Our 33rd guest on Experimental Israel is a person that has been mentioned and even substantially acclaimed by past guests on our previous installations. Moshi Honen is, perhaps unofficially, hailed by the free improvisation community as an inspiration and maverick, and more than a few individuals, including myself, view Moshi as a living catalyst for their improv or even career trajectory. It would suffice to review again the interview I had with guitarist, Shmil Frankel, in order to hear one such story in detail, and get an in depth look at how Honen, by simply doing what he does, managed to coax someone such as Frankel, and not only him, into a free improv mindset, and in Frankel’s case also into instrument building.
Moshi Honen, of a similar generation to Daniel Sarid, tells us a remarkably similar story to the latter: A product of 70s/80s, Honen found himself lodged within a society he felt he had little to nothing in common with – even more so, he expressed feelings of total alienation. Starting guitar playing late at the age of 17, music provided a space for freedom for Honen; this is what he was lacking in his personal life, and indeed what he was looking for in music. “I realized I had a life planned out for me that I completely didn’t want”, and so, in attempt to shun his surrounding mindset and culture, Honen was drawn deeper into a non-public space where music and freedom created a bond.
Even at the onset of his playing career, Honen was not interested with other guitarists or attempted to base his practice on theirs’. He slowly started building his methodology of working with sound – a means that served him as practitioner later in life and even during those days when his practice was still a private activity. However, one can already see in these early stages a hint of the Moshi Honen we know today, as he describes for us his 17 year old self, who attempted to circuit bend a friend’s electric pedal organ in the hopes of retrieving from it a particular or perhaps changed sound. Regardless of the self-imposed privacy of his activities, it is links such as these that clarify that Honen’s search was and is still today one and the same. Albeit guitar still being his main instrument, Honen has become a builder of instruments, both idiomatic and completely fantastical. Many of these instruments he still plays, and can be found on the various recordings he shared with us, or indeed can be heard in this wonderful mixtape Honen had made for me years ago for my previous radio broadcast, An Hour.
At the end of his unfortunate army service, which ran through the 1982 Lebanon war, Honen finally felt ready for live performances. Although Honen managed to gather a handful of like-minded people to crate a band with, he was not able to convince them of his trajectory or indeed of what he wanted musically. Free improvisation did not exist as a separate activity on the Israeli music scene at the time, although within the context of rock and jazz, this was not seen as a far-fetched practice. Regardless, for these and other various reasons, Honen was not able to convince his counterparts of the validity of his efforts. Studying math and philosophy throughout this entire period, Honen felt he needed a break and decided to visit friend for two weeks in London. 30 years later, he lives in London still.
In London Moshi Honen pairs up with his partner in musical and romantic crime, Sharon Gal, who has also already been hosted on our program in the past. Honen describes Gal as a true performer whose practice is outward looking, compared to his own, which up until then, he describes as isolationist. In fact, Honen clarifies by suggesting that he is not and was never a performer, but rather a player. His practice does not include setting up a space for others, but rather, if anything, allows a glimpse into his own personal space. However, with and through Gal, Honen was able to look outwards for the first time, and envision a scenario in which he shares his practice with others. Honen sums up his meeting with Gal by simply stating that it had made him “more serious about his music”.
Honen claims he has always had the ability to follow other sounds – this due to the fact that he came to improv without any stylistic affiliations. However, he attempted a tabula rasa approach to every instance of music and indeed improvising. “Unlike science, where experimenting is based on prior knowledge, artistic experimentation allows a new approach with every new attempt. With art, one can be utopian and never have to address the past. Every moment can potentially be unique, and in art the experiment is an activity that does not require knowledge”. Taking this spirit into account, it is quite understandable why Honen is also in complete disagreement with out former guest, Adam Scheflan, who claimed that an artist must first and foremost know their placing vis-à-vis the historical timeline on which they stand. For Honen every moment is new and thus carries the potential for something that hasn’t been done before. Placing ourselves on a historical timeline is perhaps something for definitions, an activity Honen claims is reserved for confused individuals. Accordingly, when musing on different improv styles and their compatibility or validity, Honen takes on the Aikido approach. The spirit of Aikido is based on an underlying inability to shape that that comes your way. However it teaches one a skill set of reactions that in effect use the opponents weight and attack force in disabling him/her. It is a martial art allowing practitioners to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury. When applied to music and particularly to having to deal with unwanted turns in an ensemble improvisation, Honen’s spirit is still that of discovery and recovery. He identifies with the notion of the unknown and the mysterious, and like a true master accepts that his reaction can completely reshape the outcome, or even more so, can use an unwanted turn to defuse, negate, or even repel the same idea.
Thinking of the UK improv scene, Honen describes it in what seems at first like contradictory terms: he claims it is both cliquey yet extremely pragmatic: “… one can hear the cooperation, the space, the practice and the aesthetic commitment”. Finally, Honen says, unlike Israel where free improv practices started growing since the turn of the millennium, in the UK they date back to the late 60s. This, of course, has allowed the practice to settle itself and assume a more fixed cultural air. And indeed this comparatively prolonged period of practice has allowed for many ideological changes. Honen brings up, as one example, the divide between proponents of composed music vis-à-vis those of improvised music. Here was an embodiment of two types of practitioners who simply did not see things eye to eye, making their respective practices completely exclusive to one another. However today, continues Honen, this is no longer the case, and both the improvised and the composed music sphere have learned to accept and in some cases appreciate one another, or simply allow the more inclusive mix between the two. This same paradigm shift could be paralleled to the one Moshi Honen had gone through himself: Whereas he sees the source of improvisation as a private activity, he grew to learn that politically it is more about the relation between fellow men and women, and so, it was important for him to bring his art to the public sphere. This, claims Honen, is yet another aspect and hence consequence of 1990’s thought. Yet he closes by reiterating – the essence of the improvisational practice happens in the private domain… it is a deep inner exploration that must not only happen on stage, rather, mainly as a lifestyle that is sometimes shared.