Hitting the mixed music road

‘Local Andromeda – a Journey on Route 6’ goes into high gear at the Oud Festival.

Hitting the mixed music road (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hitting the mixed music road
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are generally plenty of cultural confluences on offer at the Oud Festival, and this year’s 10-dayer is following suit. Ronen Shapira’s “Local Andromeda – a Journey on Route 6” (Confederation House, November 15) is one of the more intriguing interethnic encounters and incorporates a musical and physical interface between musicians with different cultural backgrounds. The concert features two Jewish and two Arab members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Shapira, on pianos, will be joined by Yossi Arnheim on flute, Sami Hashibun on Arab violin and oud player Michael Marun.
For Shapira, music feeds off life, and life reflects the music. His mention of the highway in the work’s title is a case in point. “When you drive along Route 6, which straddles the area of the Green Line, you have Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other, but you just drive along and there is no real encounter with the Palestinians. You pass by a village, but you don’t really see it.”
Shapira doesn’t just talk about bringing the cultures together, he embodies that encounter in his work and in his life.
“Look, I was born in north Tel Aviv near where all sorts of prime ministers lived,” he states. “I didn’t grow up playing Arabic music or anything out of my natural cultural sphere. I grew up with disco and pop and classical music, but I am naturally rebellious. I started listening to Arabic music – I heard a cassette of [Egyptian diva] Oum Kalthoum, and I thought it was amazing and so complex. Eventually I got around to thinking about fusing east and west, and people told me I couldn’t do it. When I am told I can’t do something, I go ahead and try. That’s my way.”
Indeed, Shapira immersed himself in Western classical music, first studying piano with his mother, Hava Shapira, before going on to attend the music academy at Tel University, where he benefited from the rich experience and polished teaching skills of such luminaries as Pnina Zaltzman and Leah Agmon. He also studied composition with Andre Hajdu and Joseph Dorfman and completed a master’s degree and a doctorate in the US. That’s quite an educational resumé on the European side of the classical tracks.
In the intervening two decades, however, he has spread his musical wings far and wide. He has worked with artists from a wide range of genres, including rockers Berry Sakharof, Yahli Toren and Doron Solomon, besides collaborations with leading members of the classical domain such as conductor Noam Sherif and composer Michael Volpeh. His works have been performed at Carnegie Hall and the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall in Budapest and, last August, his Untempered Opera, based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, was performed in Tokyo. Add to that his role as a founding member of the domain, and you get a pretty comprehensive musical ethos. So when he talks about exploring and embracing music from all kinds of cultural climes, you know he knows what he’s on about.
While Shapira may have a point about one side not seeing – or hearing – the other side, it may just come down to the simple fact that our ears tend to be more receptive to the sounds and rhythms with which we grew up.
“It’s true that as human beings, we are limited,” Shapira observes, “but we still have the ability to take new things on board. In my experience, if you hear something that is initially unfamiliar, over a period of time you develop a memory of it and it becomes part of you.”
That, says, Shapira was something his Japanese colleagues appreciated last summer. “I took an Arabic tuned organ and combined it with a piano, and I messed around with all sorts of scales, untempered tunings and quartertones. I mixed Oriental scales and things I made up, and they said that after a few days of hearing the scales, they sounded completely natural to them. There is an infinite number of things you can do in music.”
Last year, Shapira’s Taximcerto concerto was performed by the IPO, with Revital Hachamoff playing two pianos – one Western tuned and one Middle Eastern tuned, to accommodate the quartertones that, for example, oud players produce. Shapira will also play similarly tuned pianos at his Oud Festival concert next week.
And the composer-pianist is not afraid to ruffle a few purist feathers. “You can’t stay closed up in your own world,” he says. “I find that idea depressing. But I see people like Berry Sakharof doing all sorts of [cross-cultural] things, and that’s great. There are some good things happening in this country.”
The Oud Festival certainly offers some evidence of that exploratory endeavor.
For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: (02) 624-5207 ext. 4 and www.confederationhouse.org