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Improvisation trio, Berlin

Already during work on Ilinx (composition and research), a work that incorporates movement of performing musicians as integral part of the composition, I was curious to see how similar attitudes would work in a jazz trio setting. The new trio, featuring bassist Hugo Reydet and drummer Tom Dayan, is making its, literally, first steps in experimenting with physical space and objects (our instruments). In our new repertoire, we combine at times movements that do not necessarily produce sound outside the audience’s imagination. But there’s much more to it; come to our shows and hear-see-experience for yourself.

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Ilinx (2014), for percussionist and ensemble

Ilinx (2014) is a sixty minute composition in six episodes written for percussionist Aiden McKee and a fifteen member ensemble. The work exploits and celebrates the gestures that musicians make, taking movement as a central element of the composition. Yet it is not a dance or theater, but an exaggeration of the functional movements that we see at the concert hall. Physical movements of the performing musician, which are traditionally considered secondary in the concert hall, are foregrounded in Ilinx. Movement becomes as important as sound itself, and together they are bound into a unique artistic gesture.

The score asks for unusual arrangements of the percussion instruments, requiring the soloist to move over large distances, to maneuver at times in great speed, to use awkward postures and winding routes in order to reach instruments, and to whirl as in a dance. Each episode focuses on a particular acoustic topic and its relations with movement: in one episode the percussionist runs hectically between drums scattered onstage and in the aisles, in another he interacts with the audience with tiny, barely audible instruments, making soft intimate sounds. Other episodes have him crawling through paper and rattles, playing a variety of hanging metallophones inside a ten-foot high tripod, surrounding an island of pitched percussion instruments and more.Each acoustic topic in Ilinx treats movement and space differently; together they trace an evolving performative behavior and attitude toward the audience. Ilinx takes us from personal intimacy and audience participation, through rituals, games and play, to frontal, distanced performance and even exclusion and alienation.

Meanwhile, the ensemble performs a parallel, seemingly disconnected set of short cues. The ensemble’s music feels like it is acting in opposition to the percussionist, performing either unseen or appearing in incomplete groups for brief moments. Their music is never synchronized with the percussion, and they seem to disregard the audience and the space. The musical and performative world of the ensemble emphasizes, by way of contrast, the vitality and essence of the physical and the visible: in this way Ilinx argues that all objects, space and movements are potent with sound and music. Ilinx strives to raise awareness of relations between musicians, space and objects, while encouraging us to reconsider the importance of movement in all performance.
The project is a result of a two-year process of research and creative work, as a part of my doctoral dissertation in music composition. The work was performed at the University of California Santa Cruz music center in November 2014.

[Sociologist Roger Caillois used the term Ilinx in his theory of play. He describes it as “an attempt to destroy momentarily the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind”. Ilinx is subversion and destruction of stability “brought about by a foregrounding of physical sensation, an awareness of the body set free from the normal structures of control and meaning.” (Caillois 1961, 23)]

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New piece for piano

Pianist Jeff Ladeur performed my latest piano composition Commercial Music on March 2014 in the UCSC music center. The work is a suite made of some hazy overtones of a genre of music so prevalent in modern media and some musical thoughts about materialistic consumerism.

Jeff Ladeur has been artist-in-Residence in the UCSC music department since winter 2014, and has been performing new compositions by graduate students and faculty members.

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Easy listening

When I was about eleven years old, my mother gave me her old radio. I think it wasn’t a transistor radio but a really old tubes radio. I’m almost sure about it because I remember peeping into its electronic innards from the many ventilation holes on its large chest. Actually, I begun listening to pop music even before that. I clearly remember how I was astonished to realize that pop songs were played by radio stations many times, not just once, and how consequently my friends’ older sister knew the lyrics by heart. At that age I hadn’t yet any independent access to music. If I desired to listen to certain music, I had to ask my parents to put the vinyl LP on the record player for me, sit by the mono speaker (we were quite a backward family, technologically wise) and listen.

The new radio thing was great. That is, I had been listening to the radio since age four or so, but never to pop music. My favorite radio program was at two in the afternoon, while my mother was taking a nap. There was one funny aspect to it, something I discovered only after one of IBA’s (Israeli Broadcast Authority) stations had invited me as young pianist, for an interview. When I entered the studio I realized that it was my most cherished radio show as a kindergarten kid! All my past radio-heroes were there: “this is Nilli who’s speaking to you” and “this is Tamar who’s talking to you”. That immediately flashed back to something I had completely forgotten until that moment: I used to wonder about the volume mechanism. I already knew that no tiny people reside in the radio box, and awkwardly enough I knew of the existence of the microphone. My imaginative mind had made up the rest: one of my heroes, the host of the show, or a story teller, would be sitting on a chair in front of a microphone. The chair was attached and sliding on a rail, and when I, the innocent listener, was turning the volume knob down, the chair would move backwards on the rail, and the narrator would get farther from the microphone and vise versa. That made sense. But there was a considerable flaw in that theory: I knew that other kids were listening to that same program. What, then, happens if they all start playing with the knobs, and “Nilli who’s talking to you” would whizz frenetically on her rail? And do every kid affect the volume of the others? All this was too much for my tech capacities.

In the summer after fourth grade I was sent to a day summer camp. I hated most of it, but at 10AM we were divided to activities groups. I can’t remember what was my designated activity, but I do remember distinctively that I used to go and watch the girls dance. It wasn’t just because of the girls. They had a sort of a pop dance choreography to Boney M’s rendition of Sunny and I was spellbound by the harmonic progression*. Aside from gems like Sunny, it was a well known fact at that time that ABBA is the highest peak of music, ever. Listening to their songs at another friend’s house was sheer bliss.
Anyway, only when I was 10 years old did the IBA invent the ‘light music’ station, and I was absolutely hooked to it. Like my friend’s sister I started memorizing lyrics and I waited hours on end, wishing for my favorite song to be played. That’s why the Hit Parade was no less than sacrosanct. Last week’s songs were listed in the news-paper so I used to purchase the most heinous tabloid just for that purpose. At first it was just that, but soon after I begun devouring gluttonously the rest of the yellow stuff in that toilet-news-paper. However, my point is that I was waiting impatiently all week to hear some very specific songs.

At about 12 years old I managed to convince my parents that our mono record player and the miserable assortment of transistor radios at home could hardly signify proper modernism. My parents couldn’t care less, but I guess they’ve sensed that my own self esteem (with further social implications) are at stake, and my father consented to buy a stereo set. That was a huge novelty: it was a heavy Japanese integrated set of a record player, tape cassette and radio. The possibilities were unheard of: you could actually record songs from the Hit Parade, keep them on a cassette (we had one or two of these) and listen to it almost anytime I wanted. This was science fiction, and it improved my musical and social life tremendously.
A year or so later, I went with my mom to the record store, to buy my first own LP, the Billy Joel album 52nd Street. I could (and I did) listen to it perpetually. The lyrics were inside the large cover, along with photos and such, everything was at hand.

Let me stop here and first, thank you for your patience. You do have some better things to do and I sincerely appreciate your attention thus far. The rest is commonly well known: more records, attending live concerts, the Walkman, the compact disc, hard drive recording, mp3, sharing softwares and the epitome of accessibility: Youtube. Had I such inconceivable apparatus of conjuration in the 70’s, life were different.

But not necessarily better.

Nothing is sweeter than finding a lost thing. And finding a long lost song – lost for, say, seven days of awaiting for that certain chord progression of Sunny – not only satiated a burning lust, but also enhanced its emotional essence. I would hear it, but only once (well, actually many times, on each refrain or chorus) and then, if unlucky, I’d have to wait another week. Thus, my motivation to unravel and decipher musical phenomena such as ABBA’s harmonies and voicings was immense. The mere hunger for the occurrence was an unrivaled incentive for musical activity. I’m not even mentioning the later, marvelous instance of playing in a band.

The abundance and extreme accessibility of music turn many of my younger students into numb technocrats. They lack the curiosity and seldom are they animated by musical phenomena precisely because they are bombarded with it, among an excess of other kinds of stimuli. On the other hand, just because of this showering profusion, the effect of diversion may sometimes possess more power. A heavy metal fan, who can easily spend 24 hours of his entire life absorbing all possible specimen of that genre, may sometimes be astounded by a simple recording (or video, for that matter) of Joni Mitchel, accompanied only by a piano. But even that is problematic, as I observe others and myself become such “renaissance” musicians, nurtured with so many styles and cultures, that diversity itself becomes a monotony.

When obtaining recorded music, I find myself almost unconsciously constricting my musical diet to bare necessities of my work and studies. The rare exceptions are usually for nostalgic reasons or some musts that can’t be overlooked. I can’t even think of myself carrying an Ipod or any other such multi-schwigabyte storage device. Choosing is one difficult thing, and novelties and surprises are still a most welcome element in my musical world.

* To whom it may be of interest, Sunny‘s harmonic progression is: Im V13/VI VIMaj7 IIm11 (yes, a delicious modal interchange) V7. This 1976 exuberant production had everything: a fat disco 4-4 bass drum, horn section, at least three modulations up a half step and even a string section solo!


The Iranian Nuclear Bomb and Me

I don’t really care whether Iran attains nuclear power and be able to develop, construct and maintain a nuclear bomb.

This attitude may seem either fatalist or, you may more probably think, sheer stupidity and fatuousness. Sadly, I guess you would be correct: I do not believe in my ability to influence any significant factor of this process and I am literally an ignorant in the details and nature of it.

But really, most people are. I can write and perform music decently and I have a reasonable capacity to teach it, or at least not to afflict or mislead any of my students. But I, and all the people I know personally are, the most base of laymen regarding nuclear weapons, Iran and international politics – to name just a few of the disciplines and faculties relevant to the adept professional. Some people call me from time to time for assistance in what they believe to be my area of expertise. I haven’t yet got a call concerning the Iranian bomb. I’m quite comfortable with it.

In such a dilemma one should probably call others: if you desire to know what should be done, you should most likely call your prime-minister, or head of the armed forces. If it is just a theoretical, preliminary research, then perhaps a scholar or an Iran-pundit will do. But most of us sluggards don’t even do that. There are few reasons why we address this seemingly baleful and exigent matter in such an irresponsible manner. First, them haughty prime minister and head of the army and even the lesser ministers don’t usually answer. To state it more bluntly, they never answer. Then, we are too busy: I feel obliged to answer my students’ questions and improve my professional skills (not to mention making a living, cleaning the house from time to time and gazing through the window). And last – and I refer only to myself but you may identify if applicable – I don’t really trust the PM and the army that much.

As I said, my own means of evaluating the situation are meagre. But even my ability to evaluate the pros, their virtues pertinent to that matter, are scarce, close to nonexistent. I honestly don’t know if the PM consults the right experts, and worse than that, if he’s following any clear ideology and rationale. On the other hand there are some other features pertaining to this bunch of leaders that can be easily discerned. Their looks, for example. Yes, I know this sounds REALLY idiotic, but if you’ve borne with me up until now try to go on. I’ll give an example: when I first I saw Ehud Barak’s face in the news-papers I had made up my mind not to support him. His supercilious countenance just looked wrong. Now, of course I could have been completely or partially mistaken: does his face reveal the relevant information for my functional acquaintance with that man? Maybe not, but what other source can I use? The media? I don’t really take them that seriously. Perhaps if I have known any of his close associates I would have had some better information. But unsurprisingly I don’t know any of his friends and I don’t have the time to glean the facts myself. You may ask: why not just listen to his proclaimed stance and agenda? Well, that’s exactly the point: compare them to reality and you’ll see I was better off with my primitive attitude.

So what do I care about? I care about trust and integrity. There are so few politicians that actually proved to be smart, honest and having the puissance and endurance necessary for leadership (and I almost forgot to mention having the right ideology for me). This leaves me with two practical alternatives: fatalism and preserving my vicinity of influence and expertise well maintained, or neglecting my vocation and rush to learn Farsi, nuclear physics, international relations, sociology, political science, strategy and, well yes, public relations.


The evasive nature of verbal expression

I’m often awed by the abundance of alternatives for expressing a notion. I’m also appalled by my limited vocabulary and above all, I’m frustrated by the seemingly mercurial nature of verbal expression.

This subject is so complex and somewhat remote of my usual intellectual occupations, I don’t pretend to reach any conclusions nor generalizations. This post then, will be a mere reflection and wonderment on an issue of major importance for cultural activity and development, but of abysmal scope.

At least four or five times a day I find myself verbally paralyzed as I roam my mind for the correct word. The notion, the right nature of it, simmers in my mind, almost tangible, a selection of similarly meaning words buzz around, but the precise one remains unattained, lurking behind a mental veil. This deficiency of signification may bother me for long periods of time: I’ve recently bumped into a lost word after searching for years. It was an infrequently used Hebrew word for ‘bag’ that was once more common in old translations, even of children’s books. About half the people with whom I shared my happy relief haven’t heard of this word – all of them being younger than 30. Most irritating are the instances when the search remains futile and you’re left with the thwarting void of a notion destitute of suitable verbal representation.

I would guess that basic verbal communication is generated by fundamental necessities: hunger for food, warmth and other elementary needs. The ever growing specifications of these needs require larger vocabulary. If that is true, I would expect that cultures enjoying wealth would develop a larger vocabulary because its basic needs are already satisfied.

I discussed the matter with an American friend while jogging. We talked (rather gasped) about the difference between Hebrew and English vocabulary. I find the English language to be much richer than Hebrew. It is well exemplified in the vast selection of words that roughly mean the same thing, but specifically describe and define an array of variations and nuances. It also reminded me of the fact, once pointed out by a poet friend, that Hebrew still lacks ‘middle’ language. There’s the ‘high’, literary ancient Hebrew: biblical Hebrew and the styles that were used in the old writings, there’s the Sephardi Golden Age of poetry and probably more ancient literary styles of eras I’m not acquainted with. Then, there are the comparatively modern authors of the 19th century and the famous renovator of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Not surprisingly, the average contemporary Israeli teenager would risk his social life if he imprudently choose to use these anachronistic styles at school. But in fact, even the modern Hebrew literature, that of the 1950’s and on, is read as literary and rarely used as semi-formal quotidian language.

The daily, ‘low’ Hebrew is miserably meager or heavily flavored with slang. I like slang: it renders verbal communication with new and accurate words. There are some brilliantly appropriate words that no formal Hebrew word can replace. But when it seeps into the mainstream media, the low Hebrew now properly stripped and devoid of slang, is left miserably poor. I’m referring mainly to extempore television and radio broadcast, but it can be found everywhere, including well prepared text.

I suspect that the reason for this decline does not lie in paucity of vocabulary: Hebrew is rich and diverse as any ancient language. It is rather the combination of lack of true profound cultural leadership and charisma and the lack of a genuine necessity for rich language. Due to many factors into which I dare not delve in this humble post, a rich language had long seized to be revered and aspired. Quite the contrary: a speaker of articulate and affluent language, grammatically efficient and correct is most likely sneered at or regarded as unfashionable, pretentious or even condescending.


Juana de Ibarbourou – El Dulce Milagro

I have been working on a short cycle, comprised of three poems I had set to music. There were already two poems, His Dream by W.B. Yeats, Evven by Nurit Zarhi, and I wanted the third one to be in Spanish. I’d consulted a friend of mine, Carla Harpaz, an Argentinian born and a poet herself (if I’m not mistaken) and she had recommended a few poems. Among them was El Dulce Milagro by the late Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou. As a preparation for composition I had examined several aspects of the poem. The English translation is mine, with Carla’s kind amendments and corrections. It is a technical translation with no poetic pretensions, for the sake of fully understanding the simple meaning of the text.

Right after the awed, declamatory first stanza, a large part of the poem is dedicated to the people’s opinion of the miracle and its possessor. The passing people in the lane, at the public domain, refer to her as mad and advise to send her back to her home. From this point germinates a conceptual layer of space – private (the woman’s home) the public (the lane) half private (the cell) and references to much remote places as the wheat fields and France.

The participants in this poetic world are the narrator – a girl or a woman – and the people on the street. They are all active, present and verbally articulate. Then, there are the greyhound (also present but naturally taciturn) and finally the lover and a general example of mankind (“Que cuando uno dice:…”; ” when one says…”).
The narrator’s communication with the other participants are as follows: it is not clear whether she speaks directly to the people on the lane, she may be just announcing her enchantment to whoever may hear her. She definitely addresses the dog, but it is a song now, not quite an objective, direct communication. It seems she is mainly speaking to a general listener or to herself.

Examination of the rhymes indicates that five of the stanzas are constructed of two pairs of lines that end with the same vowel. Two of them (stanzas II, V) are restricted to the same vowel, one of them (II) has almost perfect “feminine” rhymes (stressing the penultimate syllable). Stanzas III and IV have a pair of lines that end with the same vowel, but in the plural form, e.g. casa, pasa, rosas, mariposas. Only the first and the last stanza contain two different pairs of syllabels. Regarding the rhymes in general, I’m not acquainted with Ibarbourou’s poems so I can’t assert whether it’s a characteristic poetic idiom or a deliberate artistic or stylish poetic tool, specifically used here. However, this element contributes to the poem sense of structure. First, it stresses the edge quality of the first and last stanza: they are made of different pairs of rhymes. The juxtaposition of the first stanza to the monorhymed stanza II emphasizes its role all the more. The last stanza is approached through stanza’s VI poor rhyming, as though announcing the end of the internal section idiom. Then, as mentioned above, the monorhyming imbues stanza II a strong and rushed temperament.

I believe that the key to understand the poem may be found at stanza IV. The narrator herself reprimands the people for actually believing her! It may be that she is complaining about the people’s pathetic tendency to perceive her proclamation as real rather than conceiving it as, say, poetry… If so, that would explain her somewhat facetious behavior in the last two stanzas and the repeated gaudy description of the roses, with a flamboyant and seemingly irrelevant mention of France. The proceeding stanza V starts with a relatively logical tone, where she explains the difference between her announcements, her art, and between reality. Again, she seems to pity the people’s limited ability to apprehend poetry or even their inability to search for such one at all.

Juana de Ibarbourou

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A few years ago I was invited to a concert. As usual in the rather small, culturally-challenged vicinity of my hometown, I was invited by one of my students, who was working at that time at the venue of the performance. Neither was I surprised to find that more than half of the performers – and it was quite a large ensemble – are either students of mine or former ones. If I remember correctly, I have already read an article in the news about that show: the producer, who was also the main performer and presenter was an MIT doctoral student and an almost forgotten student of mine. He was developing digital, software-controlled devices that perform and manipulate music, and the concert integrated these machines with live performers. There were two electronic beetles that were activated by two assistants, manipulating sound that they’ve just recorded, a robot-drummer and, as a centerpiece, a collaboration with the audience.
I have sat at the second row, so I could see clearly all my acquaintances on stage. I’ll skip the details and get to the point: the concert was a boring exhibition of digital toys and a complete waste of human musicians and other resources, so important to this town’s insufficient cultural life. After no more than five minutes I wished I’ve been elsewhere, but alas, my choice of seat was that of a foolish novice: leaving such a central position would have been a downright insult.

Then, frustrated and bound to the seat, I started contemplating the good old booing habit. I tried to recollect if I ever witnessed such audience response, and the only occurrence I could think of was a symphonic orchestra concert in 1985. They’ve been terrible, and the climax was a crucial point in Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The french horn uttered such a miserable squeaky solo, that the bravo shout that ensued was clearly a sarcastic mock. But that was it. Even then, I doubt if any ticket purchaser would have stood on his feet and bluntly boo at the performers.

This case was different: even if booing was a norm, I wouldn’t have disgraced my students and acquaintances. But suppose I was an innocent ticket holder, dressed in my best attire for an evening of cultural enrichment or amusement (both were lacking in that show) after considerable time on the road, the parking ordeal, the line to the ticket booth and all. Wasn’t I entitled for a thunderous angry boo? Or even were I just a conscientious music zealot (which I am not), defending art from dissolution, shouldn’t I have protested using this ultimate mean?

Attitude may be different in other places, but in Israel it would seem inappropriate to criticise an artist during performance. Why is it so? Is it because of the frequent acquaintances between the Israeli performer (or his aunt) and the ticket holder? Probably not, as later, sometimes venomous excoriation, is often expressed, both written and verbal. Jeering can be found at the Israeli sports stadiums and at political conventions. I’m afraid that this leniency evinces low expectations, both from the performer and from one’s own discernment. These may be due to either lack of knowledge and appreciation or a post-modern mutant of the provincial tolerance for any artistic endeavor, may it be good or bad.


A theme for thesis

As I’m entering my second year of the master’s degree in music composition I must hasten to choose a subject for the thesis paper. I always suggest that tasks such as this, a seemingly academic (i.e. theoretical) one, should by all means have practical implications. Whether affecting the way I compose or altering my conception of music I hear, it should have a significant impact.

While pondering on the matter I have indeed turned to such subjects of both interest and practical use such as research of children’s chants (songs that toddlers make up) as a basic framework for further understanding of the human concept of music. Or an analysis of certain aspects in compositions I’ve already heard, and that I felt may conceal further aspects I have yet to discover, a deeper understanding that may well change the way I hear these compositions.

Unfortunately, all my suggestions were discarded by my professors as already heavily researched and commented. My mind roams again to well-known zones such as music education and popular music, but it all seems like beating around the bush and avoiding what seems to me important and interesting: to have a true insight on artistic composition. It may be a modest insight, but it should have an impact.

My two main concerns and often of a dettering nature in my writing are the flow of creativity and control of structure. Examining these two from the viewpoint of the listener, who’s listening to the completed piece, only the second is crucial to the composition. If my ideas do not flow at the time of composing, I can take a break and continue later, or consult with someone else. But if I lack control of structure it may well affect the composition, as the structure is controled by mere chance.

What then could be a thesis that may influence one of these two aspects? I gaze through the window in front of me and I see the eternal traffic jam on the highway exiting Jerusalem. Every day, except Saturday, from about 16:00 to 18:00 a crawling serpent of cars laborisiosly advancing, gliding on the hot asphalt.

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