In its third session, Experimental Israel was called out of its cosy studio in Jesse Cohen and asked to make a one-off trip to the studio of our guest this week, Assaf Talmudi. After our first contact and having explained the premise of our project, Talmudi took some time to mull things over and got back to me with a proposal: He suggested we record the interview in his own studio, through the particular setup he had devised for this dedicated performance. The setup included two microphones positioned inside the ear-space of a dummy-head set on a bamboo spoke, or a binaural recording if you will. The same microphones then go into Talmudi’s computer and are subjected to a lengthy process I shall soon describe.
Talmudi presents us with the most specific radiophonic performance we have had to date, and even thanked me before we parted for having had the opportunity to undertake such a task that would seldom find its way into his daily work. Slowly throughout the interview the reasoning for this becomes exceedingly clear: Talmudi, born 1976, is a true musical jack-of-all-trades. Within the Israeli popular music scene he expertly plays keyboard instruments as a session musician, as well as having produced more than a few albums receiving wide and justified critical acclaim. However, my first encounter with Talmudi was as a composition and sonology student at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I was acquainted first hand with his prowess in the field of experimental composition and computer programming. I reminded Talmudi of this period and together we spoke of one of his older installation pieces, The Way Sounds Make Up Their Minds. This installation piece, as its title suggests, deals mainly with an algorithm that listens to the output of a MIDI-controlled piano and makes decisions regarding its reaction. The same reaction is in the form of MIDI commands given to the piano – the piano plays and the computer reacts. In itself, this presents us with a pretty dull loop, but this is only the technical process. The real aesthetics are inserted when Talmudi himself starts obstructing the piano strings in any way possible, and thus creates a three-fold process: First, he changes the soundscape for his listeners; secondly, he changes it for the “listening”, or should I say “deciding” computer; however finally, he presents us with a performance that is simply stimulating to watch. This is an exciting piece, no doubt, and it resonates well with those who seek the fragility and indeed the risk identified with experimental art.
However, Talmudi, who seems to be able to freely discuss almost any topic with a knowing conviction, prefers to veer away from this type of musical activity, or as he aptly puts it: would rather start his day with a song. Talmudi identifies the same fragility I was referring to in the last paragraph as an ideology. An experimental composer must always, by default, be a negator. The task at hand is to question everything and anything. There is nothing in the personal or collective past that can be used as guidance, as the idea at the core of any experimental venture, says Talmudi, must be its risk of total failure.
I continued, and queried: what of free or total improvisers? Total improvisation, says he, is a consequence of not leaning on any past experience. “Being in the moment”, or “the zone”, which he correctly claims we can all attest to have been in for periods of our musical lives, is the true experimental improvisation, as it allows us an immediate relationship with materials and events that is not filtered through our conscious mind. It is interesting to note the similarities here with our former guest on Experimental Israel, Ido Bukelman, bearing in mind that these two artists have reached this same conclusion from almost conflicting approaches.
True, Talmudi continues, there are many people who do this honestly, but the same sphere allows an opening for many charlatans, and he has no intention of being one of them. Finally, Talmudi is interested in music that allows for wide communication with people and a dynamic that requires less rigour. “I know this type of person that truly questions everything, and I don’t think I could be one of them”… “Take Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, for instance, and compare it with Out of Space by the Prodigy – the latter is not possible without the former, but unlike the prodigy who know exactly what the outcome of their effort would be, the excitement of Reich’s piece comes from the fact that you hear that his process might just collapse”.
Talmudi’s own improv session for us in the studio required him to input a musical stimulus that was provided by the many instruments at hand. This stimulus is later looped in what seemed a non-linear fashion, and awaits intervention. The intervention is presented in the form of a series of tones played by Talmudi on his accordion. The computer reacts to each tone as if it were a fundamental. It then cleverly tunes elements on the loop he had created beforehand to fit the closest overtone on the overtone series for that same fundamental. In effect, each time the fundamental changes, the array of looped sounds change as well in order to fit the new ratios. Talmudi mentioned that to him this sounds like a sort of blues, as we tend to get an array of overtones imitating the major seventh chord. In fact, he says, if you listen closely you can hear a delicate counterpoint created by the interchanging inner voices. The binaural recording, then, becomes clear – the collected sounds were created all around Talmudi in his studio, and indeed they continue to float around the computer, as well as around our head.
Truly improvising with this setup, which in itself is quite fragile, Talmudi presents us with an experimental effort in par with the best of them. In retrospect I wonder – does it matter whether the ideology is spot on, or whether it matters that I could hear some of Talmudi’s trademarks even in this short improvisation, when the outcome is so interesting and pleasing? Would this be any less of an experimental effort had the outcome been known and controllable? A question for future sessions perhaps…