Israeli Composer Takes Berlin

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Three years ago, after having completed his studies at Tel Aviv's Buchmann-Mehta School of Music and becoming the youngest composer to be awarded Israel's coveted Prime Minister's Prize for Composition, Gilad Hochman left Israel for the relative anonymity of Berlin.

Winning that prize in 2007, at the age of 24, "raised a red flag for me," Hochman told Haaretz at the time. "If at that age I could win the highest award for composers in Israel – so early, too early – it was a sign that something wasn't right."

In Berlin, Hochman's life took a turn that most Israeli musicians can only dream about: He makes a living solely from composing. A concert he gave drew Germans from across the country. "People from distant cities who needed to stay at a hotel for the night came to the concert to hear an unknown Israeli composer," he said. "It didn't seem strange to them."

And it didn't stop there. Last month his music was played at the Berlin Philharmonic. Next week Deutschlandradio Kultur, the culture-oriented radio station of the German national radio service, is dedicating an entire program to Hochman and his compositions, and in two weeks he will attend a new international music festival in Moscow.

"I will give a master class at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and they will play three of my chamber music compositions," he said. Next month Hochman will release two compilation albums that will include his music, played by German ensembles, and works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Mozart.

All this is happening without an agent and, it appears, without much hustling on Hochman's part. "In Berlin it's very interesting: If you're there for long enough, things just happen," he said. "The ensembles wrote to me that they heard my compositions and were wondering if I could send them over so they could play and record them – and I did that, for free. I believe that music should be open and free. I only ask for payment if someone commissions a new composition – for the sake of subsistence, so I will be able to write it."

Ahead of a recent concert in Hanover, Hochman received a commission to write a piece of music for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was performed along with Mozart's Requiem.

"In Germany listening is part of the culture," Hochman said. "Listening, not just hearing. Being a composer there doesn't mean showering the audience with my talents, but conducting a dialogue with it. The trinity of creator-performer-audience is sacrosanct in my eyes – as long as there is no power-play between them, just a relationship predicated on listening."

Despite benefitting from his time in Germany, Hochman, one of hundreds of Israeli musicians living in Berlin, has not learned German and has no plan to do so. But he feels the German perspective on music – in which composers are considered creative contributors to society and valued as artists who enrich the lives of others – is a model that should be implemented in Israel as well.

"The relationship between culture and entertainment worries me at the moment," said Hochman. "In Israel the distinction between them is blurring because there isn't a significant tradition, and the criteria by which one can judge what is better or worse have been lost. For that, you need a compass, and money has become that compass."

Society pays the price for not being highly cultured, he said. "As we saw in the Israeli election, society parcels out the government's areas of responsibility into various portfolios, but there isn't really any difference between these areas," Hochman said. "It's a single society and there is a link between all these fields, and those who don't go to the theater and don't listen to high-quality music won't behave as they should behind the wheel either."

Hochman drew a distinction between low-brow culture, or "entertainment," and high-brow culture, including "artistic music" like the kind he composes.

Unlike popular music, "artistic music doesn't make do with a song that has a set rhythm and lyrics and lasts for three-and-a-half minutes, a necessary condition for mass sales," he said. "No, artistic music elevates man because it is deep and multifaceted and rewarding. It's not that entertainment is bad; I like entertainment, and like putting on a song and singing and dancing and enjoying what it is. But it becomes problematic when you portray entertainment as high culture, and that is fraud. Music won't come into existence if you don't put time and money into it – even though it doesn't make money and isn't measured by money. There will always be sponsors who support it because they think it's important."

Hochman also discussed some of the differences he has observed between the German and Israeli music cultures.

"In Germany they don't work quickly, don't rush to create quickly, and that's why there are no superstars," he said. "In Germany people do the best they can, at whatever level they are. That has led to terrible things that people did there, but in the cultural sense it's a blessing because culture is part of their identity. In Berlin there are 150 orchestras and more than 300 choirs. Not all of them are professional, and they don't feel that they have to grab the headlines; they make music because they love it and don't feel a need to prey on each other. Over there, the heads of the orchestras go to hear what's happening with their colleagues and borrow compositions from them to perform them again. If only that were to happen in Israel."

Gilad Hochman. He thinks the German approach to music should serve as a model for Israel.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Gilad Hochman. He thinks the German approach to music should serve as a model for Israel.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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