The 35th installation of Experimental Israel hosts Grisha Shakhnes, who opens his interview with an improvisation dedicated to the recently deceased, Pauline Oliveros. Other than a well-deserved homage, Shakhnes describes his setup as quite similar to that used by Oliveros in her first tape compositions, in which Shakhnes can almost recognize the echo created as a default of the machines used. His particular setup includes an old Revox tape player with 3 heads (enabling recording and erasing). The Revox is fitted with and empty quarter inch tape, and is set on record. This motion becomes delicate sound that is fed into an external mixer, which is fed back into itself. And finally, all of this is sent into a control mixer through which the EQ is employed. Into this same mixer are fed the possible lines of a few other smaller tape recorders and other provisory objects that Shakhnes uses. He is vehemently opposed to any kind of external effect use, claiming that his intention is to keep the instruments’ sounds clear, so as to see what their innate possibility offers, and more so, in order to avoid a saccharine sound.
Since 2008, Grisha Shakhnes is an active performer, and this although he isn’t trained in music at all. His forays into performance were prompted via works from different art forms. He mentions Jack Kerouack’s “On the Road”, as a vivid memory. In this story there are various mentions of what Kerouack possibly perceived as “crazy jazz solos”. Affected by the writing, Shakhnes followed through these same mentions, discovering that Kerouack’s and his own idea of crazy do not correspond. However, this sent Shakhnes down a particular jazz trail that brought him to John Coltrane’s “Ascension”, which to him embodied a definitive sound he was looking for. This was not and would not become Shakhnes’ sound, but it was the right event to send him down a trail from jazz, to free jazz, to free improv, to electro acoustic setups and indeed to his own setup. And it is important to follow through and state here that the aforementioned setup is Shakhnes’ instrument. He imagines himself continuing using this basic setup throughout his career. Apart from the love Shakhnes has for tape sound, he recognizes this sound as his own aesthetic – an aesthetic he has not managed to recreate on any other instrument.
Shakhnes presents us with what one could easily call a structured improvisation. In fact, what he does has no proper terminology, but I’m sure that many of the readers will recognize the style of his creative process. Shakhnes sets himself up for performances with prepared tapes and objects he knows he might end up using. He then leaves the process quite open for discovery. However, Shakhnes has a pretty good idea of what his musical destination will be, and hence he shies away from calling his practice improvisation. Improv, tells us Shakhnes, is based around the process at its epicentre. The focal point of the improvising practitioner is to explore, which is why it is so open and prone towards collaboration or group practice. For Shakhnes, in improvisation, one can have a wonderful and successful process yet a complete aesthetic failure. However, he is interested only in aesthetic outcomes, which is why he always maintains some control over a process, and indeed why he predominantly shuns collaboration or group scenarios. And the destination Shakhnes wants to arrive at, or indeed the compositional sound he is drawn to, is an aesthetic dwelling comfortably on the boundaries between through composed and improvised music.
However, Shakhnes recognizes the inner rhythm of every composition demanding a need for change. This becomes a contentious point when listening to Shakhnes’ output, as it is usually quite drone oriented, and hence corresponds well with process music. This is probably also why Shakhnes recognizes the need for an ongoing shift, which, in effect, recolors the composition and thus reshapes it. This technical aspect also relates to an interesting definition we chance upon during the interview: Shakhnes describes his work as “live composing”, and not improvisation. The reasoning here, again, has to do with planning and the following of a known trajectory. The improviser, claims Shakhnes, is at the mercy of the process, whereas live composition entails a known process with varying details left to be decided on the moment of performance. Shakhnes finds similarities to his day job as chef – here too, he claims he seldom opens a recipe book, yet always has a dictated plan taking him through the course of preparation.
And what of experimentation? As if having heard all of our past installations, which I am sure he didn’t, Shakhnes skims through all the potential pitfalls of defining experimentation. This journey takes us through two main keywords: awareness and relativism. Shakhnes avoids falling into any traps and claims that any definition of experimentation is subjective. In fact, he enjoys the fact that he has no concrete answer, yet hopes that he is both adventurous and experimental with his own music. Yet still, Shakhnes veers closer in an attempt to shed some more light on the topic with his claim that experimental art does not prescribe as much of the experience for the audience as do other genres and styles. And indeed, there is something to be said for art that leaves you in a sort of limbo between different, sometimes contrasting realms of expression.