Capturing Mount Auburn’s Oaks in Music: A Conversation with Ira Klein

Jessica Bussmann August 1, 2022 Art
In 2022, we have welcomed seven Artists-in-Residence to create original works inspired by their experiences at Mount Auburn. Meet composer and musician Ira Klein. This interview was originally published in August 2022. ___________________________ Tell us about yourself and your music career. I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and moved…

In 2022, we have welcomed seven Artists-in-Residence to create original works inspired by their experiences at Mount Auburn. Meet composer and musician Ira Klein. This interview was originally published in August 2022.


Tell us about yourself and your music career.

I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and moved to the Boston area in 2017 to attend Berklee College of Music. Jerusalem is a very diverse place culturally. Growing up in this environment I was surrounded by a pretty amazing array of sounds. The mosque call, synagogue singing, music traditions from Morocco and Ethiopia, jazz, electronic music…there was always a little bit of everything around. Israel is an immigrant society and a young country, so while we lack the depth of a homogenous, centuries-long musical tradition, we are naturally gifted in making connections and cross-overs between idioms. Over time I have come to appreciate how the eclectic sound of my upbringing has found its way to inform my creative practice organically, no matter what the project might be.

When I moved to the U.S., I focused on studying American folk music. I was particularly drawn to the devotional, trance-like quality that I find in blues and old-time music. In my collaborative trio with Hazel Royer (voice and bass) and Kevin Barry (guitars), I enjoy taking risks and interpreting American folk songs in ways that feel fresh and haunting. My first EP, Invisible Treasure, included Hazel and Kevin, and we are now working on our first album as a collaborative group, to be released in 2023.

Recently, I have developed an interest in Ladino (Jewish Sephardic) music. I founded an ensemble called Ira Klein & Convivencia in an aspiration to revive this genre and explore new creative possibilities within it. Convivencia brings together artists from Israel, Iran, Greece, Cyprus, and the U.S. It is particularly meaningful to me to share my cultural heritage while collaborating with other artists across cultures. I am proud of the peaceful message of this project.

I am very excited about an apprenticeship I am going to be undertaking for the next two years with Blues musician Paul Rishell, supported by the Mass Cultural Council. I am involved in a wide variety of other projects as a composer, performer, and educator, and am currently pursuing my Master’s degree at Longy Conservatory of Bard College. I love what I do and am feeling really grateful to keep learning every day.

For your residency at Mount Auburn, you have composed and produced “The Oak Cycle,” a series of songs inspired by oak trees in our landscape. What inspired you to pick this theme?

As an artist, I am always looking for limitation, since I find it so generative. I was looking for a specific lens through which I could express my wonder at Mount Auburn’s natural environment. I knew that I wanted to work with trees, but that didn’t feel specific enough. I went on a walk with staff member Jenny Gilbert, who told me about Mount Auburn’s incredible oak collection, with almost 450 oak trees. The more I learned about oak trees, their numerous species, and variety of uses, I felt confident that this was a theme that was both defined and broad enough to challenge and inspire me to create work.

What was your process for selecting each oak and capturing it in music?

When it came to selecting the trees, I took a very intuitive approach. I just took several long walks and looked for beautiful trees. I went both alone and with my collaborator Rafi Sofer, who co-produced the project and was responsible for its audio and video. Beyond the unique allure of each individual tree, I tried to choose trees that are seated within an inspiring piece of landscape, and to make sure that there is some variety in size, shape, and species.

Capturing the trees in music was process that is difficult to describe in words…After taking photos of the trees using my iPhone I spent a lot of time with the pictures open on my laptop screen, playing whatever came out and recording little ideas. Around the same time, I did some research and ended up watching Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor. It is a lovely documentary made by the BBC, which follows an ancient oak in England through the course of one year. Some of the seeds of inspiration for the pieces came from this film. For example, my piece “Shelter” has a constant melody line that is harmonized differently each time it comes around. It was inspired by the different, intriguing, and beautiful shapes that acorns can be deformed in by different species of gall wasps that lay eggs inside them. I learned about that from the film.

The only other thing I could say really is that I had to come up with my own narrative for each tree/piece. My piece “The Answer” was born out of imagining a musical conversation between trees on the two shores of lower and upper Auburn Lake. “Love Song” is about two oaks that touch across Fir Avenue. “Circles” is inspired by time-rings and was inspired by a huge, old tree. I find that imagination and storytelling are essential to my process.

How has spending time in Mount Auburn’s landscape informed your creative process?

Artists can get very caught up in the endless finessing skill within their own medium. Working at Mount Auburn has made me more curious than ever before about the boundless inspiration that is to be found for me in non-musical sources.

When we were done capturing the pieces, we wanted to make sure that the whole cycle has a sense of a coherent, site-specific piece. That required including some ambient elements like sounds of wildlife recorded on site, as well as positioning microphones in several locations at once to get a multi-layered sense of space. After we had some sketches, we used a Bluetooth speaker to play them inside the tower and recorded the echo response. This was a brilliant idea that Rafi had. Creating a piece that has a strong sonic identity of a specific place has made me reflect on how my future projects might take a similar approach. I am fascinated by what it means to not only capture a musical sound, but the space that has inspired it as well.