All quiet on the musical front

That’s really what the place is all about – getting down to the business of playing music on stage.

Jazz pianist Omri Mor puts his students through their collective pace (photo credit: EDEN KALIF)
Jazz pianist Omri Mor puts his students through their collective pace
(photo credit: EDEN KALIF)
Near the corner of Kiah and Agrip pas streets stands an all-too-rare architectural gem. - Anyone who has lived in the capital for, say, more than four or five years, or even just dropped in sporadically over the course of that time could not fail to notice the dramatic changes taking place in the urban milieu. Old structures have been pummeled into submission by the score, or have been augmented by several stories, often to the aesthetic detriment of the original base level, and the Jerusalem skyline seems to be edging ever closer to the firmament. While we are not exactly talking Tel Aviv’s Manhattan-proportioned lofty tower contours, this is still a stark contrast with the low-slung villagey feel to which locals had been accustomed for over a century and a half of life outside the Old City walls.
The said vintage edifice is Alliance House, which sits at the far end of a not particularly attractive parking lot, and was built in 1880, accumulating a checkered history until it fell into disuse around two decades ago. But, as we know, vacuums are anathema to Mother Nature and to humankind, and the building gradually began to fill with all manner of creatively minded individuals and groups. The second floor of this once magnificent structure, which still bears some of the ornamental and architectural reminders of its illustrious long past, is currently home to Musicavasheket (a.k.a. School of Music and Silence).
The educational institution set up shop there close to three years ago, and will probably have to move on in around a year’s time. Apparently, there are plans to give the building a full makeover and turn it into a luxury boutique hotel. So, what else is new in this ever-evolving city? The “curriculum,” for want of a better word, is extremely varied. If you fancy getting a handle on flamenco music you could pop along to participate in Yehuda Shweki’s class, or if Latin music is your thing, Uruguayan-born veteran percussionist Rony Iwryn could help you in that area of sonic pursuit.
For a school that has very little in the way of a formal educational program – there are no examinations and no grades are awarded – the place proffers an impressively diverse stretch of styles and subgenres, and all provided by topnotch teachers, who also happen to be acclaimed performing and recording artists in their own right. In addition to Shweki and Iwryn, the teaching staff boasts such musical A-listers as Piris Eliyahu, Elad Levi, Eyal Talmudi, Abatte Barihun and Omri Mor, covering broad tracts of ethnic music and jazz.
Judging by a student performance event they held at the Yellow Submarine a couple of months ago, the teachers are doing a good job with nurturing their wards’ incipient skills. That’s really what the place is all about – getting down to the business of playing music on stage.
The school’s official title also offers food for thought. Silence is, on the one hand, anathema to sound, but it is also an integral element of music making. By definition, you must have intervals, of varying durations, between the notes you play and sing, otherwise it is all just a melee of sound. “I can tell you what Ido Tzur, the third manager of the school, says about the ‘silence’ in the name,” proffers Matan Caspi, a member of the institution’s managerial triumvirate along with Adva Rosenberg. “He says we want to make music with peace of mind. We just want to make music without all the background noise of the world around us.”
That is a praiseworthy and lofty goal although, unfortunately, reality tends to make inroads on unsolicited intent. It would be nice, for example, to have substantial financial backing so that all concerned could just get on with the instructional and creative job in hand. While the school manages to tread financial water, a helping hand from the municipality might make life a little easier for Caspi, Rosenberg and Tzur.
Judging from the demeanor of Caspi, who also earns a crust as a professional drummer, and Rosenberg, when I met them in their high-ceilinged antiquated “staff room,” enthusiasm regardless, they were taking a relaxed approach to their work, and were hopeful of keeping the place going.
The school is the culmination of a naturally evolving process, and Caspi and Rosenberg exude a cheeriness born of an inner conviction that they are doing the right thing, and going about it the right way. The educational venture was spawned by plain old self-interest. “There was a bunch of about 12 of us,” Caspi explains. “We all played music, some of us already had their own groups, and we decided to establish a study framework for ourselves, to play and to progress with our art.”
If you are trying to kick start a new undertaking, it can help a lot to have a pervading sense of mutual respect, trust and, if possible, warmth between the individual members of the founding unit. Fortunately, the prerequisite camaraderie was well established before the idea for the Jerusalem project was touted. “Some of us had known each other for a while. We lived together on Kibbutz Samar [near Eilat],” says Rosenberg. “We came to Jerusalem to perform, at places like Mazkeka, and we had played together. We were already a tightknit bunch.”
Rosenberg notes she and her pals were all a little academia-weary, and had burned their formal education bridges.
“We didn’t think about anything grander than making progress with our music, together. We’d studied at all sorts of places, and we didn’t want teachers who might offer us all sorts of things we didn’t want to learn. The Mazkeka offered us a home, a place where we could meet and play music together.
That was great.”
The whole Musicavasheket venture sounds impressively pioneering, and refreshingly altruistic. Clearly, none of the teachers or managers is looking to make a pretty penny out of the school.
“We just wanted somewhere where we would enjoy learning to become better musicians, together,” Rosenberg adds.
“It’s really quite a simple system,” Talmudi interjects. “It’s similar to the way people used to learn, in the old days. You had a teacher who came in to teach every so often. Every town had its teacher and own center of study. It’s an old idea.”
Caspi, Rosenberg et al. embraced the cohesive unit model and, after managing to keep the training ship on course for a school year at the Mazkeka, they found their current location.
Musicavasheket may have started out as a cozy affair, whereby everyone involved was on far more than nodding terms with each other, but the escapade has taken off appreciably. “This year we took on around 60 students. We have courses and semesters and stuff – for the first time,” says Rosenberg. “For two years we were, basically, just a bunch of friends. We didn’t want to grow too much.”
The Mazkeka is, to put it kindly and quaintly, an intimately proportioned spot, so in terms of pure floor-space increment, the relocation to Alliance House represented a significant statement shift. Mind you, grand backdrop notwithstanding, the school’s allotment at the timeworn edifice is still a way off from plush five-star office suite and teaching facilities level. “We have two rooms,” says Rosenberg. “This living room and the teaching room,” Talmudi observes with characteristic tongue-in-cheek acumen.
Any reservations about taking the quantum leap? Taking on the responsibility of providing 60 students with quality instruction must be an entirely different logistical, financial and mindset proposition compared with “just” getting together to collectively seek new artistic horizons. “It was official before this is new for us,” Rosenberg admits, “but this is much bigger.”
“We had to open a school, a business. We had to make a decision to go for it,” Caspi notes, although stressing that he and his pals endeavor to keep matters in proportion. “Yes, we are growing, but we want the school to evolve naturally, without grades and certificates and all that.”
“People come here to learn,” says Rosenberg.”
While we chatted jazzy sounds filtered through from the spacious music room next door, as Mor put a bunch of students through their paces. I caught a glimpse of the teacher-player dynamics and matters seemed to be progressing nicely, and comfortably. All parties concerned appeared to be fully on board, and while it was clear that Mor was calling the shots, there was no feeling of enforced hierarchy or laying down the law. The classroom ambiance exuded a sense of joie de vivre which, surely, is the best way to go about nurturing creativity and unfettered self-expression.
“The students choose their own program,” Rosenberg explains. Once again, the seemingly inchoate approach is a natural extension of the organizers’ own outlook on life. “We didn’t want to just present them with a defined curriculum,” Rosenberg continues. “We didn’t want to learn with in a rigid framework ourselves, so we weren’t going to try to impose that on anyone else.”
In these achievement-oriented times, with official bodies laying down the law, and the markers, for what is considered to be success that is a breath of fresh air.
Talk to most jazz musicians, for example, the global plethora of official institutions of disciplinary learning notwithstanding, and they will tell that the real training deal is “the university of the streets.” They will tell you you’ve got to get out there and accumulate handson experience, where it matters, playing on the bandstand with your professional counterparts.
That is exactly what the Musicavasheket gang is trying to replicate in the classroom. There are no music history theory lessons, no music theory tuition, no sight-reading exercises. It’s all just plain old, down-and-dirty music playing. “It’s all ensemble work,” says Rosenberg.
“With Omri [Mor] it’s jazz, with Rony Iwryn it’s Africa-Cuban music, with rhythm, and Elad Levi teachers Andalusian vocal music, and Andalusian instrumental music.” Mor also adds a jazzy perspective to the latter ethnic genre, and has been internationally acclaimed for his so-called Andalujazz offerings.
Add to that Persian music work with Eliyahu, Ethiopian music with Barihun, and a no-holds-barred take on Balkan and Klezmer material courtesy of Talmudi and you have yourself a pretty well-rounded music education.
The free-flowing ethos flows down from the top. “They called me and asked me if I wanted to teach at the school, and I asked them what they wanted me to teach,” Talmudi says. “And they said ‘whatever you want.’ I like that. I think the approach here if just right. If you want to study music you need to play it. And here you don’t have all the theory stuff you normally get at music schools. The atmosphere is amazing. People just come here to play. It’s as simple as that.”
For more information about Musicavasheket: 054-795-9646, 054-974-7141 and