Writing to suit

With 20 years of composing under his belt, Yossi Bin Nun is one of the nominees for this year’s Israeli Theater Prize.

Johnny Went 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Johnny Went 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yossi Bin Nun obviously likes a challenge or two. Despite the commonly-held image of the artist as a free soul, following his or her muse along a meandering path to some kind of enlightenment as inspiration strikes, Bin Nun says his work involves sidestepping through minefields, meeting challenges head on and even compromising with his fellow professionals over the final outcome of his musical endeavor.
Constraints notwithstanding, Bin Nun is clearly doing something right as he is on a shortlist of four nominees for this year’s Israeli Theater Prize for composers. His rivals for the sought after award include Dori Parnas, Yossi Bardanshvili and Keren Pelles - all except for Parnas are former recipients of the award. The roll call of winners since the award’s inception in 1995 also includes Arcadi Duchin, Israel Brite and Gil Shohat.
Bin Nun has been writing scores for over 20 years and includes late iconic playwright Hanoch Levin among his professional collaborators and, possibly, his most challenging and satisfying counterpart. “It wasn’t easy working with Hanoch,” says Bin Nun. “I often felt frustrated after having clashed with him over some artistic decision but I always came out at the end feeling elated. It was a joy to work with him.”
When it comes to working in the world of theater, Bin Nun is fully aware of his standing in pecking order. “The music is, of course, important, but it is the director who runs the show. I can write some music I feel strongly about, and I can present my case forcefully but, at the end of the day, I have fit in with the director’s wants.”
Theater work, says Bin Nun is a completely different experience compared with writing a standalone composition. “In theater the music plays a limited function. It has to serve a story, possibly some drama.” This can have its advantages and disadvantages. “It is limiting and you have to be aware of everything going on around you. The composer has to cooperate with the director, and sometimes with the actors too but, essentially, what I do is to provide a musical backdrop. The music is never really front stage.”
That, he says, is the way it should be. “There are always constraints - they can be professional or financial. Often there simply are the funds to put on a large musical score. The composer has to know his place and be aware of the limitations.”
Still that doesn’t exactly mean the composer is a downtrodden minion in a grand world of theater ruled by an omnipotent director and his finely tired thespians. “I do have lots of freedom as well,” Bin Nun explains. “I do take artistic risks with my scores and I often don’t know where a work is going until it is complete.” And there is no pandering to populist demands either. “Sometimes I play music that I know will, initially, appeal to only a part of the audience and I could always write something more palatable, although I would never follow the commercial route. But I also know that, at the end of the day, the audience will accept what I give them. I have to be true to myself.”
Bin Nun says he, and his professional counterparts, feed off amultitude of inspiration sources and genres. “I am a classicallytrained composer. Mozart and Verdi were wonderful writers of music forthe theater and for any drama, as were Stravinsky, Shostakovich andProkofiev including, of course, for dance. The ultimate theatercomposer was Kurt Weil. We all steal something from him.”
According to Bin Nun there are three basic categories of composers forthe theater. “There are, of course, the bad ones - there is no shortageof them. There are those who come from outside the genre but have goodinstincts. And there are composers who come from the theatricalprofession, who can read plays and provide support for the stage work.”Bin Nun clearly belongs to the third category.

The winners of the Israeli TheaterPrize will be announced this Friday at 12 a.m. at Tel Aviv’s  GesherTheater. (03) 515-7000 for further details.