Maya Dunietz is perhaps the most visible character on the Israeli experimental scene. Her unique style of piano playing, improvisation and general technique have made her, from a young age, one of the foremost collaborators in Israeli music at large. Couple this with a true all around knack for composition in various styles, installation, art, a flamboyant personality, and you get this same lady who has been rocking Israeli music at home and abroad for almost two decades, and she’s only in her mid 30s! Dunietz is not one to get caught up on stylistic preferences. Hers is a hunger that cannot be satisfied with sticking to ideological guns. She brings her unbiased self to each and every project she takes part in, and links her inner research to whatever’s brought to the table. This is also the point that sparks our interview as I mention to Dunietz the first time I’d seen her perform: She was in her late teens whilst I was in my early 20s, and even then she already struck me as an experimenter. Hence, I started by questioning this trajectory, as it seemed quite marked by its opposition to most of our guests who have reached experimental music as a form of departure. This was not the case with Dunietz, who claims she was “always dealing with the remains. It was like an uncontrollable urge to find a window or door into something else – a way to simply upheave everything… This wasn’t a reaction to anything, or an attempt to be special – it just seemed like the most reasonable thing to do.” Musing together on the possible reasoning for this character trait, Dunietz suggests “there is always an inner urge to act in a certain way, but the reasoning is usually unknown.” She exemplifies with links to her compositional practice: “sometimes you have an idea for a piece and you want it to be a certain way, but finally the outcome is quite different.” That gap is where the inner desire steps in and demands its rightful place.
Dunietz recognises her first inspiration in the form of the composer – Keren Rosenbaum, a former pupil of the late Prof. Arie Shapira and perhaps the first composer (I am aware of) who started the Israeli migration to the famous Royal Conservatory in The Hague. At the age of 10, Dunietz first met the then 21-year-old Rosenbaum in a music camp, where the latter introduced the former with contemporary music. This marked Dunietz’s first awareness with the fact that one cannot bend a piano sound in a similar fashion, to say, a Jimmy Hendrix guitar. This started her off on a trajectory of tampering with her instrument, which is still very much part of her ongoing practice. Dunietz recognises this realisation as her first utterance of experimentation, as she suddenly viewed the piano as a sound medium and not a utilitarian instrument – an experience shared in exactitude by our former guest, Nadav Masel. Years later, this same inner calling drew Dunietz away from the piano and into explorations of her own voice, and into her project with voice artist Michal Oppenheim – The Givol Choir. Givol was a makeshift ensemble of musicians and friends dedicated to the exploration of new music and performance. It was also a means for Dunietz to finally explore yet another departure that she claims she could never fully achieve, namely composition: “I always, even from an early age, had ideas for compositions, but as soon as I came round to writing notes on paper I got stuck.” Givol was a vehicle for Dunietz to explore open-scores and process compositions, which clarified that perhaps the problem with writing was not she, but rather her chosen medium of through-composed scores. This departure from Piano, into voice, and through composition marks a pivotal and perhaps an inevitable shift, as it links us more clearly to Dunietz today, who has since dabbled in various forms of creation taking her as far as instrument building, and even installation and museum pieces.
The ongoing topic of experimentalism seems to Dunietz like a complete minefield, to which she at one point even reacts with this comment: “I have a feeling I am going to be unhappy after this interview, because I’m afraid that we’ll never reach the point.” However, along the way we encounter a unique array of thoughts and an actual negation of this idea altogether, when Dunietz declares: “one mustn’t be able to define experimentalism – it stops being experimentalism if you can actually define it”! One of her more delicate and interesting observations along this thought trajectory includes a notion she first learned from Michael Pisaro. Pisaro claims that whereas in the past music practitioners used to wear both the hat of the craftsman as well as the theoretician, these have, today, become two separate practices. Nowadays theoreticians analyze music with their agendas in mind, leaving practitioners to always sound quite “fluffy about their art”, as Dunietz puts it. In her emphatic manner, Dunietz exclaims her true feelings regarding this observation: “What ever happened to musicians explaining to us the links between their art and how the world works”!
A true improvising spirit, the improvisational practice represents for Dunietz the crux of the experimental paradigm. She claims that her life-long pursuit was, amongst other things, to learn how to react to the moment. Dunietz, like many others before her, mentions her mentorship with the great Harold Rubin, who “would simply never stop playing.” “…As soon as you thought the moment was over, he would continue with new material, which either made you search for new material yourself, or if you had already reacted, to search for commitment towards that which you chose. Sometimes you felt as if you had truly used up all of your material – so now what”? Delving deeper into the topic of improvisation, Dunietz claims that her focal point within the practice is to “never loose tension – this is the true experiment. Yes, you should approach every session of improvisation with intention of making it great, but actually, by simply being there and keeping that tension you have already done that which is expected of you.” My immediate question, hence, is what would she consider failure in the context of improvisation? “Failure in a group context is the lack of listening; in a solo context is when you fail to convey your idea, or follow it through convincingly.” Beautiful to see how this same conviction leads Dunietz into a marvellously blessed moment of insecurity, where she notes that at this point in life she feels more like the “professional”; and asks herself whether her practice has truly remained experimental. However, her constant beacon is a knowing search for an “intuitive action that carries a universal truth – a body of raw energy”, which she, like many of our past guest, links with that same nameless relationship the improvising musician creates with her audience. Dunietz goes as far as saying that she is positive that sometimes the ideas entering her mind during an improv performance are those planted there by audience members.
Having said all that, Dunietz is also a bonafide composer, and I wasn’t about to let her off the hook so easily. What of scored music and experimentalism – is there nothing to be said about that? Dunietz, first and foremost, reacts adamantly in opposition to “unserious performances of open scores.” She has a true aversion towards a type of performer who treats any kind of open score as an act of triviality, or as a new age philosophy to be trifled with: “These scores require precision, intent, focus, awareness, for the performer to be in tune with the moment and her surroundings, and not too shy. These scores require as much precision and care as any complex score with all its tiny notes.” We go on to muse about Cage and his related practice, and ask whether he was experimental? According to Dunietz, and Cage himself mind you, he wasn’t, and for Dunietz, quite old fashioned too. However, “… delicate performances of his (Cage’s) scores disclose a cosmic unity that one can also achieve by taking drugs or meditating.” I continue to hammer the topic in, and ask whether perhaps all music is experimental? Dunietz answers with a wonderful open-ended statement, recognising that a first performance, by default, is experimental: “First you experiment, but then you have a result. With Improv you are staying open throughout, and hence potentially always experimenting. But perhaps there are types of music that leave room for the same openness every time you listen to them anew.”
A few hours after we’d finished our interview and each of us went their merry way, Maya Dunietz called me up saying: “I knew this would happen”! Suddenly after the interview many concrete thoughts came to her and she was adamant on sharing them. We tried to figure out the best way to resume our conversation, but eventually decided that Dunietz would tell me her thoughts and that I would summarise them here. Departing from the point in our interview where I asked whether all music could be considered experimental, Dunietz offers the following idea: “When creating music from scratch, there is always the moment of curiosity, and discovery. This is a truly experimental moment where the results are less important. But eventually an idea or set of ideas is committed to and then you have a concrete piece, teeming with set meanings. On the other hand, your point of departure could be something lacking any kind of experimentation, but somewhere along the lines you find yourself peppering that same product (piece, performance, etc.) with experimentation so that it has more room to breath. I believe that there are people whose task it is to be dealing with experimentation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a life long pursuit, but can be a period in one’s artistic career.” Here I interject, asking Dunietz whether these people are on a mission? Dunietz replies: “They don’t have to be chosen, or on a mission – it can in fact even represent a shortcoming in their character – an instability, or something similar. But their practice is a sort of constant reminder to us all that experimentation is there, and it requires only a simple act of awareness to be able to turn it on.”