On it’s 9th session Experimental Israel hosts the composer and voice artist Faye Shapiro. Shapiro is a prime example of a new type of musician who embodies in their work and performance a link between several worlds that have started mixing quite late in musical and artistic history. Perhaps this is a sign of musical academicism finally catching up, or perhaps a sign of musicians shifting away from academic paradigms; perhaps it is a sign of our times, or maybe simply an insight into who and what Faye Shapiro truly is.
On the one hand, Shapiro was classically trained as a singer from a young age, but at a certain point finds this particular expression confining, or at least insufficient. She describes herself as an 18-year-old woman with many questions regarding self that simply found no outlet in her known modes of expression. This quest sends Shapiro to studies of Anthroposophy in Israel as well as Switzerland, where she also studied art, and back again to the realms of singing and composition at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, only now with an angle of her own.
Shapiro claims that the main lesson for her in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner had to do with learning patience and listening where artistic processes are concerned: “There is a moment where you are no longer talking to the piece, but the piece starts talking to you”, and the main question is how to serve ideas optimally. This notion relates immediately to Shapiro’s ongoing work with ABRA, the singer-quartet collective that she is a member of. ABRA present to audiences finished pieces that the members collectively and painstakingly construct. However, the methodology involves first and foremost a very intimate and personal relationship between the members of the ensemble, and the use of improvisation as a basic working tool. ABRA, as a unit, present the possibility of improvising with materials, again, in order to understand what it is they want of the performer, and not vice versa. Shapiro describes the collective as a tool for slowing down the decision making process, whether it’s about choosing materials or deciding what to do with them. Unlike artistic collectives that eventually fall into the traditional role of leader and lead, ABRA truly is a collective effort that requires time. The exploration is of voices, and personalities and materials that are slowly shaped into a form, but it also requires the resilience of an ongoing improvisation, indeed, allowing the materials to express themselves fully.
Shapiro strikes me not only as a person with a deep inner world, but indeed as a person that doesn’t, or maybe cannot, suffice with half-baked processes and answers. In passing she describes her work within and without ABRA as a sort of ritual. Hence, it isn’t a chance occurrence that we reach the topic of mantras and how this world of meaning is inserted into Shapiro’s work. The ritualistic repetition existing in many belief systems is here taken into ABRA’s rehearsal process: Rather than committing to binding decisions regarding forms or materials, there is actually a process of repetition and “stay of execution” for all that is brought to the musical table. It’s as if there’s an underlying belief that everything that’s been stated has been stated for a reason, and now it’s up to the creators to discover why.
This idea of mantras and reinstatement receives a deeper meaning with Shapiro’s creation for us at Experimental Israel. Her piece Beketa Leumi, uses texts taken from a talk show where the speakers were two opposing figures on the Israeli political spectrum: the staunch right-winger Miri Regev (Likud party, and current minister of culture), and the Palestinian (and Israeli citizen) Dr. Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al party). Those acquainted with the figures at hand can already imagine the heightened debate and extreme rhetoric used in such an exchange. Shapiro asks a relevant question regarding this “conversation” and wonders – are there certain things that cannot be written down? Are there means of expression that could only be effective as speech, and perhaps once you transform them into writing they loose their potency? The mantric reinstatement in this particular case is in Shapiro’s act of taking particular high-notes from the spoken text and composing them in a manner that paints them in their truly ridiculous fashion. In the heat of the spoken moment, the texts receive particular dramatic meanings, whereas in a different context they seem utterly ridiculous and disjoint. With this piece, Shapiro asks of her listeners to take note of a how vocalization shapes reality. And again, we return full circle to the initial question of what a material wants… what it actually requires.
And it’s as if we’ve spoken of it the whole time through, but in fact we’d never once mentioned experimentalism. In some ways I felt a tad ashamed to prompt my guest for answers on this topic, as it seemed we managed to dig much deeper. But asked I did, and Shapiro answered: Experimentalism is simple, really… if there is an apparent research in what one does, then one is experimenting. It’s like looking at the difference between a person practicing Yoga and a modern choreographer. Whereas the former practice requires exploration with a set form, the latter, at least ideally, is an opening for objective research (whether that actually takes place or not). I query further and ask whether the experiment should be apparent to the audience in order to have its full effect? This perhaps prompts the most resolute reply of the day from Shapiro: “It means little if you’re avant-garde, but whatever you do simply doesn’t work! Experimentalism doesn’t mean trying things out on a captive audience. There must be a risk-take, but at the same time also responsibility – the stage and performance demand reverence, experimentalism or not”.