Not in Her Sister's Footsteps

Avant-garde voice artist/composer Odeya Nini, unlike her famous sibling Achinoam, shuns the mainstream's accepted musical boundaries.

"I come from a very musical home, but one that is also quite traditional in its approach to art and did not push me to ask a lot of questions," says Odeya Nini in an attempt to find the source of the contemporary art she is creating in the United States, in the home where she and her sister, the singer Achinoam Nini ("Noa"), grew up.

"My sister left home when I was three, she is 13 years older than me," adds Odeya Nini, perhaps so that I do not get confused and try to find similarities between her music and that of her famous sister.

Odeya Nini - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

Odeya, 29, was born in New York and immigrated to Israel at the age of 15. She studied in the theater track at the Telma Yellin School and after completing her military service returned to New York where she studied jazz and voice development at the New School, a New York university known for its avant-garde studies. Referring to Nini as a singer can be misleading; she is a voice artist, a talented composer and a surprising experimental artist.

The impression is that you are not a musician who appears on stages that rock groups prefer. Is that right?

"Yes, I perform mostly in art galleries, spaces with good acoustics, lofts, but also in open spaces. It very much depends on exactly what I'm doing on the stage. If it's a solo performance by me with a pedal-loop and all sorts of electronic gadgets, then I'd prefer an open space where you can record the surroundings - but if it's music that mixes, let's say dance, than the ideal space will be closed and quiet with an emphasis on good acoustics. Such places are also more appropriate for the composition evenings, where I compose music for the piano or for a wind and string ensemble. You could refer to what I do as experimental chamber music, even though the phrase, 'chamber music' sounds really outdated to me."

Around two years ago, Odeya left New York for Los Angeles where she is continuing her composition studies at the California Institute of the Arts. "Over the last two years, I have come to understand the considerable difference between music, composition and improvisation done on the East Coast and on that of the West Coast. It's very much connected to geography. In New York, the music is completely loaded, buildings on top of buildings. In Los Angeles, where you don't have to fight as much to survive, the music has a lot more space. Still, L.A. is nevertheless a big city and therefore the music there is also sophisticated and comes from a very academic direction."

Does your music also require musical knowledge to understand it?

"Clearly prior knowledge is an added value, but in my experience performing, I can say that the music speaks directly to people's emotions. Even at my last performance in Israel (on September 15 at HaTeiva, in Tel Aviv ), attended by friends and family not involved in the contemporary art scene, the music touched their emotions directly."

Why don't you write lyrics?

"Once I wrote lyrics, with a guitar, until I realized that words have limits. When you use a medium like language, the laws are very clear and there is grammar, and it's a lot harder to get people to go beyond its limits. Language is a formal thing. But when you bring something more abstract like sound and change its inner grammar, its syntax, then you basically are enabling people to find a way inside the work."

If I understand correctly, it's impossible to experience your works in full in an audio disc format.

"There are the compositions and there are my solo performances, where I record my voice in all sorts of strange ways and then play it back live. In a disc format this is indeed a problem, because like artists whose work revolves around improvisations, the segments performed are one-time only and will never again be performed exactly the same way. I have a lot of recorded material but I still don't have a disc. I'm working on one now that will have only vocals. I manipulate my voice in different ways that make it sound electronic, but it's not."

Are you talking about acoustic effects that are amplified electronically?

"Yes, I use the pedal to create loops and sometimes play segments in reverse and created layers of sound that seem electronic, but that's the most I do on the computerized level. The other manipulations I try to do naturally. All sorts of little things that change the sound, such as distance from the microphone, the saliva, the mouth or the shape of the lips."

Your partner, Archie Carey plays with you.

"Yes, he plays the bassoon. So I write a lot for this instrument. After you reach the limit of a given instrument you have to focus on the work of the instrument's player, on the dynamics between you. Archie and I also have an electronic ensemble where we improvise with a lot of movement on the stage and in the use of unconventional instruments. In our duets I actually do use a text, but it is not written in advance. It's more like a spontaneous expression of stream of consciousness."

Don't you think that improvisation based on stream of consciousness can sound like meaningless verbosity?

"Every artist who creates 'contemporary art' has knowledge and experience in an established area of the art whose boundaries he managed to break through. An artist must know the rules before he considers breaking them. And what is improvisation? It is basically composing in real time. An artist has to know the possibilities available to him in order to respond instinctively. That is the main difference between someone who knows how to improvise and someone who just pretends. I try to give a brief introduction before my concerts and explain to the audience more or less that they are not about to hear songs and that it is best to come with an open mind and without intention to judge, and to simply let it enter you. After you experience this, then you can decide what you think about it."

It sounds to me like your music is not something that is just experienced in an immediate way, but also after the fact.

"Right, as opposed to what happens in most popular music where you are guided to feel something specific in advance. If you write a song with minor chords, apparently you want get someone to feel something melancholy or if you feel like celebrating, you compose something upbeat. In other words, if your goal in music is that, it's okay, but it's a kind of formula. 'Contemporary art,' on the other hand, is not a formula."