A Genre for Pioneers

The founder of the Nikel Ensemble, which premieres tonight, says he has no agenda other than to give Tel Aviv a modern music group.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

Whenever a new ensemble for contemporary music is founded, it is always accompanied by a clear statement of intentions concerning its character, aims and attitude toward the music it seeks to perform. This is not the case of the Nikel Ensemble, which will hold its debut concert today (8:30 P.M., at the Teiva Studio in Jaffa).

"Everything in Israel has an agenda, and people here always ask why we exist and whether we will be here forever. But our ensemble has no aim apart from making music," says Yaron Deutsch, an electric guitarist who founded and plays in the ensemble. "We are not promoting new music, and we are not a nonprofit organization for fostering Israeli music, educating the people or changing the world. Primarily, we want Tel Aviv, a symbol of modernism, to have a modern music ensemble."

The sound of the Nikel Ensemble, which is named for painter Lea Nikel, is unique in that it is primarily based on instruments that were invented or reached their peak in the 20th century. Performing with Deutsch is saxophonist Gan Lev, percussionist Amir Lavie and pianist Benjamin Hochman.

"In the 20th century, we didn't play instruments in the classical way," says Deutsch, "even veteran instruments like the piano. The electric guitar is the embodiment of instrumental expansion: the distortion, the amplifier, the technical specifications all show how instrumental perception has changed, and how the instrument can transmit the modernist ideal even before the composer decides on a genre or form."

Deutsch, 28, lives with his partner Sivan Cohen Elias in Tel Aviv, close to the Center for the Performing Arts. "I haven't foregone full volume distortion, and I've found a way to pad the walls with mattresses to block the sound. Sivan composes in the next room and there are other saxophone and piano players around," he says.

He moved to Tel Aviv from Petah Tikva. "My parents came from Transylvania to Bat Yam and upgraded to Petah Tikva. I still speak Hungarian, but they made me a proud sabra [native Israeli] who could answer 'Yaron' to the teachers at school unflinchingly when they asked me my name, as compared to my parents' names, Ykaterina and Ivan, with which I didn't feel so comfortable as a child."

At its debut concert, the Nikel Ensemble will play works by French composers Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey and Philippe Hurel, Israeli composers Sivan Cohen Elias and Yuval Shaked and a work by minimalist Dutch composer Lousi Andriessen. The instrumentalists, all of them young, are among the top performers in Israel.

"The people who joined the ensemble don't follow the well-worn path, like the artist Lea Nikel, after whom we named ourselves. Through her, we can look at both past and future innovation. It's a wonderful feeling, to glorify her name and to take pride in it," says Deutsch.

"Contemporary music affords an opportunity to be a bit of an idealist, a bit of a pioneer," he continues. "In the business community there are always start-ups, something new happens, and it seems like this is lacking in music. And as far as we're concerned, there's nothing like playing a live composer's music. It's not a matter of works by someone who remains only through an old photograph, or an 18th-century painting, but rather a person with whom I correspond by e-mail who tells me about the equipment needed for the work. It's real. And you can shape the music through its first interpretation. It isn't engraved in huge letters, and it can be changed.

"You start the dialogue with Bach with an old book and yourself," adds Deutsch, "and you don't worry about what Bach thought, but rather you relate to a tradition that has developed through performances of his works. Here we are the first, we work with the composer himself, and that's wonderful."

And how is an ensemble like this funded?

"We play at home without getting paid for it, so if we were to get even a few shekels for this, I wouldn't complain. We applied to all the foundations and all the relevant institutions, and we'll get what we get. But it's clear we won't compromise in order to obtain funding: The soul wants to be free, and if we compromise maybe we'll be fatter, but not happy."

And the audience? After all, everyone says that there is no demand for modern music.

"So what? A scientist doesn't care about what the audience thinks during his research. We'll play concerts even without an audience if no one comes, but I have a feeling people will come."

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