The Arty Semite

Setting 'Yellow Ticket' to Music

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek

Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals has experience scoring documentary and feature films. But earlier this year she faced an unusual challenge when she was approached by the Washington Jewish Music Festival to score a 1918 feature-length silent film called “The Yellow Ticket.”

Unlike other scoring jobs, where her focus was mainly on heightening viewers’ experience of onscreen action, this commission would also involve “creating a bridge to another time,” as she put it. Thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival will have a chance to cross that bridge when Svigals and Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner perform the score live at a screening of “The Yellow Ticket” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 10. A subsequent tour will travel to Vancouver, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia and Houston.

“The Yellow Ticket,” set in Poland and Czarist Russia, portrays a young Jewish woman named Lea (played by Polish actress Pola Negri, Hollywood’s first European silent film star) as she overcomes adversity to succeed at the university in Saint Petersburg. It is a story of secret identities and the redeeming power of love. For 1918 audiences, the meaning and implications of possessing a “yellow ticket” — a permit held by undesirables like prostitutes and Jews, allowing them to reside in St. Petersburg — would be clear. Now, it is Svigals’ remit to convey through her music the shame and hardship associated with such a document, as well as the risks Lea takes in assuming a false identity in order to pursue her studies.

Warsaw stands in for St. Petersburg in the film, which was made in the last year of World War I by Germany’s leading film studio, UFA, and was released in the U.S. by Paramount in 1922. Considered very progressive for its time, “The Yellow Ticket” was based on Abraham Schomer’s 1911 Yiddish melodrama, Afn Yam un ”Ellis Island” (At Sea and Ellis Island), which was subsequently produced on Broadway in 1914 in an un-authorized English-language version.

“The greatest challenge was to try to write something that veered away from the tendency to view silent film as quaint and amusing,” Svigals told the Forward in a phone interview. “I needed to repress this tendency and relate to it as a story full of pathos, high drama, and the same emotions we have today.”

Indeed, she used the score as a means of clarifying the story’s structure and highlighting its still relevant themes of religious discrimination, ethnic tensions, human trafficking and other social ills.

Svigals described how she worked non-stop on the score for two months, likening the process to that of writing a symphony. “I watched it dozens of times,” she said of the film. “I was very enchanted by it. It was an intriguing mystery I had to solve in order to deliver the emotional punch demanded from the score.”

The composer immersed herself in each scene and created 25 separate “tiny compositions,” with each cue averaging one and a half minutes. She improvised with piano and violin, and also a bit with voice. “I personally have a tendency toward melody,” Svigals shared. “Many of the pieces are full melodies, which is unusual for a film. In total, the score is a balance between melodies and unmelodic musical effects.”

One undoubtedly hears klezmer and other Eastern European folk forms in the score, but there is also music inspired by 20th-century classical composers such as Béla Bartók and Ernest Bloch. There’s also some European café music and contemporary improvisation. “I wasn’t consciously thinking genres at all,” Svigals said. “It’s only later that the labels are put on.”

However the music is categorized, Svigals says she is happy with how the score came out. “I hope it serves to bridge the gap between the culture ‘The Yellow Ticket’ came out of and our own modern times.”

Watch a trailer for ‘The Yellow Ticket’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish, The Yellow Ticket, Renee Ghert-Zand, Music, Film, Alicia Svigals

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.