Searching for Skill
It is interesting to consider the difference between a child’s state of play and how the same child could be taught music: Whereas in play, one can obtain a unique skill based around his/her interest and natural proclivities, the run-of-the-mill musical training begs to unify the subjects and assumes a non-agile, goal oriented practice. And whereas a musical child left to his own devices could eventually become an interesting non-idiomatic player, the same child could find the ‘one size fits all’ attitude constraining if he were to be trained in that manner. That child is now that man and our 32nd guest on Experimental Israel: Mr. Adam Scheflan.
Scheflan, a maverick guitar and bass player and all round performer/producer, comes from a rigorous background. Bringing to mind our former guest, Shmil Frankel, Scheflan too is a product of long years of training, and indeed like Frankel, Scheflan too started noticing a growing affinity with the bizarre in music he was listening to from an early age. From rock and pop through straight jazz and then combining all of the above in his current practice. Scheflan, in current years, is slowly moving from the performer/producer slot towards the sole creator. And when musing on creation, Scheflan veers more often than not towards the new, open and indeed experimental.
Mainly occupied with the ‘precision’ of ideas these days, Scheflan explains that not only the through composed, but also spontaneous ideas require their full extraction. “This is the artist’s true responsibility”, he claims. We discuss the Kutiman Orchestra, a project Scheflan takes part in as hired musician, and even with this type of funk-based song writing, Scheflan hails the bandleader, Kutiman, as someone who has managed to make retro materials without being kitschy or self indulgent; indeed traits Scheflan equates with responsibility. “The question is whether you are marking something or doing it”, Says Scheflan… “Marking is easy, my 6 year old kid can mark an experimental performance pretty accurately, however doing requires understanding the historical context of what you’re playing. Responsibility entails musicality and cohesiveness”. Reflecting on our own collaboration in ‘Spotlight’, Scheflan continues and remarks that any piece or process requires, at the very least, a performer’s query as to the layered meanings it might have, and this requires time and work. “The written score is tantamount to a groove – it opens up the sphere for decisions. And this is the true experiment – whether one can make informed and musical decisions based on all the skill and knowledge s/he or has at hand”.
Scheflan brings to mind yet another past guest, Alex Drool, who claimed that his musical shortcomings were the basis of his entire career trajectory. In his case, it was a coupling of what he terms ‘lack of ability’, coupled with incessant boredom that brought him to his current standing. With Scheflan there’s a twist added to this story: A self-proclaimed rock and pop kid turns into a failed straight jazz musician as a teen. He recalls teachers of his renowned music high school creating a divide between the first and second tier jazz students. Being perceived second tier actually liberated Scheflan, as he recognized the opportunity to focus on other, perhaps more personal, sides of himself. Not knowing how to practice or read scores properly actually created room for a more intense listening and defining of tastes. These tastes, continues Scheflan, were in many cases consequences of mixing with his peer group and recognizing their influences. Shortly after, Scheflan was already a member of PEZZ, a legendary and (for now) disbanded super group, where he took on a first shot at total improvisation. Thus, claims of not being really good at any skill yet knowing what he likes lead Adam Scheflan to a mishmash of talents, all devised mainly through experimentation.
However, Scheflan also recognised the need for skill early on. As an example he mentions his first forays into free improvisation with Harold Rubin, Daniel Sarid and Haggai Fershtman, all of who were steeped in the jazz tradition. Through these meetings he became aware of the need to “feel the ground” whilst searching for sound, or something else. And the skill referred to is not a technical know-how – if anything, claims Scheflan: “…this technicality can open up the sphere for many hacks; why does an experiment always require the ceremony? Must the flux of intention be stamped upon the listener at every instance? Why do we always seem to aim for an exploration from A to B, rather than present shorter forms? There are, no doubt, creators that require a grand canvass, Such as Iancu Dumitrescu or Ana-Maria Avram, however this becomes immediately evident upon hearing their music. Compare that to the lone ego calling ‘me me me’ within a collective experience”. Indeed, as Scheflan sees it, the skill referred to is a comingling of technical ability, listening and contextualisation. “In a context where it is so easy to fake a noise piece to an expert audience, yet even the lay-listener is able to note a bad Mozart performance, we are confronted with a problem. In free music, only the performer knows what the true direction is”. This is, according to Scheflan, both this music’s advantage, and shortcoming.
So how does one do it? Well, in Schefaln’s case it requires arriving attuned to the performance, and be aware of the possible frames in which he might be working: “With frames, you know more or less what you are going to get”; and the frame could literally be anything from style to direction, etc. More so, where free music and improvisation are concerned, Scheflan attempts to ease the audience’s scepticism regarding the performer’s ability. In fact, the experimentation in many cases, claims Scheflan, is the listener’s. Which is why it is important to train in front of an audience: “…they bring in the element of commitment, of having received what they deserve, of being presented with that which every person wants when they leave their home in favour for a cultural experience – to be rocked”! Scheflan takes the opposite stance to my claim that this requires a charitable audience. He claims that it requires charitable musicians, as mostly audiences are quick to write off an experience, or react to a moving experience in an unforeseeable fashion. But the stirring of emotions is of the essence, no matter the reaction. Scheflan believes that whatever one might present to an audience, this has to be experiential music from artists who understand their placement on a long historical trajectory. “If it isn’t experiential, then we get dangerously close to that which experimentalism is partially to blame for, namely throwing a blanket over the listeners eyes and masturbating. And then there’s no communication, no journey, no nothing. For people outside the genre it is usually achingly clear when someone is being unauthentic or doesn’t understand their genre top to bottom, but within the playing field one sometimes gets lost”.
To my questions regarding locality, Scheflan muses: “There is definitely a shift in recent years in Israel. When I started out playing in the Harold Rubin circle at Ha’gada Hasmalit, I was constantly eyeing that coming in from Jerusalem. It seemed as if whilst we were still at jazz, they were doing abstract noise and electronics… Now, due to the Levontin and many other such venues, much of this has come to Tel Aviv as well… Israeli experimentalism doesn’t have a sound or character yet, but we’re definitely experiencing a boom”. But Scheflan also claims that the sound in Israel, mainly due to the country’s size, is a bit conservative: “Working in the same circles creates conservatism. Searching outside your immediate comfort zone and learning from others negates conservatism. Those active in avant-garde in Israel are something of a privileged elite. When this opens up to the periphery, the scene will become meatier”. And in this context, I query, what could be deemed the difference between the centre and the periphery? Scheflans immediate response: “knowledge”… “I have had the opportunity to be exposed, which in turn allowed me to explore and then become part of something”.
However, when thinking of own solo creations, Scheflan claims he is still trying to figure out what it is he can offer the world. Ever a “fan boy” of sound – his method was following sounds he was interested with. When looking for his own sound, he actively practices it the only way he claims to know how – like a performer.