Pictures of Israel
Commissioned by the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles, Pictures of Israel received its premiere 29 June 1997 at the Fourth Annual San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. It is scored for violin, double bass, alto flute, and tabla.
Rather than offer ‘pictures’ of Israel in the literal sense, my composition draws upon many diverse aspects of Jewish musical culture — both sacred and secular — and seeks to integrate these elements into an organic whole.
The use of the flute at the beginning of the piece was chosen to recall the pipe. The earliest reference to music in the Torah mentions the lyre and the pipe (Genesis 4:21).
Pictures of Israel seeks to reach back to the earliest days of Jewish history and at the same time to look ahead to a world beyond. Unlike Hanoch Jacoby’s composition King David’s Lyre, Pictures of Israel is not a programmatic work based on a particular chronology. Rather, it is in a spiritual sense that Pictures of Israel looks both back and ahead at one and the same time.
The work is divided into five movements: ‘Shalom’; ‘A World Beyond’; ‘Folk Dance’; ‘Reflection’; ‘Affirmation’. While the score calls for four players, the use of the flute is confined to the first movement. The predominantly three-part scoring recalls the intimacy of a small chamber ensemble in Western music; at the same time the use of the double bass imbues the work’s sonority with an orchestral undercurrent.
While Pictures of Israel is an instrumental composition, I was much influenced by Jewish vocal music. In particular, I was drawn to the expressive use of inflected notes that can be heard not only in sacred Hebrew chant but in performances of secular songs. The score calls for both the violinist and the double bassist to produce inflected notes to be achieved by portamenti.
While the flavour of Pictures of Israel is unmistakably Hebraic, the work is influenced by diverse musical cultures. The use of the tabla recalls Indian music. The combination of the tabla and the double bass, moreover, evokes the aura of the rhythm section of a small jazz ensemble.
I was influenced by the Bach Solo Cello Suite with regard to not so much as the formal design as to the general idea of a balance of different emotions and moods as embodied in individual movements, ranging from the melancholic introspection of the Sarabande to the dance-like joy of the Gigue. In Pictures of Israel, this influence carries over to a harmonic world far removed from Bach’s. At one end, there are figurations in the violin part that evoke the most non-Western sounding of sacred Hebrew chant; at the other, there is a duet for violin and tabla that was inspired by Israeli folk dance.
While the tabla player is called upon to improvise in certain sections of the score, the remaining instrumental parts are fully notated throughout.
Recording Across the Globe
A CD of my solo instrumental and chamber compositions was recorded in America in 2003. It was made by colleagues connected with the Leopold Mozart Academy of Music in Philadelphia, a school specializing in the instruction of gifted children.
With the release of a new CD, one’s inner thoughts and feelings are made public, as it were, by a series of interpretations encapsulated by a single disc. I am very fortunate to have found such sympathetic and gifted musicians to play my work. Each track on this disc is the result of a complete meeting of minds and of spirits.
Being based in Sydney, where I teach and write, meant that I was on the other side of the world from the musicians who would be recording my work. I found that many issues of interpretation could be discussed by e-mail, often in reference to an informal recording of a piece that had been sent to me, prior to the official recording dates.
The pieces were recorded in the Anchor Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The acoustic of the church is excellent and works especially well for solo stringed instruments. Since I felt certain that my music could not have been in better hands I did not feel that it was essential for me to be present at the recording sessions.
I was happy to receive the first draft of the CD and to try to discern what work remained to be done. While mastering had already taken place I felt the need for a final mastering session that I would be able to personally supervise. This session took place in Sydney. We used a Sonic Solutions hard disk system.
A not unknown British rock musician recently remarked that when he launched his career in the seventies the musicians were ahead of the technology whereas now the technology is ahead of the musicians. In the more rarefied world of contemporary classical music the musician stands a greater chance of distancing himself from the plethora of technological options now available. There are nevertheless certain pitfalls. Paradoxically, it is the very perfection of sound quality available in the recording studio that creates a potential problem for the musician playing in a recital hall: how can a musician playing in concert hope to emulate the state-of-the-art sound of the same piece that he has recorded in a studio? The truly honest player will not rely too heavily on technology while recording a piece in the studio; he will be concerned with creating a natural sound that will faithfully reflect his thoughts and feelings about the piece.
Primarily for economic reasons, many record companies now release CDs of music that was recorded live. While a live recording cannot offer the same degree of perfection to be expected from a studio environment one of its greatest assets is a spontaneity and lack of superficiality. For this reason I look on the proliferation of live recordings as a positive development. The final piece on the CD of my music — a Sonata for Cello and Piano — was recorded in concert.
The title of the CD is Nesia — ‘journey’ in Hebrew. We thought of the journey as a metaphor not merely for physical traversal but in addition for creative exploration.