Post-coronavirus creating - musicians improvise under lockdown

"Maybe this coronavirus-enforced lockdown or slowdown is the perfect opportunity to make the best use we can of the unexpected furlough."

WITH ENTERTAINMENT venues shuttered, how can musicians keep the wolves at bay? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
WITH ENTERTAINMENT venues shuttered, how can musicians keep the wolves at bay?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
You know how you keep putting things off for that proverbial “rainy day.” How you will, surely, get round to plowing through those piles of papers, letters, books, boxes of old photographs “some time or other.” Well, maybe this coronavirus-enforced lockdown or slowdown is the perfect opportunity to make the best use we can of the unexpected furlough or, even, isolation and to stop prevaricating and finally get on with it, and stop stepping over the pile of whatever and actually sort through it. Whether we like it or not, many of us – probably, those us who don’t have progeny or whose kids have grown up and no longer need our close ministrations – now have more time on our hands. The opium-for-the-masses distractions are in abeyance. There are no cafés or restaurants in which to while away an hour or two, or even work on our laptops, no cinemas to escape to and lose ourselves in some filmic storyline for a while, and we can’t even get away from it all by grabbing some last-minute deal and flying off for a weekend or a few days to some foreign climes.
Yup, we’ve got to face up to the inescapable reality of the pandemic scare, hopefully without panicking too much, and somehow manage to keep the wolves at bay. On the plus side, that can offer some priceless added value, especially for artists who are normally so engaged with keeping their creative and financial balls rolling. Now, willy-nilly, musicians are having to take a look inward – and backward. Very few musicians, if they are not megastar rockers or pop artists, or even salaried members of a classical orchestra, are able to live off their live performances and recordings alone. The vast majority also teach. And with almost every institution of education across the country closed down, that source of income has gone out of the window. ANAT FORT is one of our best-known jazz musicians. The 50-year-old pianist has several albums out on the prestigious German label ECM – the first Israeli jazz musician to gain that highly prized berth – and performs regularly here, and at frontline venues and festivals around the globe. Last weekend she was due to perform at the mostly classical music Spring Festival at Kfar Blum up north, along with Ethiopian-born saxophonist-vocalist Abate Berihun. And just yesterday the two were due to team up again, this time as part of the fifth annual Bach in Jerusalem festival. Fort was also down to present a couple of workshops. None of the aforementioned actually took place following the ban of gatherings of more than 100 people, and then of 10. “This should have been my most lucrative month,” says Fort. “For now, I am taking it equanimously. I’m not sure about my bank balance, but there’s nothing I can really do about it right now.” It still took Fort a moment or two to recover her poise. “The initial shock just knocked me over. I thought, ‘How am I going to manage? And how long will it go on for?’ But I quickly realized that I can’t do anything about it.” Musicians, naturally, need to have a finely honed sense of timing. Fort seems to have her inner and outer chronometers well set. And it wasn’t just a matter of adopting a philosophical, long-suffering take on the evolving predicament. “I thought there are things I can do, even now,” she continues. “I have lots of [musical] things here, at home, I need to get to – books, recordings, things I want to watch and learn.” And neither she, nor her fellow professionals, can found solace or financial ballast in foreign pastures. “No, there’s nowhere to go,” she notes, adding that it’s at times like this that the artist and person meet, if they don’t in the regular run of things. “I say that we are a community of improvising musicians. If we want to be constantly in the moment [of the music] then let’s be in the moment. I see people who are anxious. I am not criticizing them. I understand them. But it is as if we want to be in control all the time, and to know what is going on. But we don’t know what is happening anyway. So let’s go with this. I think there is something very beautiful about all this.” As Indian sarod player Krishnamurti Sridhar once sagely said to me, several eons ago, when I called him for a telephone interview way past the appointed hour: “You are not late. It is happening now.” Fort shares that accepting stance of the mysterious unfolding of life. She is also not looking to try to stay in the public eye, or at least make sure people know she is still around, despite the paucity of operational means of communication. “If anyone forgets me, then they forget me,” she says. That didn’t come across as faux stoicism. “I’m not interested right now in being in some kind of struggle with what is going on. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be creative [in finding means of making a living]. If, at some stage, I feel there is a need to be more proactive, I’ll do it. When the time comes.” GUY MINTUS is another of our most polished jazz musicians, although he tends to stray into all kinds of musical domains. The 28-year-old pianist keeps a busy performance schedule, with plenty of plane hopping across the calendar. He came here for a month or so from his New York pad to perform at a slew of events, including the annual Felicja Blumenthal International Music Festival, which was due to take place at the Tel Aviv Museum this week. The concert was to feature his trio bolstered by a string quartet, at which he planned to roll out an extended version of the trio’s sophomore release Connecting the Dots. There was talk of utilizing advanced technology to try to get the music to the public, festival cancellation notwithstanding, however that novel idea also fell through. “We were supposed to video the trio at the Felicja Blumenthal Center Hall, but they just got a phone call from the municipality [of Tel Aviv] saying they had to close the place. It was all planned, and we were ready to go ahead with it,” Mintus explains, referring to the idea of videoing a rendition of the show repertoire and then making it available online. If your physical facilities are off the limits, it make sense to head for unbounded virtual realms. But as one door slammed shut, another sprang open. “Straight after the Felicja call I got another call, from the Enav Center [next to city hall in Tel Aviv],” Mintus laughs. “They sent out a call to musicians, offering the place for artists to come and record, and have it filmed. It wasn’t so much about transmitting the video, it was about capturing the music.” At the time of our chat it was unclear whether, in fact, that was going to work out, although it offered a glimmer of positive thinking in these troubling times. “I can transmit it live, or enhance the quality and put out, maybe, a couple of numbers over the next few days. There is potential in that.” That looked promising although, at the time, it still wasn’t entirely clear how it would pan out. “First I have to regroup and, second, I have to hope that doesn’t fall through, too.” While Mintus, like Fort, is maintaining an emotional even keel, he is not exactly sitting idly by waiting for things to unfold. “I will do everything in my power to get the music out there,” he declares. Judging by his manifold creative activity and ever-expanding oeuvre, you can trust him to do just that. “After everything went pear-shaped on Thursday and everyone still wanted to meet to play together, we had a rehearsal. Jackie [the cellist] lives in Mitzpe Ramon, which is far away, and she couldn’t come to Tel Aviv. So we played together via Skype.” That was fun, but it doesn’t make up for his coronavirus-enforced loss of earnings. Not by a long shot. “I had two concerts in Uzbekistan canceled, two in Kazakhstan, a week of workshops in Germany, and three shows there, two more gigs in the United States, and then an appearance at a festival and a show at [prestigious Paris jazz club] Duc des Lombards, and more gigs in Washington, New York, Cleveland – countless shows. All gone.” That could produce a pretty hefty downer, but Mintus says he is soldiering on, and trying – as a certain Brian would have put it – to look on the bright side life, and is determined to make up for lost time, and work, when the pandemic eventually ends. “I am trying to keep my spirits up. I see this as an opportunity, too. We [musicians] are still here, and we won’t disappoint.” HAGAI BILITZKY, a leading bass player at the eastern end of the ethnic music category, and an educator, at least for now is keeping his head above water. Bilitzky teaches at the Academy of Music of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and says some classes are still going on. “Students get one-on-one tuition,” he explains. “All activities involving five or more students have been suspended. Those are the instructions we’ve been given.” He says he and his colleagues are looking for creative ways to circumnavigate the assembly constraints. “We’ll have to find alternative solutions like, maybe, giving online classes. We have to get all the students to download the same application at the same time.” Still, it can’t all be done remotely. “I can’t do ear training via the Internet,” he notes. “I can’t record a lecture and then put it out on video. We have to organize ourselves somehow.” The institution’s restrictions on convening in groups of five or more completely eradicates any chance of playing music together, even via virtual means. “There is no technology available that allows you to play together without some delay,” Bilitzky says. “We have to be creative and make the most of the available technology.” Bilitzky also has family-related logistics to contend with. While his psychologist wife has to turn up for work daily, he can spend some time at home with his young children while school is out, although that eats into his own creative pursuits. “It is difficult to find the time to work from home, because my kids can need me at any given moment,” he says. “I don’t feel as if I have more downtime because of this situation.” IT AIN’T easy, across the board. Some have got it tougher than others. Fort’s sometime sparring partner Abateh Berihun may be an internationally acclaimed saxophonist and vocalist who brings an enchanting touch of Ethiopian Jewish liturgical blues to the fray, but he is not exactly raking it in. The clampdown on the entertainment sector caught him completely unawares. “This is scary,” he says. “Suddenly everything goes.” Not quite everything, but the talented reedman hasn’t got much on offer at the moment. ”I teach at the School for Music and Silence [in Jerusalem], but that is closed for now. There is talk of giving video classes. We’ll see if that works out.” Berihun is trying to put a brave face on things, but that is easier said than done. “There is some old stuff, like the Ras Deshen 2 recording I did with [acclaimed pianist-composer] Yitzhak Yedid in Australia about two-and-a-half years ago,” he notes. “I hope that will come out some time soon. And I am due to record with Anat [Fort] soon. But I had shows with Ehud Banai which were all canceled two weeks ago, and with the Afro Baghdad band, with [producer-bassist] Yossi Fine, [percussionist-vocalist] Ben Aylon and [globally renowned violinist-oud player] Yair Dalal. There’s nothing happening at all right now. It is frightening.” Even so, Berihun hopes there will be some artistic benefits to reap after, hopefully, the virus crisis passes. “We all have a lot of time on our own now. I think a lot about myself, and search within myself. I think that will come out in the music later. I hope so.” SAXOPHONIST-COMPOSER Alon Farber has been in the jazz public’s eye and ear, for some time now. He is a member of the popular Israel Jazz Orchestra, and is the principle composer for the well-thought-of Hagiga sextet, with bassist Assaf Hakimi and trombonist Oded Meir also contributing scores of late. The group, which generally performs only every two or three months, had a gig canceled just last Friday. “That was a disappointment,” Farber observes, with more than a touch of understatement. Still, Farber primarily earns a crust by imparting some of his accrued knowledge to students. “I think I will probably start giving classes online,” he says, although noting some technological obstacles, due to time lapses, to that route. “The main problem with that is that I like to accompany my students on piano, and I like to play duets with them, both of us on saxophone. I don’t see how I’ll be able to manage that.” That refers to his Ramat Hasharon Conservatory of Music students, but his other regular educational work, at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, and the Municipal Aleph High School in Tel Aviv, is currently on hold. Still, like Fort and others, Farber hopes the enforced hiatus will offer a long sought-after opportunity to dig into some back-burner projects. “I did, for example, a duo show with Eden Giat, Hagiga’s pianist, about a month ago, which we recorded and videoed. I haven’t had time to go over the material. I might be able to do something with that. And Hagiga with worked with [New York-based Israeli flutist] Itai Criss. That material also needs work.” As Fort notes, the musician is, first and foremost, a human being who lives in, and responds to, the world in which they live. As such, Farber believes the coronavirus crucible experience will probably leave its mark on his future work. “I believe that everything we experience comes out in the music. Yes, the corona experience will probably come through sometime.” Let’s hope that does happen – and sooner rather than later. ■