It’s all just music for Etty BenZaken

Versatile singer takes leave as soloist to concentrate on wide range of artistic endeavors

(photo credit: JALE ARDITTI)
In my early days as a jazz reporter I occasionally had a finger or two wagged in my direction – albeit generally via the telephone – when I talked to artists in terms of genres and subgenres. I would ask them about swing, bebop, cool, or any of the various jazz styles. They, particularly the older crowd, would say: Hey man! It’s all just music.”
That was a valuable lesson for me, and one which Etty BenZaken took onboard a long time ago. The 56-year-old multidisciplinary artist would probably go a step further and exclaim: “It’s all just art.”
Today (December 13, at 1 p.m.) BenZaken will take her leave of the stage as a leading vocalist when she performs in the Zucker Hall of Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv. She is, of course, far too young to retire and says she will continue with all kinds of other creative projects, including with the Modalius Ensemble, the troupe she founded together with professional and real-life partner, composer and conductor Eitan Steinberg.
The ensemble is categorized as “a classic-ethnic group that brings together prominent Israeli musicians, each specializes in a different musical style – from Middle Eastern ethnic music to contemporary concert music, from Early Music to jazz.”
In fact there seem to be no limits to BenZaken’s fields of interest and activity. In any given concert she might sing a Baroque composition, followed by an Arabic folk song, a Ladino air, a pop-inflected Israeli number and some feral vocal calisthenics that run a broad emotional gamut, often seasoned with some theatrical movements. Then there are her literary skills. With three tomes penned to date, BenZaken has proven to be as adept with the written word as she is with the sung and intoned variety. Her most recent book, The Box of Voices: Essays of a Multidisciplinary Artist, which came out earlier this year, is a masterly portrayal of the quintessential artist, and all that implies.
Oh yes, there are also BenZaken’s endeavors as a writer, director of design of music-theater productions and chamber operas, her work in the plastic arts – including creations in fabrics, contributions to installations and to various staged performances – and workshops she presents for Jewish and Arab students on folklore as an intercultural bridge. No wonder she is taking a step back from regular performances.
However impressive, say, a singer’s voice is, there is far more to his or her delivery than the sum of their technical skills and the way they manage to manipulate their vocal cords. The latter physiological factor gets a generous mention in the book, but BenZaken also talks about her Egyptian and Turkish grandparents, and the melee of languages her receptive infant ears caught at home.
IN THE Box of Voices BenZaken also enlightens the non-musician reader about some of the complex logistics and emotional trials and tribulations she has experienced during her three decade-plus career. All of that contributed to the decision to adopt more of a back seat on the performance front, and the wish to devote more time and energy to behind-the-scenes work. She is hardly ready for the tweed jacket and slipper circuit.
“I am retiring from this aspect of the concert soloist, of this format of a full concert, which I have been doing for the past decade,” she explains. “That is, the type of concert in which I am the soloist, from start to finish, with our ensemble. So that aspect is going, but there are plenty of other things to do,” she adds with a laugh. “I will carry on leading the Modalius Ensemble in other ways, on the creative side and as a curator, but not as the solo vocalist.”
The stage’s loss is due to be the art form’s gain. “I like those athletes who quit at the top,” she adds. “I think that is the right thing to do. You still have a lot of strength and energy to change things and to do other stuff, rather than gradually and painfully ebbing away and being less good at what you do.”
BenZaken has been aiming for artistic excellence for many a moon now, although her initial musical steps were in a different line of expression.
“I started on piano, at Thelma Yellin [High School of the Arts, in Givatayim], but I quickly began learning to sing, with Gilah Yaron who was then a very active singer.” Developing her vocal abilities became BenZaken’s primary interest. “After a brief stint in the army I went to the Academy [of Music and Dance in Jerusalem] to studying singing.”
The decision to enroll at the academy was partly due to Yaron’s presence there too, although things changed mid-academic flight.
“I didn’t complete my degree. I met a voice teacher called Lucia Vasilopolo. She no longer teaches, as she became very religious.” That was a profound game changer for BenZaken, on all sorts of levels. “She changed my life. She came from Romania, and she taught a very special technique of voice training for actors and singers. Back then I had a lot of problems with my breathing. I suffered from asthma and bronchitis, and a whole bunch of things.”  
Vasilopolo put her through her paces, and then some, but it did the trick.
“Lucia’s method was very physical. Every class was just doing breathing exercises. It took a few months until she finally heard me sing some repertoire, and she began to guide me through some repertoire.” It was a matter of ensuring the infrastructure was in sufficiently good shape before the musical skills, per se, received any honing. “She believed that you had to build up an instrument, a musical instrument, and if the instrument is good you can sing in any style you want.”
THE ROMANIAN got that one right, and BenZaken went on to wend her creative path through a multifarious array of works, formats, styles and genres, and disciplines.
“I don’t make do with my own backyard, and I really enjoy collaborating with others,” she declares. “For example, there is an exhibition, by Adva Drori, at the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Kiryat Tivon.” It is a very emotive showing which touches on the open wounds of former kibbutzniks who slept in communal children’s houses with little or no access to their parents. Some came out of that arrangement unscathed but many attest to emotional scars they bear to this day. “I created a soundtrack to the exhibition,” BenZaken continues. “I like collaborating with artists from different fields and, of course, with Eitan.”
Steinberg has been a mainstay of BenZaken’s career and life for over 30 years and, together, they created and performed numerous works.
“I met Eitan in the same year I met Lucia, at the end of ’85 early ’86. It was a very meaningful encounter for both of us, although we didn’t get married until 1992.”
Tying the knot may have taken a while, but their artistic coalescence was rapid. “We connected musically from the get go,” she says, even though it was seemingly a coming together of different worlds. “Our record and cassette collections, then, seemed to incorporate different extremes. On the one hand there were contemporary things, like [20th-century Italian composer] Luciano Berio, [now 77-year-old American director, vocalist, filmmaker and choreographer] Meredith Monk and, on the other hand, there were ethnic recordings, recordings of Radio France which you could buy in record stores, field recordings of all sorts of peoples in different languages. Eitan and I shared that passion for the most folklore and raw music. It wasn’t world music – gift-wrapped in the way we are used to today. They were authentic recordings. We also liked experimental music made with Western concert instruments. That was a very different world of sound.”
All the above tastes and interests, and many more that have evolved over their years together, have found their way into BenZaken and Steinberg’s voluminous eclectic output. They are also reflected in today’s set list, which takes in work by Steinberg, 71-year-old Georgian-born Israeli composer Josef Bardanashvilli, 20th-century American composer and philosopher John Cage, 73-year-old Greek composer Georges Aperghis, “and many love songs from around the world, in a variety of languages.” The latter will be based on Steinberg’s arrangements.
“The concert will offer a flavor of all our various directions,” says BenZaken. “There will, of course, be Eitan’s music. We will perform a very important work of his called Stabat Mater–A Human Prayer, and we will do another of his works called Spinning. The Modalius Ensemble normally has seven players, but there will be 10 of us on stage. This is going to be a real celebration.”
For tickets and more information: 03-620-1185, 077-201-9573 or here.