Originally, Basil Alter had a busy travel schedule for 2021. Alter, a Jewish violin master from Memphis, was planning a trip to Israel and a concert tour from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Michigan.
The pandemic changed all that, so the 21-year-old is holed up at his Manhattan apartment, where he hears the radiator creaking and taxis honking, or the Beastie Boys blaring outside his window. Mostly, though, he practices and perfects his violin skills.
Basil is in his final semester of studies at the Manhattan School of Music, aided in part by a Jewish Children’s Regional Service (JCRS) grant. On April 11, he performed for the JCRS Jewish Roots Jubilee Gala with The Ensemble, a group of musicians who also received college aid from the organization.
Performing is old hat for Basil, who had his first recital at the age of three. Given his family history, it’s probably no surprise that Alter demonstrated a gift for music at an early age.
“My dad is a clarinetist – he’s the band director at Ridgeway High School,” Basil said during a recent chat with Jewish Scene Magazine. “My mom is a violinist. She recorded at Stax Records. Her father was a jazz musician. He played stand-up bass with a bunch of bands on a riverboat in Memphis. My mother’s aunt was an early music specialist, and she went to Julliard.”
Basil’s parents Adam Alter and Nancy Ditto met in New York City, but they wanted to get out of the big city so they moved to Clinton, South Carolina, where Basil was born. He still remembers as a five-year-old playing a Bach double violin concerto for an audience, accompanied by his mother.
“We were living in South Carolina when I was growing up, and my dad was the band director of a small high school,” he said. “He had all the instruments in the band room, so I got used to fooling around with all the different instruments and hearing them. I really liked the drums, and about the point we moved to Memphis, I missed playing violin. When I was 13, that’s when I started really practicing and going for it.”
Basil’s talents reached new heights in Memphis, where he played alongside the Memphis Symphony. He has also performed in Europe, including Cremona, Italy, and a solo performance with the Armenian Philharmonic.
When Basil is not performing or practicing, he is a sought-after arranger and composer. He also does musical transcription. It’s a painstaking process of listening to improvised music and writing down the notes. He enjoys transcribing jazz music, which can be an especially difficult genre.
“You’d think that if they if they’re playing really fast, it would be harder,” he said. “Those are the easy one. It’s hard when the musicians are way at the low end of the piano, and then they’re playing all the notes together and then the frequencies are different. You really have to listen. I don’t use any sort of software. I know that exists, but I don’t trust it. I just really listen and figure it out. It’s a game, really.”
Yes, a game. Basil enjoys transcribing jazz music and solving crossword puzzles. Both require a code-breaking skill that isn’t easy to accomplish.
“Someone will be playing the piano and then they don’t have the sheet music for it because they improvised it out of their head,” he said. “So, I go back, and I punch in all the notes and write them down, and I create a piece of music from that audio recording. I’ve been doing transcriptions for two noted Jewish jazz musicians, Ted Rosenthal, who is a professor here at MSM and Julliard and Steven Feifke, who is a professor at The New School.”
In addition to his transcription work, Basil has been assisting with musical arrangements for the virtual JCRS Jewish Roots Jubilee Gala event.
“I’ve been hammering out these parts and it is so intensive,” he said. “You have to make these artistic decisions. Then you have to plug it into the computer, and then you have to make it look good and make sure everybody else is happy. There can’t be any mistakes, because we can’t stop the recording and go back because we’re all separated.”
After he completes his studies at MSM, Basil plans to continue his music education, which will likely be a master’s degree.
“Being here is a great dream come true. I didn’t think five years ago that I would be here now,” he said. “So I am keeping an open mind about everything. The way I see it, as long as I’m practicing and I’m exploring all the things that I can explore musically and as long as I’m happy, that’s what’s worked out so far.”