Interview with Eldad Tsabary
For the Canadian Music Centre’s Influences of Many Musics Project
Eldad Tsabary is a Montréal-based composer and sound artist whose music is inspired by the concepts of sound-mass, metamorphosis, and constant motion and is often based on intercultural subject matter. His works have been played at Carnegie Hall, CCRMA, and ISCM etc. and performed by The Bulgarian Philharmonic, the Cygnus Ensemble, and others. His works won prizes and mentions at several competitions including a Deep Wireless Residency 2008, Bourges 2007, Madrid Abierto’s Public Art Project Competition 2007, ZKM’s competition Shortcuts: Beauty 2006, and Harbourfront Centre's New Canadian Sound Work 2006. Eldad is a lecturer of electronic art-music and music technology at Concordia University and at Musitechnic in Montréal. His music is released on ERMMedia, Capstone Records, New Adventures in Sound Art and published by Editions BIM (Switzerland). He studied composition under David Loeb, David Del Tredici, David Olan, and Tim Brady and theory under Carl Schachter, Philip Rupprecht and Philip Lambert.
A. Cultural Heritage
A.1 Describe the culture of your country of origin
Israel is a very young country. In fact, the vast majority of its inhabitants are either from other countries (more than a hundred of them) or born to parents or grandparents from other countries. The rest have parents or grandparents that were born on the land of Israel before it was established as a nation. As a result, the culture of Israel is extremely varied and not so easily described. Moreover, Israel is very diverse religiously; it is a meaningful home for Jews, Muslims, Christians (at least ten different denominations), Druze, and Bahai. Culture and religion often intermix; for example many Jews of Arab origins share religious similarities with Jews of European origins and cultural similarities with Arabs. In all religions there are different levels of involvement — from fundamentalism to secularism, and there is some limited number of inter-religious marriage. There are also varying levels of cultural isolationism — from complete cultural segregation of different folk groups to hybrids of many origins. The Israeli pop music scene, for instance, evolved throughout the past few decades from cultural segregation to complete fusion. In the early years, broadcasts and record sales were mostly of music with European influences, which were counteracted by a widespread, though segregated, cassette culture of music with Arab influences (Musica Mizrachit). Presently, the two styles coexist (almost) perfectly in the mass media and often intermix on the same radio shows. Moreover, some bands are perfect hybrids of the two cultural origins (most prominently Tea-Packs) and cannot at all be classified in either category.
Outside pop culture, Israel’s culture is extremely varied as well. Almost every municipality has a chamber orchestra or ensemble, there are numerous youth orchestras, choruses, and bands, each city frequently organizes cultural events and concerts for all ages, and there is a very busy Jazz scene as well as an internationally famous Goa-Trance scene. There are quite a few fine-arts high-schools (Talma Yalin, Tichon Alon), colleges (Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, Head) and university programs (Jerusalem Academy of Music, Buchman-Mehta School of Music, Bar-Ilan University), among many other programs and conservatories.
A.2 What is unique about your cultural heritage — instrumental forces, orchestration, melodies, harmony, texts, as well as geography, society, economics, and politics — as it relates to your music?
From a young age my musical education has always been classical or jazz and therefore it doesn’t bare any formal cultural influences on my work as a composer; however, other aspects of my upbringing certainly do. First, as I mentioned previously, all Israelis originated from other countries; my roots are in Yemen — the country with the oldest Jewish community, dating back to approximately 600 BC — in which all my four grandparents were born. My exposure to Yemenite-Jewish music was not very extensive and was practically limited to special family events in which relatives were gathering in song and drumming. However, since a very early age I was exposed to religious Yemenite-Jewish singing at the synagogue I frequented with my father and I am quite certain this exposure had a lasting effect on my aesthetic sense of melody and phrasing. From a very young age I noticed the lack of metric symmetricity in the phrasing and was always surprised by it. I was also perplexed by the modality of the melodies (although did not think in these terms just yet), by the elaborate ornaments, and by the variety of pitch choices, even when the singing was in perfect rhythmic unison. Perhaps, these features are most apparent in my pieces HaGuGum (1997) and Bendicho juez de la verdad (2000) — both for trombone. The most apparent influence yet, however, is in my featured piece In the Eye of the Believer (2006) which includes recent recordings from this synagogue.
A more purely Israeli influence on my music comes from my fascination as a teenager by the music of Israeli pop musician Matti Caspi, which was characterized by very original harmonic progressions and voicings — often even bizarre, an extensive use of diminished chords, and unique phrasing and rhythms. My instrumental compositions apparently often share these qualities; David Del Tredici once reacted to my piece Three Haim Sabari Poems in a composition lesson by raising an eyebrow and saying “weird harmonies,” to which I responded with a proud “thank you.”
From a contextual point of view there are quite a few apparent cultural influences on my music. In particular, the never-ending conflicts between Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, right-wing and left-wing and so forth. As a teenager and a young adult I grew very tired of these animosities and I always sought ways to bridge these gaps and to point out similarities rather than differences. I composed several pieces that attempted building such bridges by combining sound material from a large mix of cultural origins, including the pieces In the Eye of the Believer, Intercultural Phase, One Minute under God, and Into-Nation.
B. Current Compositions
B.1 Do you consciously incorporate elements of your country of origin and/or cultural heritage into your music? If so, which elements? If not, why not?
The quick answer to this question would be no. I do not consider my cultural origin to be a major subject of my music. I do, however, have strong memories and aspects of my upbringing in Israel which are unavoidably imprinted in my artistic and æsthetic choice making. Moreover, when a subject naturally comes up that is related to my country of origin I certainly don’t oppose it. In my piece Intercultural Phase (2006) — winner of the Harbourfront Centre of the Arts New Canadian Sound Work Competition of 2006 — I recorded sounds from different public markets and places of religious service in Israel to portray what I found to be most appealing about Canada — its intercultural heritage. I demonstrated how sounds recorded in a different country could be brought and mixed together in Canada to symbolize the mixing of people from different countries into a unified people. My piece is Canadian because it was composed in Canada to symbolize a Canadian trait, which is very similar to the idea behind “Composer Portraits — Influences of Many Musics.” On another level, the sounds themselves were mixtures of many cultures inside Israel.
So the long answer is yes.
B.2 How is your cultural heritage integrated into the piece of music you wish to feature in your “composer portrait?” How is it integrated into your music in general?
In the Eye of the Believer is in fact part of the larger piece Intercultural Phase. It relates to my cultural heritage on at least three levels: (1) Its subject of inter-religion is strongly inspired by the multi-cultural surroundings of my childhood, (2) the idea of inter-religion is a direct result of my ever-yearning for love and sharing by all humans, and (3) all of its sound material is recorded in Israel. In the piece, the beauty of religious service from three religions is mixed together to create a harmonious multicultural, multilingual coexistence in a single sound piece. More specifically, the sound material of this piece is made out of field recordings in a Yemenite Synagogue in my childhood town Petach Tiqva, the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem and the Muezzin from the al-Mahmudiyya mosque in Jaffa, all carried out in May 2006. The piece begins with a conversation in English with one of the priests outside the Ethiopian church, while in the background Torah reading from the Yemenite synagogue in Hebrew and Aramaic can be heard creeping in. On top of the synagogue ambience (noises and coughing), the Ethiopian priests' beautiful prayer in Gez comes in and intermixes with the (Arabic) Muezzin calls, the (Hebrew) Chazzan readings and the Synagogue congregation's responds.
B.3 Do you feel compelled to maintain or to transform your cultural heritage in your music?
It is hard for me to say. I do not feel the need to maintain or to transform my cultural heritage. The truth is, I don’t feel compelled to do anything with it; I just feel compelled to express what is of value from a larger, humanistic point of view. Whether my culture heritage is maintained or transformed is just a byproduct of my artistic expression.
C. Musical Identity
C.1 Do you think your music identifies you as being from a particular cultural heritage?
I think it probably does indirectly. It identifies me and I am inevitably a product of my cultural heritage. However, I often find this heritage hard to define; perhaps because Israel is so young and so culturally varied.
C.2 Describe what you believe to be your musical identity
My musical identity is a reflection of my personal identity. Simply put, I am Canadian because I choose to live in Canada and raise a family here; I am Israeli because I grew up in Israel, received my schooling there, speak Hebrew, and because a big part of my family is there. My music is therefore Canadian as well as Israeli. However, this explanation is somewhat superficial because the meanings of being Canadian and Israeli are relative, varied, and perhaps too philosophical to address here. Nonetheless, I’ll briefly describe how Israel and Canada affect me as a composer. The values that guide my musical and personal choices in life sprouted during my teenagerhood in Israel and were continuously refined through my young-adulthood in Israel and later my seven years in New York City. They received a major polish in Canada and will hopefully continue to develop for long. These values are therefore a direct result of me as a person in the context of my surroundings (nature, culture, society and family). In general terms, these values are centered around the love of all forms of life, constructive intermixing of cultural, personal and natural differences in a manner best described as “in phase” (to use acoustical terms) to enhance without distortion, and to soften without cancellation and as a result to create hybrids that posses their own identities. A chemical analogy would be the process of creating compounds in which different elements interact to create a new balanced substance with new qualities. Depending on context these qualities can be constructive or destructive; as a human being I prefer cultural, natural, societal, religious, and musical compounds that are constructive, beautiful, interesting, clever, and loving over those that are destructive, poisonous, or dysfunctional. In my music I seek to express these values as they are an integral part of my personal identity, which is in turn a product of the interaction between me as a person and my changing surroundings. In summary Israel provided me with the necessary conditions for these values to spring up, while Canada provides me with the cultural conditions to mold them into a coherent shape.
C.3 Which features of your country of origin and cultural heritage are distinctively associated with your musical identity?
Its multiculturalism in relation to its political conflicts. While Israel provided me with the means to see the potential in multicultural life by presenting many beautiful cultural hybrids, it also gave me ample examples to observe the ugliness of conflict, which motivated me to act towards expressing the need for constructiveness and love.
D. Impact and Influence
D.1 How has living in Canada shaped your composition? How has Canadian culture affected your work?
Living in Canada has had a significant impact on my composition as well as on my identity, not in transforming them but in providing them the best cultural conditions to shape and grow coherently. Canada is a natural home for my fascination with interculturalism as well as for my musical interests. While my involvement with electronic art-music composition began already in New York, Montréal has guided me to new technical and aesthetic ideas in this medium through my studies with Tim Brady, the large number of electroacoustic concerts available locally, and my teaching at the Electroacoustic Studies area of Concordia University’s music department. Additionally, moving here successfully concluded a twelve-year old quest; in 1991, while still living in Israel, I spent several months in solitude in the forests of the Yukon, an experience that brought me much clarity in finding my path. While meditating in my tent, I made two big decisions: (1) to pursue music as a career and (2) to make a life in Canada. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey that included many years of study, many travels, a lot of music and a lot of new friends and that concluded with my arrival at Montréal and therefore the fulfillment of my long term goal. In fact, it could be said that through my Yukon experience, Canada has done more than just shape my composition; it played a key role in the very essence of my musical career.
D.2 Do you think that your music has affected other composers in Canada, and if so, how?
I would like to think so. As a professor at the excellent Electroacoustic Studies area of Concordia University’s music department, I feel very lucky to be in constant touch with talented composers in the early stages of their careers. It is the best feeling in the world when a student discovers new compositional possibilities as a result of your assistance or of your music.
D.3 How has your music changed since you came to Canada?
As described above, my music changed as I did: it is more coherently shaped, with a clearer purpose and a newly-gained confidence. In simple terms, it is more at home. I have also gained much knowledge, experience and ideas in electronic art-music composition and became fascinated with this medium’s possibilities of expression (although by no means have I abandoned instrumental writing).
E.1 What impact would you like to have on students who experience your music through your “composer portrait?”
I hope the biggest impact to be the music’s message, which is the understanding that there is much potential for beauty and creativity within multicultural compounds and love of all things alive. While I am aware that this message is not the only truth, it is my truth, and I feel there is much to be gained by constructiveness, beauty and functionality. While I can’t deny it gives me great pleasure when listeners are moved by the æsthetic aspects of my music, I wish this beauty to serve in encouraging students to follow their own hearts in finding their personal musical paths, their choice of medium and their meanings. Music composition, as I see it, is a journey of exploration, both of the self and its surroundings.