How to Make Rockets (on the Balcony)

7 Jan

Last Monday I wrote the introductory post for this blog, but today’s post is the true beginning, and I thought it would be appropriate to begin by sharing some of my insights regarding my new trio album with Haggai Cohen Milo and Ziv Ravitz, Rockets on the Balcony (Tzadik). Here are a few words on how the record was done and what lies in its core.

The music on Rockets On the Balcony is about the multilayered experience of life. One concept that inspired us in creating the album is the tension that exists between simple, enjoyable everyday life on one hand, and the horrors of war on the other. This explains the title: as I’m writing these lines, some of us are shooting missiles or being shot at, while some of us are enjoying cappuccinos on balconies. The tension between these two parallel realities, both valid and true, is one of the keys to what we were trying to convey in this recording.

A quote by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, which appears in the booklet and functions as the motto for the album, illuminates another tension – the one between joy and sadness – as it is being expressed in Jewish Music:

“Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. It’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears… They express despair in dance music.”

The image on the cover, a work by Israeli artist Dafna Ilan, seems to perfectly capture the multilayered experience I’m referring to, and the various complexities that a modern human being encounters culturally, politically, spiritually and so on. This powerful work of art combines a colorful image of a boulevard in Tel Aviv, with a street in Berlin of the 1930’s. The implications are many, and as always with great art, the viewer should find his or her own interpretation.

The same is true with the music on this recording.

Zorn’s Vision

This record began its life in a correspondence between John Zorn and myself, which started in the spring of 2009. (to any of you who needs an introduction to the unique phenomenon that’s called Zorn, here would be a good place to start.) In the back-and-forth emails, John suggested that for my Tzadik debut,I’ll present a set of original compositions; particularly ones that will show the side of my work that is more influenced by Jewish music.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I wrote to John that sincerely, I wasn’t sure if I knew what’s Jewish in my music and what isn’t. The more I thought of it, the more it seemed to me that I do not have an intellectual solution to this problem.

One day John wrote to me: “You know the difference. For example your song Niggun is obviously Jewish, while Ship of Fools is obviously not.” He was referring to two compositions from Heart Beats, my solo piano record which was released earlier that year. (both tunes are in the Listen section here.) This simple musical example made it clear for me; from now on, I wasn’t going to try and make calculated evaluations as to what counts as Jewish music and what doesn’t. I was simply going to browse through my new compositions and go with my gut.

And so I did. In recent years, I’ve been constantly composing many tunes, usually finding the context in which they should appear only later. In preparation for this recording, I played through all of the music that I have composed in 2009, and also browsed through older songs of mine that were never previously recorded.

It was my conscious decision to let go of the burdening task of deciding objectively what makes a song Jewish. Next thing I knew, I was surprised to discover that after playing the first few bars of any of my tunes, I could immediately feel it intuitively: “Jewish. Not Jewish.” It even makes me laugh now as I’m writing this, since I still can’t say just how I knew it – I simply did. I went on to create the album, but the objective identity of Jewish Music remained somewhat of a mystery.

The Music

Tunes like España and Shir Avoda (Hebrew for ‘Work Song’) were composed in 2009 as part of an exercise I gave myself: write 10 folk melodies. Contradictory as it may seem (how can one intentionally write a true folk melody?), this task did help provoking some music that inadvertently connected me with my Jewish roots. I kept developing the tunes, and España ended up being much too complex for a folk tune; but its roots are still there.

Neila was born from playing around with the old Jewish Piyut “El Nora Alila”. Haggai’s bowed bass can be heard stating this ancient theme explicitly in the introduction and coda of our performance, framing our more modern exploration of it.

The title track Rockets On The Balcony was written on a Tel Aviv balcony on a hot summer night, during the horrifying 2006 Lebanon War. It was composed by singing the melody and playing the chords on guitar.

The Musicians

It’s about time I mentioned my invaluable collaborators on this project, my good friends Haggai Cohen Milo and Ziv Ravitz. My first CD, Duet,  was a piano-bass joined effort with Haggai, summing up a busy year of sharing an apartment in Boston and creating a vast amount of music together. On my second CD, Introducing Omer Klein, which was my debut as a bandleader, Ziv played drums and was, together with bassist Omer Avital and percussionist Itamar Doari, a major force in creating the sound, shape, and vibe of the music.

All this means that in “Rockets” (or how we like to call it in the trio, “R on the B”) I’ve teamed with two of my closest musical associates to create a new whole. In october 2009 we have performed two trio concerts in Belgium, four days apart. I arrived in Belgium from Germany and Ziv and Haggai flew in from New York. On the first evening we only played songs of mine that both of them already knew beforehand. The next day we all went back to my apartment in Düsseldorf, and began workshopping the new music I’ve prepared for this recording. We played for three intensive days. Not only did we learn the new music, we practiced it, arranged and re-arranged it. We tried to find unity in it all and create interesting directions in our own playing.

This post is already long, and I seem to have much more to share about this album! We still haven’t got to the actual recording (with Engineer Mike Perez), the mixing (with Raz Burg at the board) and more. Perhaps I will get to more stuff in the future. However, just to give you a very obvious example of why this record would have never sounded the same without my fellow musicians: The song Heidad was originally written in 4/4 meter, with a simple middle eastern groove. It never crossed my mind to play it in any other meter. During the rehearsals, when I first played this tune to the guys, within 10 seconds Haggai remarked, “This would work well in seven!” – and bang. Here’s the result, played live by the trio, last month in Israel. Enjoy!


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