'In the Vast Fields of the Soul'

On the moving collaboration between composer Mark Kopytam and singer Mira Zakai in their work on a cantata for voice and chamber ensemble, based on a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

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“The October sun warms our faces.

The October sun warms our dead.

Grief is a heavy wooden board,
tears are nails.

The sun goes around the Earth, yes.

The Earth is flat as a lost drifting plank, yes.

There’s a God in Heaven. Yes.

I have nothing to say about the war

I’ve closed myself up.”

− “October Sun,” Yehuda Amichai, 1973 ‏(translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell‏)

The sun in October really did blaze 40 years ago. Ba’aretz − back home − as the soldiers serving in the Sinai desert called the faraway locales in which they resided, there were already hints of autumn. On Yom Kippur day in 1973, at 2 P.M., on the other hand, it was still very hot, according to the archive of the Israel Meteorological Service: an average 27 degrees Celsius. In Sinai, moreover, the sun was truly scorching. The fire and pillars of smoke that suddenly rose in the desert skies at that hour that day only added to the heat.

That fire and heat lasted for two and a half weeks. Only in the final days of October did it begin to rain, but by then an entire country was shell shocked. For their part, the muses, too, having obeyed the historical command and keeping silent while the cannons thundered, had difficulty overcoming the shock and uttering even a peep − a situation that, to a great extent, exists to this very day ‏(see box‏).

Not long before the war, a new immigrant arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union − a composer and physician, with PhDs in both fields, by the name of Mark Kopytman. Born in 1929, Kopytman was a seasoned composer when he arrived; he had already taught at a music academy and wrote prizewinning orchestral and choral works. His “second life” as a composer, as he put it, began in Israel with the first piece he wrote here, despite the post-trauma the muses had suffered, under the influence of the Yom Kippur War and the blazing heat:  “October Sun” ‏(1974‏), a cantata for alto soloist and five musicians. For this purpose he chose a text from those days, also written in direct response to the
war − a poem of the same name by Yehuda Amichai.

“October Sun” constitutes a counterpoint to another short poem by Amichai − a wintry one, “Rain on the Battlefield” ‏(translated by Assia Guttman‏):

It rains on the faces, On my live friends’ faces.
Those who cover their heads with a blanket.
And it rains on my dead friends’ faces,
Those who are covered by nothing.

That is a poem which, as usual in Amichai’s work, stands astounded and helpless in the face of war.

However, in “October Sun,” something new is going on. Amichai starts the poem in his usual fashion, with inspirational metaphors − in this case related to a coffin. But all of a sudden, the poet runs out of words and he begins to fall apart in a process reminiscent of the deactivation/death of the supercomputer HAL in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The switches being turned off one after the other turn HAL into a sort of baby that spouts nonsense and sings children’s songs. In this case, it is the switches of war being turned off, gradually shutting down Amichai and disrupting his consciousness. The sun revolves around the Earth, he tries to hold onto something that is stable and familiar, but he loses his footing and suddenly declares that the Earth is actually flat.

Then comes God, in the context of the war. There is a god in Heaven. But then a kind of internal dialogue ensues − obscure, childish − and finally the poet declares a surrender: “I have nothing to say about the war / I’ve closed myself up.”

In war poems, the underlying ideal is often restraint and acceptance, noble spirit and what is termed decorum; in other words, appropriate conduct exhibited to the right degree. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” wrote the Roman poet Horace 2,000 years ago, which translates literally as, “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country,” or according to its Israeli version: “Tov lamut be’ad artzenu.

In “October Sun” Amichai feels that he is starting to lose control, that “decorum” is abandoning him, and this means either busting out and mounting the barricades, or else shutting himself down − and indeed, that is what he does.

The first and only soloist of the Kopytman work that was set to Amichai’s words and premiered in 1974 was alto Mira Zakai. The voice of “October Sun” is Zakai’s voice. The horror and pain in the piece, its shouts and whispers, rage and helplessness and chilling vocal effects that stretch the bounds of the bearable − all these are Zakai’s feelings.

“My encounter with Kopytman came at a crossroads in my life, [when I was
dealing with] the war, the music, Amichai’s poetry and how the voice works physically,” she recalled in an interview about a month ago. “In 1973, I was still a student at the academy in Tel Aviv, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, a young woman whose husband had gone off to war.”

Then why did Kopytman choose you?

“A lot of things I sang at the time were the sort that deterred other singers, because they didn’t want to scream or ‘stand on their heads.’ This piece is powerfully written for the voice. I guess that’s why he came to me. I had previously sung ‘Yod-Aleph Matzevot’ ‏(‘Eleven Tombstones’‏) by Leon Schidlowsky, who composed it in response to the murder of the Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics. I gave the debut performance of that, too. Schidlowsky asked me to scream and cry: ‘Go mad and be on the verge of a breakdown.’ I had sung pieces like that written by young students at the academy ... about
rituals of tearing out hearts in South America and ceremonies from India, alongside Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot lunaire’ and Pablo Neruda poems and tricky Inuit pieces. So when Kopytman came, I was already ‘shout-proof.’ I’d already screamed it all.”

‘Imprint and authenticity’

Kopytman, who died in December 2011 at age 82, had an illustrious career as a composer and lecturer in composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. He wrote glowingly about Zakai and how it was to work with her, in the liner notes of an album called Mark Kopytman Vocal Music: “Long hours of discussions about the hidden meanings of the music and the musical and vocal nuances led to performances that were psychologically profound and yielded the unforgettable beauty of colors and exquisite taste of this unique artist,” he wrote.

“Mira’s enormous repertoire is a reflection of the history of Israeli music,” he went on, noting that from that first encounter of two fledgling artists came an artistic collaboration that lasted many years. Though they eventually went their separate ways, “she always remained faithful to my music. In science, parallel lines never meet, but in art it is not at all like that. Our musical paths crossed frequently − in my vocal works that were sometimes dedicated to her, premiered by her, and which she performed again and again. Mira’s imprint and authenticity always characterized these encounters between us.”

For her part, Zakai wrote in an article: “In Kopytman’s works I had to reach the very edge of my vocal limits, and the limits of my interpretive ability as well. His vocal and emotional register was like an invitation to tour new and
exciting realms ... And the texts he selected, from the mystical and philosophical to the surrealist and lyrical and intimate, took me on a new journey inside words, syllables and consonants, and images.”

“‘October Sun’ was a turning point in my life,” Zakai says now. “It involved a confrontation with my emotions through music that would not let you hide feelings behind the beauty of the notes. I was forced to bear my soul completely in a cry that came out of the pain of the war. But I felt the text and the reality so sharply that I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation to scream it all out. I went for broke despite the risk. This piece helped me realize that we have many more sounds in our throat than we think we have. After working together we became close friends, until the end of Kopytman’s life, with his family too − and he continued to write pieces for me.”

Did you talk about the war in the process of working on the piece?

“No. We just worked, without holding deep discussions on the topic. But we felt we were doing something very important. That we were documenting something. That the piece was a diary of the war.”

Ending in silence

The cantata for voice, flute, violin, cello, piano and percussion opens with eight resounding vibraphone notes, after which the vocalist comes in with a hushed voice, singing the words “October sun,” syllable after syllable, sung monotonously − a gesture that in classical music stands for death.

The rest of the piece reflects the special technique with which it was composed: a score that in part indicates precise notes and elsewhere allows the musicians great freedom. It is written in the traditional notation, but nevertheless is based on markings unique to this work. Indeed, in many parts of the score, notes appear inside circles with an arrow between them, and musicians are directed
toplay them any way they choose − in essence, juxtaposing order and chaos, design and randomness.

After a brief random instrumental break, the vocalist resumes her singing. In the score, she also gets circles, over the note that goes with “warms.” Zakai repeats that word over and over again on the recording, as if the music is composed as if it is catching on fire, heating up, growing hot and burning − in a voice that rises in volume until a cry in fortissimo diminishes into silence and the whisper of death.

When the vocalist gets to the words “tears are nails,” the ensemble splits into three layers: She goes on singing, the strings play a glissando that is simultaneously jaunty and eerie, and the flute plays tunes from a children’s song for Tu Bishvat.

“At the height of the cry he suddenly makes way for children, for a type of hopscotch,” Zakai says of this unique moment.

The series of questions that marks the collapse of reason near the end of the poem takes the form of a dialogue between the singer and musicians: She asks, they answer. Then a conversation emerges among the instruments themselves, with a particularly dissonant tonal harshness that grows ever more strident − until, without any warning, the pure voice of the singer can be heard, a capella, without words ‏(i.e., vocalise, in musical terminology‏).

“In the middle of all this the disturbing, yet honest, voice of Kopytman suddenly
shines − a beautiful and haunting vocalise for unaccompanied voice, as a ray of hope, pure and honest like a prayer,” Zakai wrote. “Since that day this melodic line is like a ‘secret code’ which is slowly deciphered again and again in the dialogue between Kopytman and me − a dialogue between two musicians who are also close friends and meet in the vast fields of the soul. For me this vocalise is the composer’s fingerprint − it reappears in many of his works in slight variations.”

At the end of the piece the simplicity and hush come back, the vibraphone can barely be heard and, as Kopytman himself writes, “the circle closes. The ideas that began the piece return at its end, but this time without words ... There is no longer room for words. ‘I have nothing to say about the war / I’ve closed myself up.’”

“We performed the piece twice,” Zakai recalls. “The first time as part of a
library concert series organized by the composers’ association − a series where, at each concert, a poet shared the stage with a composer who had set his words to music. Kopytman played the piano himself; he was a wonderful pianist. The second time was at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, conducted by Mendi Rodan. That concert was filmed and broadcast on Educational Television. A copy of it is probably somewhere in the archives.”

“October Sun” has never been performed again. Twice − that was it. “All of the works I sang in premiere performances − of which many had been written for me − always had other renditions and other singers who came along and sang them,” says the singer. “But not this piece, and it surprises me − even though in my eyes it is a masterpiece.”

At least the album is still available, making it possible for one to get as close as possible to the Yom Kippur War experience. Not by the means of strategic analyses, not from battle stories, not from discovering unknown chapters in heroism or by rehashing, ad nauseam, old chapters of history. No. This is an unmediated emotional experience, which, through sounds and words and the voice of a woman, is better than a thousand pictures. Considering the fate of the few works written in the wake of the war, it is doubtful that “October Sun” will be redeemed any time soon − or ever.

Postwar pieces

Little by little, Israel’s leading composers began to absorb what happened in October 1973 and to respond to the war. A survey of the archives from the months following it shows that most of the pieces composed at the time did not seem to be particularly critical.

Cautiously, musical clues began to emerge shortly after the war that showed that something had indeed happened − in two sorrowful works that made use of the Book of Lamentations ‏(by Arthur Gelbrun and Eddie Halperin‏); two pieces that integrated words from the “Kol Nidrei” prayer ‏(by Andre Hajdu and Joseph Dorfman‏).

Composers, perhaps more than all other artists, are not automatons activated by a switch, and concert music is a medium that responds with difficulty to an external event. Sometimes the musical response to trauma can take many years, even decades, to surface. For instance, Benjamin Britten composed his “War Requiem,” in response to the horrors of World War II, only in 1961. Still, to this very day the Yom Kippur War has not found expression in local compositions. It seems like the direct, unequivocal response to that event flourished for a moment, in a handful of works, a few months after the war − and immediately died away.

In “In Memoriam” ‏(1973‏), Leon Schidlowsky used the sounds of the shofar and “Kol Nidrei,” and it was dedicated to the war’s fallen. “The Interrupted Prayer,” by Yitzhak Sadai, “was composed under the influence of the Yom Kippur War as an attempt to describe, by electronic means, the clash between the spiritual and the material,” musicologist Yehuda Walter Cohen wrote. And Ami Maayani composed his “Symphonie de Psaums” in 1974 as a response to the war. However, the only work that not only lamented the war but also came out defiantly against it was “October Sun.”

Mira Zakia. "I had sung pieces about rituals of tearing out hearts in South America. So when Kopytman came, I was already 'shout-proof.' I'd already screamed it all."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Mark Kopyman. An unmediated emotional experience.Credit: Schlomo Ben Yaacov
Yehuda Amichai. Writer of the 1973 poem "October Sun."Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO

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