Yossi Mar Chaim
The 14th guest on our show is by now almost an Israeli icon. Yossi Mar Chaim is internationally known throughout musical genres and trends – from film music, musical and song, to the opposite end including traditional 20th century composition, as well as experimental music and improvisation.
None of the above should come as a surprise, as Mar Chaim, despite his free-willing demeanour, is a trained classical musician completing degrees in music from both the Rubin Academy in Israel as well as the Juliard School of Music in New York. However, Mar Chaim claims his chameleon-like musical ability can be attributed mainly to the fact that he lived through a period where there were very few composers working in non-classical music in Israel. Today, he claims, half or more of the gigs he received as a younger man would have never been given him, but rather bestowed upon a supposed “professional” in that field or genre.
Mar Chaim tells us that his initial foray into completely free improvisation happened during his days as protégée of another Israeli great – professor Andre Hajdu. Hajdu managed to convince Mar Chaim that there is no such thing as improvisation within a given genre, as no matter how open your playing might be, so long there is a theoretical foundation to fall back on, the music isn’t improvised. Free improvisation, alla Hajdu, meant that the performer manages to surprise him/herself. This came as a sort of revelation to Mar Chaim, and from this point onwards his oeuvre started shifting more towards experimental writing and completely free improvisation. Examples of such can be found in abundance in Mar Chaim’s work, linking him to the top musicians in the experimental field (within and without the academic sphere).
Mar Chaim suggests an interesting paradigm regarding improvisation, mentioning a chance performance with Israeli saxophonist and free improviser, Assif Tzahar. Mar Chaim duly calls Tzahar one of the great saxophonists of our time, and says that upon listening to the recording of the same performance, he could not believe how well he actually played – in fact, better than ever before. Mar Chaim continues and claims that free improvisation is the only practice that can allow one to excel one’s own ability. In the aforementioned case, Tzahar’s prowess managed to coax Mar Chaim into a musical directions and a technique formerly unknown to him. Accordingly, Mar Chaim is more than willing to suggest we play together in the studio (despite my ever hesitant nature when it comes to improv), taking me by the hand and suggesting that his responsibility is to try and take me down the same route he was taken by Tzahar. Whether he managed to do so or not, mar Chaim approaches the entire act of playing as an act of joy devoid of any responsibility. Like many of our past guests, he too suffices with the mere promise of success and is willing to engage himself if only to discover something new. He delves even deeper with this notion, quoting John Cage, who claimed there is no such thing as good or bad sound, or, if you will, the idea that sound represents only itself. Finally, he closes with a metaphor from the world of chess, reminding us that there was a certain class of players in the past that would refuse to forfeit a game, if only for the possibility that something might go wrong and allow them an advantage. So is it with freedom and Yossi Mar Chaim – he seems eager to take a chance if only for the possibility that something might go terribly right.
We segway quite naturally to Mar Chaim’s piece Intonarumori, named after the mechanical noise generators attributed to the Italian Futurist, Luigi Russolo. In Intonarumori we hear a sort of post-modern summary of musical ideas and texts by the Futurists, but manage to also get a glimpse of the finesse so characteristic of Mar Chaim’s music. Here is a composer truly looking back at ideas a century old, and through a new musical form, making sense of them in a manner the original composers were never able to achieve. Upon listening to Zang Tumb Tumb by another Futurist composer, Filippo Marinetti, I query regarding the difference between the Dadaists and the Futurists. Mar Chaim responds immediately as someone who isn’t faced with this challenge for the first time, and explains that whereas the Dadaists were negativists in the purest sense, the Futurists were very serious regarding the new world order they suggested. In Zang Tumb Tumb, Tells us Mar Chaim, Marinetti asks to paint, through sound, a picture of war – perhaps glorifying, perhaps romantic in essence, but no doubt serious. The work of Kurt Schwitters (that prompts the whole discussion on this topic) asks to pose questions, ridicule and mainly negate.
I continue with a question that harrows me, asking whether Mar Chaim himself doesn’t find it strange (not to mention dangerous) that we (both he at 75, and myself at 37) are still continuing a trajectory that started more than a hundred years ago. Unfazed, Mar Chaim claims that my question reveals that I personally view us, creative beings in history, as beings on a linear timeline (and right he was in claiming that). “Why is forward the only direction we can imagine? Can we not explore upwards, and sideways, and in many directions that seem to carry no relevance to that same linear trajectory you imagine? “I would like to see myself as ever expanding, assuming a point in time allows the freedom to travel in any direction and not only one!” Mar Chaim closes with this interesting anecdote regarding Ho Chi Minh, the great victor of the Vietnam War: Upon being asked to predict whether the French Revolution was a success, Ho Chi Minh replied: “It is too soon to tell”.
In immediate connection to the above, Mar Chaim discloses that his improv setup consists of artefacts that Walter Benjamin would have deemed Outmoded. Using, amongst many others, tape cassettes from the mid 60s, old film rolls and cameras, and even a defunct leaf shredder (used as instrument in its own accord, as well as sort of makeshift feeding mechanism of tape into tape player), Mar Chaim takes on the Benjamin tenet and exposes these artefacts in a new, artistic light. Benjamin claims that Outmoded technology ceases to interest a market once a newer, better version reaches its public. However, artistically, these defunct artefacts are now given a miraculous second life through art, like the completely deformed wax of a candle allowed to burn anew. Art allows us to revisit the past in a new light, understand it for what it really was, or see it in a way it’s never been seen before. Mar Chaim likens this to the many freedoms J.S. Bach allowed himself with a then almost defunct form, the Fugue. In fact, upon thinking about it, I can almost imagine Bach asking the same question Yossi Mar Chaim does – why should I only develop this form forward? At any given point, I can expand into any direction!