A few hours before our interview, Kiki Keren-Huss and I meet at the Digital Art Lab where Halas Radio is situated. Almost immediately she reacts to my usual teaser-like description of our upcoming interview – specifically to the fact that in it I refer to her as a “traditional composer”. Although my initial intent was to set her apart from the majority of the improv practitioners who are hosted on the program, we utilise this very reaction and attempt through it to understand who she is: Although coming from a well rooted classical training, her studies at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem at the early 80s clarify to Keren-Huss that she really is the odd one out. Similar to our former guest, Maya Dunietz, Keren-Huss has never “departed” a past practice in order to reach her current affiliation with everything experimental; indeed, since she remembers herself she has had a personal taste for things less explored. However, her struggle as a musicology and composition student in Jerusalem, and specifically with the canon as it was related to there, emphasised even further how different her search for artistic meaning was. Studying with Mark Kopytman, a composer with a truly traditionalist stance, Keren-Huss found she was mostly misunderstood and not taken seriously – a fact, mind you, she is unclear whether to associate with her music or with her being the only woman in an all male composition faculty, or both. As a poignant example, Keren-Huss recalls her first introduction to Living Room Music by John Cage in a performance by a fellow student at the academy. Keren-Huss felt that this was the type of music she was interested in exploring, but was confronted with an academic atmosphere that did not regard Cage as a composer, or even someone like Satie, whom Keren-Huss was told she “can study on her own.” Upon finishing her degree in Jerusalem, she joins the studio of Abel Ehrlich, a similar generation of composers to her teachers in the academy, and whom I refer to as traditional in his own accord. However, for Keren-Huss this was a blessed transition, which she remembers fondly, as “ he, at least, accepted the things I do”, she tells us.
But have things in academia changed? According to Keren-Huss, not really. And this isn’t only the state of things in Israel, but rather the world through. Having just returned from a short residency at the University of Virginia, Keren-Huss remarks that experimental scenes at large are pretty similar in their peripheral breadth regardless of locale. I agree, stating that no matter the breadth of the city encompassing “the scene”, within a few months one always seems to have recognized most of the “usual suspects”. A telling story brought forward by Keren-Huss involves a young composer from Virginia who asked Keren-Huss to teach him how to “become more experimental.” Therefore, it seems that although experimentalism has become a bit more of a buzzword, it is usually not taken very seriously by music academies, and is treated with a condescending attitude or at least, as exemplified by the former student, with a gross misunderstanding. Keren-Huss reminds us that this description of experimental music within the academic context could as easily be used to describe the place of women within contemporary music. An interesting yet unresolved question begs to examine the connection between these two supposedly unrelated facts. Regardless, as the head of the Program for Advanced Studies in Experimental Music and Sound Art at the Musrara School, Keren-Huss attempts to bring her years of experience and knowledge to the table in facilitating an environment for a different type of student. Tellingly, the students reaching this program are already active practitioners of experimental music. Even more telling is the fact that the male to female ratio within the program seems excitingly healthy, and the quality of works does not even remotely hint at any type of affirmative action, but rather and quite simply to an unbiased approach.
We enter Keren-Huss’ own work through a conversation about improvisation. Keren-Huss presents us with an open text score to be delicately performed for our broadcast by four of her students at the Musrara School. This type of score begs queries regarding the distance between the through-composed effort and the improvised one, and also begs to understand why the composer chooses to leave so much room for interpretation whilst still maintaining some control over the process. Although this opens an array of philosophical musings, the answer, at least for Keren-Huss, is achingly simple: Not a fan of the improvisatory process as a performer, she is always more comfortable with “creating a world and looking unto it from outside.” The open score is a method for Keren-Huss to explore similar dynamics she would have delved into as an improvising performer, but in this manner she can be external to the process and navigate it from her particular vantage point. Not bothered by my incessant probing into the nature and origin of this thought-process, Keren-Huss reminds us that she has a very particular taste, and that this taste is the main tool shaping her works. An immediate example is in her use of timelines in place of bar-lines. For Keren-Huss the timeline immediately creates a performance that is more at ease with itself, and a cuing mechanism that does not put an emphasis on the meeting point of separate voices (read: counterpoint), but rather on the meeting point of events. This lack of synchronization also finds its way into Keren-Huss’ stage works, namely operas, where she chooses to place disconnected events and characters side by side, working in simultaneity: “I create a world on stage where, in many ways, I am the only one who understands its logic, but it has a logic and I share it consistently throughout the work.” “…The characters in my operas, as well as the accompanying ensemble, are all placed on stage. They do not acknowledge the audience or even traditional directionality, but invite the viewer into a world of meaning, which the latter now have to actively deal with.”
Speaking of her piece, A Diary – Feb 2-Feb 9, 2002, we seem to agree that radio embodies an almost ideal platform for Keren-Huss. This particular work presents us with a scenario wherein the work can, but does not necessarily have to be experienced linearly. Hence, its first showing was in a gallery setting, yet this was a facet that brought the spatial element into play – an element that according to Keren-Huss was irrelevant to the work. Listening to it, one is immediately confronted with many of Keren-Huss’ trademarks discussed earlier: there is a lack of apparent linearity, an invitation into an opaque and hermetic world that seems to breath a secret order of its own, and an attempt to juxtapose ideas and materials in a non-traditional counterpoint. It is very difficult to try and pinpoint this work stylistically, and even sometimes formally, yet this is exactly the little dance Keren-Huss performs with her audiences – she gives us a glimpse into a novel world full of meaning, never attempting to interpret any of it for us. Keren-Huss herself finds these attempts at elucidation and terminology quite misleading and complicated, but attests to have given in and at the very least accepts being referred to as an experimental composer: “I’m not sure I can clearly label that which I do, but the label no doubt helps others.”