Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nine new works performed by Musica Nova at HaTeiva (Jaffa, Israel) in honor of Israeli composer Amnon Wolman's 60th birthday

On April 29th 2015, artists of Ensemble Musica Nova presented “60 - a Tribute to Amnon Wolman”.The concert took place at the intimate HaTeiva Concert Hall in Old Jaffa. Putting together the program, Ensemble Musica Nova called on a number of composers - friends, colleagues and former students of Amnon Wolman - both from Israel and overseas, inviting them to write works for the event. The scoring of works required would be any combination to fit in with Musica Nova’s ensemble of two pianists, ‘cello, saxophone, percussion and electronics. Some composers submitted works for the complete ensemble, while others wrote for smaller combinations; there were also electronic works, works integrating video, electronic soundtracks and live performance. Some 50 works arrived from the USA, England, Germany, Singapore, Spain, Portugal, France and Israel, of which nine short pieces were selected for the event itself. All nine pieces, all of them composed in 2015, including one by Wolman himself, were premiered at the festive Jaffa concert to celebrate the composer’s 60th birthday.

Currently on the faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and artistic director of Ensemble Musica Nova (Tel Aviv), sound artist and composer Amnon Wolman focuses much interest and involvement on technology and on issues of time information, alongside questions regarding the creative process and those engaging in it. A highly respected teacher, Prof. Wolman has taught at Northwestern University, City University of New York-Brooklyn College and Tel Aviv University and has held master classes and summer courses in different locations. In 2012 he was guest professor of composition at Harvard University.

The evening opened with American composer David Grubbs’ (b.1967) conceptual-performative untitled work for Amnon Wolman: a quotation projected onto a screen in front of which the Musica Nova artists stood in silence. This was followed by Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin’s (b.1957) “Adiantum Capillus-Veneris” Etudes in fragility for voice and breath (1&2), performed by contralto Noa Frenkel – music consisting of delicately chiseled series of breathy effects, textures of tongue and lips, alternating with pitches sung in single syllables. Frenkel, a specialist in contemporary music performance, focused, communicative and convincing, drew the audience into the filigree-fine details of the two pieces.

“The Shirakawa Barrier” for four voices and electronics was Ido Govrin’s contribution to the program and his tribute to Amnon Wolman. Born in 1976 in Jerusalem, the sound artist, curator, composer and writer was director of Musica Nova from 2008 to 2012. As to the work’s title, Shirakawa, close to the Nasu Highland area (some 188 kilometers from Tokyo), once served as the entrance to the Tohoku region. Around the 5th century, a barrier was built to prevent potential attacks. The site has become a poetic landmark, to which many Japanese poets return, either physically or in their minds, becoming the inspiration for the “utamakura” i.e. a category of poetic words, many of which are place names or the names of features associated with them, creating an allusion and intertextuality between individual poems and within the tradition. In which case, the symbolic site of the Shirakawa Barrier does not distinguish between history and poetry. Govrin’s intimate, evocative work took the audience into the theme of journeys, with different texts (in Hebrew) spoken softly but articulately, singly, in pairs and sometimes simultaneously by all four artists on stage. The work was backed by a tape of musical fragments recorded for and by members of Musica Nova. This connotative work is highly effective, indeed beguiling, demanding choices and active listening on the part of the audience. I felt that one hearing was not sufficient in order to grasp enough of the spoken texts.

A highly engaging listening experience was provided by “Attachment Unavailable” for live and pre-recorded tenor saxophone, a tribute by Neil Leonard (b.1959) to a “friend, mentor and collaborator”, as he refers to Prof. Wolman, speaking of the “immense impact that knowing Amnon has had on many of us.” An American composer, saxophonist, interdisciplinary artist  and artistic director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, Berklee College of Music (Boston), Leonard’s work ranges from solo concerts for saxophone/live electronics, to works for orchestra, audio/video installation and sound for dance, theatre and performance. I had the pleasure of being in touch with Prof. Leonard and discussing the piece with him. As to the prerecorded material, he himself recorded it mostly in public spaces, playing lines that would resonate in those atriums and corridors, with the intention of later multi-tracking or layering fragments from it. In live improvisation, saxophonist Tom Soloveitchik used the prerecorded material as a basis on which to add new sound combinations, to partner, react and interact freely with it, to emote and express within the possibilities and language of the instrument. What emerged was an intense, dynamic, piece of vibrant timbres and one asking to sound differently with each new performance.

In the program notes, Oded Assaf (b.1947) speaks of his autobiographic piano miniatures “Postscriptum: 2 References” as forming a continuum, a kind of later, condensed appendix to his previous work “Pockets”, the word “References” here shedding light on “works, composers, materials and principles forming my [compositional] basis”, in the composer’s words. Performing the two mood pierces, pianist/improviser and composer Assaf Shatil (b.1976) took time to spell out the meditative content of both pieces: the first - chordal, tonality-based and punctuated with many rests, the second, an eerie, ruminating and less tonal piece.

Guitarist and composer Reuven Seroussi (b. 1959, Uruguay) felt he could take up the challenge to write a work for the 60th birthday event only after he had found a text to inspire him and one fitting to be a homage to Amnon Wolman and Wolman’s own particular poetic style. Seroussi chose the opening and closing lines of a poem written in 1912 by Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958), a text powerful in its connections between the final and the everlasting. “Evening”, as referred to in the poem, constitutes an experience of the senses, enlisting an atmosphere of acceptance, insight and wonder. Prior to the performance, the composer read out a Hebrew translation of the poem. The work was presented by ‘cellist Dan Weinstein, a musician focusing much on contemporary and experimental music, and contralto Noa Frenkel. A compelling performance, Frenkel made use of a gamut of different vocal textures, the score calling for much leaping between high and low registers, for speech, the breathing of words and a play of syllables. With the ‘cello part no less intensive, Weinstein’s playing balanced, reflected and supported the vocal role.

Tel Aviv-born composer and sound artist Kiki Keren Huss, today working largely in the electro-acoustic medium, called the work she had written for the event “Birthday Soup”. In a spirit of whimsy, the composer explained her “small musical theatrical piece for pianist and humming” thus: “not exactly soup, but for a birthday. One pianist, a few piano sounds and a little humming”. The pianist was German-born Shira Legmann, who paced the minimalist, intimate work leisurely, pausing between phrases. The delicate, fragile piece is based on the motif of a rising second, with Legmann’s pastel vocal sounds contributing to add a harmonic dimension. Following a nostalgic little waltz and the reminder of the rising second, the work concluded with a quotation from a children’s nursery rhyme: “Flying man flying man, up in the sky. Where are you going to?”

Amnon Wolman referred to his work “To Nova” for alto, narrator, saxophone, ‘cello, piano and two keyboards as a work of gratitude, to celebrate Musica Nova and show his appreciation to various ensembles which have constituted “Musica Nova”, together with whom new ideas were tried and with whom he aspired to present music not represented on the Israeli music scene. Wolman’s objective in this work was to suggest various kinds of musical partnerships taking place over tens of years, “but through my own personal glasses...My encounter with Musica Nova has been an abundant gift. This work aims to celebrate this.” Indeed, this piece included the whole Musica Nova team in a collage of poignant delicacy. Bean boxes (evocative rain stick effects), and the sound of falling pebbles, forming the percussive element of a series of tranquil sound screens, complemented small solo fragments. Selecting from her distinctive and rich vocal palette, Noa Frenkel made use of some of her characteristically earthy low notes, also offering a few moments of suggestive nightclub chanteuse. Of the three short texts woven through the work and read by Avigail Arnheim, the first two were written by Wolman himself “in the language and place of performance”: “Imagine a beautiful melody played on an oboe; it gets closer, then moves away and disappears slowly to…” and “and a call of a crow, which is repeated again and again and again.” The third text was from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end, and stop”. Amnon Wolman is known for his long-standing interest in the creative process, the relationship between performer and artist and for his belief that music is an art form expressing many dissimilar ideas of beauty. This small work, taking the listener into a world of grace, naivety and fantasy, represented those values.

The event concluded with ‘cellist, composer and interdisciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze’s (UK) “Mapping Amnon” for video playback and piano. The film loop used was a tiny fragment of an old home movie, showing an Israeli beach scene and accompanied by recorded ‘cello sounds. Also heard was a recording of American poet John Wieners (1934-2002) reading his “Poem for Painters” (1958).
‘Drawing the face and its torture.
That is why no one dares tackle it.
Held as they are in the hands
of forces they cannot understand.
The despair is on my face and shall show
in the fine lines of any man…’

Here is a mood piece, the broader canvas powerful with the poet’s mesmeric, melancholic reading, his strong images commented upon by the piano part – integrated, jazzy and American – at the hands of Assaf Shatil. So where does the “mapping” come in? Lukoszevieve explains that the simple 4-note repetitions on the soundtrack are a “musical rendition of me saying the 4 syllables of Amnon’s name” and that Wieners’ voice together with the rippling film tableaux “made me feel I was ‘mapping’ Amnon and his travels through life in my mind’s eye.” The work’s various elements seemed to invite the listener to join its course, that of a piece both moving and thought-provoking.

Since its establishment in 1986, Ensemble Musica Nova, a Tel Aviv-based collective, has played a central role in the field of experimental music and in presenting new works of Israeli and overseas composers, having premiered over 180 Israeli compositions to date, and collaborating with renowned composers and artists. In its broad approach, Musica Nova often bridges the gap between concert hall music and that of other disciplines, such as dance, video art and theater. Currently the ensemble in residence of the Musrara School of the Arts, Musica Nova’s artists, work and performances set a high standard in the field of contemporary music in Israel.


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