Saturday, March 07, 2015

arTistic Attention: Michel Klein combines Jewish identity with passion for music 

Teaching assistant and musicology graduate student Michel Klein creates spirtiual Jewish music by mixing his Chassidic Orthodox Jewish faith with his new-age music compositions. (Maryrose Kulick/Daily Bruin)

As he performs his composition “Davenen,” Michel Klein prays on stage. A new-age electronic melody accents his prayer. While the audience is unaware, Klein said he is in the midst of a battle.

Klein, a composition graduate student and teaching assistant for the Music 20 series, said in Judaism, prayer is not a form of escapism but a battle between people’s animalistic and spiritual desires. His piece is a reflection of that battle, juxtaposing traditional prayers and new-age trap music.

Klein categorizes his piece as “sacred performance art.” Klein said his piece is a way to combine his two loves: his Chassidic Orthodox Judaism and music.

“In the music world, there isn’t that much spiritual music,” Klein said. “Of that spiritual music, how much is Jewish? Not a lot. I believe God has imbued me with a sense of purpose to create spiritual Jewish music.”

Klein started taking piano lessons at the age of five after the encouragement of his grandfather. Klein said he felt an instantaneous connection to music, deciding to pursue music professionally when he was a senior in high school.

Klein said it wasn’t until his senior year at Ithaca College that he decided to take the next step and become a Chassidic Orthodox Jew, previously only having observed high holidays.

“Identity is a multifaceted thing,” Klein said. “While I labeled myself as Jewish, I didn’t really find my life had any meaning. It was only afterwards that I felt like I truly had purpose.”

For Klein, he said this means he observes all of Chassidic traditions. He doesn’t play or make music on Saturdays and eats only kosher foods.

While he said keeping these traditions is difficult, Klein finds that it’s given him a sense of direction in his music.

“I want to show people what Judaism is all about through music,” Klein said. “I want to take (Judaism) and express (it) in a way (it’s) never been expressed before.”

With a sense of direction in his life, Klein began his graduate studies this year at UCLA as well as being a teaching assistant. Lecturer of composition and theory in the Herb Alpert School of Music, Sean Friar said he immediately noticed a confident aura around Klein.

“(Klein) communicates and teaches clearly,” Friar said. “Not everyone can do that right off the bat. Everyone in class loves him.”

Klein said his ability to be confident in his teaching ability stems from having to learn how to balance his personal life and graduate student life.

At home, Klein tends to a 10-month-old baby boy with his wife. Klein said he’s had to forgo the normal graduate life in order to balance his life.

“My wife works, so I have to schedule my classes around her and the baby,” Klein said. “When I’m here, it’s work time. I don’t participate in campus life. With what little free time I have, I like to spend it with my family.”

However, Klein said he’s learned to love placing his family as his number one priority.

“There really is no other feeling than being a dad,” Klein said.

First-year music performance student Sarah Worden said Klein’s anecdotes about his child make the class feel easy-going.

“I love it when he shows us pictures of his kid,” Worden said. “He’s a chill guy and makes the class feel comfortable.”

In addition to balancing his studies, work as a TA and home life, Klein composes as well. Klein said he decided to attend graduate school to establish a career as a composer.

Klein said his main inspiration is traditional Jewish hymns. Instead of sticking to one style, however, Klein said he likes to diversify his compositions.

Yet, no matter the piece, he said he wants to keep Jewish spirituality as his focus.

Klein said he plans to expand on his “sacred performance art” style. He wants to make enough pieces to where he can put on an entire recital devoted to the style.

Until then, Klein said he wants to continue doing what he thinks God’s purpose is for him.

“(My life) is a beautiful challenge right now,” Klein said. “But I know this is what I must be doing.”


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