Composers have created all kinds of stirring works over the centuries. Whether your sonic cup of tea is Beethoven, Bach, Farid al-Atrash, Big Bill Broonzy, The Beatles or The Sex Pistols there is plenty to be had out there.
Sometimes we are wooed by the textures, colors and musical juxtapositions, and sometimes you get the sense of some emotive, possibly otherworldly, subtext hovering just behind the written frontispiece.
The latter sensibility is palpable in the works by Orram Agam due to be performed by the Meitar Ensemble on Sunday (8 p.m.) at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
If the name of the composer rings a bell you may have been put in mind of another, more famous Agam – 93-year-old internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist Yaacov, Orram’s father. That is not just a name-dropper bit of information, Agam Sr., will be very much present at the concert as the ensemble, under conductor Yuval Zorn, performs two scores – “Neshama Yetera” (The Overflowing Soul) and “Nine.”
The noted numeral is a major theme of Yaacov Agam’s sculptures and large-scale installation work and also informs his son’s musical endeavor. “There are often nine elements to my father’s sculptures, and also nine squares in his structures. He also associates nine with 18, which is chai (alive).” There is, it seems, also some Jewish mystical significance to the number. “There is the ninth sphere [in the kabbalah], the foundation sphere, which is the truth. That leads us to the [divine] kingdom.” Agam also cites his father’s reference to time and movement in his kinetic works.
By now it had become abundantly clear that the Israeli-born, Paris-bred 58-year-old composer had dipped more than a couple of fingers into the mystical side of Judaism, and that it is a core strand of his musical output. “I have always been interested in the kabbalah,” he states. “I even created a game based on it.”
Not that you would guess from his work, but Agam also grew up with punk rock and experimental rock music, jazz and techno.
Agam was true to the numerical line from A to Z. “The work is performed by nine musicians. There are nine movements to it and it starts out with a 9/8 time signature.” There were some subliminal forces afoot, as Agam went with his kabbalistic flow. “The first movement has 49 bars and there are nine beats per bar. That makes 441, which is the numerical value of the letters of emet (truth). That really came from above. I believe that a lot of things we create, we are not aware of them, that is a matter of divine providence.”
The musical numbers approach is not exactly a latter-day discovery. “Bach also used numerology a lot,” Agam notes. “He is the father of tonal music.”
The flip side of that avenue of compositional thought is a feature of Agam’s work, as he feeds off one of his major sources of inspiration, the atonal musical system conceived by early 20th century Viennese-born Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg. “Not exactly,” he counters when I suggest that he opted for the opposite end of the tonal-atonal domain, compared to Bach. “I relate to Schoenberg in terms of freeing up the note. There is a redemptive element in music in that it releases the soul. Musical form can limit your spirituality. I try to get away from that.”
AGAM RELATES that he is a direct descendant of the first Rebbe of Lubavitch – aka Chabad – and connects strongly with Chabad thinking, and Hassidism in general. “According to the kabbalah and Hassidism, Jews are connected to infinity.”
He says that can be seen in the work of such Jewish composers as Mahler, Mendelssohn and Schoenberg. “Their music has a strong link with the infinity. You could say that about any good composer, but the Jewish composers are special in that they renew form. Mahler renewed the entire symphonic form and Schoenberg revisited the musical language.”
Music making, says Agam, is a definitively spiritual affair. “The composer is a conduit for the light that is inherent to the music, to the musical form and the tone. I believe there is a fundamental difference between Jewish composers and non-Jewish composers, on a spiritual level. Jewish expression is different from non-Jewish expression.”
That stands to reason. After all, we all bring our personal baggage into what we do, including our religious beliefs.
Agam has picked up a wide range of cultural references and musical influences along his path through life thus far. He was born in Israel but moved to France as a child and spent his formative years there. In Paris, he came under the educational wing of Claude Ballif, a devotee of Schoenberg’s serialism compositional approach, when he studied musical analysis with him at the Paris Conservatory of Music. Agam describes Ballif as “a devout Christian and a great mystique.”
However, Agam says he gained more from the five years he spent in New York, studying with 20th-century French-born composer and pianist Jacques-Louis Monod. “He was a real innovator. He was among the first to perform Schoenberg in the United States. He studied with a student of Schoenberg.” Not that Agam intentionally set his sights on landing a disciple berth with Monod. Once again, he puts that confluence down to a guiding hand from above. “I got to Monod without consciously planning it. That was the way I got to the Rebbe of Lubavitch [in New York] too.”
“Nine” is definitely a work from the here and now, suffused with jagged edges and bittersweet tonal departures. You sense physical and spiritual realms beyond the musical frontline and also, somewhat surprisingly, some romantic elements. “Yes, that’s right,” Agam responds to my observation. “There is a lot of emotion in there.”
The same could be said about “Neshama Yetera,” which Agam dedicated to his late mother, Klila, and which incorporates a more energized melodic continuum, as befitting its title. It was also fueled by the synagogue. “This work comes from prayer. I used to attend a Chabad synagogue and I’d return home and write down everything I felt in my soul. That elicited a lot of joy and exultation in me. This composition is strongly connected to prayer and to the concept of neshama yetera (soulfulness).”
There is, Agam notes, a healing element to music and he talks of an oxymoronic state of silence within the torrent of sounds. “The flow of the music generates a sort of peace, like a musical stream.”
Agam says he is delighted to be working with the Meitar Ensemble. “They are superb musicians and they have a great understanding of contemporary music. I am looking forward to hearing them play this music.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 607-7020 and https://www.tamuseum.org.il/he/