A Thorn among the Roses – An interview with composer Arie Shapira

Arie Shapira at his home in Haifa Photo by Almog Oz, 2012

Arie Shapira at his home in Haifa
Photo by Almog Oz, 2012

On a night celebrating Israel's 66th Independence Day the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, IBA, shall perform, alongside Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and Piazzola' 'The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires', A short piece by Arieh Shapira, an Israeli composer, recipient of the Israel Prize (1994) – A Concerto for Piano Orchestra.

Professor Shapira was born in Afikim, a Kibbutz in northern Israel in 1943. As a kid he moved with his family to Petah-Tikva, where he learned to play the piano. He is a graduate of the Philosophy Dept. in the Tel-Aviv University, and studied musical composition at the Academy for Music and Dance in Jerusalem. Among his teachers are Abel Erlich, Andre Haidu and Arthur Gelberon. In 1994 he had received the Israel Prize for composition and education, and in 2012 the ACUM Prize for life achievements. His compositions include acoustic music, as well as electronic music and electro-acoustic music. He is a lecturer in the Haifa University, where he has been teaching music for 20 years or so.

So much for the official biography of Arie Shapira, which misses the point really. Because as well as being a very talented and original composer for many years, Shapira is also a man of wit, cynicism and a belly full of criticism with regards to what he calls conservatism, or perhaps illusionism among Israeli composers. He is not afraid of using harsh and unapologetic words to describe his unique place within Israel and Israeli music.

What did think about the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra performing your piece, and on the Independence Concert, no less?

I certainly deserve it – It was I who brought independence to Israeli music. It is important for me to state this, and that was very much my initial response when I heard about the choice to perform it.

Could you perhaps elaborate about the concerto which we'll be performing?

The piano plays relentlessly, and the other instruments refer to its part, but without synchronicity, when it comes to rhythm and pitch. They then gradually join him in rhythmic and pitch unison. It is actually my first piece to be performed by the JSO. In '87 they performed a piece I wrote for a teenagers' orchestra, which was quite simple and tonal. They had performed it in Gush Etzion, and it made very angry. I'm against the occupation and all that.

Your piece is actually a part of a concert with pieces by Piazzola and Tchaikovsky. Originally there was also Paul Ben-Haim's 'Fanfare to Israel' scheduled – which might be called a part of the 'Canaanite School' in the artistic context. What did you think about your piece in the context?

About Ben-Haim, well, it's a daft fanfare. I did indeed receive the Ben-Haim award, but I'm as far away from him as the east is far from the west. In this case, he is in the east and I'm in the west. It's really a Bartók-esque technique with oriental melodies. We may have our Yemenite  or Bukhara Piyyutim, which are very nice and beautiful, but do not allow compositional manipulations like the Hungarian songs which have very clear rhythmic and tonal characteristics. This is what I think about the Ben-Haim school.

In 2007, the Ha'Aretz newspaper had published an interview with you, where you describe yourself as being isolated. You even use the word 'orphan' to describe your place in the music world. Do you sense a change, at least since the interview was published?

I see myself as a thorn among the roses. Music is not supposed to be pleasing. I write Israeli Music, nervous, frantic, unclear, doubtful. relentless, violent/ We are a very violent society and this is my stance. I'm actually the only Israeli composer, which feeds on the Israeli 'situation', and not from 'Israeli sounds' – there are no 'Israeli sounds'. It's all fake. Notice the small orchestra used in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra – 23 players and no more. I think Israeli music should be lean, precise and not obese and sweaty, like, for example, a Noam Sheriff's piece, smug like a fat Persian cat. I use strong words. I have no patience for the other composers, these Ami Maayans, the Orgads and the Sheriffs. When I received the Israel Prize they all gave me stick, but I couldn't care less. It is the generation of my teachers, you see, which had received the Israel Prize after I did. It was an unprecedented attack against me in the media, in the newspapers, on TV , on the radio. A storm of slur, claiming all I ever do is make noise. It's actually quite right – my compositions follow a logic of progressing from disorder to order, so cut the ****.

I'm doing very well overseas, I get recognition and all that. Here, well, it's gradually changing, also because they no longer have a choice. I persist, and I'm already past my 70th birthday. Persistence has a lot to do with it. Who do I see as an inspiration? The only composer I value in Israel is Ruben Seroussi. I think he's wonderful. He should receive the Israel Prize as well – I'm certainly intend on suggesting his name.

In the national context, I find that many times talking to people of your generation there's a sense of disillusionment.

Of course. This country requires quite an overhaul. Its leaders as well. We should see through their lies.

Some of your works are electro-acoustic, but the general notion is that such music is missing from all the major orchestras' repertoire, at least in Israel. Overseas it might be slightly better. Is an overhaul due here as well? and if so – who is to blame? the academies? the music teachers teaching Palestrina style composition, chord progression and so on?

They're all treading water. Using aesthetics which are not our own, are not middle-eastern. After all we live in an insane place, so its music should written accordingly! It must feed on the general social atmosphere and not on 'sounds'. For example, I like to use 'off-pitch' octaves in my works: it's an octave but it's 'fake'. I have a piece for violin and electronic soundtrack, using a sample of a very 'off pitch' violin. When they ask me for a reason I say it's off pitch and fake, just like our musical soul is fake and 'off pitch'. Everything else, my musical education, the likes of Ben-Haim – it's all a sham.

Perhaps it's a matter of the students, maybe it's their upbringing? Do you have an option of being adventurous, of being innovative?

There's no other way than to be adventurous and innovative, radical and blunt. When everything surrounding us is so blatant, restless, cheeky, wht shouldn't the music be the same? Are we elegant? Do we live in Switzerland? in Denmark? Why should we be using European forms such as the Sonata. Israeli music is contaminated by 'Europeanism'. There's a notion that some think they a Viennese ambassadors. It's just a rude joke.

Arie Shapira with his grandson

Arie Shapira with his grandson Photo by Arie Shapira

On the other hand – some of the younger generation's more adventurous are perhaps unaware of composing for orchestra and musical instead, focusing on sound-art or electronic music? after all, with composer becoming so handy, and music making becoming quite common?

The computer is a fantastic instrument. I have many works which combine live acoustic music and a computer. For example, pieces performed by the Meitar Ensemble, in which the conductor is using the computer and at the same time does the traditional conducting bit. I'm actually working on a piece for Orchestra and Electronics, and I would like to give it to the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, because they are more open-minded. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, has never played my music. All they do is play semi-tonal, boring and unadventurous pieces. Zionisn is one hell of an adventure, it must be illustrated, it must be dealt with. One cannot ignore reality. Whoever writes music here and is ignoring reality, looking for a solution in European Music. So he finds inspiration in Ravel's music, let's say. Ravel is a great composer, undoubtedly, but if he is an inpiration to someone here then that someone has an issue with his or her aesthetic perception.

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