Musica Nova is a contemporary music ensemble based in Tel Aviv active since 1986. More generic information regarding the ensemble and its regular activities could be found on their website. However, it was actually the ensemble’s shift in musical focus and repertoire from the 80s to this very day that was of interest to me, and indeed that that marked their unshakable relationship to this research. Whereas Musica Nova started off as a standard contemporary music ensemble comprising select musicians from different orchestras and ensembles in Israel, it has become in recent years more of a collective comprising composer/performers dedicated to the almost exclusive realisation and commissioning of experimental works. And indeed, the members we hosted on our program, Shira Legmann, Yoni Niv, Assaf Shatil, and Tom Soloveitzik, are all practicing composers also proficient on one or more instrument. But technique and performative brilliance are not the watchword for this iteration of Musica Nova – nowadays the ensemble is much more exploratory in essence and more often than not chooses to program pieces that embody the forefront of musical research and thought. Accordingly, the piece with which the collective chose to open our session, and with which I’d asked them to close the session too, was A Single Charm is Doubtful [harmony series no. 14] by Michael Pisaro. A knowing listener would immediately recognize the Wandelweiser style, characterised by the often-beating conjunction of long tones, and a feeling of timelessness. The ensemble agrees that although no one piece can be seen as an epitome of their style, it was this piece that prompted their collective consciousness as apt for this radio performance. In many ways, the open character of the Pisaro score, and its requirement of its performers to participate on a compositional and yet democratic level, could embody the essence of this ensemble’s collective search. Musica Nova attempt to be an ever-shifting core group of performers calling upon other music practitioners, and artists from different fields to collaborate in the creation of new works and research of existing works. In effect, each of Musica Nova’s performances is the creation of a small society, where the participants are equal “voters” attempting a collective advancement of their cause, each from within her/his own subjective stance. Accordingly, all of the ensemble’s artistic decisions are made collectively upon mutual agreement, and not as is usually the case, by one person alone.
The Pisaro score acts as a wonderful departure point sparking up a conversation revolving experimentalism. Although not referred to in the score itself, the beating created in the piece by the spontaneous conjunction of neighbouring tones acts as an agreeable meeting point amongst all the participants in the performance of the piece. Even I myself attest to having used the same beating, dancing around my ears through the headphones, as a guide to the live mix I attempt of the ensemble performing for us in the studio. Hence, it seems that although not mentioned in any way, the beating acts as means to highlight the attribute required most of the performers in such a piece, namely an active listening to micro-details. Although none of us mention this as a full-fledged fact, we seem to agree that these types of scores, if performed with diligence and care, prompt a new type of listening, and a willingness to participate in an ad-hoc manner that comingles preparation and improvisation. The members of Musica Nova seem to agree that such a performance is aided, as a sort of preparation, by the many performances they have shared beforehand. Regardless of the type of music they’d performed, the aforementioned active listening is also a consequence of knowing each other as players and even more so, as human beings. Although the ensemble, in accord with much of the music they program and play, shies from setting a focus on traditional virtuosity, we are reminded that such a practice as described here could very well lead towards a new type of virtuosity, a virtuosity linked to hearing, or perhaps an even broader awareness.
Musica Nova quite quickly come to the conclusion that their modus operandi as an ensemble, in itself, is an experimental act. Its core group, including composer Amnon Wolman, and cellist Dan Weinstein, are all equal participants in shaping the ensemble’s programming and trajectory. This lack of authority requires an active participation, which is eventually embodied by the music the ensemble chooses to play and perform. These are, I am told, provocative discussions in which each member brings their own unique stance and point of view – a facet not reserved for discussions revolving programming, but that encompasses all of their interaction, including decisions regarding the details of performances of a given piece. There is a feeling that this microcosm created around these individuals is not just another method, but possibly the best work method possible for them. Proof of this is the fact that their work practice has been reached quite organically, without weighting any particular ensemble member over the rest. When external forces enter the confines of the regime, be those composers or other performers, they are immediately parachuted into this dynamic, and there is not much they can do about it. This is the way Musica Nova work, and one must be a part of this dynamic if they wish to thrive in this environment. This same environment, then, leads the same collective voice towards pieces that affirm their “ecosystem”, and hence a unified style is born without anyone having ever really chosen it.
The pianist Shira Legmann describes for us a beautiful piece she had devised for the ensemble: Musica Nova are instructed to play according to a written score or set of predetermined rules. Into this process Legmann invites the visual artist Shachar Carmel, and through a novel graphic notation language taught to him in advance, he is asked to “notate” that which he hears. The ensemble then turn to Cramel’s graphic produce and attempts an interpretation of his fresh “score”. Needless to say, such a process can be continued ad infinitum, and in many ways embodies the ethos of the ensemble. Here is a piece that is in no way an act of free improvisation, yet still quite far from being a through-composed score. More so, it allows the equal and active participation of all members of the ensemble, without highlighting anyone of them in particular. Most importantly, the score begs live research, an active listening, and the formation of a new, ad hoc technique required for this piece alone. Steering towards the illusive success of such an effort highlights a new realm of virtuosity for us – the ongoing discussion of human beings, who are also, amongst other things, musicians. In a time and age where discussions, more often than not, seem to veer towards mere conversation or argument; where attention-spans are constantly diminishing aided by a bombardment of cultural artefacts fitted with immediate price tags, it is efforts such as presented by Musica Nova that remind us of what it is we need to draw attention to and perfect. We are, perhaps only for a short while, but still, comforted by the fact that as long as there’s an audience for such efforts, not all is lost.