Creating a 'Harmony of Noises'

Composer Sivan Cohen-Elias fulfilled a longtime dream last week, when one of her pieces - inspired by various everyday sounds - was performed by one of the most famous ensembles in the world.

Last Saturday night, a piece composed by Sivan Cohen-Elias was performed by one of the three most acclaimed contemporary music ensembles in the world: the Viennese ensemble Klangforum.

This is a privilege the Jerusalem-born composer won after being asked to participate two years ago in the prestigious composition competition held by the Impuls International Ensemble and Composers Academy for Contemporary Music. Cohen-Elias was one of five young composers, out of some 120 participants, who received a prize and was commissioned as a result to write a piece.

Hagai Frid

"Winning the prize has proven to me that what I compose is not just a fantasy of my own, something that happens just between me and myself, but that it really happens," says Cohen-Elias, whose commissioned work, "Sedek," just premiered. At the same time, she also unveiled an instrument that she herself invented and developed.

Much has happened in the two years since Cohen-Elias won the Impuls award. She is currently studying for a doctorate, on full scholarship, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"I'm living close to the university because I like to pop over there when necessary - and at Harvard, the rehearsal rooms, the recording studios and the library are open 24 hours a day. I do most of my work there at night," explains Cohen-Elias in a conversation in Tel Aviv during a semester break. "These are conditions I never had before. Everything is geared to the students. We are wanted and loved, and there is a lot of respect and admiration for what we contribute to the university - for example, winning prizes or having premieres."

After two years of studies, doctoral candidates at Harvard are required to teach undergraduates as part of their scholarship commitments. In the final year of the scholarship, they can do whatever they like: work, teach anywhere they choose - or just sit and compose.

"What's good about this arrangement is the time it gives me to compose in all this madness of studies and teaching," she says.

Cohen-Elias was invited to Harvard after two years of studying composition at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, from 2007 to 2009, with Israeli-born composer Chaya Czernowin.

"I first became aware of Chaya's music during my M.A. studies at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University, because of Prof. Ruben Seroussi," she relates. "He introduced me to a whole world of contemporary music I hadn't known existed. Thanks to my studies and my master's thesis, supervised by Seroussi, I learned about what is happening in the world today and this freed me from my uneasiness. I realized it's possible to give rein to the imagination, not only in the usual musical ways, with defined notes and a certain stylistic culture and connection to what was written in the past. In Chaya's work, I found the expression of this special world and I wanted to study only with her."

Czernowin - who became a professor in Vienna after teaching for years at the University of San Diego, an institution known for its boldness - invited Cohen-Elias to study with her. Cohen-Elias was accepted as a composition student at the university in Vienna after completing her master's at TAU with highest honors.

"The musical experience I encountered in Vienna was entirely one of boldness and daring, and this encouraged me to get rid of my barriers - to free myself of preconceived notions and try new things," she relates. "And then Chaya received the appointment at Harvard and invited me to join her class there: a class of only five students, all of them already in their mid-thirties. I wasn't thinking of doing a doctorate and I wasn't excited by the move to a culture as distant musically and geographically as America. But I followed Chaya and found a wonderful class in which there are fruitful relationships among the students, who are already fully formed composers on the brink of a professional career. So there is harmony among us and mutual support. We're all cut from the same cloth."

Trailblazing role model

Czernowin, who was born in Kiryat Haim in 1957, is the first woman to have been appointed a professor of composition at the university in Vienna and the first woman to have been appointed to the even more prestigious position of professor of composition at Harvard. She is a composer whose works - radical and devoid of traditional sorts of harmony and melody - aspire to wildness, sometimes roughness, and the primacy of the sound.

Cohen-Elias pursues the same ideals.

"I am an almost obsessive listener to the sounds of the environment and the noises around me," she explains. "On the one hand, noises disturb me in my everyday life, like the tapping of the neighbors' heels or the beeping of the smoke detector that broke down in the apartment next door to me at Harvard, which drove me crazy for two weeks. But ultimately, these noises find their way into my work and achieve the right tone, as a harmony of noises. It is possible to express a noise as a chord, though a very dense one, but it can be expressed on a musical instrument. For example, by drawing the violin bow across a very specific place on the string, with a certain pressure and at a certain angle that produces the sound exactly. The works are born of my uncertainties ... The disturbances are in fact productive - and this is a little paradoxical because I can't allow myself to get rid of them."

For the work commissioned by Impuls and the Klangforum, Cohen-Elias invented a new musical instrument for herself and built it together with her brother, Yaniv (Cohen ) Gal-Rom.

"I wanted an instrument that imitates the sounds of friction and various sorts of rubbing," she says. "I took a fan and mounted it with a cymbal at its base; all the other parts are industrial garbage. The aim was to create an opposite energy relationship: When the movement of the fan slowly dies down, that's when a burst of renewed energy comes out of it. A small handle-like object is hidden inside the instrument ... and when the fan slows down and nearly stops, it's released and moves a board with a spring on it, and this is dropped to the floor and wobbles and shakes, and creates a sound of its own. The energy in the music interests me - the elements that move and stop it, its place in space. It's also important to me to defy the expectations of the listeners and the instrumentalists - because I love to surprise."

The instrument, called a "ventaphone," is played by a percussionist. The composer says a rather unusual machine inspired its creation.

"There is a conveyor belt at the airport in London where I always change planes en route," relates Cohen-Elias, "and I record it again and again. It has sounds that appear at regular and irregular frequencies, the way I like. Both high sounds and others that can't be anticipated in advance; they sound more like a kind of melody, like birdsong - but mechanical. I try first to get to know every sound. For example, what does it look like? How does it smell? What's its taste? What do you feel when you touch it? Is it dangerous? What happens if you step on it? Is it rigid or flexible? You want to know the sound intimately, like a person.

"I can ask myself endlessly what the sound [made by the conveyor belt] is and what it wants. And the machine itself - what's fascinating about it is that it's always carrying people who are standing and walking on it, moving them forward, but the thing itself is stuck in one place and doesn't lead anywhere. What would happen if it were suddenly to get up and move around, really move ahead in the passenger hall? I find the answers to all this as I compose."

Cohen-Elias says the shape her work takes is distinct; it is not one-directional, starting at a certain point and moving toward the end, but rather resembles a three-dimensional object.

"It's possible to observe it from afar and hear the whole thing, and then to get close to it, as though with the help of a magnifying glass, and experience it in high resolution, so that a certain line, a melodic line, turns into points. We move around the work, and in and out of it, in a circular way."

Is it possible to hear this when listening to it or is this intended for your ears only, as an outline for the work?

Cohen-Elias: "Someone who is already experienced in this kind of music might notice it."

Leaving Jerusalem

Cohen-Elias was born in 1976 in Jerusalem, and grew up there.

"My mother told me the songs she sang to me in the cradle were the only way to soothe me," she says. "I always knew what I wanted to be: a composer."

She did her bachelor's degree in composition at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, under the supervision of composer Ami Maayani, and lived in the city until she was 25, when she met guitarist Yaron Deutsch, whom she married. During and after her studies, she won competitions and scholarships, and invitations from various ensembles, among them Meitar, Mosaik and Nikel, which Deutsch founded. He followed her to Vienna when Cohen-Elias was accepted to the university there. But gradually, he began performing and working there as well, and today, she says, "he's booked for concerts in Europe until 2012. So, we see each other very little. During semester breaks at Harvard, he sometimes manages to come and, in any case, we speak three or four times a day on Skype.

"I didn't believe it was possible at all to leave Jerusalem - and certainly not Israel. The boundaries were very clear to me. Today I realize there are many doors, and I'm not closing any of them. During my term as chair of the Israel Women Composers Forum, I started to realize that women concede things - for the sake of the family, for the sake of a husband whose work is maybe more important and more lucrative - and realized that a person is able to develop himself to the limits of his ability and beyond, if he wants.

"Women have been educated not to go beyond this limit, not to believe in their inner strength, and to relinquish things. I went to study with a woman who embodies the strong, the deep and the uncompromising in her self-expression. This has encouraged me - and I will not give up on a family and children either. This will definitely happen."