Matti Caspi, Israel's Answer to Bach and Gershwin

Deep down we know it's true: If Matti Caspi had been born in a different place or time, he might have been considered one of the greatest composers on earth. A new book analyzes his songs with admiration that is completely justified.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

When Matti Caspi was interviewed by Haaretz about two years ago, he spoke about the musicians who influenced him the most, from Sasha Argov to Stevie Wonder to Antonio Carlos Jobim. “To this day, when I hear his work, it’s like the sun coming out to shine on me after it’s been cloudy and bit chilly,” he says of Jobim. “Suddenly it comes out from the clouds and warms me up really well. Every time I listen, I’m struck with wonder. How does he do it? What a genius. He’s a genius. Jobim’s a genius. Like Sasha was a genius, Jobim is a genius too.”

When the interview was over, I regretted not having asked him the most pertinent question: “Do you think you’re a genius as well?” But later on, I changed my mind and was glad I hadn’t asked. If he had said yes, he would have seemed arrogant; if he had said no, he would have seemed like he was playing dumb. It’s an unfair question to ask someone suspected of being a genius. All the more so when it comes to Matti Caspi, since in his case the answer is obvious.

In her recently published book “Matti Caspi: Hakesem Vehahida” ‏(“Matti Caspi: The Magic and the Riddle,” Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House‏), musicologist Dr. Tzipi Fleischer writes: “Matti Caspi is one of the creative geniuses of history and of the world in musical composition. He ranks, with Bach and Gershwin, among the most important people to leave their mark on the most significant milestones in the development of the traditional language of harmony.”

Going wild

That last sentence is completely wrong. The world outside Israel is unfamiliar with Matti Caspi, so Caspi cannot have such far-reaching worldwide influence. And what about the bombshell Fleischer drops in the first sentence ‏(“one of the creative geniuses of history and of the world”‏)? My first instinct is to squirm uncomfortably in my chair at the sound of such an inflated statement. It sounds like the mother of all exaggerations.

But just a moment. Isn’t that what we think, in our heart of hearts, when we listen in awe, even for the umpteenth time, to “You Took My Hand in Yours,” “Song of the Dove,” “Here, Here,” “Someone” or “When God Said for the First Time”? And haven’t we played with the idea that if Caspi had been born in a different place or time, he might have been considered one of the greatest composers on earth?

True, these are hypothetical and silly questions. And true, the question of whether Caspi is a genius does not move us toward any real understanding. True, too, Fleischer cannot really prove her far-reaching assertion. Still, it’s good that she goes wild and makes it fearlessly, because she says that when we hear Caspi’s songs, we stand before the magnificence of creation. We stand before stunning musical completeness from the aesthetic, emotional and sensual perspectives.

This book was written by a music researcher who admires Caspi, just as the writer of this article is an admirer of his as well. It may be justly claimed that both lack a critical dimension, and it is understood that Caspi’s career, like the career of any artist, deserves critical study. But Fleischer does not deal with Caspi’s career. Instead, she deals with the songs that show the artist at his peak, and this substance, in its perfection, renders criticism superfluous.

“Hakesem Vehahida” is intended for Caspi’s admirers − or, to put it more precisely, for admirers of the composer and singer who are interested in a deeper look into his songs. Let’s take “Love Song ‏(Like a Wheel‏).” As I hummed it recently, I was amazed to find that it had a completely uniform rhythmic structure. The notes, from first to last, are structured in pairs, perhaps deliberately because it is an intimate love song. They pass along two by two, like well-disciplined soldiers. But the absolute symmetry does not push the song into rigid conformity. The melody remains breathing, free, dancing.

Fleischer makes a fleeting mention of “Love Song.” It is not one of the 40 songs she analyzes in her book, chord by chord. But according to her, the principle that exists in this song − a strict structure that does not compromise full freedom − is a basic principle of Matti Caspi’s musical language. “All the rhythmic and melodic richness is poured into wonderfully solid structures, and the solid structure allows the harmonic richness to dance and go wild,” Fleischer writes. “Only with the help of such frameworks can one develop such unusual harmonic moves.”

Savage dreams

Fleischer sees Caspi as a musical savage. “Matti’s musicality is savage to the point of being animalistic, and it leads him to a point where he fears nothing. That’s why he’s so original,” she writes. “He is a very precise savage, and just as important, he’s a savage who dreams.

“From a spiritual-emotional perspective, I liked diving into the dream the best,” Fleischer writes. “I found a dream in every song. All the songs are, first of all, dreams.” This impression expresses the combination that exists, for Fleischer, between meticulous musical analysis and sensual listening that absorbs the warm vitality of the songs.

While Caspi’s biography is not the point of this book, one cannot avoid mentioning his childhood work. In the early 1950s, the composer Mordechai Zeira used to visit Kibbutz Hanita, where Caspi lived, to vacation and work. One day, as Zeira was playing the piano in the dining room, three-year-old Matti approached him. “Would you like me to play for you?” Zeira asked him, and began go play “Yonatan Hakatan,” a popular children’s song.

“Not like that!” Matti shouted. Zeira asked who the boy’s mother was. When she arrived in the dining room, Zeira told her, “You’ll be two idiotic parents if you don’t develop this boy’s talent. I don’t understand the kibbutzniks. I have a boy his age − I’m taking him, I’ll teach both of them, and when I make a human being out of him, I’ll give him back to you.”

Caspi: Most influenced by Argov, Wonder and Jobim. Credit: David Bachar

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