The Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, known abroad as Noa, is no stranger to living between worlds. Her two mother tongues – English and Hebrew – reflect her youth as a lone Israeli in an American school. Her outspoken views on the occupation of the Palestinian territories have stirred controversy – but she refuses to repudiate her Israeliness. And her latest endeavor, an album titled "Letters to Bach," shows that she can straddle the musical worlds as well.
Noa calls “Letters to Bach,” which will be released on Friday, a “radical album.” Why radical? Isn’t that getting carried away a little bit? “Well, it’s definitely a bizarre choice from a commercial standpoint. I’m not going to have any hits from this album,” she says. On it, she sings songs she wrote to the music of Bach, one of the greatest composer of all time
"[The album] is also an unexpected choice from the aspect of career management. We’re living in the age of Cardi B – and I love Cardi B. It’s a world of simple pop music, in-your-face pop music. Bach is 'Slow Music.' Some of his pieces are super fast, but listening to this music is a process. To listen over and over, to break down the components. Each segment is like a thick concentrate. The opposite of everything that’s happening today. You don’t need an in-depth analysis of a Cardi B song, right?” Whereupon Noa does a spot-on imitation of the key line from the song “I Like It” and says, “You get that and that’s enough. All the rest is her – her look, the sound. I feel that with the Bach project it’s the opposite of that.
“But that’s not the reason why I did this project,” says Noa. “I did it because I fell in love with it, and because it thrills me. And there’s something else. I feel like we're living in an age in which the meritocracy is being trampled and I don’t like that. I’m in favor of meritocracy. I’m in favor of science and writers and poets and professors, people who’ve devoted their entire lives to a certain field. All of this Trumpism – I find it very upsetting. So this album is my little rebellion against this. I want to kneel before genius.”
Like an alien
Noa has been listening to and playing Bach since she was a little girl. Just as she starts to talk about this, the phone rings. It’s her mother. “Mom, I’m in the middle of something. Is it something urgent?” she asks, switching back and forth between Hebrew and English. She grew up in America after her parents went there as students. She and her brother were sent to a Jewish day school, where they were the only Israelis, the only non-religious people and the only dark-skinned kids.
“I felt alien, I was searching for my identity, and music was my number-one refuge,” she says. “My favorite thing to do was write songs. I started doing that when I was seven or eight. That was my therapy. I didn’t enjoy playing music as much. I had a strict teacher, but I did love to play Bach. Some of the 'inventions' that I wrote lyrics for on the new album are pieces I played when I was a kid.”
'I’m in favor of science and writers and poets and professors, people who’ve devoted their entire lives to a certain field. All of this Trumpism – I find it very upsetting'
Bach has been with Noa throughout her career. Her most famous song, the one that brought her to the Vatican, the White House and other lofty locales, was her version of “Ave Maria,’ the Christian prayer set to the harmonies of Bach and the melodies of Charles Gounod. What triggered this new album, she says, was an invitation to take part in several of Astrith Baltsan's concerts.
“I sang some Bach, and I had a wonderful time, but after two concerts, I was thinking – I’m getting bored singing da-ba-da-ba. Why don’t I try to write lyrics to go with these instrumental pieces? And that broke open the dam, and it was more powerful than I could have anticipated. I became obsessed. As soon as I got up in the morning I couldn’t wait to attack the project. I was consumed with it. I saw that I had words for this music.”
The song on the album dearest to her heart is called “All the Angels,” based on Cantata 140. The text was written after Noa met a terminally ill woman who was about to end her life with euthanasia. “I was stunned to meet a happy woman who smiled all the time. I even asked her if she was smoking something,” Noa laughs. “She had this total acceptance. After meeting her, I became obsessed with the subject of life and death. It was exploding like popcorn in my head. In the song, I tried to present another, less fixed perspective on death.”
Two perspectives, actually. In the middle of the cantata, there is a modulation to a minor key and then a return to a major key. Using this structure, Noa presents not only the point of view of the woman who has chosen death, but also that of her loved ones – their anger and sadness at being left without her. “I told Eyali, my son, ‘If anything happens to me, this is the song I want you all to sing at my funeral,” says Noa. “And he says, ‘Mom, you think anybody but you could possibly sing this song?’”
There were some works by Bach to which Noa found herself unable to set words. “It’s like with those 3D pictures of a horse – You keep staring at them and then suddenly the horse is galloping at you,” she says. “There were many pieces that I listened to over and over but the horse didn’t gallop. Like the Air on the G String. I really wanted to write for that. I wrote some love song, but then I thought – does this sublime music really need these words? The answer was no, so I tossed it.”
I presume you asked yourself that question about the whole project.
'I told Eyali, my son, ‘If anything happens to me, this is the song I want you all to sing at my funeral,” says Nini. “And he says, ‘Mom, you think anybody but you could possibly sing this song?’'
“Sure. And my answer was that I do have something to give to this thing. First of all, I’m singing parts that weren’t written for singing. There is no vocal part here. So that’s something. And the words themselves really have to do with this time. There’s one love song that could have been written in another time too, but most of the songs are about our world. Technology, religion, politics. Did you notice that there’s one song that’s all about Elon Musk?”
Age of Wisdom
After Noa finished recording the album, she played the album in her home studio for her voice teacher, Hanna HaCohen. HaCohen, 90, has been Noa’s teacher for more than 30 years, since the singer was 18. “I’ve never had another teacher, if you don’t count Gili (guitarist Gil Dor, Noa’s longtime musical partner); being with him for 30 years is like earning four doctorates,” says Noa.
Before she played the new album for HaCohen, her teacher said to her, “You know, Achinoam, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in Bach.” “And I thought, ‘Oh shit, now I have to play this for her,” Noa laughs. “But she loved it, and for me that was the most important seal of approval.”
Noa isn't lacking in self-confidence. It’s evident in her public statements, which have made her the most consistent and committed spokesperson for the left in Israeli music, and it’s also clear in the way she talks about the new album when she’s sitting in her kitchen at home. So why was she so nervous about how her old teacher would react?
Maybe because she knew that her decision to put words to Bach’s music could discomfit people who hold his music sacred. “I don’t think I would have done something like this 10 years ago,” she says. “But now I had a real burning desire to do it. A desire to connect with this sublime beauty. A desire to say all kinds of things about the world. In six months I’ll turn 50. After a 30-year career and three children, you reach the 'Age of Wisdom.' I suddenly had this desire to ride the colossal wave of Bach with my surfboard.”
Clean and minimalistic
“Letters to Bach,” which will be launched with two concerts at the end of the month (March 28 at Kibbutz Yifat and March 29 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center), was recorded in the singer’s home studio. Noa and Dor recorded it alone (with some strings here and there), but they had a trans-Atlantic partner – Quincy Jones, who produced the album.
Noa and the super-producer first met in 2003 in New York, when Jones heard her sing “Ave Maria” and loved it. They 'e been in touch ever since. What does she think about his famous interview with GQ magazine last year, in which Jones, 84, said that he had 22 girlfriends (the oldest of which is almost 10 years younger than Noa)? “Yeah, that interview… It didn’t do justice to the man,” she says.
A year and a half ago, while visiting Jones at his home in Los Angeles, Noa and guitarist Gil Dor played a few excerpts for him from their Bach project, which was just starting to take shape. “He was really excited and said, ‘I want to produce this,’” Noa says. “Now, you know how Americans are. When we left there, I said to Gili, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ But it did happen. He wasn’t just saying that. He also shares our political philosophy. He really admires me for what I do, he’s very supportive. So there’s a synergy on many levels.”
Jones had some pretty wild ideas. “On one song, he wanted me to record myself from 12 different spots in the studio. One step away from the microphone, two steps, three, and so on,” Noa reports. “He thought that if we combine all the recordings, the sound would be incredible. Who am I to say no? He’s Quincy Jones. I get where he’s coming from. He’s a legendary arranger of strings and that’s how you work with strings sometimes. We tried it. We even put it through this electric filter. It didn’t work.
"In the end, we saw that the right thing was to keep it as clean and minimalistic as possible. Zero bombast. These pieces weren’t written to be bombastic. These are pieces for the piano. And I wanted to give maximum room to the words. What does Bach need me for? Maybe for these ideas in the texts. To sing him. And not in an operatic style. I could do that if I want. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted something more like Cleo Laine or the Swingle Singers.”
Noa says that Jones’ favorite song on the album is “Look at Me,” which is also the most political song. “Look at me across the border, beyond the wall, look at me. No, I refuse to bow,” Noa sings. The setting is not specified, but it’s hard not to think of this song, which is based on the Largo from the Concerto in F Minor, as being about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If that’s the case, Noa is singing from the perspective of a Palestinian woman reaching out to an Israeli woman.
'When I say that I won’t sing in the territories, I understand that there are people who are bothered by this. I go to the territories to talk, not to entertain.'
Do you really think that, from your comfortable place far away, you can speak for a woman in Hebron or Ramallah?
“I never feel comfortable, because I’m not comfortable with our situation. True, I’m not living under oppression like women who live in the territories, but I definitely feel emotional oppression and distress all the time. So it wasn’t hard for me to speak from this painful place. In general, I think that art often derives from the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place. Like when David Grossman writes about a boy in an alley, he becomes a boy in an alley. Also, I’m often in the territories, I meet with people, I work with Palestinian organizations. It’s very challenging. You have to rid yourself of many of your preconceptions. Every absolute truth must be broken down.”
A few weeks ago, after news anchor Oshrat Kotler’s televised remarks (“We send our kids to the army, to the territories, and they come back animals”) sparked an uproar, Noa wrote to her: “I have known this for a quarter century.” Plenty of other musicians share her views, but unlike them, she doesn’t hesitate to say them on every stage, to clash with right-wingers and express solidarity with Palestinians in Israel and the territories.
“I believe in the saying that the price of speech is high but the price of silence is much higher,” she says. “I don’t care about being loved. I care about saying the things that need to be said. I don’t think about how they’ll be received. It’s hard for my kids sometimes that I’m such a controversial figure. I tell them, ‘Think about your mother as a type of bird.’ Why does a bird fly or sing? It just does. That's me. That’s my nature.”
To talk, not entertain
There are times when Noa can’t understand why she provokes such anger. “I can’t relate to the psyche of people who don’t understand why an Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony is a good thing,” she says. “But there are also things that I do understand. When I say that I won’t sing in the territories, I understand that there are people who are bothered by this. I go to the territories to talk, not to entertain.
"I do it a lot, without cameras. I’m received with a lot of love. It’s important to people to talk, and I’m someone for whom real communication, not lip service, is important. I usually leave there feeling reinforced in my views and my path. What happened to A. B. Yehoshua has not happened to me," she said, referring to the renowned Israeli novelist who stirred controversy throughout his career for voicing his opinions against the Israeli occupation.
“My job, as I see it, is first of all to be the best musician I can be and the best mother I can be. The second thing is the most important: to be the best person I can be. What’s a good person? Involved, caring, ‘Love Thy Neighbor…’ What’s the alternative – to join the forces of evil?”
As I’m about to turn off the tape recorder, Noa wants to say one more thing: “There are people who don’t know that everything I say comes out of my great love for Israel. I feel very frustrated that this isn’t sufficiently understood. If I were to distance myself from Israel, as many artists do, it would be very comfortable for me. Because it’s become a cross to bear.
"Being an Israeli abroad today is like bearing a cross on your back. You get nonstop criticism, from every direction. Because I insist on being Israeli, of always flying that flag over my head, I get pummeled. But I refuse to fold it up and put it away. I’m not working for anyone – not for BDS, because I oppose the boycott, and not for the Israeli government. I’m fighting for my place, for my home. That’s something that I’d like to say, even if Haaretz readers may not be so surprised.”