How far we’ve come

A symposium at the Israel Museum looks at Israel’s accomplishments in the arts.

EFRAT GOSH 521 (photo credit: Naama Merinberg. Courtesy of the Adi Foundation))
(photo credit: Naama Merinberg. Courtesy of the Adi Foundation))
It is no mean feat to try and take a learned look at the artistic achievements of this country over the first dozen years of the third millennium, and the “Review-Preview: The Arts in Israel in the 21st Century” symposium, which took place at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem last week, gave it its best shot.
The proceedings were divided into different categories of the arts, with sessions on the visual arts, film and television, design and architecture, technology as a platform for artistic expression, the performing arts, prose and poetry, and music.
The music session was a highly entertaining and illuminating slot, with French-bred TV personality and theater actor Emanuel Halperin acting as moderator and doing his utmost to introduce some Gallic elements.
First up among the speakers was veteran rock and pop radio show presenter Yoav Kutner, who gave the attentive audience a whirlwind overview of homegrown commercial music over the last 40 years or so, followed by pop singer Efrat Gosh’s quaint rundown of her own contribution to the field. The session ended with contemporary classical composer, conductor and Rubin Academy of Music and Dance professor Michael Wolpe, whose purview for the symposium was titled “Outside the Industry: Non-commercial Music in Israel at the Start of the Millennium.”
THERE ARE few people better qualified than Kutner to talk about where we have been and where we are in the Israeli commercial music scene. We met the day before his address, and he said he was planning to start out by talking about how non-artistic developments have changed the face of the music industry.
“Technology has always impacted creativity,” he says, adding that it is not just a contemporary development, although its say in how music is created and disseminated has gathered steam in recent decades. “Technology also affected the way that people like Bach went about their business.”
According to Kutner, technology has simplified and reduced the cost of creating, producing and recording music.
“There are so many accessories and technological enhancements people can use today,” he notes.
“There is even something that fixes what you sing if you sing out of tune. Anyone can do it. You don’t need to book a recording studio and to wait months to save up the cash to pay for the recording session.”
He cites an example that places the “then” and “now” in stark contrast: “The first episode of my [Channel 8] TV series, The Albums, was on [rock group] Mashina, and there is a bit of an interview from 1985 in which [Israel] Radio journalist Menahem Granit tells them that they are the only band signed up with a recording company that year in Israel. Now there are 1,000 bands who make music each year, because there is no need to be connected to recording companies; they can make music independently.”
It may be easier for musicians or wannabes to convert their ideas into sound, but as Czech author Milan Kundera might have mused, making things easier to achieve does not necessarily mean ending up with a worthwhile product.
“All this technology has definitely affected the quality of some of the music made in Israel today,” says Kutner. “Today, you can bypass the recording studio people who might advise against one thing or another. You can do just what you want without asking anyone.”
Paradoxically the ease of putting music out there has led to fierce competition in the market, and that has left its mark on the kind of sounds musicians want to release.
“The real revolutionary period of Israeli commercial music was in the ’70s, long before the era of the Internet, when you had acts like [avant rock trio] Ketzat Aheret [consisting of Shem-Tov Levy, Shlomo Yidov and Shlomo Gronich] and [rock band] Tamuz [with Shalom Hanoch and Ariel Zilber], which really changed the face of Israeli music,” Kutner explains.
“They didn’t care about succeeding commercially or making money.”
There were subsequent waves of frontier-pushers.
“You had all the New Wave stuff in Tel Aviv clubs in the ’80s, with people like Ehud Banai and Mashina, and then in the ’90s, at places like [Tel Aviv club] Roxanne.”
According to Kutner, technology is a double-edged sword and has affected the willingness to follow the more adventurous artistic route.
“In recent years, most of the bands and artists who have been signed up by record companies are largely mainstream-oriented,” he notes, adding that that has a lot to do with the proliferation of non-state media channels in the last couple of decades, starting with the advent of commercial TV.
“When Channel 2 started, everything changed,” he says. “The word ‘rating’ suddenly made its presence felt in the music industry. All the privately run radio stations have to sell commercials in order to survive, so they won’t play your music if you’re into avant garde. They play things that appeal to as wide a public sector as possible. [Radio station] Galgalatz has become more open to things which are a bit outside the mainstream, but commercial success is the name of the game.”
ALTHOUGH THE contemporary Israeli pop and rock scene is sticking to the tried and tested money-spinning avenue, some artists hark back to those halcyon days of the ’70s and seek out their envelope-pushing muses with gay abandon.
Wolpe has absolutely no problem with the local musical eclecticism. Despite his lofty position in the “serious” music sector, the Kibbutz Sde Boker resident has no superiority complex when it comes to streetlevel music. That is borne out in the program he has been putting together for the last 15 years as artistic director of the Tzlilim Bamidbar (Sounds in the Desert) Festival, which takes place around Hanukka on and around his kibbutz. This year, for instance, the Israel Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and heavy rock band Hayehudim shook up the tranquil desert with its outpouring of decibels and in-your-face instrumentals and vocals.
“About 10 years ago, I had [rock singer] Yehudit Ravitz playing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra,” said Wolpe at the symposium. “That was wonderful and, to my mind, is on the same artistic level as the work of [20th-century Israeli classical composer] Paul Ben-Haim.”
In his address, Wolpe played the overture of a work by Ben-Haim from the 1950s in which Middle Eastern sounds rubbed shoulders with more mainstream contemporary classical endeavor.
“Ben-Haim was from here, and included the sounds and energies of this part of the world in his scores,” Wolpe explained. “I like that approach.”
While the music session appeared to cover broad artistic terrain, Wolpe saw himself and his two cohorts belonging to the same club.
“If this symposium had taken place 40 years ago, there would have been every chance that I would have met a colleague from the music academy here, but not Yoav Kutner,” he said. “In fact, Yoav and I meet up [all the] time, because we are involved in music, regardless of what so-called market sector we work in. That’s the way it should be.”
He also touched on the explosion of cultural events this country now hosts on a regular basis, compared with days gone by.
“Once, everyone watched and followed the annual Music Festival, but if the festival were to take place today, it would maybe get a 20-percent rating, because everyone else would be following the other festivals happening at the same time,” he said. “There is no hegemony in music anymore; people follow their own path.”
The global village, he said, has been very beneficial for classical composers today. “The composers who, in the past, may have been by and large ignored can now promulgate their work on YouTube and by other means. They don’t need to ingratiate themselves with the record companies, because they don’t need them.
They can access people who may be interested in their music no less than artists who work in popular music. That’s a great improvement.”
He was keen to point out the positive side of electronic, faceless communication.
“Today there are communities, as virtual as they may be, of people who share the same music interests and tastes, and they access this music through the Internet,” he noted, citing a personal example of the added value the Internet offers musicians: “I put a work of mine on the Internet, following which it was booked for a festival in Brazil. There is no absolutely no way that could have happened 20 years ago.”
And it is not just geographical distances that have shrunk; chronological gaps have also been bridged.
“Dudu Tasa, the rock musician, took a recording of his grandfather and great uncle, the legendary [Iraqi Jewish musicians] El-Kuweiti brothers, and blended his voice with them and put it on a CD,” said Wolpe. “There is complete freedom today.”