Backs to Ramallah, Looking Toward New York

Composer Yoni Niv offers notes and words about the apolitical concert hall. For his generation, he says, the mechanisms of understanding have broken down.

"Only Barenboim can do it" was the headline of an article by conductor Itay Talgam that appeared last May in Haaretz about the silence of Israeli musicians to the severe political situation and the "unbearable daily and hourly reality."

Talgam tried to understand why Daniel Barenboim was the only one whose words and actions in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were being seen and heard.

"Why is Barenboim the only one who can do it?" he asked. "Why not us - who also hold in our hands musical instruments and conductor's batons, the keys to a deep, symbolic, harmonious existence through music? To what can we attribute our paralyzing impotence? What is the curse that transforms us, as in a nightmare without end, into mutes?"

Months passed, showing that "Only Talgam can do it." His questions uttered the truth about the silence of the musicians, but no one in the group to which they were addressed took up the gauntlet and raised his or her voice. Not in a musical composition nor in any other form.

The response has now come, from a young composer just starting out. In an article appearing in the new issue of the periodical "Tav+" (a tav is a music note), Yoni Niv, 30, presents the point of view of his generation in the music world and interprets their silence.

The magazine's most recent issue, the fourth since it was established in February 2003 by editor Bat-Sheva Shapira, is called "The Next Generation - Electronica+." Like its predecessors, the issue will be supplemented by a concert expressing its content, this Saturday at 17:30 at the Tel Aviv Museum, in the framework of the Biennale of Contemporary Music.

Not a word about politics

In the absence of any public forum for serious debate of music, art and society in Israel, the lone presence of "Tav+" is glaringly conspicuous. Its uncompromising temperament and its focus on less popular aspects of music and of art in general - like modernism and the avant-garde - has drawn a unique new contour for the "alternative and slightly underground" periodical, as it its editor describes it. The issues of the magazine include not only articles about music, but also excerpts of prose and poetry, photos from video compositions and multi-panel discussions on issues related to culture and society.

The heroes of the current issue are the next generation of composers, and the electronic medium in musical composition. The work composed by Yoni Niv that will be performed at the concert, "Raise in Salary" is based on the play and was composed with Guy Ben-Zvi. Niv's article in the issue joins a rich selection of compositions and articles on different schools of composition and methods of instruction and on aspects of computer-aided composition, among other topics. Excepting Niv's article, there isn't a single word about politics.

"There is no inclination among creators in Israeli to express political stands," writes Niv. "I wash my hands of any attempt to provide an explanation of this wide-ranging phenomenon," he says and adds that keeping one's distance from politics "is but a symptom of a broader phenomenon: a new type of culture."

Niv says that he found an echo of his feelings in the book by Gadi Taub, "A Dispirited Rebellion." "This is a culture that is trying to defend itself and to shield the private realm from politics. In his article, Itay Talgam had mentioned the struggle of surviving financially

and concern about hurting one's career as factors in the musicians' silence. But I think that as far as my generation goes, he missed the mark.

"I, for instance, feel no threat: not to my career, which has not yet begun because I am still a student, and not to my economic status, which is abysmal in any case. No one has offered my to put out a disk, and no one cares what I am doing - except for those people who might listen to a piece of music in the Tav+ concert. Nevertheless, if I had a free and open stage to express myself in a musical composition - and I have a ton of things to say as a composer - I wouldn't say them in the political or social realm, but in the personal realm."


"It would seem that there is not only an attempt to distance oneself from politics, but that this is taking of a stand toward politics," writes Yoni Niv in his article. "In my eyes, and in the eyes of many of my friends, political activism is viewed as ridiculous at best, and at worst, as odious. Ridiculous because of its sterile nature, and odious because it endangers the politically pristine cultural autonomy that we have cultivated with such effort."

How can anyone close himself or herself off in a "politically pristine" cultural autonomy, as you say, when reality is rapping at the door?

"Yes, it is a violent reality, a reality of occupation; but my generation was born into it, and has realized that the attempt that purported to change that reality was ineffectual. So the solution is to suppress politics to protect the private, and to carry on a life that revolves along the Tel Aviv-New York axis, and not a Tel Aviv-Ramallah axis. The lack of involvement is not only related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to all areas: university students demonstrated over tuition, not political or social matters. This is also true for demonstrations by artists and cultural figures, and I'm not saying this as criticism.

"The series `Sabbaths and Holidays,' is a good example of this," Niv continues. "I liked it very much. It was practically the only thing I would watch on television, aside from Maccabi games. And the fact that the characters in the series did not mention the prime minister, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or suicide bombing did not cause it to lose authenticity. On the contrary. The indifference and the lack of meaning that are expressed in the series are the broadest common denominator for this generation."

As Niv describes it, his army service intensified the sense of indifference. "The army was a completely hallucinatory period. I enlisted in 1991 and served in Khan Yunis during Oslo. There were clashes, but in general it was pretty calm, and from the point of view of the run-of-the-mill soldier, the military lifestyle was all right. You live in a basically flawed world, but one that has a clear and reassuring set of rules - even an act of revenge after a targeted assassination seemed okay. Mainly, I was cut off. There were some real upheavals during my army service, like the computer revolution and the Rabin assassination, but I did not experience them at all."

"Only after you get out do you start to feel how unstable everything is. After the army, I went to work on a dairy farm, where I talked to the cows like I was the commander: `Move it girls, stand up, line up in threes, be on time.' A recently released soldier is like a black-and-white figure that found its way onto a color television. It was in the reserves that I heard for the first time the expression, `to take down some knees,' which means sniping at Palestinians."

And how do you function after those sort of grotesqueries?

"I simply go home, and move on: in university, in work, in life. That is the power of becoming accustomed to a situation."

The work composed by Niv for the concert is based on the play "Raise in Salary" from 1974, through which he expressed his attraction to the laws of logic and the language of mathematics and computer. "The play is well-suited to electronic composition," he says, "because of the binary method in which it is written, and the continuum of possibilities of which it is composed, which create a picture of a computerized world."

Each of the young composers at the concert, including yourself, could have chosen to set to music contemporary political poetry, by, say, Yitzhak Laor or Aharon Shabtai. You didn't consider resolving the problem of silence in that way?

"No, because it is impossible to take a political stand, and certainly not to go up against the barricades, when the world picture is so unsettled from the outset. Gadi Taub spoke about the mechanisms of understanding the world, which for my generation have broken down. And if one's understanding of the world is flawed, then how do you say something cogent and decisive? How do you take a political stand? My friends and I do not vacillate about what course of action to take - they avoid getting involved out of a conscious decision - and when it comes to music they also avoid being innovative, and most certainly not avant-garde, out of a new belief that wants to change the world order. This disintegration of understanding and sense of significance leads to self-absorbed works, like `Raise in Salary' - and their motivations, the dread of chaos. It is powerlessness in the face of a reality that has lost meaning."

"In a world in which everything is relative, there is no room for debate: you say your piece, I say mine; and in such a world, there is no justification, either, for naive, total art. Not long ago, I was on holiday in the Galilee," he says. "Two guitarists were sitting in a club, playing a bunch of songs from the `60s. I wanted to enjoy them, but they sang the songs with such abysmal seriousness, no winks, that I just couldn't get into it. It was laughable, so full of pathos. Now, thousands of reflections in the mirror have a difficult time saying something pure and true with utter seriousness. Why do you think they're doing all these remixes now, for instance with voice samples of Joni Mitchell? It isn't that people miss her, her voice or her music; they miss the times when they could sing the real thing, seriously and without irony."