Malaria! – “Geld/Money”

YouTube video

In the 1980s, I was a punk living in the Austrian countryside, and I couldn’t wait to trade alpine meadows for a big, rough city. This all-girl band from Berlin made provocative, social-political, tough-as-nails songs; they inspired me to be loud, and ironic, and stir things up in my uptight environment.  Besides their music, they made experimental video clips that were far ahead of their time, and reminiscent of my collaboration with the filmmaker Valie Export. Malaria! helped put me on the non-conformist path.

Klaus Nomi – “Simple Man”

YouTube video

I grew up listening to classical music, jazz, and pop, so when I heard Klaus Nomi on an LP in 1982 for the first time, I immediately felt close to him. The musical impetus came from New York’s punk and no wave scene, which I admired so much. I was captivated by Nomi’s unconventional countertenor voice and profound songs, many of which were written by the ingenious songwriter Kristian Hoffman. The wild mixture of the music—ironic, Dadaist, mannered, dramatic, classical, pop, with tongue-in-cheek electronics—still touches me deeply. Nomi is invaluable.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – “There’s Something Wrong With You”

Link to full album

Like Nomi, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins originally wanted to become an opera singer. Music from the early 1980s generally had such a strong influence on me. I heard his legendary song “I Put a Spell on You” in the Jim Jarmusch movie “Stranger than Paradise,” which I watched over and over again. Jay Hawkins’s ironic, desperate “scream” is both a plea and an affirmation.

Beastie Boys – “Cooky Puss”

YouTube video

When I met Mike D., the drummer of the Beastie Boys, in 2010, I thanked him for inspiring me—he was a huge role model back when I was a drummer in a punk band, at age 15. These three nerdy Jewish boys had such an important influence on me when I was searching for my identity, especially because they made rap music, despite starting out as punks. While they pretended to be dangerous, I admire their songs to this day for their childlike enthusiasm and anarchic, ironic word games. A good example is this prank call with beats and scratching. It still blows me away.

Meira Asher – “Dissect Me Again 1”

YouTube video

Radical, uncompromising music that affects and shocks the heart and mind. What an authentic, realistic way to express emotions.

Miles Davis – “Blue In Green” (Kind of Blue)

YouTube video

When I heard him live with his red trumpet, I wanted to become a jazz trumpet player myself. That first entrance—he’s playing with a harmon mute and standing next to the mike—makes me feel like I’m about to faint…

Israel López “Cachao” – “Mambo Cambió de Swing”

YouTube video

In 2010, Barry Gifford sent me to a record store that specializes in Latin-American music. It’s in the subway stop at 42nd Street in New York, so hundreds of thousands of people pass by every day. The first time I went there I came armed with a letter of recommendation and a list of CDs to buy; now the salesman knows me, and I can’t stop by without being introduced to all kinds of different albums. I love brass, so the metallic sound and refreshing rhythms of “Cachao,” a classically-trained bassist, help me get my blood boiling when I’ve been feeling down. This is the highest form of musical truth.

N.W.A. – “Gangsta, Gangsta”


Back to the 1980s. This music is dangerous and nihilistic, influenced by life on the streets. Hard rhythms; provocative lyrics; a sound collage consisting of beats, cars, gunshots, sirens, screams, and swearing—N.W.A. gives me an adrenaline rush and goosebumps.

Giuseppe Maria Orlandini – “Col Versar, Barbaro, Il Sangue”

YouTube video

In this aria by Orlandini, the great Jewish queen Berenice, a foreigner at the court of Emperor Titus, threatens to kill herself. Her threat is not a hollow gesture. The wonderfully sparkling coloraturas—interspersed with the exclamation “Barbaro!”—show a constant struggle between love and duty. Joyce DiDonato sings here with clarity of tone, attention to detail, and sensitivity.

Reinette l’Oranaise – “Nhabek Nhabek”

YouTube video

Reinette l’Oranaise was a Jewish-Algerian singer whom I heard live in 1991. A blind old lady, she sang with incredible intensity, authenticity, and forceful energy. She accompanied herself on various string instruments, and I found myself torn between euphoria and melancholy.

Franz Schubert – Piano Sonata No. 19 in C Minor, D 958 IV. Allegro

YouTube video

Between the ages of 15 and 19, I was lucky enough to hear Sviatoslav Richter perform several times at our local music school in Styria, Austria. (By the way: a KGB agent was always present at his recitals.) I also got to meet him personally—he was such a well-read, humble, sensitive, serious man, and his performances were clean, liberated, unorthodox, unadorned. In that little concert hall, we had a fabulous close-up view of his fingers moving; the atmosphere there was one of hypnotic trance. I have particularly vivid memories of his interpretation of Webern’s Variations Op. 27, but I do want to feature one of his Schubert performances here. Wasn’t Schubert an early blues singer, looking to transform the sad skies? We follow his moods, cheerful or melancholy, in our souls. Over time, we try desperately to order these emotions; in our constant restlessness, we return to them only with great effort. ¶