By Louise Mundinger
“It used to be that at 4 AM you could stand on the hills around Jerusalem and hear church bells, Jews at the Wailing Wall and the Muslim call to prayer enriched by the sound of bells around the necks of cows and goats.”
So began my conversation with the Israeli composer Betty Olivero one cold December day in a Boston neighborhood coffee shop and gathering place. We opened the door and made our way through the opening of a curtain designed to keep the cold outside. The shop itself had a spirited atmosphere as conversations from a number of musicians floated by while we gave our orders and looked for a place to sit. Scattered tables and chairs adorned the coffee shop sanctuary behind the heavy curtain. Betty Olivero herself was eager to shed her puffy white coat, her protection from the cold, so she could begin to talk about her music and her daily observations in Israel. After coming through the curtain, finding seats in the coffee shop refuge and shedding our winter garments, Betty opened the window to her world on another part of the globe, a world whose conflicts are constantly in the news. She started by saying that her music describes an existing musical and cultural reality in Israel and that she herself is in constant pursuit of an ever-evolving refinement of that reality. She listens, she researches and she collects music from many different styles and cultures before transcribing her assemblage as exactly as possible in western notation.
As we continued talking, Betty explained that she gathers Arab and Jewish music, those 4 AM bells and prayers, for use in her scores. “I am describing a multi-cultural, harmonic situation; a co-existence of different cultures.” She is not so much influenced by the music as much as she is a collector of a wide variety of traditional tunes and styles. The influence that she describes is the influence of the different cultures on one another. She researches traditional Arab and Jewish tunes, transcribes them to western notation and then brings them to her scores. At times she uses actual field recordings.
Her research often leads her to the historically complicated co-existence of Jews, Muslims and Turks particularly in Spain and North Africa where Jews and Muslims lived together for centuries. Jewish musicians served Iraqi and North African kings before coming to Israel in 1948. Thus, many of the tunes and musical styles she collects have a strong Arabic influence.
Transcribing music from many different parts of the Jewish Diaspora and Arab sources, Betty sees music as a way to say “We live together.” She seeks out Jewish, Muslim and Christian music and then carefully, painstakingly transcribes the music from each culture for her scores. “I write my music in many separate parts and then put them together similar to the way filmmakers edit a film.”
Betty Olivero was brought up in Israel with a lot of different music, but not Jewish music specifically. Musicians, along with their communities, came to Israel after having absorbed the music they were originally exposed to. Sacred and secular melodies came to be transformed as their uses shifted in Israel. Betty sees this phenomenon as a natural transformation. “Klezmer music (Eastern European Jewish dance music) is Gypsy music, for example, but Gypsies came from India.”
She continued: “If we let music speak, the co-existence is perfect. The mixed music is like a tree with many branches. There was, or is, one melody but many accents. The surroundings make the difference.”
Betty gave an example of this transformation from one of her experiences. She collected a Yemenite melody sung by a Yemenite folk singer. Betty transcribed it with durations and dynamics but she didn’t notate accents. The piece was to be performed in Germany and in the performance the singer sang it like Gregorian chant according to his tradition. “I loved the transformation. In was an example of how we are one organic unit but different according to our heritage, our point of view.” From Betty’s perspective “we keep writing the same piece.”
Like her teacher Luciano Berio, Betty Olivero seeks to view different realities from different perspectives. I listened to one of Betty’s pieces which was commissioned in honor of Berio. In Makama’t (five Middle-Eastern folk songs for female voice and nine players), Betty “orchestrates five brief fragments of Yemeni, Bedouin and Egyptian poetry, leaving no interval between the authentic singing, and the instrumental part, which is entirely coherent with modern writing. It is almost as if there were no barriers between the ancient and the modern, the popular and the refined. “ (from olivero.co.il) To pull the beat together, Betty keeps the beat constant, but she employs a Chopin-like rubato to convey the rhythmic suppleness of the tunes she transcribes.
Communication with God
One of Betty’s pieces entitled Bakashot (Supplications) for solo clarinet, mixed chorus and symphonic orchestra was commissioned in 1996 by the Norddeutscher-Rundfunk Chor/Hamburg and performed by them under the direction of Lior Shambadal. From her website, Betty writes:
“In principal, music plays a very important role in the Jewish faith. The founder of the Israelite nation, the harp playing King David, is reputedly the author of the biblical Book of Psalms. Most of the poems in the Jewish prayer book are psalms to be sung rather than spoken. Anyone singing these or accompanying them on an instrument can thus feel himself to be a direct follower of David, and can pray for the same solicitude that the biblical king received at that time. By extension, every kind of music-making is a form of communication with God, an artistic and emotional exercise of faith.”
Lo Ira Ra (I Will Not Fear) for AGO 2014
Betty wrote Lo Ira Ra for AGO 2014 and scored it for mixed chorus, accordion, clarinet, harp and piano. Betty described it like this:
In Lo Ira Ra I use the chorus in dialogue with itself by employing soloists from the choir to sing the rhythmically free Oriental melodies and the tutti choir singing in a western style with a constant rhythm. The chorus sometimes takes the part of a string orchestra with the soloists singing on top of that.
The accordion plays with the chorus and soloists and carries the influence of the pipe organ but with a folk character.
The harp is like the wind and water.
The piano dialogues with soloists and the accordion but also plays an ambient harmony at times “like an orchestra of church bells.”
The clarinet plays Klezmer music in dialogue with the church bells of the piano and the Oriental melodies of the soloists.
The psalm texts are in Hebrew and English, but at the end the words are those common to both languages.
Listening to Betty’s music reminds me of the famous opening scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window in which Jimmy Stewart, stuck in his apartment with a broken leg, sees the stories of his neighbors in the building across the alley through the rear windows of their apartments Betty’s music likewise has a horizontal quality taken from the heterophony of Arabic music plus the vertical organization of a steady beat. She is fervent in describing the polyphony of many cultures living one on top of another as happens in Israel. She says that she writes music based on what she hears, what is around her, what is her reality. Each culture has its own music, which Betty researches and transcribes to communicate the fertile world that exists outside the domain of politics. For her, these cultures exist together and transform each other making something new and dramatic. The pulse of the music is precise but the music is what happens between those beats.
Betty’s website, olivero.co.il includes a wealth of Betty’s music. Her ideas on transcription and transformation are evident in many of the pieces.
“I find the process of confronting and juxtaposing traditional, formal means with contemporary vocabulary to be highly challenging and of great curiosity. One of the most fundamental issues in my work, and the aim of my musical creation, is to use traditional, ethnic music materials in the compositional processes and thereby participate in the essence of oral tradition: transmission of essence, through evolution of expression: preservation and change. I do not seek these materials out of any scientific-musicological point of view. They serve purely as a dramatic stimulus and as a point of reference. Close scrutiny of these sources uncovers hidden, unpremeditated musical means, which invite further extension and development. These traditional melodies and texts undergo thorough transformation, so profound as to make their original form, at times, unrecognizable, yet their spirit and highly-charged dramatic potential remain untouched.”