Alex Eppler And The Cimbalom

Written by Astra Thor, Edited by Jehan Paul.

Alex Eppler is a respected musician, designer, and craftsman. Born and raised in the northwestern United States, he was inspired as a child by his parents, whose great love of traditional music and culture of Eastern Europe influenced him from early childhood. His parents loved Roumanian Gypsy cimbalom music in particular, and had an extensive record collection which was played so frequently that the entire collection became etched in young Alex's memory, forming the nucleus of his large repertoire. He remembers being impressed, as a child by the brilliance of this music.

When very young, he was given an old balalaika and encouraged to play and his talent was soon discovered. By his early teens, he was playing the Ukrainian cimbalom at the local Russian community center.

Before he was twenty, he had completed his musical education at the State Musical Conservatory of Bulgaria; specializing in the Bulgarian Kaval. He then toured Eastern Europe as a soloist with the Bulgarian State Ensemble, appearing on radio & television, winning many honors. During this period, he taught extensively, and began designing and building kavals and other instruments.

Returning to the U.S., he has continued to build instruments and is now acknowledged internationally as an expert maker of woodwinds of many kinds. He composes and performs in concert tours full time and has appeared as a soloist and had his works performed by the Baltimore, Honolulu, Edmonton, Calgary symphony orchestras and many smaller ensembles. He has soloed at Carnegie Hall and is a featured soloist with the Messenkoff Russian Folk Festival and the Aman Folk Ensemble on their tours. He has just completed his first solo album for a major American record company, and somehow finds the time to appear on film.

Recently Alex has returned his attention to the music of his youth by playing the cimbalom. Using his skills as a classically trained conservatory musician has led him to become a skilled interpreter of traditional musical folklore. He has composed much original material greatly enlarging the repertoire of the instrument.

The origins of the cimbalom are difficult to trace with certainty. There are similar instruments present in the history of almost every area of the Globe. It is directly descended from the hand-held hammered dulcimer found in Eastern Europe, whose antecedents are found in Persia or Turkey today. Early models were portable hammered trapezoids suspended from the shoulders and played with 2 short hammers. Even the earliest instruments were chromatic because of the necessity of playing the many modes found in the Middle East. Early strings were drawn copper metals such as those found on some of the courses of the Iranian santur. The sound of these strings is warm, dark, intimate; as though heard across a lake on a moonlit night.

In the 19th century, most middle-class families possessed a cimbalom for the music or parlor, just as most American living rooms contained a piano. Since the 17th century, Gypsies have been considered to be the premier musicians, entertaining royalty for large sums of gold. The cimbalom came with the Hungarians during the invasion of Roumanian Transylvania.

Roumania & Hungary have styles quite distinct from each other. In Hungary there are two styles: the classical, where the Cimbalom is taught as a symphonic instrument, and as a vehicle for performing the traditional Gypsy music handed down the generations. These are considered to be the master musicians and their techniques are rarely taught at the conservatory.

With it's larger Hungarian population the music most frequently heard in the US is that of Hungary. Hungarian players using lighter, padded sticks produce a lighter tone quality than that obtained by Roumanian musicians.

In the early 19th century, as a direct outgrowth of Hungarian nationalism, an instrument maker in Budapest named Schunda created the earliest concert cimbalom. More strings and the use of pedals gave this instrument a totally chromatic scale. Louis Bohak, his successor, changed the traditional design still more, giving us the instrument as it is today. In this country, William Somsak is considered to be the greatest builder. Alex plays a five octave, chromatic cimbalom, built by Bohak in Budapest about 15 years ago. Although he plays Russian & Hungarian music, his greatest interest lies with Roumanian Gypsy music. He has learned to play all the elaborate accompaniment styles as well as the solo music.

In Roumania there is only one style of public playing; that of the Gypsies. Although one encounters smaller, more ancient types of hammered dulcimers in Roumanian homes, used for more sedate music. The cimbalom is an important, distinctive voice in the Roumanian gypsy orchestra. In modern Roumania, bands of cimbalom, bass, two fiddles, accordion, nai(pan pipes), & perhaps a kobza, a lute-like instrument are those most frequently encountered.

Of the virtuoso school of cimbalom playing in Roumania, Alex favors Tony Iordache as such an excellent performer as to be in a class of his own; but there are many excellent composers and performers, and Alex laments that there are so few good performers outside Roumania. However, now it is not so difficult for Americans to gain access to this beautiful music, thanks to this talented man of genius, Alex Eppler.


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