Music of Words

About three years ago, composer Uri Brenner received, "in quite a mysterious way," a letter from an American poet named John Gracen Brown. "The letter was very long, typed on an old typewriter and its language was very interesting, a bit antique," Brenner says. "He asked whether I would like to read something of his work. I replied that I would be glad to. He did not explain why he had decided to contact me. In fact, I still don't know."

Logic would have it that the poet had heard Brenner's music and liked it, but Brenner says his works have never been played in the United States: "Maybe he had heard one of them in Europe, and maybe I am one of thousands of composers who received the same letters from him.

"After a while a book of poems did indeed arrive in the mail, but I didn't do anything with it," Brenner says. "It lay in the cupboard until someone took it. And then another book, "The Search," arrived without any prior warning. This time I was more focused. One Saturday I sat down, started to read and in an instant I entered a magical, special, musical world. It isn't exactly a book; it's music of words. Short poems, not more than two or three lines, that arouse vivid pictures, provide strong shading and put you in a meditative state. Right as I was reading I started to hear music and I quickly jotted it down on paper so it wouldn't lose it. Gradually several segments were written, a kind of sound track for the book. I didn't know what to do with them, but I felt that they had to be heard."

Now, with the appearance of Brenner's new album, "A Walk," with 12 tracks for solo piano, it is possible to hear what was playing in the composer's head as he was reading Gracen Brown's "word music." Brenner trained as a classical musician and this is still his main discipline (last year he won the Prime Minister's Award for Composer and he was recently appointed the resident composer of the Be'er Sheva Sinfonietta). But modern classical music is just one hue among the many colors that make up "A Walk."

In the album, Brenner's love for jazz, his enchantment with the music of the Middle Ages and his tendency to create "sound pictures" in the spirit of ambient music are also evident. Even the clearly "classical" pieces in the album testify to Brenner's tendency to blur boundaries between various musical worlds in a productive way. ("Transition," for example, could well bring to mind the music of a very intelligent pop group like Talk Talk). No wonder then that "A Walk" (of which the numbers based on Gracen Brown's poems are but a small part) has come out on the new and interesting label EntT, which rejects the traditional categorizations of rock, jazz, electronic music and classical music and includes artists from all disciplines.

Brenner, 33, was born in Moscow into a family of orchestral musicians. His grandfather was the first trumpeter in the Kiev Philharmonic, his father played bassoon in the National Orchestra of the Soviet Union, his mother played in the second largest opera house in Moscow, his aunt was a flautist and his uncle played the bassoon. He was immersed in musical education, "with all that implies - tortures at the piano. A kind of distorted childhood, of the sort that most musicians know."

His father would bring jazz records, mainly of big bands, back from trips abroad, and as a boy Brenner was enthusiastic about the Swing of Count Basie and Woody Herman. But jazz was not considered serious music. In the family it was decided that Brenner would be a bassoon player like his uncle, but his passion to compose that had started when he was a child, to his parents' displeasure, hinted that he could not be expected to have a future as an instrumentalist in an orchestra. He wrote his first serious composition when he was 12 years old - "an orchestral work, 300 pages. Scribbles, but all right. There was a lot of energy." A year later he wrote eight preludes. Quite surprisingly, 20 years later one of those preludes had been included in his new album.

Why did he choose to integrate an unripe youthful work into such a meticulous album? "If someday they formulate the rights of musicians, one of the most important rights they will have to include is the right to a childhood," Brenner says. "One of the ills of our times is that people are ashamed of what they did as children. The first opuses are things that have to be hidden. So no one will know that I have written something close to Bartok or, heaven forfend, Beethoven. I think that this isn't at all right. This is exactly the time when a person is developing as a musical personality. [Gyorgy] Ligeti, for example, put out a disc with works he had written as a student, all kinds of marches that resemble Shostakovich. That is so right in my opinion. It is as though he said: 'Look, this is where I have come from.'"

His family's objection to the uncertain career of a composer did not deter Brenner: "One of my teachers once told me: 'If you aren't capable of writing, don't write." It turned out that I wasn't capable." His maturation as a composer, he says, was totally Slavic: "Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin - who I liked a lot - a bit of Stravinsky and also one Frenchman, Massiaen, who was really revolutionary for me."

The music of the second half of the 20th century, written by composers like Stockhausen or Boulez, did not come to his attention. "Like most musicians in Russia, I had no information about what was happening in the world of contemporary music," he says. All this changed when the circumstances of his life led him into the very heart of the atonal world.

In 1991, when he was 17, Brenner's mother decided that it was impossible to remain in Russia any longer. The plan was to travel to Germany, to stay there for two weeks and then to move on. But those two weeks turned into several years and Brenner started studying composition at institutions that sanctified atonal music and encountered what he called "an inverted musical planet": "Everything that was good in Russia was suddenly considered bad, and everything that was considered bad in Russia was suddenly good."

For two or three years he did not write a thing and only internalized the new rules. Then he started to compose in the spirit of contemporary European music. "I don't want to bad-mouth anyone, and I have no doubt that those people believed in what they were doing, but musically it was like a forced labor camp, a gulag. 'My dear sir, this is permitted and this is forbidden.' I had two alternatives: adapt mentally or enter a lunatic asylum. I chose the first option and adopted for myself a new identity as an atonal composer."

But this artificial identity did not hold up for long. "I realized that I have baggage that I will not be able to get rid of, no matter how hard I try," says Brenner. He sought another channel, in which he would be able "arrange a meeting between Moscow and Duesseldorf," between the music from the milieu from which he sprang and the innovative music. He calls this channel "new tonality": "A return to the writing of tonal music, from within the understanding that the tonality of today is not the tonality of the past."

Surprisingly, one of the important stations on the way to the new tonality was the music of the Middle Ages. "I discovered it at a late stage and I was astonished by how relevant it is to today, by how modern it sounds. There is a proverb in Russian that says: 'The new is the old that has been well-forgotten.'"

One of the most beautiful pieces in the new album is an adaptation by Brenner, mostly improvised, of two troubadour songs from the 12th and 13th centuries. "One of my aspirations is to create a musical development that isn't in a context of time, and the troubadour songs are, in a certain sense, outside of time. It is possible to play them infinitely."

Brenner's musical maturation could not have taken place in Duesseldorf, in the atonal gulag, but the reason he left Germany was connected to his personal life no less than to his artistic path. As a boy back in Moscow he had already started to get close to Judaism and observe the Sabbath. The psychological distress he felt in Germany only reinforced his faith. After he married, he and his wife decided they only wanted to raise their children in Israel. Their first stop was Ofakim. Brenner studied at a yeshiva and left music.

"There was a piano in the living room and I would sit down at it from time to time, but I felt a need to let go, to move inward," he says. After a few years his wife gave to her sister a tape of a recording he had made, and from the sister the tape made its way to an editor at the Voice of Music radio station, who invited Brenner to record some of his works. In this way Brenner's return to full-time composition began. He and his family later left Ofakim and he now lives with his wife and four children in the ultra-Orthodox village of Kiryat Ya'arim.

Have the years he spent at a yeshiva and the spiritual work he did there influenced his music? "Of course," he says, "but you can't expect that I will be able to explain how." The question whether the synagogue liturgy has seeped into his works makes him smile. "I don't think so," he replies. He also refrains from writing original music on the basis of texts from the Scriptures: "Not because they are sacred, but rather because I don't believe in writing music for a text that has several levels. Not Psalms and not Shakespeare. I prefer to write music for the phone book." (Gracen Brown's poems, he adds, are an exception in this respect, "because they are so open, abstract and noncommittal.")

He has already grown accustomed to people being surprised to see an ultra-Orthodox composer. "Sometimes there really is a struggle," he says.

"To study Torah with my companions or work on a composition? This is a question of where your head is, where your heart is. It is hard for me to explain to people who don't know what it is to study Torah with one's companions just how acute a dilemma this is. It is possible, crudely, to think of someone who is watching a fascinating movie on television and all of a sudden, at the most suspenseful scene, he has to go to the bathroom. The film is the learning, the bathroom is the work as a composer. In the end, you go to the bathroom because you have to, but you don't stop regretting that you missed the best part of the film."