Experimental Israel continues its journey into the great unknown of understanding the possible meanings of this little understood beast – Experimentalism. On our 6th installation we had the honour of hosting one of the most prolific and diverse musicians on the Israeli scene, Shmil Frankel. Frankel (born 1968) is a maverick string player, improviser and composer who has had the rare experience of working as musician in two completely different scenes – the Israeli and British one. This perspective adds to the richness exhibited by this very full and whole person, who is also an instrument builder as well as trained in Chinese medicine.
Frankel needs little introduction to our topical issues, and it truly seems that they are all part of his thought process and regular philosophical meanderings. With no prompting on my part, Frankel comes into the studio with a prepared answer to a question not asked, and proclaims: improvisation is not Experimentalism! He goes on to explain that whereas improvisation is to be found in almost every activity in this life and world, experimentalism is something else. One improvises all the time, Frankel reminds us – in fact, the more acuteness one shows to detail, the more factors or unknowns are inserted into the improvisational equation. Take a classical violinist, who would not regularly be deemed an improviser, but in fact she is improvising all the time. For instance, she plays the same concerto in different halls, with different orchestras – all of these factors change with every new performance. The more acute this performer is to little details that change, so is she in fact improvising with unknown factors – a different sounding hall, or orchestra, or tempo, or even ambient sounds or humidity. All of these can become a factor leading towards, or requiring improvisation. Frankel continues and gives an example from his own life: in preparing for a concert with a through-composed piece, he was confronted with completely different results than imagined when hearing the piece in the commissioning venue. Suddenly, without having prepared or even imagined these possibilities, he was required to improvise in order to get as close as possible to his desired result. However, Frankel equates both scenarios with a plumber hired to fix a problem left unknown until the actual moment when he is confronted with it. Is there a chance he will not be able to fix it? Of course! What are his aids? Well, the many tools he has with him that were collected throughout his career. And suddenly this notion of improvisation truly existing everywhere becomes quite clear.
Experimentalism? Yes, improvisation can be experimental, but isn’t necessarily. An experimental effort necessarily means delving into the unknown. The experience toolkit described before can still be available at hand, but the experiment, if truly new, might deem the toolkit completely useless. Frankel finds it very difficult to set boundaries between the technical and emotional, and leads towards a notion of the experimental sphere actually emanating from a vast energetic sphere or whole that we both in some ways agree upon, but cannot fully describe. The closest we manage to reach, in my opinion, is when Frankel describes a possible scenario in experimental improvisation where he could initiate a musical process by, using his term, “inviting” the situation to shift in a certain direction. This invitation can be followed, or declined, but in case something does create a shift in an improvising ensemble as a consequence of such an invitation, energy is created, which now also includes the audience and its own emanating energy. The performer, audience and material are united in a search through an unknown territory where the only defining factor is the energetic reaction on behalf of all participants. It reminds both Frankel and me of this moment where things seem to miraculously glue on an improvising stage and for a brief period of time give out the feeling of having reached a destination without having ever envisioned it, but only by yearning for it in some way.
This to me seemed like a pivotal understanding, as it pinpointed the fact that regardless of the openness, lack of criticism and freedom that the experimental research-lab requires, we are all very aware of when we have reached a supposed destination, vis-à-vis when we are simply still looking for something unknown. This made me question whether the experimental sphere doesn’t require a boundary, arbitrary as it might be? If we can agree, even at least in certain instances, that what we were looking for was found, does this not mean that we (the performer and listener) are working in a sphere of agreement?
This is, at least in part, answered when I query Frankel about the difference between the British and Israeli experimental scenes. We immediately discuss The Gathering, the ongoing London based meeting point for democratic music making now in its 25th year. We both attest to first hand experiences where the mutual musical agreement was taken astray by a force disabling the entire effort. This also reminds Frankel of many established improvisers who deem The Gathering, for instance, a sort of renegade hardcore activity within the free improv scene. This in some way strengthens my resolve regarding the required boundaries even within efforts that are completely new and unknown. Frankel respectfully disagrees and retorts – even if we imagine, as we did with The Gathering, a situation where a participant takes a fairly glued moment and suddenly starts slamming doors, in effect disabling the musical sphere created, he is still, by having imposed this action, creating an experimental space. True, perhaps this cannot be an experiment in music anymore… maybe it is about art now, or life at large, but it still bears the essence of flirting with the unknown. Hence, a scenario such as described above can perhaps quite locally be deemed a failure, but in the grander scheme of things, experimentalism is always a success. We are simply led into a place that has no meaning for us yet, or a sphere we cannot as of yet recognise, but it is there, no doubt, because someone obviously decided to explore it.
More so, Frankel submits a rare story of a meeting between British saxophonist and improviser, Evan Parker, and the Israeli scene, which in some way sheds light on this idea of working from within a sphere. Parker was invited to play in Israel with local performers and noticed that there is an uncanny tendency for following new ideas on the Israeli improv stage. Whereas new ideas are inserted with caution and have to truly fight for their space in the British arena, Parker noticed that the Israeli improvisers aren’t only unabashed about presenting new ideas, but are actually more than happy to ratify ideas presented by others. Frankel and I cannot agree as to whether this is good or bad and meet on some common ground stating the pros and cons of this behaviour. Yet we both agree to it being quintessentially Israeli, and not relating only to music. Regardless, it reinstates the notion of experimentalism not being able to really take place outside of a context (or perhaps us not being able to see it as such).
Frankel, who seems to agree with most of our gusts so far in thinking that experimentalism can thrive in any artistic context regardless of style, takes this notion one step further and claims there must be something universal about the hunger for the new. In response I immediately confront him with thoughts arising in a previous installation with the composer and lecturer, Amnon Wolman, and ask whether there isn’t something to be said for awareness – doesn’t experimentalism require from the doer an awareness of what s/he is intending to do despite any knowledge (or the lack thereof) regarding the destination? Although in agreement with this thought, Frankel himself presents experimentalism as a form of ongoing evolution unique to our species. We humans have neglected some traits and tools that serve us no more; we have picked up others that are very specific. But the main change in our world today is that we no longer have to work hard in order to live. We are bombarded with options and choice on every aspect of living, and in fact, if anything, are quite bored. Whereas to some members of humanity it is more readily clear that they are searching for new stimuli, it is in fact something inherent to our species, says Frankel. We no longer have to find better tools for daily problems, and we seek the advice of specialists when dealing with these problems anyway. This leaves room for us to start exploring our subjective points of interest with an experimental approach. The aim of which is to become more complex, or perhaps richer as a species, or more sensitive to detail. Frankel calls this finesse, and this finesse can undoubtedly be seen as an advance in our collective psyche.
We somehow manage to return full circle to that same performing musician whose improvisational qualities are a function of her acuteness to detail, or the experimental endeavour that cannot be deemed in any way a failure if looked on from a distant enough perspective. Again, after the microphones in the studio close and Frankel and I are left to the residue of our thoughts, it is my reaction to something that Frankel says that prompts a deeper understanding in me. He claims that the Sex Pistols could be deemed as experimental as any effort within the “serious” music scene. Coming from serious music, I instinctively frown. But a short exchange reveals that I in fact know very little of where the Sex Pistols were coming from, what their audiences were accustomed to, and how new this new something must have seemed to them. I mull on this for while and must agree that in order to truly recognise an experimental effort, one must be at least to some extent in the know of the sphere, scene or boundary from within which it is created. If I realise that I simply don’t know enough about punk to recognise the Sex Pistols as experimental, I must also realise that an eyebrow raised at any experimental effort must say more about me than it does about the experiment.