Improv@halas.am by Ayelet Lerman
Experimental Israel is an ongoing research project by Dr. Ophir Ilzetzki. In 2016, supported by Mifal Ha'Pais and the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Ilzetzki was commissioned by Daniel Meir and Halas Radio to create an original radiophonic study centred around contemporary Israeli music. As a composer identifying stylistically as experimental, Ilzetzki chose to focus on other Israeli artists who are, in some way, identified with experimentalism. In the two official years of research, Ilzetzki met weekly with prominent figures in the Israeli new music scene - composers, improvisers, sound and multi-media artists. With them, Ilzetzki ruminated in unofficial conversations regarding the main research questions. Yet, Ilzetzki prompted the artists not only to tackle the research questions via interviews, but also artistically; and so, Experimental Israel became one of the most extensive call for new works in Israeli music to date.
The main research questions are: How does experimentalism manifest in its artistic form, and specifically music; does the Israeli experimental practice differ from that practiced abroad, and is it possible to detect a distinct Israeli style? Despite its conclusions, the research does not attempt to suggest definite answers, but to place the opaque and widely used term in a clearer context. Since the early 90s, a bustling new music scene is active in Israel, bringing together artists of different genres. Today, these same musicians have already taken their rightful place in the international music scene, making them a fertile ground for queries such as raised by this research. Accordingly, and seeing the research could serve musicians worldwide, Ilzetzki makes sure to summarise each of its interviews into a short article in English. Each article includes the main focal points of the interview, a chronological reconsideration of the fixed research questions, as well as a look at those added during the course of research. Seeing the Israeli experimental scene is constantly growing, and hence, in flux, this research does not, and truly cannot, have a definite conclusion. Therefore, even after its official course has ended, Ilzetzki continues to add new voices to the research archive, so as to expose and clarify the topic even further. In fact, in its inception, the research was introduced as ongoing, and it is our hope that future researchers will refer to it, and continue its course. Thus, at any given moment in time, the research will serve as an up-to-date 'screen-shot' of the constantly developing Israeli experimental scene.
Experimental Israel is broadcast live from Halas Audio. All interviews, alongside interview summaries, are available in this archive. The programs are also available for download on Spotify.
Experimental Israel was made possible due to the kind support of Mifal HaPais Council for the Culture and Arts, and the Israeli Center for Digital Art.
Deconstruction & Love or: Weirdos
Ayelet Lerman is one of the most active individuals within the Israeli improv scene. In the past two years I have seen her almost exclusively play viola in such improv session (whether in group or solo performances), making me assume that her entire practice can be encompassed by this raw statistic. Our interview quickly disclosed how wrong I was, as I discovered that Lerman represents an experimental type we have almost but grown accustomed to: Her bio discloses a child violinist (later to be replaced with viola) who took an unruly stance towards classical music, and this although she will continue following that same classical trajectory for years to come. Lerman discovered the need to express her “wild side”, as she terms it, but found herself in disagreement with the “taming circus animals” attitude of classical music didacticism. However, in front of me sat a calm, level headed and thoughtful individual who seemed drawn more towards eastern philosophy in her spiritual practice and life trajectory. But I soon discover that this too, like my earlier assumption, is merely a diminution of who Ayelet Lerman really is.
Her career in art took Lerman through many forms of expression including installation, curation and currently even film studies, an art form Lerman has loved for many years and has finally felt ready to tackle. So indeed, Lerman has a true creative side where she commits to ideas, but when it comes to music, or specifically viola playing, she cannot pin the notion of composition onto her practice. She approaches viola playing as a means for immediate release of ideas – a spontaneous activity, in which the viola is treated like an appendage of Lerman’s body and not an exterior tool. She never prepares these iterations, rather simply has spontaneous conversations with herself or others, but conversations in which she also recognizes her very distinct style of playing and voice, which she simply sums up thus: “I am very much Ayelet on the viola”!
Individualistic as she is in her stance and artistic voice, Lerman is still, and very much a woman. And it is actually from this standpoint that we begin our interview, where I confront Lerman with questions regarding gender roles within experimental music, and at large. Lerman, who obviously dedicates much thought to these issues, retorts almost immediately: “It’s a question of language first and foremost”. To Lerman the verbal and non-verbal language we practice in society at large and in Israel in particular are extremely masculine. It is a precursor to the very male-oriented thought processes we undergo as a society. According to her, this language is slowly changing, but it’s a matter of time and probably hard work until the general populous will get used to a new type of language. Lerman is a modern feminist; hence her stance does not seek to obliterate manhood, but simply allow a separate narrative. However, like a true thinker that does not shy away from inconvenient truths, Lerman immediately plays devil’s advocate and recognizes for us a “female state” in art: less individualistic, and more prone towards collaboration. However, questioning the place of women in experimentalism brings Lerman and myself back to the notion of deconstructing the “language” of society at large and the microcosm of this idea infiltrating experimental practices as well. But, and this is a huge but, Lerman also recognizes clear feminine traits within artistic creation. For instance, Lerman speaks of her attitude towards improv, which she claims is “a woman’s attitude towards improv”. This attitude consists of noticing the minute detail, and more so – treat this minute detail, this peripheral material at times, with love – in short: to attach oneself through love. This is a concept, feminine or not, that throws Lerman almost seamlessly into her day-to-day life where she practices the aforementioned notions through meditation. In meditation, Lerman tells us, one allows herself to be an empty vessel. And it is from within this same stance that Lerman would like to approach improvisation.
Indeed, like many of our past guests, Lerman too recognizes the toll this might take of the audience, or at the very least require of them a similar meditational mode, or awareness. But regardless of what it exactly requires of the audience, it no doubt requires it in the form of some “work”, and thus immediately sets this practice apart from most classical music, or indeed most music out there. However, according to Lerman, behind this “work” lays some hidden meaning, which is the reasoning at the base of the entire practice. Lerman clarifies – this is not a search for a-priori meaning, but rather the creation of a “state of being”, which in itself creates meaning, albeit subjective. The improv session can work or not, it can be hailed or booed, it can create wonderful moving sounds or horrific noises; regardless, if an alternative state of things was introduced, this in itself is the goal. This conclusion takes Lerman full circle and back to a possible conciliation with classical music. As even in fixed forms (through-composed music, films, etc) there is improv: “A film might be fully scripted, but when it is shot, there is usually more improv employed during the scenes than adherence to the written script. And this example can be transposed to almost any fixed format art form: there is always a comingling of strict materials vis-a-vis improvisation. And so, through a microscopic view, Lerman unfolds a supposed clarity as bustling with underlying chaos. And this, of course, closes the circle opened when discussing questions of gender and language. Here too, Lerman exemplifies the holism of her stance to life and music, and more so, how effortlessly it comes to her.
The local experimental and improv scene open up a fascinating discussion that takes us through topics that in many ways summarise Lerman’s approach. Her point of departure is the topic of funding. Lerman recognizes that which many of us have –namely the fact that arts funding is almost non-existent in Israel. Noting that the usual stance of experimenters is that of individualistic renegades who put an emphasis on the individual persona, raises the question whether this stance is not aided by the aforementioned lack of funding? In fact, does it not create a default stance that sets the experimenter opposite the “classical” stance? Israel, continues Lerman, is a society of conformists – this can be felt in every aspect of society, and is especially felt to women. Lerman recognizes in herself the innate seed of antagonism, which in the face of this aforementioned conformity can sometimes be expressed with rage in her music. It’s as if she was saying: “you all want to conform to the same ideas, then I will present you with ideas that you simply don’t understand”. It is an antagonistic approach, teeming with artistic negativism, and at least to some extent exemplifies to Lerman why it is so hard for lay-audiences to listen to experimental music at large and in Israel in particular. It takes quite a knowing audience to be able to treat antagonism with tolerance or respect, not to mention love. “In a society where the nature of discussion (even within the family unit) is so violent, it is not at all surprising to find an active underground”, says Lerman. This underground immediately acts as a refuge for all of those proponents of society who are lacking some vital characteristics allowing them to express their voice within “normative” societal terms. And the expressions of this on the experimental stage can be wide and varied: perhaps one person proposes a language devoid of rage, perhaps another presents a language with exaggerated rage. But the commonality is that all of these people are “allowed” to simply be for a while, and express a voice that society at large does not yet know how to hear, or understand. Lerman continues and claims that in a society where an artist could find her or himself silenced by the government and authorities (and thus legitimise a media and public witch hunt with outcomes unknown), it is not surprising to see experimental artists express their voice with more passion, and gut felt works.
As ever, Lerman’s holistic approach manages to make sense of what seems like a blunder, and leads her to ask whether it’s not the experimental and underground artist’s task to help society find its boundaries? And indeed - isn’t an experimental artist, who finds herself hounded by police and media due to an artistic expression, an important precursor allowing society a glimpse at their future? Indeed, an immense role fulfilling an important, somewhat thankless, service to society. This, concludes Lerman, is always very easy to forget, as the performances themselves are usually to small publics, and more often than not garner ambivalent and tepid responses. But the role is the same regardless, and at least for Lerman, manages to create a vibrant contrast to the ideas of Zionism. Zionism’s main tenet recognizes a new nation with a new culture claiming a supposed wilderness. As romantic is this ideal seems, it is simply not true! Israel as a nation is based on a series of subsets of immigrants from different cultures – each with their own language or dialect, foods and cultural affiliations. The new invented culture for Israel perhaps represented an ethos of its time, but it in no way represents a majority of the country’s voices today (nor did it ever), and these cracks are slowly starting to show. The main crack has of course to do with this supposed wilderness, which in time will become the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a contentious point for those still claiming that the country indeed was a wilderness when settled. Over the backdrop of this supposed void, bustle several cultures fighting for their existence, not accepting the hegemony, and asking whether things really are the way they are presented. The experimental scene, claims Lerman, is in itself antagonistic to the idea of a void, any form of stasis, or non-organic culture.
Therefore, it is not surprising to discover that for Lerman, experimentalism is, in fact, an act of deconstruction. What is surprising is a fleeting recognition that this practice, negating any act of stasis, is in itself a static act. This state of being might allow a negativist expression, yet still, as an act of being it is always one and the same. With this realisation, and after having talked about western vs. eastern culture, I suddenly realise that none of these cultures can encompass experimentalism fully. It is true that western culture puts the individual at the forefront, but this individuality must conform to norms and hence cannot accept the renegade approach. Eastern culture, on the other hand, begs to obliterate the individual altogether and thus creates a form of existence that does not require expression; again, nothing the renegade approach can dwell within. And so, bound to no state, culture, border or ism, experimentalism is likened to an island that, by default, is deemed for cultural loneliness. It brings to mind a beautiful story that Lerman chose to end our broadcast with, taking us back to her days as a classical viola student in Bologna. As she was setting herself up in the city, Lerman found herself in a circumstance requiring her to sleep in the streets for a few nights. Lerman describes how the vibrant city, its streets teeming with young students, suddenly became the city of street-dwellers. Her main recollection is of the many unique characters she met during those nights, predominantly men – all of whom reminded her very much of the experimental type she has by now grown accustomed to: “They were like a bunch of weirdoes at the edge of society, who couldn’t find an outlet of self expression anywhere else other than there”.
Improv@halas.am by Ayelet Lerman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.