Israeli Singer Living in London Creates Beautiful Small Art

Talented and unpretentious Malka Spigel comes out with CD that, although not complex per se, reveals pleasant variegated threats within a uniform weave.

About a month ago, Malka Spigel of Minimal Compact fame spoke to a group of people at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv about her work ‏(mainly her new album, “Every Day is Like the First Day”‏), and also sang some songs, backed by her husband Colin Newman and keyboardist Gil Luz.

This was a somewhat timid appearance, at least at the beginning, both because Spigel isn’t the most verbal artist around ‏(“When I met her all she would say in interviews was ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” commented Newman, and one could tell that Spigel hasn’t exactly become a chatterbox over the years‏) and because − quite bewilderingly − Spigel did not play bass during the musical part of the evening.

Before the encounter began, a prominent Israeli singer sitting next to me said to his date: “I really feel like hearing her play bass.” He wasn’t the only one. But Spigel, who was born in Israel but is based in London, confined herself to singing, thereby putting paid to the hope of hearing her play in an intimate atmosphere like that at the Ozen.

No less disappointing was the fact that when it was the audience’s turn to ask questions, no one asked her about her bass playing, about the sound and the feeling emitted by the instrument from which her music springs.

Nevertheless, even though Spigel’s bass was neither heard nor discussed, there was one moment in the encounter that in a very delicate and touching way, revealed her essence as a true soldier in the “bass army.” That happened when she chose, as her first song in the show, “Ammonite,” which opens the new album, during the musical part of the evening. In it is the line: “There’s a heartbeat in the earth I’m hearing” − words that could be the “motto” of her entire oeuvre.

They say two big things about Spigel: First of all, that she is an artist who listens to the world, as opposed to those who listen to themselves and seek to say their piece to the world. And, secondly, that her ear is attracted to a very specific area of the world, to which she listens: to the heartbeat of the earth. To the low, to the deep, to the basic, to the repetitive. Or, in short, to the experience embodied by playing the bass.

Ironically, this key sentence eluded me when I listened to the new CD ‏(and I listened to it many times, with great pleasure; it is a very beautiful album‏). It eluded me because it hid behind a delicate mask of sound, behind Spigel’s dominant bass. Only in the live and incomplete rendition, without that instrument ‏(and with the minimalist accompaniment of a guitar and keyboard‏), did this beautiful and representative sentence rise to the surface. There is a heartbeat in the earth and I hear it, Spigel is saying. And she hears what many people do not hear, because she listens with an open mind, without preconceptions.

The word repeated most frequently during the evening at the bar was “instinct,” and it also is heard in the fourth track on Spigel’s album, “See it Sideways,” in which she sings: “Don’t think too much and don’t look back ... start from nothing, go for it ... trust your instincts.”

The new CD is indeed an instinctive sort of creation: Spigel ‏(who by the way also has a degree in fine art and specializes in video work and photography‏) and Newman rented a studio in London and started working on it without any preliminary ideas; neither melodies nor rhythms, nor texts nor even bass progressions. The ideas came together as they played, and every time the duo liked an idea they recorded it and began developing it. That development process was based, to a large extent, on contributions from other musicians, including Gil Luz, classical violinist Alexander Balanescu and Johnny Marr of The Smiths. The musicians received recordings of Spigel and Newman’s pieces, added their own ideas and then sent them back to the couple by email.

It seems that the couple’s real-virtual partners aspired to, and succeeded in, connecting to the mood they identified in the original passages, and in deepening and enriching them.

Thus, on the “ground floor” of the songs, based on Spigel’s observations and ponderings, additional stories were built based on the guest musicians’ observations of her observation, on their ponderings of her ponderings. Maybe all this sounds complicated on paper, but the songs themselves are quite simple. Spigel’s music is not complex, not sophisticated and it is certainly not virtuosic. There is a simple and repetitive pattern and nothing seems to escape her.

Upon first listening, it seemed there was something flawed about this − that this was indeed instinctual music, even for people who delight in basic, repetitive bass progressions. But after more listening, which revealed variegated threads within the uniform weave, the reservations about the music evaporated, as did those about the unmediated encounter with Spigel: With her plain speech, her trademark, oversized T-shirt and her English that has remained almost defiantly
Israeli even after 25 years in London, there is something so modest about this woman, so unpretentious, so not out to impress. She isn’t dealing with great art but rather with small art, and she does her minimal, compact thing in a wonderful way.