beings I love more in the world than these two males and not despite their maleness. It’s what they are. You know, like I love everything about them, and it’s very easy for me in a way to imagine anybody being in love with them, of course. Who wouldn’t be in love with my sons. But, when I consider, it’s mostly movies and literature, it’s like, really?

NEIL:  I find it really refreshing. You really have carved yourself a bit of freedom within heteronormativity to be able to like, not believe in heterosexuality in the way that you’re talking about.

ALICIA:  Do you make an analogy, like do you identify with the woman in a heterosexual couple or do you have no trouble imagining that, that romantic love?

NEIL:  I don’t. No, super don’t. I mean, sometimes I have more trouble imagining it in a homosexual relationship, I think. I don’t know. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a, that’s a bigger problem for me, probably, even though I’m in love with Jeff and, you know, and, uh.

ALICIA:  You see? Everybody has a weird brain.

NEIL:  Oh, okay. We can agree to that. I love it. Okay, Alicia. Let’s do bad over good. What’s the X you would take a bad of over a Y you would  take a good of?

ALICIA:  You know what, even this is a loaded question, because what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is like I have a hard time recreating, basically. I’m such a nerd. It’s like…

NEIL:  You want edification.

ALICIA:  I know, and part of it is sincere, like I do enjoy the learning, learning languages and reading, but, it seems to me like I would take a bad history book over a good mystery book because I don’t know how, I don’t know how to have fun, you know?

ALICIA:  And that’s how I live anyway. I’m trying to like explore that, but I’m just noticing. If I have some free time, it’s like, Ooh, now I could practice my scales and go back to Duolingo where I’m working on Hebrew and Japanese right now, and it’s like, you know, Ellen, my wife is like, Oh, now I could finish a season of the Bachelor.

ALICIA:  But, I think I’d rather read a badly-written edifying thing than watch the most hilarious season of the Bachelor.

NEIL:  Wow. You’re a paradox, or not a paradox. It’s opposite day for Alicia Svigals. That’s great though. I hear that. I think that’s what gives the pleasure to doing the TV thing. It’s the release from the imperative for edification.

NEIL:  There’s just a certain pleasure that becomes available when your intention is different than to be eating your spinach on some level. You know what I mean?

ALICIA:  All I do is frigging eat my spinach. I’m trying to stop that.

NEIL:  On that note, Alicia Spiegels, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.

ALICIA:  Thank you for having me. This was like, just like having coffee with you, with an engineer present, very discreet and like, I totally forgot that we were recording.

NEIL:  Thank you.

NEIL:  Cut.

NEIL:  Huge thank you for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. If there’s someone else you think might like it, I’d love it if you’d share it with them and if you have a couple of seconds to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, it really helps people find this during season one, a number of folks let me know they had their own responses for some of the cards.

NEIL:  If you have thoughts you’d like to share, we’d love to feature them too. Write to us at shesatalker@gmail.com or on Instagram @shesatalker. This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Devon Guinn produced this episode. Andrew Litton mixed it. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media.

NEIL:  Our card flipped beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thanks to all of them and to my guest, Alicia Svigals, and to you for listening.

JEFF HILLER:  SHE’S A TALKER with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER it’s better than it sounds. Yeah.