Wandering sands and roots
By Oded Zehavi | 15/10/2009
The composers of popular Israeli music were more heedful of the encounter with the local landscape than the writers of artistic music, who in the first generation held on to their European musical heritage. Oded Zehavi says that the numerous forms and genres of Israeli music are still debating and struggling over Illustration: Michal Boneno
Any discussion of Israeli music today must take its extraordinary diversity into account. One would be hard pressed to find a single musical style that is not represented in the current Israeli musical scene: symphonic music and experimental artistic music, rap and hip-hop and minimalist electronic music, world music and ethnic music, rock and pop. It sometimes seems as if there are just as many music writers and professionals out there as there are people listening to them.
Is there – in this vast ocean of musical activity, or at least in the clearer areas of the Israeli musical scene – a single predominant artistic, esthetic or ideological process that we can identify? Can we point to a specific process, whether based on reason or intuition, from which we can extrapolate something about the face of Israeli society?
It seems that we composers of music, and our audiences too, desire to be a second generation of someone or something, even if only momentarily. We want to belong to something, to continue something, to be those that deepen the foothold on the path that has been blazed by others for us. However, a careful investigation of popular music, which by definition is music that appeals to a broad audience of consumers, and of the music of the concert halls, offers a clear answer: The various forms and genres of Israeli music are still debating and struggling over its identity.
This yearning for a father figure
An analysis of today's popular music reveals a nostalgia for tribal elders. In this yearning, we can recognize a desire to create – even in a world that churns out instant idols – some form of historical depth and roots.
Shalom Hanoch, Shlomo Artzi, Hava Alberstein and Yehuda Poliker too, who carries a burden far weightier than his biological age would indicate, all enjoy exceptional success, are in consistent demand and appeal to broad audiences in both the center and the periphery. The members of the interim generation of popular writers and performers – David Broza, Dan Toren, Nurit Galron, Yehudit Ravitz, Eran Tzur –with their wide array of self-retrospectives, appear to be getting ready to settle into this very respectable niche when the day comes too.
This yearning for a father figure seems also to be reflected in the profound grief expressed at the death of Yossi Banai. To many, he represented a mythical, patriarchal figure. Banai, an urbane, educated, literate individual with deep roots (in Jerusalem, Israel's eternal capital, no less), at the same time exuded a French aura and ethnic charm. He had a distinctively leisurely voice – but if truth be told, the singing talent of your next-door neighbor. Banai, whose contribution to Israeli culture as a popular artist, in my opinion, fell measurably below that of Nissim Aloni, Shaike Ofir or Efraim Sidon and the entire Zoo Aretz Zoo gang of satirists, represented for many a cultural reality that was neither elitist nor intimidating. He epitomized a father who doesn't demand too much of his children. Banai himself also felt passionate towards his forbears – his genetic ones (the Ladino ballads he sang off-key so well), and “representative” ones (the historic Suramello in Jerusalem, Simon and Moise, who became veritable legends of nostalgic Jerusalem), and those he acquired (mainly Alterman).
If Yossi Banai was the father, Hava Alberstein is the queen mother. Her biography and career seemed to prepare her for her undisputed position in Israeli culture. Born in Poland, she immigrated at a young age to one of the towns near Haifa. Alberstein was a true troubadour heart and soul and an opinionated artist who knew how to make choices. She began as a performer of Yiddish songs, which she returns to from time to time. Then she sang the oh-so-Israeli melodies composed by Nachum Heiman and Moshe Vilensky and new ones (which she commissioned herself from Yoni Rechter, Shlomo Gronich and Misha Segal). The transition she made at the next stage of her career, from the folk ballad to the self-aware chanson style was best described by Tirza Atar: “So if you heard Yossi Banai sing, you understand why he was an actor, and if you heard Yves, you remember that it was Yves Montand. And you are not them. You are Hava.” And from there, she soared to the world of pop music, while making sure to update the color of the arrangements and musical production. All these turned Hava Alberstein into a cultural icon.
In retrospect, it is interesting to note that most of the performers and artists mentioned here so far matured and developed right before the eyes of their audience. Shalom Hanoch moved from the days of Lool to the days of Tamuz and White Wedding, to a maturity that declared itself as such. Shlomo Artzi of Ahavtiha and Shirei Hahomesh made way for the Artzi of Yare'ach. Poliker found a connection in the history of the Jewish people, Eran Zur became a composer of branded poetics, and Arik Einstein is now riding the crest of a post-nostalgic wave. All are at the peak of layered artistic geological mounds, mounds whose depth is visible.
A cultural colonialist step
The writers and performers of popular music can base themselves to one extent or another on a historical continuum and continuity. The situation is far more complex in the area of artistic music. This is a period when accounts are being settled with the founding generation of artistic Israeli music, and there appears to be hardly an Israeli student of music who does not have a skeptical narrative of his own regarding Paul Ben Haim, Eden Partosh, Alexander Uriya Boskovich and their contemporaries.
Even if there is a superficial aspect to this rash historical indictment of the founding generation by Israeli music scholars and students, and even if this indictment may be viewed as a passing fad, there are certain facts about which there can be no doubt: If one studies the biographies of these founding fathers and listens to the music that they wrote here (music that was considered formative music in the critical years when Israel's artistic identity was taking shape), and if one reads the letters and articles they left behind, we find that these were musicians who had been deeply immersed and rooted in the centers of musical activity in Europe. Ben Haim had been a successful conductor and diligent student of the ultra-tonal mainstream music in Germany in the interwar period; Partosh had been a legendary violinist in Hungary and Germany, and Boskovich had been a famous and well-established composer in Romania when he decided to immigrate to Israel. Ben Haim and Partosh were forced to come by circumstances, and Boskovich came out of a desire to consolidate an individual artistic identity, but for whatever reason they immigrated, they came to a land to whose cultural wealth they were completely blind.
Who knows what might have happened had the ears of the musical founding fathers been more sensitively attuned to what Palestine had to offer; who knows what might have happened had they been mother-tongue fluent in Hebrew; who knows what might have happened had they, like Mordechai Seter, who in my view is the most important composer of that period, dedicated their talents to fusing musical tradition and the Mediterranean light and expanse and sound; who knows what might have happened had Ben Haim relinquished the utopian Orientalism of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, and listened with a less patronizing ear to the folk and ethnic songs of the local population and the musical treasures of Bedouins and Arab farmers.
Even if it were possible to understand the founding fathers' need to invent a sense of belonging for themselves, and even if to fear starting something new is painfully human and the tendency of older immigrants to hold onto familiar habits is entirely understandable (one very notable case is that of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who in all his years outside Russia persisted in conducting himself in accordance with Russian customs, hired Russian servants, wore Russian clothes and ate Russian dishes), we cannot ignore the fact that the birth of artistic Israeli music was in fact a quintessentially colonialist act. Many of the first-generation composers insensitively transferred the artistic language they had brought with them from Europe to the Middle Eastern musical reality. One of the most outstanding ironies in this area relates to those who were viewed as the iconic voice of the new land. Singer Bracha Tzfira and choreographer Sarah Levy-Tanai were in fact orphans who had grown up in orphanages, completely cut off from any deeply rooted family heritage. Perhaps the Eretz Israel orphans and European immigrants found a way for their missing roots to intertwine with one another, bringing us a Mediterranean current in Israeli music. And while it is true that the music that the first Mediterranean composers wrote appealed to audiences that had also undergone a cultural transformation and immigration, but the people that attended the concerts were the same people that worked outside in the scorching Middle Eastern sun. They were the same people who, at least until 1948, had dealings with their Arab neighbors and sang the songs of Nahum Nardi, who was perhaps the most fascinating artist working here before the establishment of the state.
The composers of the first generation trained outstanding students, and during their artistic lives almost all their students experienced a major crisis when they learned that they could no longer draw on the esthetics and ideology of their teachers. Noam Sheriff succeeded in a number of his important compositions – those that expressly refrained from citing or paraphrasing, especially in his composition for a cello ensemble and for a string quartet – to create a world that kicks, defies, confronts, an almost Ars Poetica world. Tzvi Avni and Ami Maayani tried to break free, each in his own way, from Paul Ben Haim's force of gravity. Avni succeeded by going in the direction of electronic music, and Maayani by taking hold of more objective elements of esthetics, becoming a scholar of philosophy and architecture and by writing a comprehensive biography of Wagner. They too, like their predecessors, consciously expanded the active musical discourse, which sent branches out across the sea. Avni, Sheriff, Maayani, Seter and Ben-Zion Orgad carried on the Israeli Middle Eastern tradition up until the point when it was no longer relevant. Each went his own way, leaving the center stage to a new generation of explorers of Israeli-Jewish identity, the second generation of immigrants. Andre Hajdu (Hungary / France / Tunisia), Mark Kopytman (Moldavia / USSR) and Leon Schidlowsky (Chile) burst onto the Israeli center stage in the 1960s and 1970s. They arrived to find a hesitant Israeli music reality as they sought to acclimatize themselves into their new homeland. Hajdu brought with him to Israel a fascinating combination of Parisian avant-garde, seemingly spontaneous but very self-aware, with an unmistakable Jewish perspective. Kopytman plunged into a riveting dialogue with the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (October Sun is in my view one of the great masterpieces of Israeli music) and with the roots of Yemenite folk music (Memory is a wonderfully sophisticated symphonic work, at the center of which is a stirring vocal solo memorably performed by folk singer Gila Bashari). Schidlowsky continued the path of Yosef Tal to a certain measure and established for himself an “earthly Darmstadt” in Tel Aviv as he exposed the Israeli music scene to the latest innovations in cosmopolitan European thought: graphic scoring, surprising sounds and an in-depth debate on the subjects of musical form and content.
A furrow for the composers of tomorrow
Most of the composers active in Israel today are drawn to the question of Israeli identity. Even as the silencing of the concert voice is threatening our very existence as composers and consumers of music, we can see the constant search, the desire, ability and courage to try to engage with a broader musical picture.
Ella Sheriff is looking for her way as part of a wide-open dialogue with the memory of the Holocaust. Betty Olivero, who started out by searching for a personal direction on the path set out by Luciano Berio in dealing with ethnic, folk materials, finds herself screaming again and again at the heavens. To a large extent, Menachem Wiesenberg is continuing the work of his father the Klezmer, but is at the same time repaying a debt of honor to classic Israeli music and Middle Eastern sound. Michael Wolpe, a composer and educator of noteworthy accomplishment, is indefatigably exploring the validity of the melodic modality in current Israeli conditions. Arik Shapira, who defines himself as a political composer, has found a new bitter face in Hebrew and dares to continue to seek out the singular Israeli voice. Eitan Steinberg weaves and embroiders his pacifist themes, the song of grief and pain, combining folk roots and music that emanates from the heart. Yuval Shaked takes a self-imposed remote look at our here and now, as he struggles to maintain the great preservation work of the Diaspora Museum's musical archive. I myself am engaged in an ongoing dialogue with poetic Hebrew in my song cycles Yearning, Innocence, Omer and Dawn, in projects involving writing music to the poems of poets such as Miron C. Izakson and Yair Hurvitz; with the music of Israel and the holy scriptures, Lihoraz: Psalm 131 and with the daily history of the State of Israel - L.H.M.-Israeli War Requiem.
I am not convinced that the audiences of all this musical activity are entirely aware of its richness and powerful intensity, but I do believe that through the work itself, we are plowing a furrow for the talented composers of tomorrow. Perhaps some of them will have an authentic sense that they are continuing a path that will be compelling and relevant to them and their listeners.
Prof. Oded Zehavi is a composer and a music lecturer at the University of Haifa.