N.Y. Composer, Pianist Brings Radical Jewish Culture to Israel

Anthony Coleman’s creative universe ranges from the avant-garde works of John Cage to the downtown scene identified with John Zorn - but humor is at at the heart of it all.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Anthony Coleman, June 2014.
Anthony Coleman, June 2014.Credit: David Bachar
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Do musicians snore differently from other people? One of the rehearsals of the Musica Nova ensemble last week provided an opportunity to explore that question. Five musicians participated in the rehearsal: pianists Assaf Shatil and Shira Legmann; cellist Dan Weinstein; electronics musician Yoni Niv; and Anthony Coleman, the composer and pianist from New York. Coleman was the guest of honor in Musica Nova’s end-of-season concert, which took place last Thursday at Hateiva in Jaffa.

While the rest of the musicians were awake, Coleman took a power nap on the floor, near one of the auditorium’s walls. His snores – which ranged in volume from piano to forte – were typified by an impressive dynamic of rhythm and tone, and at times made the other four musicians erupt in laughter. After they completed a run-through of Shatil’s piece, Coleman suddenly awoke, murmured “That was great,” and went back to sleep.

Oddly enough, this situation did not seem all that strange. And that is not just because, in Coleman’s creative universe – which ranges between the avant-garde works of John Cage and the downtown scene identified with John Zorn – it is not hard to imagine a work for four musicians who are awake and one who's asleep. One of the most important fundamentals in Coleman’s music is humor, and the image of him stretched out on the floor, despite his relatively advanced age (59) and his respected status as a composer and improviser, was, above all, funny and human.

Humor characterizes Coleman’s works with or without his presence. When I started listening to jazz some 20 years ago, one of the first albums I bought was “Lobster and Friend,” Coleman’s 1993 recording with saxophonist Roy Nathanson. Not everyone liked Coleman and Nathanson’s style. Peter Brötzmann, one of the most important free jazz musicians in Europe, appeared after the duo in the early 1990s and told the audience during the show that their music was “bullshit.”

“Brötzmann hated us," recalls Coleman. "He thought we were bullshit. He said: 'That is not what music is about. Music shouldn’t be funny. Music should be as serious as your life.' And I thought: Being that German, baby, is not so cool. I mean – to limit the emotional range of what music should be? That’s a cliché of Germanism. Look at his titles: ‘Die Like a Dog.’”

Coleman’s latest album, “The End of Summer,” came from an experience that could not be more serious: his partner’s death from cancer. But even when he speaks about the work, which is closer to chamber music than jazz, he refuses to be serious about it. “When I made ‘The End of Summer,’ I felt that I really hit something I hadn’t hit before, something very direct. And I thought: Well, all you have to do is watch your partner die of brain cancer and you can do it.’”

The music on "The End of Summer" is not so different from the work Coleman wrote for Musica Nova, which was performed in Jaffa. The person who commissioned the work and invited Coleman to Israel was pianist and composer Shatil, who was Coleman’s student at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Coleman was glad of the opportunity to visit Israel for the second time in his life. He wrote the work knowing who would perform it: Shatil, Legmann and Weinstein.

Leader of the ensemble

Throughout his life as a composer, Coleman says, he has moved between improvisation and writing, and tries to maintain a balance between these two very different approaches to music. During his youth in New York, in the early 1970s, Coleman studied piano with Jaki Byard, who played in various bands led by Charles Mingus. But he was more interested in composing than playing or improvising, and so for his academic studies he majored in composition – first jazz, later classical. After completing his studies in Boston he returned to New York, not knowing what to do with all the information he had accumulated, and began working in a record store. From there, he found himself drawn into a super-creative group that began meeting around charismatic figures such as Zorn and the composer and guitarist Glenn Branca.

In the 1980s, Coleman played with the best musicians of New York’s downtown scene. It was only toward the mid-1990s, when he was almost 40, that he felt ready to lead his own ensembles. As leader of an ensemble, he was part of the movement known as Radical Jewish Culture, whose compositions (under Zorn’s leadership) gave Jewish musical traditions a contemporary and sometimes daring flavor. Yet, at the same time, Coleman was critical of the movement. “Everybody was discovering something,” he reflects, “reinventing their history, and everybody was using the same ‘Jewish’ scales. I thought: How can I relate to that? Maybe I should be the clown.” He decided, partly in jest and partly in earnest, to look at Sephardic music as having roots in Latin music, which was part of New York’s urban soundtrack when he was growing up. The result was the wonderful Sephardic Tinge ensemble.

After exhausting that approach, Coleman turned to another Jewish musical tradition: the Yiddish songs of Mordechai Gebirtig. On paper, these seemed to connect more to Coleman's Eastern European roots, but actually they were as foreign to him as Sephardic music had been. “Every time I went to Kraków, I only heard guys with guitars and they were crying, and I just didn’t pay any attention,” he says. “I played a solo gig in a club in Kraków, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to do something that was relevant, so I brought some books with me and I came across ‘Undzer Shtetl Brennt' ['Our Town is Burning']. I had never taken it seriously as a piece of music. Man, this is a composition. This is a real piece of music!”

Immediately after 9/11, when New York was burning, Coleman did a show comprised entirely of Gebirtig’s music. Four years later, in 2005, he released an album recorded in a Kraków synagogue, documenting the project.

Going down to New Orleans

Since the mid-2000s, Coleman has been investigating New Orleans jazz – particularly the works of Jelly Roll Morton, who is considered the first great jazz composer. Almost no one plays this music today, but Coleman has never hesitated to go against the tide. "I had a whole set of Jelly Roll and I recorded the gig, but when I heard it I was horrified," he admits. "The worst thing I have ever heard! Unswinging, stiff, awkward. I said: 'Fuck, I’ll try and really get it,' and it was a crazy period. Five years. Jelly Roll, morning, noon and night. And you discover what you can get and what you can’t get. One thing you can’t get is New Orleans rhythm. There is something in the air and water of New Orleans. It really pissed me off. You hear these kids on the street and they’re doing it. Or a shitty brass band. And you can’t. You can do a simulacrum of it. Like Brötzmann.”

While Coleman didn't play Morton’s music as originally written, he didn't give it a far-reaching modern interpretation either. “Not one reviewer understood," he complains. "Everybody thought it was a straight reading. And it was so far away from straight. But I didn’t do a postmodern reading. No hip-hop loops. What I did is, every once in a while there’s a harmonic move that didn’t exist in the 1920s – only 20 years after Jelly Roll. But you’d have to listen 20 times to hear it, and of course nobody did that.”

His focus in recent years has been on composing chamber music. “I’m not interested in doing tributes any more," he reflects. "To me, this is the worst problem with the downtown scene. We never quite knew what our vocabulary was, so there was this need to connect it to too many existing vocabularies. I’m really trying, like a reformed alcoholic, like an ex-drug addict, to stay away from tributes. But you never know. I might ... Who hasn’t been done? Everybody has been done.”

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