Looking for new compositional approaches and challenging musical conventions through the synthesis of a wide spectrum of contemporary and ancient styles is what inspired my composition. Intellectual conflicts such as the confrontation with philosophical matters and religious and political aspects have always been of interest, and also underlie and motivate my work. I have been inspired in particular by Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg to develop a personal vision as a composer.
In Israel, I grew up acutely aware of the tensions caused by the animosity between Palestinians and Israelis. Of profound significance were the sensory images of the shocking terror attack that occurred in a mall in central Jerusalem on December 3, 2001. The destruction and suffering caused by the two suicide bombers was devastating and continues to haunt me to this day. This attack killed eleven innocent boys including my relative 19-year-old Moshe Yedid-Levy. However, in my music, my intention is not to refer directly to experiences such as this but rather to look at Arabic and Jewish matters from a human perspective and in conjunction with philosophical and religious concerns. I am a strong believer in the power of music to bring about understanding, change and reform in societies, and perhaps also between nations. It is my wish to convey the idea of cultural pluralism.
I embarked on the integration of classical Arabic music, Arabic-influenced Jewish music and contemporary Western classical music in my earlier works. Chief among them are: Myth of the Cave, trio for clarinet, bass and piano; Passions and Prayers, Sextet in Homage to Jerusalem, for horn, trombone, clarinet, viola; Reflections upon Six Images, a quartet for clarinet, viola, bass and piano; Oud Bass Piano Trio; and Since my Soul Loved, for strings and piano. The Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, continues the investigation in Oud Bass Piano Trio of integrating a classic Arabic instrument into a Western ensemble. These compositions comprise the foundation to my work.
My compositions divided into two groups (A and B) which present different approaches that are associated with the different proficiency levels of the performers. Group A compositions have been composed for performers with a Western background who do not necessarily have experience in the performance of Arabic music and Arabic-influenced Jewish music. Group B compositions have been composed for performers who have proficiency in the performance of Arabic genres as well as experience in improvisation of other genres (i.e., jazz and Jewish styles). Group A compositions include: Delusions of War, for 22 string players; Visions, Fantasies and Dances, for string quartet; Sensations, for piano trio; In Memory, duo for piano and flute; and Out to Infinity. Group B compositions include: Oud Bass Piano Trio; Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio; Myth of the Cave; Passiosn & Prayers; Since my Soul Loved and Reflactions upon Six Images.
I chose to compose many chamber group works rather than works for large ensembles or an orchestra for a number of reasons and practicalities. Firstly, I aimed to obtain many performances for each of my works to establish a performance-based research that suggests practical solutions for the questions and challenges of my research. I found this to be easier to achieve in chamber music. Secondly, some compositional challenges could be identified by verbal dialogues between the performers and the composer. This music-making dialogue is natural in chamber music and perhaps easier to formulate in a small-member group. The real time dialogues particularly helpful in sections of improvising and in various Maqamat. Personal instructions on ways of ornamenting a musical line have been discussed. Sections of improvising variations of a melody and creating a similar heterophonic texture to the Sephardi-Mizrahi Piyyutim are an example of this approach. Here, directions for improvising, including musical elements and the overall sound of the texture, were discussed between the performers and the composer.
Most of my compositions contain between one to seven movements/parts and between three to eight major sections in each movement/part. The sections have been composed utilising a range of different approaches and compositional techniques. Often the mood of the music is changed abruptly and without a musical transition from one section to another. The superimposition and synthesization of a variety of musical styles and contrasting compositional approaches and techniques has been made possible by an overall connectedness of the musical elements in various ways in sections of my works. The listeners and the performers can acquire a sense of this connectedness by performing the piece, or by the listening to it, without a break.
The titles of the sections have been selected to evoke various musical images and personal emotions. They facilitate the transfer of the ideas and thoughts that inspired the compositions and, in some cases, they are also meant to influence the performers in their improvisation. I believe that the titles suggest a narrative that adds a dramatic structure to my works. The titles convey emotions but they also raise assorted religious and political matters. In the liner notes of Visions, Fantasies, and Dances, I have explained that the titles of the images were chosen as a general guide to the feel of the composition and the listener may assemble them into a story, according to his/her understanding, experiences and imagination.
Microtonal pitches and intervals have been incorporated both in the context of Maqamat and in the context of Western art music practice. The intonation of microtonal pitches and intervals in Arabic music is not absolute and differs from one performer to another. My works incorporate this non-Western practice to intonation through various ways. One way is by treating vibrati, trills and glissandi in a manner akin to Arabic music. Another is by obscuring the target notes with extensive use of microtonal articulations (glissandi in combination with vibrato). In some instances it becomes clear from the music that Arabic intonation is required and the performers know how to produce it thanks to their performance practice. This occurs in sections in the Group B compositions in melodic lines that are based on traditional connections of Maqamat.
Unisons and octaves for microtones that are not associated with Maqamat have been avoided in my works. My reasons were to avoid challenge in intonation and to present microtonal unisons only in the context of Maqamat, when the pitch can vary. In works for ensemble with piano and other instruments that can play microtonally, I was able to incorporate microtonality in quasi unison in monophonic lines. That is, all instruments perform a section without written microtonality in quasi unison whereby, except for the piano, all other instruments improvise microtonal ornamentation.
My own experience as a pianist and my belief that all performers should practice improvisation has led to the inclusion of improvisation in sections of my works. I believe that improvisation can bring sound textures that would be very difficult or impossible to notate. The division between Groups A and B enables different approaches for performers with different levels of proficiency in improvisation. Some approaches were directly influenced by forms of Arabic music, and, in other cases, I have combined elements of Arabic music with Western approaches to improvisation. Overall my goal was to give the performers sufficient directions in the scores as to what I wished to hear in their improvisation. I have done so through the following: (1) notation, including graphic notation, (2) explanatory notes and (3) titles. In many instances, I have performed the piano parts and have directed recordings of the works, so performers could also refer to an audio.
Taqsim and Mawwal, two well-known traditional Arabic forms of improvisation, provide an established plan for the performers. I have composed these forms only for instruments that are most likely to be associated with this type of improvisation. These forms suggest such elements as the tempo, rhythm and the character and mood of a given section. Sections of free improvisation form creative music that encompasses the performers’ musical styles and improvisational idiom on the one hand and the process-based dynamic of my work on the other. I believe that giving the performers the freedom to improvise on their favourite musical material in a free form introduces different musical genres into my works, and, as a result, integration of these genres can occur.
Serialism allows me to combine elements of Arabic music and Western approaches to improvisation. I have composed several rows of ordered pitch collections and instructed the performers to improvise their own phrases using the pitches prescribed in the order of the rows. Elements of Arabic music have been manipulated in the rows with aspects of integral Serialism.
A perpetuum mobile toccata can be seen in many sections in both Group A and B compositions. In some cases, perpetuum mobile toccata has been composed to suggest a semblance of Arabic articulation. This can be seen for example in Out to Infinity (for solo harp) where demisemiquavers in a fast tempo are divided between the left hand and the right hand to obtain a non-legato articulation. In other cases, perpetuum mobile toccata has been composed to resemble specific Arabic elements such as the rhythm of the Arabic Debka dance. In this case the configuration of the Debka dance steps and the way its dancers stomp their feet on the ground have been translated into rhythmic patterns, accents and percussive attacks.
A transformation of rhythmic patterns of classical Arabic music into meter can be seen in sections in Group A and B compositions. I was inspired by Samai Thaqil (10/8) and Dawr Hindi (7/8), and in fast tempi have manipulated variations of these groupings. In some cases, a basic division of the crochet beat has replicated the groups of seven quavers of Dawr Hindi and septuplets of semiquavers have been created. In other cases I have used accents of 3, 3, 2 and 2 in a pattern of ten demisemiquavers and replicated the groups of ten quavers of Samai Thaqil.
My work could be viewed as the beginning of my research of integrating classical Arabic music, Arabic-influenced Jewish music and contemporary Western classical music. There are areas that need further exploration in different contexts. These include examining the possibilities raised in this paper with different types of instruments. I refer here to wind instruments and vocal as well as various traditional instruments. The possibilities drawn in this paper should be examined with these instruments and with the new challenges associated with its performance practice. Large ensemble works and the integration of various instrumental combinations of performers from Group A and Group B are other aspects that merit exploration. This includes examining how traditional Arabic instruments can be integrated into Group A compositions as a soloist (perhaps in a concerto format), and also how mixed ensembles of various performers including traditional instruments from Group A and Group B, could be integrated.
The sonic outcome of microtonality (of Maqamat and non-Maqamat), improvisation (of Arabic and Western forms) and heterophonic textures (of Piyyutim) differs in Group A and Group B compositions. For example, the pitch level of quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones in Group A compositions are accurate (in the context of diatonic well tempered practice), whereas in Group B compositions they are slightly different each time and, in the context of Western music, they are not accurate. When it comes to evaluating how successful the engagement has been with each group, it is worth mentioning that, in the process of composing, this difference was expected. The performers’ practice and their musical knowledge are important factors within my compositions. The range and variety of performers’ skills enables and ensures the integration of microtonality, improvisation and heterophony in various ways, and, in order to bring different sonic outcomes, different approaches were created.
I believe microtonality was widely integrated into Group A and Group B compositions. My intention was to enable the performers to play microtonality in various ways and contexts, and by that, to create homogenised integration. In other words, I wanted microtonality to be an integral part of my works. For example, microtonal pitches that in Arabic music function as ornamentation and as part of improvisational gestures (i.e., vibrati, trills and glissandi) were used in a manner more akin to Arabic music than to Western classical music. One area that I would like to investigate and explore in more depth is how to train Group A performers to perform the intonation of microtonality of Arabic music.
Improvisation can be seen in a variety of different ways in Group A and Group B compositions and are an integral part of my works. The areas that require further investigation include (1) improvisation of Arabic forms for Group A performers (such as Taqsim and Mawwal), (2) improvisation that incorporate Arabic microtonality for Group A and B performers and (3) improvisation that limits the performers to use only specific Arabic elements for Group A and B performers. The incorporation of Arabic musical terms for Western performers, such as those that specify guides and expressions for the performers, and vocalise gestures (by one player to another), such as Ya Rab (oh Lord!) for joy, is another area that needs further research.
I believe that the heterophonic textures of Piyyutim and the musical elements of ancient and non-European sounds have been widely introduced in my works. The performers use uncommon musical elements such as pitch variation and changes of note values and octaves, through non-European means. However, there are areas that need further investigation and include, the integration of traditional melodies (I have looked at the integration of original Piyyutim-like melodies only) and the integration of heterophonic textures of each community of the middle Eastern Sephardi-Mizrahi‘s communities, for example Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish (my main focus has been on the integration of heterophonic textures of the Sephardi-Mizrahi communities as a whole).
Overall, I present a philosophy that I believe should also apply in our day-to-day interactions between individuals and between nations and religions. We should acknowledge the past (our tradition and our history) accepting that, no matter what, we are not able to change that which has already occurred but we can try to understand why it occurred. We must also cognizant of the fact that we are the ones who are creating the “new tradition” and that to this we are able to make changes. My music reflects my passion to create progress and change in composition and in performance of Western classical music; it is a product of what I believe is a natural process of integration over time. I was born in Jerusalem to a family that migrated to Israel from Syria and Iraq early in the 2oth century. At home, we harboured a deep desire to preserve our musical heritage of hundreds of years. However my formal music education was in Western classical music and I have studied and played the piano. I have an intimate connection to my past, to my historical traditions and culture, and to my musical traditions as well as to Western music. Out of these influences, I was able to compose and to propose new compositional approaches to Western classical music.
Rabbi Hillel the Elder, the renowned Jewish sage and the principal of the Sanhedrin, an ancient Jewish court of sages, used to say:
“If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).
This quotation from Rabbi Hillel the Elder about the duty of a person to not only be concerned for himself but also to worry and contribute to society reflects my feeling about composing. I believe that one should strive to develop a personal voice and be an individual, not solely for oneself, but also for others, as individuality is a necessary step in any contribution to broader society.
Dr Yitzhak Yedid
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