Music to her ears

Ruth Katz will receive the Israel Prize with Dalia Cohen for their extensive research and a device that analyzes melodic elements in music with non-Western notation.

Ruth Katz (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ruth Katz
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When Prof. Ruth Katz found out she was selected to win this year’s Israel Prize for her contribution to the fields of musicology, culture and art, she was not surprised. “I was at home with a friend when the phone rang. It was a call from the Education Ministry asking if I would hold.” As she waited, she looked at her friend. “I must have won the Israel Prize,” she says. “Why else would [Education Minister] Gideon Sa’ar be calling? To invite me to the Cave of the Patriarchs?” It’s with this sense of expectancy, and just a hint of mischief, that Katz, 87, stands to receive Israel’s top award in culture and arts jointly with Prof. Dalia Cohen and NIS 75,000 on April 26, Independence Day, for their more than 50 years of research on the music of Israel, and for their groundbreaking work on the melograph, a mechanical device that analyzes melodic elements in music that features non-Western notation. The two are the only female recipients of the prize this year out of 11 honorees.
Sitting in her apartment off Hapalmah Street in Jerusalem, it is clear that both academic and cultural pursuits are at the forefront of Katz’s life. Here, there is the feeling of a crossroads between East and West, the Oriental carpets and metallic Middle Eastern vessels contrasting with the heavy piano in the corner and the Western artwork on the walls. Here, one begins to understand that Katz is a scholar who cuts across boundaries.
The machine that made Cohen and Katz famous was the melograph, a mechanism that records “ethnic,” or non-Western, music, and graphs the characteristics of the non-traditional notation. In their case, the melograph proved particularly valuable as the two professors studied and analyzed Arab folk music, culminating in a volume on the subject some 40 years in the making, titled Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition, in 2006. The book deals specifically with the music of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel, and follows many articles written by Cohen and Katz on related topics. Using the melograph that they created, and eventually computers, Cohen and Katz analyzed hours of recordings from the 1960s, mainly from Arabic singers in the Galilee.
Born in Germany in 1927, Katz moved with her family to Tel Aviv in 1934, where her parents owned and operated two small hotels. Both of them were very involved in charity work, and in bringing family members who had survived the Holocaust to live with them in Israel. Like most middle-class families, she says her parents encouraged her to take up an instrument, which in her case was the piano. Early on, however, she realized that she was one of those people who loves music, who enjoys music, consumes music, but who never felt the pressure or the desire to become a musician. If anything, she thought of being a singer.
“As a singer, the instrument is your body,” she says. “And I always felt that these beautiful sounds, if they come out of you ... I wondered what it must feel like.”
As a high school student in the renowned Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv, Katz found her chance, singing the role of Radames, the male tenor lead, in the school’s production of the opera Aida. “I had a very good voice,” Katz recalls. “Even many years later, people used to meet me and say ‘Radames!’ My love for opera and singing existed also within my love for music.”
On Saturday nights after Scout meetings, she would go to the Mugrabi Hall, where operas and plays were performed.
“Sometimes I would buy one ticket, then hide in the bathroom and sneak back in for the second play,” she recalls. Eventually, while earning her PhD in musicology at Columbia University in New York City, Katz found a way to neither pay nor cheat to see the operas that she loved. She found work as an usher in some of the city’s best opera houses, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera Center.
“I’m a great believer in consuming,” says Katz. “You have to expose yourself. Taste rests on cultivation – you can learn to love something that you at first didn’t.”
After completing her dissertation in the US (where she met her husband, eminent sociologist and pioneer of Israeli television broadcasting Elihu Katz, who won his own Israel Prize for social sciences in 1989) she joined the newly established Department of Musicology at Hebrew University in 1965, where she became professor of musicology in 1984 and has been emeritus since 1995.
She was then head of the School of Graduate Studies from 1983 to 1986, and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin from 1986 to 1987.
Katz has published several books, including Divining the Powers of Music: Aesthetic Theory and The Origins of Opera; Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music (with renowned German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus); Palestinian Arab Music: A Maqam Tradition in Practice (with Cohen, the co-winner for this year’s prize) and A Language of its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music, Katz’s most recent book, published in 2009.
Cohen, born on Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1926, has been deeply entrenched in countless facets of musicology in Israel for more than half a century, teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (JAMD) since 1956. She studied mathematics and physics at the Hebrew University. In 1954 she completed her studies in piano and composition, eventually studying at Princeton University. In 1965 she finished studies at Harvard University and received a doctorate in musicology at the Hebrew University in 1969.
Cohen has authored nearly a hundred articles on topics ranging from ethnomusicology to musical cognition, and several books about Western and Eastern music, music education and music theory. She is, like Katz, a professor emeritus in the Musicology Faculty at the Hebrew University. At the JAMD, Cohen established the Faculty for Oriental Music and has been instrumental in implementing music as part of the curriculum at Arabic elementary schools.
While it may be that Katz’s most recognized work is in musicology, both Western and Eastern, her ingenuity is also in the approach to the concept of how the mind understands. Her concern in gathering information is not how much one knows, rather how well one understands it.
“I’m a great believer in knowledge versus information. Understanding is more about what relates to what, whereby, wherefore, what about, in relationship to what, under which context,” Katz says. “Now with the Internet, because it is in the palm of your hand, you don’t have to remember anything.
The advantage of containing it is that you can relate things to each other.”
In this regard, Katz also considers herself something of a fortune teller. Many years ago, she predicted that problems, and not discipline, would dictate knowledge. “A problem defines the boundaries of its investigation,” states Katz, “which always means that you go out of your own discipline, but that doesn’t mean that you just take. You have to understand what you take.”
Katz’s theories about knowledge and cognition reflect decades of research, and perhaps for this simple reason Sa’ar’s phone call did not shock her. “The possibilities of who could be considered were limited,” she says.
The concept of interdisciplinary studies, or the combination of two distinct academic fields into one discipline, is today widely understood throughout academia. When Katz wrote her dissertation in the early 1960s, however, her writing was something of a catalyst in the acceptance of crossing long-standing academic borders.
“I tried to show that the institution of opera, which is not just singing, could not have come into being if the scientific revolution had not taken place,” she says of her doctoral work, which was based primarily on early 17th-century Italy.
“For a long time one thought that excellence depended on specialization, and there was also the idea that sciences were a different world than all of the humanities,” Katz says. “I destroyed this notion.”
She acknowledges that she is by no means an expert in Israeli music, but it can certainly be argued that her exposure to the arts and culture in Israel from an early age, spanning the short history of this country, does give her status as an observer. “Composers came from Europe with musical education, but they wanted to create something unique and ‘wed’ this idea of coming back to the land,” she says. Then, she says, there was something of a split: Some composers tried to really reflect the local scene, but soon enough many wanted to get back into the mainstream, the Westernized world.
In Gymnasia Herzliya itself, Katz sees the perfect example of these two sides to the music. The school, which in Katz’s day was located where Ahad Ha’am and Herzl streets intersect, was geographically and metaphorically centered between two forms of Zionism. On the one side there was Ahad Ha’am, who knew that not at all Jews would make aliya, but that Judaism should continue with Israel at its spiritual and cultural core. On the other side was Theodor Herzl, a political Zionist who envisioned that he was going to bring all the Jews to Israel.
“All my life, the Gymnasia stood in the middle like this,” Katz muses. “There were various stages [in Israeli music] which oscillated between to what extent one was representing the locale, and to what extent one was trying to hook up with trends that were going on outside the country.”
As the country grew, the contradictions in music became greater. “The bigger [Israel] became, paradoxically, the more one wanted to be part of the big world,” says Katz. “That which seemed very far away had shrunk to a small world. These ups and downs reflected itself in the music of the country.”
Katz is also not without an opinion on one of the most public music conflicts in Israel.
“I am strongly in favor of performing Wagner,” she says, “but because of the position that he holds in the history of music... people who think that to be a great composer you have to be such a nice fellow, are off.”
After all, she points out, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin were both considered anti- Semitic as well, and yet the same sort of exclusion does not exist. “He [Wagner] had a tremendous impact historically, not just with his own music.”
Beyond the controversial, she says she does not hear much impressive contemporary music. “Much of it is so simplistic... there is just nothing there,” she laments. “Maybe that is why it is so popular.”
Ever the active listener, she also draws a clear line between hearing and listening.
“When you stand in front of a painting, it is not just that there is a man, a woman, so on,” she says. “To understand a painting takes time. People think time is not a factor.”
Like any art, Katz believes that listening to music requires awareness, analysis and perspective. There are, of course, many aspects of her work that are much too complicated for a casual observer or listener.
Constantly aware of this, she writes in the introduction of her most recent book, “This is for those who want to know more, and those who know to entertain a new look.” In this one sentence, it is clear that her passion for musicology is nearly matched by her thirst for knowledge, her desire to always analyze, and her wide frame of thought.
“My whole effort in recent years is to show that brain studies cannot proceed without taking into account the mind. One is biological, one is all of the culture that we understand.”
Katz insists that there is no reason someone her age cannot keep learning, or study the sort of topics that appeal primarily to younger people. Speaking about the brain, she believes that the more you exercise a muscle, the more resilient you make it.
“We know that long-range memory is better than short range,” she says. “If long-range memory works better than short, and shortrange is what you are getting worse in, if you have lived longer you have more accumulation.”
An older person brings more to bear in terms of the mind and not the brain, which only processes and does not create. In fact, Katz adds, an older person could definitely understand something better than a young person who has not had as many experiences in life.
It is important to note that the prize which Katz and Cohen will receive is not for lifetime achievement, which to many would signal the end of a long, illustrious career. “I’m very much still working,” Katz says. There is not a day that she does not work, sometimes reading for six to eight hours daily, and when her husband is away for work, she insists that she is never alone.
“I have conversations with Descartes, with Aristotle. I even make them talk to each other.” Yet always, after the reading and philosophizing, after eating supper and watching the news, she returns to the passion which has earned her the right to accept one of Israel’s top honors.
“I really am a person who loves music and enjoys listening to it,” Katz says. “I always end the day listening to music.”
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