Creation is Experimentation
Ruben Seroussi is known to the classical music scene in Israel as one of the foremost composers of contemporary music, as well as a delicate interpreter on classical guitar. However, Seroussi is also single-handedly responsible for educating a generation of composers as a long-time composition professor at the Buchmann-Mehta school of music at the Tel Aviv University.
Knowing that Seroussi is not an improviser, and having heard that he intends to play a solo guitar piece for us on our broadcast, I was obviously curious to discover what it is he presents us with in the studio. And indeed, Seroussi surprised me with a piece, not of contemporary music, improv, or anything seemingly relating to our broadcast. The piece he masterfully performed was one of the 15 Lute Fantasies by the late Italian Renaissance composer, Simone Molinaro. The Fantasy, composed in 1599, was a seemingly apt piece of music for its time. But therein hid a great secret unfolded for us by Seroussi during our conversation: the Fantasy discloses a proper experiment on the canon in fifths (to later be called a Fugue). The technique requires a series of modulations on the scales of the respective dominant, but in the case of this Fantasy by Molinaro the modulations go through the entire circle of fifths, and accordingly through all 12 chromatic scales! However, in the case of Molinaro we don’t even notice this reactionary attempt for its time. The reasoning, according to Seroussi, is the fact that Molinaro did not attempt this procedure as a whim, but indeed as a true experiment. Here was a composer who worked from within a given frame, and from within that same frame attempted an act of experimentation unto that time unheard of. In fact, the experiment can be deemed a huge success mainly due to the fact that it cannot be heard. The piece acts like a run-of-the-mill fantasy for its time, and only a closer analysis of the text can disclose its inner workings. Seroussi himself adds that the finger-bending technique required to play the piece might serve as another clue to the experiment at its core, seeing it requires erratic jumps between positions on the fret-board, and hence can barely be played without sounding disjoint. Seroussi makes an analogy between this attempt by Molinaro and a later attempt by Bartok in his Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta. I remark, in response, that Bartok, however, was no longer required to sound harmonically convincing with his theoretical attempt, whereas Molinaro could have easily been put on an artistic stake for such musings.
Seroussi continues and exclaims: “creation is experimentation! We are indeed guided by our ingrained curiosities and intuitions to find the right answer for these supposedly impossible questions. But wherever a new creation is at hand, experimentation is not only the prerequisite, but indeed the only tool at our disposal.” Hence, Seroussi, as a life-long student and indeed as professor of music, is not preoccupied with certainties paraded by past composers, but actually with what they didn’t know. Style, as representative of a period, is always, according to Serrousi, a posterior knowledge. Indeed, one must always strive to understand the context (musical, political, etc.) from within which past composers worked – this, not in order to attempt emulation, but rather understand what they didn’t know. Where did they experiment? Where were their diversions? This knowledge can, in fact, create a timeless kinship between all creative minds throughout history, as it discloses that our seemingly impossible artistic confrontations are just a series of age-long confrontations that other past artists were dealing with as well. Or as Seroussi puts it: “The gaze is always towards the future, and if that’s the focus, then one’s deliberations transcend time and place”. Quoting the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, Seroussi sums it all up with one extremely poignant statement: Today is always!
With his own writing, Seroussi seems to always flirt with the unknown. He sees this as the basis for creation. His years of training merely allow him to better deal with the crippling uncertainties. I inquire whether there are ever failures to his process of experimentation, to which Seroussi replies: “where there is no knowledge there can be no failure. I write very slowly – when I am uncertain about how to continue, I simply stop writing until I know where to go to next. The piece will always be a manifestation of a point in my life. Looking back at it, I will discover not only new things about myself as an artist, but also as a human being at large. It seems that everything I am going through in my life during the writing of a piece will eventually manifest in some form or the other within the finished composition.” Seroussi claims he also never returns to past compositions, as reshaping them, or tweaking them in any manner would be sinful towards this aforementioned process. Indeed, if these islands of experimentation act as snapshots in time, they cannot and should not be tampered with. In connection to these musings, Seroussi brings up Cage, who claimed he was able to understand his music only when talking about it. Confronted with the actual notes and sounds he was always confused, and lost this feeling of certainly. Even more relevant is Seroussi’s mention of Franz Kafka: “Here was a person who took his own personal unknown into the public domain. Not only were his works misunderstood, but also he himself asked for them to be burned after his death. What would 20th century art look like without Kafka’s works? It’s our responsibility as artists to go through the unknown and take risks for society at large.”
I prompt Seroussi to speak of real-time composition or improvisational practices. Although he is not averse to the practice, claims he had partaken in them in the past, and might do so again the future, he is not very much a fan of that type of exploration: “whereas improvisation is an exploration of this moment that just passed, traditional composition is a practice in a polyphony of times. This is my expertise, and indeed my main interest – to explore how these different strands of time, the compositional time and the real time, converge.”
Our ongoing topic of locality, and indeed the somewhat artificial boundary we have set for this national project, requires us to prompt Seroussi to discuss Israel and its connection to experimentalism. Seroussi replies with one of the most harsh and resolute statements heard on our research to date: “Nationalism stands in stark contrast to individualism!” Seroussi takes us through the story of Israel as a provincial musical backwater, which for his generation, allowed a completely unrealistic sense of self amongst local artists: “provincialism can be a good thing, as it truly allows one to deal with whatever is on their mind, not having to bother with what is “relevant” or expected of them. On the other hand, it aided the creation of generations of musicians, most of whom were not aware of their place, or topical issues, and promoted a false feeling of stardom within a clique that was completely disconnected.” Luckily, Seroussi continues, we seem to have reached in recent years, both in composition and performance of contemporary music, a plateau that allows a correspondence with the world around us, whilst still maintaining a feeling of local identity. An Identity, however, that for Seroussi, carries no real value, as it in no way shapes his inner meanderings that take him astray to borderless and timeless realms.