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From “Enfant Terrible” to Elder Statesman

Conversation with Israeli composer Josef Tal

The following text, spoken entirely by Joseph Tal, is based upon a series of conversations between Shlomo Dubnov and Tal in September and December 2003, in Jerusalem. Bob Gluck provided a series of questions and crafted the narrative. Originally published at the EMF Institute in 2006.

Born in Poland, Yosef Tal (1910–2008) was a prolific composer and educator to generations of Israeli composers, an iconoclast who from the start bucked dominant compositional trends in Israeli music. Tal always remained grounded in European music, including 12-tone techniques, and he composed works for a wide array of media, including opera, ballet, choir and orchestra, as well as electronic music. At times, he based his work on themes from the Hebrew Bible. Tal first experienced electronically generated sounds as a teenager, while working in the studio of Friedrich Trautwein (inventor of the Trautonium), upon the suggestion of Tal’s teacher, Paul Hindemith. There were no electronic music resources in Israel when he immigrated in 1934, so he founded the Israel Center for Electronic Music at the Hebrew University in 1961 and directed it until his retirement in 1980. At its core was the third version of Hugh Le Caine’s “Multi-track” (the first having been built in 1955), a keyboard instrument that allowed a composer of musique concrète to simultaneously change the playback speed of six independent tapes. Beloved by younger composers and his students, he was considered by many to be an enfant terrible. He won numerous awards including the coveted Israel Prize (1971) and Arts Prize of the City of Berlin (1975). Alexander Ringer described Tal’s music as “broad dramatic gestures and driving bursts of energy generated, for example, by various types of ostinato or sustained textural accumulations….” Tal’s former student, composer Stephen Horenstein concludes: “Most of all, he taught me to aspire to create with the pioneer’s uncompromising spirit, regardless of what might be currently in vogue. He was our pioneer, the epitome of that uncompromising energy.”

I attended classes with Paul Hindemith around 1927 and he was the one who pointed me in the direction of electronic music. Hindemith suggested that I work in the electronics lab of engineer Friedrich Trautwein, builder of the Trautonium, a type of early synthesizer. I did not work with him personally and did not like him very much, but his lab was an interesting place where they were creating sounds using electronic tools, but not yet music. There weren’t oscillators yet, just electronic tubes. The very few students who were at the studio learned electronics theory and how to create, measure and do experiments.

From the moment of my arrival in Palestine, in 1934, I was considered to be an enfant terrible. I thought that it was a mistake to harmonize a Yemenite melody according to European songs. This is the approach taken by composers of the Mediterranean School, which was then popular. I didn’t compose electronic music from the time I arrived in the country until after the Second World War. We didn’t have access to electronic instruments and the public perceived no need for them.

Josef Tal
Josef Tal [Click image to enlarge]

During my first visit to Europe after World War II, I came in contact with the developments that were taking place in electronic music. I received a UNESCO fellowship for research in electronic music and I travelled to the major studios across Europe and America and learned from them all. When I returned home, I brought with me a tape recorder. This proved to be a source of great interest and excitement to people. Slowly I hired engineers interested in conducting experiments in creating sounds.

After a while, I realized that the situation was financially problematic. I managed to interest Hugh Le Caine, a Canadian engineer from Ottawa. He had designed and built an instrument, the Electronic Sackbut, which was a prototype of a synthesizer. I managed to purchase this instrument and I had it delivered to Jerusalem. At the time, I was teaching at the Hebrew University, where, in 1961, I established the Centre for Electronic Music. This was the beginning of electronic music in the country. The bulk of the Hebrew University equipment was purchased during the 1960s with support from the UNESCO fellowship. It was all organized at my initiative.

As I mentioned, I was viewed as an enfant terrible. I developed a personal style of my own. While I learned from lectures by Milton Babbitt and Mario Davidovsky, I generally didn’t follow models provided by others. I continued to have contact with composers abroad, but contact was difficult because of geographic distance and the expense of travel. It was also because I had opinions differing from others. For example, I’m not a big fan of IRCAM or Boulez, I’ve never had contact with Pierre Schaeffer.

My first opera was commissioned by the Hamburg Royal Opera, in Germany. Opera director Rolf Leiberman came to Israel to make a film on contrasts between the various aspects of life and nature in Israel, such as a camel in the desert standing next to it a Volkswagen. He visited the electronic studio and we met and talked. He commissioned an opera right away and it premiered in 1971. Many operas have followed. My interest in biblical themes in my operas and other works is because I am the son of a rabbi, so I was raised on the Bible.

I have patiently received much of the criticism directed at new music in Israel. One might say that I have been hit by all the stones thrown at my head. At one point, I played a concert for piano and electronic music in one of the festivals. The newspapers objected. There was a front page article the next day with the title “Terror… .” I have had supporters and also those who objected to what I was doing. I have found a lot of support from friends in Jerusalem and at the University. Young students have been my supporters. They got to know me thanks to a widespread custom in Israeli high schools where students choose subjects and invite lecturers. I stopped writing music fifteen years ago due to eye problems. I’m capable of writing regular text and reading it later using telescopic glasses. I’ve written an autobiography and a booklet on a subject that is most interesting to me, Musica Nova at the Third Millennium. These days, I continue to be invited to lecture and attend concerts of my music, all over the world.

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