Unlike many of our former participants on Experimental Israel, I’ve had an opportunity to see our 40th guest, Nadav Masel, play in solo and ensemble formations many times before. This is probably due to the fact that Masel truly is one of the most outstanding double-bass free improvisers in the Israeli scene, which also immediately prompts most people to seek his collaboration. Masel is a classically trained double bassist who dabbled as a youngster in standard jazz, and claims to have not even particularly liked contemporary classical music at the time. The same training brought Masel to the famous UDK in Berlin, where he studied classical bass under Prof. Michael Wolf. It was through Wolf that Masel was offered a temporary job as usher in the international bass festival hosted that year in Berlin – Bassfest. One of the master classes on that same convention was given by the great Barre Phillips, and it was this master class that would change things for Masel irrevocably. In the 45-minute talk concerning bass overtones given by Phillips, Masel was confronted for the first time with the bass as a sound making apparatus and not the utilitarian instrument to be played in a specific manner leading towards specific results. Suddenly Masel saw this instrument for what it was – a huge resonating box fitted with four metal strings. And the pivotal realisation that hit him then leads him seamlessly into his practice and mindset today: “every sound this instrument can make is a good sound”. Struck by this realisation, Masel took roughly a month off playing and mulled things over. Exiting this period of meditation, Masel booked himself his first solo improv set and started what would become his new musical career trajectory.
Masel mark 2017 has not forsaken the classical bass and playing style, and indeed he is the bass player of the Israel Contemporary Players – the only, and hence finest contemporary music chamber orchestra in Israel. Although he claims not to have a wide knowledge of contemporary repertoire, and although he also claims to have forsaken classical practice and technique, Masel attests to this practice informing much of his improv work and visa versa. Regardless, within both these worlds we are confronted with a highly physical player, a factor Masel himself is very aware of. Physicality, tells us Masel, is the main engine and impetus for his playing. In fact, it is physicality and literally feeling the sound through the instrument that evoke change and drama during Masel’s playing, and not so much the sense of hearing. Upon seeing Masel playing this becomes evidently clear, as his playing is likened to an erupting volcano – there is as much movement as there is sound, and with his extended setup that could include various objects to be used along side or literally on his instrument, it almost seems as if there is an unwritten choreography to it all. So if it seems to you that Masel is dancing around the studio with his bass during his second improv session for us, it’s because he was!
For Masel, performance at large, whether improvised or through composed, is an act requiring commitment and honesty towards one’s actions. In fact, this ethos goes way beyond music and art for Masel and could truly colour all acts of life: “If you approach something with full intent, something good will come out of it”. Masel Clarifies – this is not about knowing where you are heading or what the outcome might be, but rather a sense of self-integrity attached to every action one takes. Masel takes this notion even further when speaking particularly of improv: “Sometimes the power of God guides you into a situation, and it might take a moment to calibrate your own intentions with the situation you find yourself in. But as soon you’ve created an honest and truthful response (noting that truth can potentially be both scary and hard, and hence not necessarily a good experience), then this is the thing you are looking for. This experience is not necessarily something you can share, as only you yourself know whether you are in a deep moment of integrity”. However, Masel hopes that these moments are indeed communicable, and manage to shine through to an audience. This notion connects us to a thought shared by many of our past guests who also see the role of the audience as active in this type of musical activity. More so, Masel recognises the importance of having an audience and sees their existence as the crux of the entire musical exchange, or as he aptly puts it: “You need only a pair of ears to fill an entire hall”. Seeing Masel, who had never seemed to me in any way outwardly religious, was the first guest amongst 40 to mention God, I almost felt required to ask what God meant to him. His beautiful and succinct reply: “God is the unknown”.
The topic of defining experimentalism in Israel or an Israeli style lead Masel and I into a yet another private musing that didn’t seem to pinpoint these topics more definitively. However, although not being able to clearly define it, Masel recognises an Israeli style and believes that this style is bound to become more definite and grounded as time passes. Prompted by his understanding of how other scenes around the world are finding their own voice (particularly the English scene), Masel manages to offer another beautiful thought: “I hope that in a hundred years time a musician like myself will hear the things that I am saying here today and that they will sound completely outdated to him”. Israel, says Masel, is home, and home is where one feels most comfortable to be honest. Some people manage to carry their home with them wherever they go, but Masel attests to currently not being one of them.
At the conclusion of our interview I ask Masel why he thinks people such as him and many of our past guests require this particular outlet of expression? Masel replies in a tellingly knowing fashion: “Because you aren’t respecting something, but rather yourself and the listener and the situation you have created. It’s like a tribal act – something primordial and hence, the obligation is not that I entertain you, but rather that we both go through this journey together. We feel together; we feel – that is objective. What we do in this type of music is not a commercial act – I’m not selling anyone anything. It’s quite a unique experience – once you have fallen into it, you don’t really want anything else. It’s like an addiction… a good type of addiction”.
Masel’s day job is actually in a small two-man vineyard, where his partner and he create boutique wines. Masel surprised me with a bottle of some of the finest Israeli red I had ever drunk, and even before we started the interview I found myself bathed in that wonderful feeling one experiences when just on the cusp of tipsy. Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was his presence, or perhaps it was the highly emphatic playing in his first set for us in the studio that Masel dedicated to the recently departed mother of a close friend. But when Masel finished the same set, he looked up at me, and I looked back at him – it was such a loving gaze, full of intent. I know Masel didn’t see me closing my eyes and losing myself to his sounds during his playing, as he himself played with eyes closed. But I saw in that same gaze an understanding, a kinship, as if we had just shared something unique that I was not only a passing bystander to. I truly felt as if my ears were those same two ears required to fill an entire hall.