A Question of Identity
Experimental Israel begins its long journey of trying to trace the outlines of experimental trends, and specifically the Israeli ones, in conversation with the composer, and electronics performer and improviser – Guy Barash.
Barash is perhaps the perfect guest to start with, as he, like many others of his generation, had started his training with the Israeli composer, and perhaps forefather of the experimental movement in Israel, Arie Shapira, who has recently passed away. As such, he represents a crossroads between the traditional classical education befitting a score-based composer, and the renegade role that seems to have “stuck” to many of Shapira’s students.
Barash, quite tellingly, lives abroad, and presents us with a curiosity as a modus operandi. As a composer he feels more comfortable with “checking things out” than subscribing to a known style or ism. So much so, that he treats his role as musical director of his concert series at the Spectrum in New York as a sort of workshop: allowing composers, performers and audiences to re-examine their roles vis-à-vis each other. As an example, he introduces us with snippets from a piece By Karlheinz Stockhausen that had been performed in one of his concerts at the Spectrum. Aus den Sieben Tagen from 1968 is an anomaly for Stockhausen, as it presents us with open scoring that is very uncharacteristic of the German composer. In fact, despite his admission in the late 50’s to the uncanny similarity in outcome of his own works and that of John Cage, he is still recognized as one of those composers who over-specify more often than not. So much so that according to Barash, he had at some point ordered Aus den Sieben Tagen to be removed from his official catalogue of works. This itself was reason enough for Barash to want to perform the piece for his New York audiences. And indeed, one must confess that the piece sounds more like a bona fide improv session than a Stockhausen one.
Barash, like Stockhausen, is quite aware that experiments might end in failure and that a positive outcome will have to do with a marriage of dedication and chance. Unlike Stockhausen, however, he welcomes this facet and discusses further similar influences such as Zorn’s game of musical chance, Cobra;the work of Ornette Coleman and William S. Burroughs in their chance meeting on the film Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg;as well as presenting us with his own improvisation, based on a reading of Howl by Allen Ginsberg.
Speaking of Beat poetry and 50’s America raises the query that marks the entire meeting with Barash: is there something intrinsically American about experimentalism? Is it perhaps a reaction from “across the pond” to a culture that cannot untie its links to the past, and this despite a philosophical and artistic post-war movement that more or less blamed European culture at large for the largest historic atrocity unto that point in time? Or is it perhaps a culture making its own original claim to modernity after having for years lived in the shadow of an older and more oppressive culture? The idea that resonates in Barash most is that of creating one’s own identity: Experimentalism as a means to discover who one truly is. Artistic ventures aside, freedom, as a concept, seems in 2016 almost an American brand. Barash questions this, and makes us realise that freedom in itself is not of the essence – if you want to discover who you truly are you must start playing with freedom.
The music of Guy Barash most definitely embodies this playfulness. Even when deadly serious, like in his collaboration with poet Nick Flynn on Seven Testimonies and Proteus, it seems that there is a constant search; an unrelenting feeling of not having fully reached your destination, or a question whether that destination even exists.