A creative encounter of voices, traditions, musical forms, and competences.
Many compositions of Yuval Avital represent fascinating journeys toward different musical levels and traditions, with complex historical and cultural references; sometime, they are even characterised by a collaborative approach where the roles of an audience can overrun that of the performers.
This is the case of REKA (in Hebrew: background), a large-scale vocal fresco of whispers, shouts, chants, and prayers created by six extraordinary traditional singers and a crowd of hundreds of nonmusicians, commissioned by Warsaw Autumn Festival 2014 and coproduced by MITO SettembreMusica Milan, Italy. REKA is a sonic investigation of the essential role of two primal elements in music, art, and culture. The first is the human voice—the most essential and ancient sonic tool of all. The voice is an expression of singularity and collectivity; of the traditional nested cultural identity and of the creative idiosyncrasies of individual elements; a prosodic instrument of precise communication and an abstract generator of sound, always connected to its past and present, always vulnerable to a deviation from its specific cultural context. The second is the perceptive, aesthetic, and structural complementarity between protagonist and background, between definite and indefinite, between individual and collective.
The orchestration of REKA, coordinated simultaneously on the scene by two conductors, is based on the interaction between three groups:
– a vocal “crowd” formed by a heterogeneous group of participants with no need of previous musical knowledge following a “user-friendly” graphic/textual score
– six soloists of rare ancient traditions from all around the world: Tibet, Sardinia, Mongolia, Tuva, South Africa, Bukhara—among them carriers of some of the most challenging extended vocal techniques possible
– two solo percussionists playing a complex set of gongs and metals as well as the insides of a concert piano.
Each of these groups creates a system on its own and the overall work is experienced as an equilibrium between parallel complex systems rather than as a solution based on traditional structural paradigms.
The involvement of traditional musicians in a frame of contemporary experimental creations has been an important element in Yuval’s creative path for a number of years: from multimedia concerts with nomads in Kazakhstan (Slow Horizons, Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2006) to complex “icon/sonic operas” (SAMARITANS, Milan, Italy, 2010) and his Massive Sonic Work no. 3 for 100 gongs and bamboo players from nine countries of Southeast Asia (KARAGATAN, City of Dipolog, 2013). These works involve a complex process of ethnomusicological research, development of graphic solutions for notation and gestural conducting methods, and a delicate dialogue with the tradition carriers themselves. They oppose exoticism with Western-oriented fusion in which the archaic and contemporary are nested one into the other to create a transcultural aesthetic archetype and to deliver an unedited emotive experience.
A key element in the collaboration with carriers of ancient heritage is the need to establish a respectful dialogue with the artists who often (and most rightfully) see themselves as more than performers in the classic European meaning, but rather as spokespersons for their culture. An example is the encounter between Avital and Lama Samnet Yeshe Rinpoche for the prerehearsals of REKA, in which the modifications of some chants and rituals, and additional innovative possibilities of performance were agreed by the Lama as he saw the work carried an important message of peace and dialogue; he also agreed to sing a popular Tibetan song dedicated to mothers (which priests especially in his rank never sing) since the archetype of motherhood in the Bön tradition carries an important role as a key to compassion.
On the opposite side, confronting a tradition such as the Zulu singing which is based on improvising harmonisations, rhythm pattern, and vocal effects (such as click language and complex whistles), invites a composer to create coherent codifications of elements and then to give a large liberty to the artist involved to interact and create within a given frame, rather than to be a mere “performer” of elements.
An additional challenge related to multicultural creation is the research to create a composition of elements rather than a description of individual behaviour, or, in more simple words, creating a score that is not conditioned by an indispensable presence of a certain individual—performer, conductor or composer—but a text that could be a point of departure for new interpretations in the future.
In order to achieve it, Avital needed to classify each of the singers according to their techniques, musical systems and vocal range, and at the same time create a double definition for each element of their singing—one which is functional (and thus interchangeable), and one which is descriptive (the traditional name of the specific chosen element) which is coherent to the performer. This method gives the possibility to future performance of this work with other performers (or traditions), in which the conductor will carry a role adapting the descriptive indications in the score, according to a dialogue he or she will create with new carriers of traditions, without changing the function of each element. In my belief, this new role of a cultural mediator in the frame of creative process could become more and more fundamental in the process of transcultural art.
The vocal crowd in REKA is composed of hundreds of residents of the city where the work will be performed, who had been invited to form an unusually large organic. Opposed to the traditional choir, the crowd does not require prior musical knowledge or experience, since the graphic and textual score will suggest musical elements, imitations of the natural world, prelinguistic sounds, and onomatopoeic phonemes, creating complexity instead of hierarchy and diversity instead of homogeneity.
The world wide web carries an important role in this project: social networks, mailing lists and forums will be used through an open-call to “recruit” the vocal crowd; online video tutorials and downloadable scores are used as an essential part of the formation process. Avital explains: “the hyper-connectivity of the web that has been changing in the recent years from passive exposure of information to a desire to be active ... to express our unique individual sphere and to share, interact, connect. Crowd music is what it’s all about—using our voice both as a connector and resource to make art together, regardless to our social background, musical knowledge, age or origin.”
The two percussion players, placed on opposite sides of the stage, have a fundamental complementary role within the score: the first one is a marker of temporal events within the material of the crowd, a rhythmic frame to a non-rhythmic ambient, a milestone of orientation. The second’s role consists of creating a basic layer of timbers, outlining the invariant elements of static sections, or adding stability to complex sections. Nonetheless, in some parts of the work an inversion occurs, in which the percussions create recitative soloist monologues while the voices (of the soloists or of the crowd) maintain the rhythmic or sonic ambient. The percussion set is composed mainly from different kinds of gongs and other metal idiophones, with an addition of one membranophone (bass drum), and the insides of a concert piano, which will be completely decontextualized and varied in function of the role needed in the overall orchestration of the different sections of this work.
The soloists are selected by Avital among some of the most relevant vocal traditions from all around the world; they are characterised by ancient roots as well as by a strong identity value in the contemporary context; however, it is interesting to remark that all of them, apart from the Sardinian bassu, live out from their original countries, some due to their career, some due to exile, some due to immigration. This fact can be a solid contradiction to the “exotic” approach to multiculturalism, which preassume “remote” rather than diverse or complimentary.