A Composer to Scare the Bejesus Out of the IPO

Arik Shapira is the second composer to have been invited by the Netherlands' Royal Academy for a week of concerts and private lessons for students under his guidance.

Anyone who has heard word of the event-laden "Shapira Week," which is being held from today until Saturday, with concerts by composer Arik (Arie) Shapiro and private lessons for students under his guidance - this has raised an eyebrow at the sudden embrace of the Israeli composer while he is still alive - can rest assured: The week is being held far from here, in The Hague, and more precisely, at The Netherlands' Royal Academy.

Shapira is the second composer to have been invited by the academy for such a week, after the American Steve Reich. During a conversation at Reich's apartment before his departure, it emerges that beneath the joy and pride at this recognition, there is frustration: It always comes from the outside, from the United States and Germany, where his works are performed, and now from Holland.

But you have been recognized here, as Israel Prize laureate in 1994.

Shapira: "It is a pity that that happened. The Israel Prize is a curse. Since then they haven't been taking me seriously in this country. Why am I performed abroad and not in Israel? Why aren't they doing "Akeda," for example, a work that was commissioned from me 20 years ago by the Israel Festival? Bring $30,000, they tell me."

All of the Israeli composers suffer from this attitude.

"But I suffer more; they don't perform me at all. The Philharmonic Orchestra - true, it only performs three Israeli works a year, but you will never find mine among them. It's not that I need them, right?"

And why do they perform others?

"Because their works are simple, in 3/4 and 4/4, and in an hour and a half the rehearsal is over. With me, it's hard. Therefore I say: You gave the Israel Prize? Carry the burden!"

Just from Shapira's explanations of his musical worldview, even before a single note of his works is heard, it is possible to understand his suspicions about the musical establishment's hesitations with him. Whereas in classical music, and in more conservative modern music, the emphasis is on the relationship between various pitches and durations of a note, which are the reasons for melody and harmony, he places importance on other elements, for example the relationship between synchrony and asynchrony, or precision of sounds versus imprecision: "Sometimes there are complaints that instrumentalists don't play together, and I say: "That's good. And someone has played too low? So let's work on false notes: A false octave, a false pure fourth - this interests me. And going from disorder to order in music interests me. And some element that forces disquiet on the instrumentalist is important to me.

"It is necessary to invent new parameters of listening, of experience: I am curious, and I want to be a partner to an adventure, not a historical experience. I want to feel that I am alive, and alive today - intellectually and sensually, that I'm hearing a new sound. Hearing the Israeliness of today, with all its frantic provincialism."

From all of this Shapira's music grows like a nervous and emotional network of rhythmic and tonal components, short fragments of sound come one after another and one on top of another with extensive use of electronics. Entirely absent are classical aspects like a tonal center or development of motif - music devoid of melody and direct expression of emotion, dissonant music, provocative by definition and always a moral declaration: For him, one must not go back to the Old World, to the aesthetic ideals of Europe that in the end brought about its destruction.

Is it possible to enjoy music like this?

"Enjoyment is a historical experience. People enjoy Mozart, Dvorak, Berlioz. If I want to enjoy a melody, I go to Schubert. This is a cultural experience. But of a work that was written the day before yesterday, I am critical. The enjoyment is only a part of my listening, a niche. Art is too serious a matter to limit it to the concept of enjoyment. That's primitive. When a work appeals to taste, it is appealing to a low level: This is the same taste that chooses the color of a car, or upholstery, or a table. This is the same taste that chooses what ice cream to lick. Taste is base artistic judgment."

The devotion of many Israeli composers to Romantic musical ideals, which have survived the transition from the 19th century to the 20th and now to the 21st, is upsetting to Shapira: "I hear bells and vibrating strings in works, like Mahler. Only with Mahler, the style is intrinsic to his essence; and I ask the composers who is writing like that today: Were you born in Kaliste? Did you love the church and hate Yiddish? Did you hear German songs during your childhood in the Black Forest?

"Mahler is all confusion and eclecticism, and that is what is attractive: In Germany they didn't like him precisely because of this confusion, this lack of cleanliness. What saved Mahler was, in fact, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra: Had it not been for Hitler and the Holocaust he would have been forgotten, because he was a Jew and the Jewish motif was present in his music and deterred the Germans, too. There is suffering in his music, and distress, and there is no charm in it. And this is the authorization to contemporary composers who lack inspiration: If Mahler is eclectic and devoid of meaning - and these are after all characteristics of modern music - so why not I, too? He gave an easy solution to compositional problems. And Leonard Bernstein, a really terrible composer who promoted him, found a solution in him - not only to composing but also for his Judaism."

Arik Shapira was born in November 29, 1943 - a date that also became historic when on that date in 1949 the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine. According to Shapira, at the beginning of the 1940s, because of the fear that gripped the pre-state Jewish community here because of the Nazis' advance toward the region, births here nearly stopped entirely. Only after the defeat of the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad did inhibitions melt, and nine months later there was baby boom. Shapira was a result of this wave of fecundity; and the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Holocaust in general, have become a touchstone in his work: In Letzte Briefe aus Stalingrad ("Last Letters from Stalingrad"), he composed music for letters that were sent by German soldiers at the Russian front to their families.

Musically, an orphan

Shapira completed his studies in 1968 at the old Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, directed by composer Oedeon Partos. On Partos and his generation, the fathers of Israeli music, his comment is laconic: "I'm not continuing them, not arguing with them and not dismissing them. Musically, I feel like an orphan," he says. He has always taught music, in its various branches, but only a few years ago he began to do this in an established way, as a professor at the music department of University of Haifa. Since completing his studies, he has composed 55 works.

So few?

"I work slowly. It took me nine years to compose `Stalingrad,'" he says, "and `The Kastner Trial,' three and a half years." This work is an electronic opera, and at the academy in The Hague, Shapira will explain in a lecture why he turned his back on traditional opera and why he chose the electronic medium and is continuing to work with it even more. "In the year 2000 I realized that only art is capable of affording meaning to this date of the turn of the century and the turn of the millennium, and I decided to say yes to technology. What interested me was not whether the computers would crash, but rather what works would be written from then on."

In many of his works, among them works for piano and for two pianos, solo violin and also for an ensemble, the instrumentalists are linked by earphones to an electronic sound track and are required to respond to it while playing. Usually flowing in this way is impossible for the human ear. "I say, let's confuse the instrumentalist. Let's pressure him. I'm not telling him to play wrong notes, but rather to play exactly according to my instructions, because I know that he will make mistakes in any case."

Don't you trust the instrumentalists?

"Indeed I do, but I want to introduce a new experience, to discover something new about sound, about accompaniment and melody, about rhythm. I have found, for example, that a third-tone is a new sound: A quarter or an eighth is a false note, but a third is new. And it can be achieved only with a computer. An instrumentalist will never achieve such precision."

And if, nevertheless, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra does decide to take a work of his, he already has one prepared: a concerto for piano and orchestra.

"It doesn't even need a conductor," says Shapira, dispelling the fears, "and there is not even any need for rehearsals together: Each instrumentalist receives sheet music and a disc with the sound track to which he will be linked during the concert, and that way he can practice at home, by himself; and then they come straight to the concert and play freely, whatever they want, and only here, here and here" (he points to places on the orchestration), they come to the same place for playing together. A sound that is random as opposed to planned, a precise pitch for a note, as opposed to a false note, that's what leads the work. And here, toward the end, order gradually prevails."

It looks complicated. And what if the instrumentalist, who doesn't have a conductor, makes a mistake?

"So he'll make a mistake, and keep on playing something. That's fine. He can wait until a moment that he knows comes along. That's part of the matter. I worked on this for three years," he says, indicating the inscription "September, 2003, 8:15" on the last page of the orchestration, "and here I breathed a sigh of relief. From here on it only remains to make a clean copy, and that's already fun."

He has no illusions about the chances of a performance: "The audience is intellectual, escapist and refuses to make an effort, even if it is capable. For five years now, since the beginning of the current intifada, the audience is lost, in a cultural crisis and is establishing a dictatorship of tiredness, despair and the demand for Italian espresso. They aren't interested in hearing the truth and only want to be caressed. So please: Be caressed. But not by me."