Interview - Ernie Gurner

September 2007: Ernie Gurner (Vol.3 No.9)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 20/07/07

Few fiddle players manage to shift easily and competently between folk styles as Ernie. I first came across Ernie when he took a fiddle workshop at the Maleny Folk Festival Queensland in 1996. He led a mixed group of fiddle players of various abilities in a call and response method of learning. Within an hour the group had picked up a Klezmer tune with all the twists, turns and touches that this music requires. Other students were taught the chordal accompaniment that provided the chunky pulse that drove the melody forward. Soon the group had brought a Klezmer dance tune to life. All this was achieved in less than one hour and had quickly proved to me Ernie's skill as a fiddle teacher and player.

These days it is hard to find a Folk festival at which Ernie isn't performing. He plays in bands ranging from the jazz and comedy of Jugularity, to the Jewish and Middle Eastern sounds of Klezmeristis and Yalla!, to improvising music in Playback Theatre. Other bands include Greek and Sephardic influences (Melisma and Soleluna) and the Klezmer Trio, while Bohemian Nights and Flirting Mazurkas include Latin as well as European and Eastern influences .On the Classical side, Ernie led the Monash string Quartet for over ten years. He is active as a violin teacher or more often as a fiddle teacher, introducing violinists to folk and improvised music styles.

Just before he was about to leave for a musical tour of New Zealand with accordionist Phil Carroll, I spent a morning with Ernie interviewing him at his Coburg home.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?

A. I remember having lessons in Primary school with a teacher who was within walking distance of the school in Murrembeena Victoria. He was I guess what you would call a solid old style classical violin teacher. He had played in pit orchestras and had done everything and he had been teaching grade. I don't remember his name, that is a terrible thing but he was a nice guy. He got me to a certain stage but I think my grandmother actually might have intervened and said its time to move on or whatever.

Q. Did you enjoy practising?

A. I did. I practised a fair bit but I also remember using practise as a way to escape doing the dishes and things like that. There was one year I didn't learn at High school but I remember getting into Melbourne High which was very lucky because otherwise I would have stayed in a State school where there was no music at all. Music was seen to be a thing dickheads did. But at Melbourne High I was lucky because they had an orchestra, they had teachers…the teacher I had for a couple of years was someone who could do string arrangements, he was very good. I would go to New Zealand every couple of years and my Grandmother who lived there would basically 'sus' out how I was going.

Q. Tell us about your grandmother.

A. She had come from this orthodox school of teaching. She was born in Poland but trained at the Vienna Conservatorium and she did the Bach Chaconne as her exit piece. This is three or four pages of double stops and every little devil's trick you can do and she had to learn that by heart, the whole thing. She was learning to be a violinist in an orchestra but she also was learning to be a teacher. That was the way they did it in those days. She went back to Poland and ended up being the first woman to play there in a professional orchestra so she was a pretty big influence on me, by influencing teachers. She recommended or got me to learn from Christopher Martin who was at the Melbourne University Conservatorium I think. I went to him as a private student for about four years and he was terrific, a fantastic teacher. Really warm, friendly and just loved the violin. That's the biggest thing. One thing was just to encourage a love of the instrument. Occasionally he would stop playing and he would talk about the wood or the sound post or something.

Q. In which direction did classical lessons take you?

A. Christopher Martin then said, "What would be good for you now is to learn a bit more technique." He got me into having lessons with Nathan Gutman who was a legendary classical violin teacher. He was Polish and an ex-lawyer. He had a mind like a vice. His ability to analyze was the most inspirational thing for me. He was able to plan lessons several months ahead. He had been doing it for so long at such a high level, he was teaching six, six and a half days a week in his seventies, he didn't need to do that, but he was in such demand because he was able to achieve such results. He started the year saying, "Well, what do you want to do?" I said I really liked Bach so that really was the focus of the year, playing Bach sonatas with a bit of other stuff thrown in but a hell of a lot of scales, arpeggios and technical stuff that I am ever grateful for. I was going through phases of practicing six or seven hours. I think that sort of thing is useful later on. You can choose to use it or not to use it.

Q. Was this classical technical work much use to you as a fiddler?

A. As it turned out I don't use much of it because my preference for years has been towards folk music, world music or jazz if you like, not classical music which demands a much higher level of technique. It's not that folk musicians don't need technique, they need a specialist technique. Coming from classical playing to folk music you have to be a lot more aware of the culture and the history and because you are usually playing with other people, just listening and being able to adapt and being able to improvise.

Q. Tell us about your study of improvisation with Klezmer violin.

A. When I finally went to New York to study with Alicia Svigals I was having one on one lessons with her every day for nearly two weeks. I asked her about improvising in Klezmer and she said, "In traditional styles, you didn't do it." It certainly wasn't like the jazz thing that you hear now. Ninety percent of the bands you hear are doing these whacko things. What you did was have small variations on the melody and/or alter the ornamentation or the tune a bit. In my understanding of other styles of music, Celtic, Turkish or Arabic styles of music, you know the tune but you don't actually go off on tangents on the chords. But you will vary the ornamentation or the tune a bit.

That is one of the biggest challenges to the folk musician. Instead of picking up a copy of 'Begged, Borrowed and Stolen' and playing a polka the same way every time, a traditional player might vary the ornamentation and tune so that it is never quite the same. That is another thing I am convinced about is the importance of folk musicians going from and aural tradition rather than a written tradition. With classical music you really do have to read the dots and you have to pay attention to the way the composer has written it out, that's the way it is. With folk music there is a bit more flexibility but you just can't write down the dots. You can tell people who have picked up a piece of sheet music and who have learnt it straight, whereas with a traditional musicians, often the notes are slightly swung or there are little slides or bends. It is the rhythm which is usually the trickiest to get.

Q. What got you into Klezmer music?

A. The Klezmer bug infected me during a band rehearsal looking for more repertoire heading towards the 1991 Port fairy Folk festival. The band was Zingara led by John Norton. Accordionist Audrey Klein gave me a tape labeled Klezmer and said she thought I'd like it. I kept learning Klezmer slowly by myself, playing tunes from books and listening to recordings but got the biggest push when a Yiddish festival was held in Melbourne and I went to all talks and workshops by invited American guest fiddler/player/historian/dance teacher Michael Alpert.

I also sat in with the only band playing a mix of Klezmer and Jewish music then, the Klezmer Trio. I ended up playing on and off with them, then became a member. Soon after, I formed Klezmeritis to focus on the instrumental music. Alpert's playing was the last straw for me, showing I needed to go overseas to study Klezmer style and that learning from sheet music and recordings was not necessarily a good idea. In 1998 I travelled and studied overseas for three months. Two weeks of intensive lessons with Alicia Svigals (Klezmatics) was inspirational, then participating in weeklong Klezmer camps in Poland and San Francisco, and visiting players and teachers in Budapest, Berlin etc. Playing Klezmer in Cracow Poland (where my father had lived) was a highlight.

Q. What advice would you give to someone taking up the fiddle for the first time?

A. Like you, I know many people who have succeeded. I actually think a motivated adult has got a better chance of getting where they want to get to. Their aims are realistic, and they know why they are doing it. I think a lot of kids are being told they must practice. One of the problems I have with classical education is it's trying to turn out players who want to be soloists or want to be in orchestras. The dice are against you and it's not fair. Too many of those people are just not going to make it. There is not enough there, it doesn't make sense. There were the places fifty years ago when there were radio orchestras and things like that. You can still play in amateur orchestras and chamber music groups. On the other hand, if you are a fiddle player and you are interested in playing with your friends or maybe getting to the stage where you get to playing in a bush band or a little jazz band or whatever, you can do it. No one is going to say "No." If you are really keen you can take it further than that. Advice to an adult is definitely, go for it.

Q. What is your favorite instrument?

A. Kazoo? No, come on, the violin. It is the 'King of Instruments.' It's the most flexible; it's the most versatile. It has got the biggest range of tone and technical possibilities. So many countries and cultures have violin-based music. There is so much you can do. I'm a sucker for the violin.