A Dialogue with Ofer Ben-Amots

The Israeli-American composer discusses Shtetl Songs, tone painting, and music as a human chain

Milken Archive: Many characters populate the song cycle Shtetl Songs. What ties together these characters and this music?

Ofer Ben-Amots: The shtetl is a purely Eastern European lifestyle—very different, of course, from the Sephardic experience. In my Shtetl Songs I tried to portray this lifestyle: there is a rabbi and his followers, a typical working family, three young seamstresses, an arguing couple, and others. Some of them are hassidim, others are the opponents, the mitnagdim; some are more urban, others belong to the small town, and so on. I tried not to change the original tunes too much; at the same time, I tried to give a better sense of the drama, the daily hardship, and the longing of these people through piano accompaniment and tone-painting. And I tried to select songs that are less well-known than others, although some of them obviously are more popular.

MA: Can you tell us more about tone painting?

OB: Tone painting is when you describe a nonmusical idea—visual or literary, for example—with music. Famous examples are Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. In "The Three Seamstresses" [one of the Shtetl Songs], I composed an accompaniment that sounds like a sewing machine. I also use tone painting quite a bit in Celestial Dialogues. In the opening movement, there is a kind of knocking sound with the clarinet, which is supposed to describe the shammas—the custodian of the synagogue—knocking on doors during the 10 Days of Awe to wake the Jews up very early for prayer. When you hear the opening phrase of the clarinet, this is supposed to symbolize the knocking on the door. This is tone painting: you paint the picture with tone, with sound.

MA: In the case of Hashkivenu, you visited a synagogue in Geneva, where you heard a Hashkivenu tune that appealed to you. Beginning with this tune, you composed a nonliturgical piece for string quartet, and later added mixed choir, percussion, and organ. With all your compositions, do you generally begin with a tune and build upon it?

OB: For me, the melody is the highest component in the hierarchy of musical elements. Melody is not just a tune, something that you can go out and whistle after the concert. Melody is the matter with which all the musical components are organized over what I call the temporal-horizontal dimension, or simply said, the time. It ties everything together and brings shape and structure to the music. However, it is certainly not the only way to embark on a composition; every composition has a different point of departure. Sometimes, it is the rhythmic idea. Other times, it's an instrumental timbre, a visual or literary idea, or even an abstract concept. But I'd say that most of the time, for me personally, melody plays a great role.

MA: How have Biblical symbolism and Jewish liturgical concepts inspired you to compose over the years?

OB: For an Israeli-born composer like myself, these two concepts are genuinely different, and have very little to do with each other. In Israel, we grew up on the Bible, speaking the biblical language, knowing the stories and being thoroughly familiar with the biblical landscape and geography. But being Jewish was something that was understood all by itself. Nobody made an effort to be Jewish. Thus, Jewish liturgy—unless you belonged to the Orthodox sec—was rather far from you. Jewish liturgy is something I learned once I left Israel in 1979, and moved, first to Europe, and then to the United States. It was only outside Israel that I discovered my Jewishness from a religious perspective, and the richness and beauty of Jewish liturgical music. Since then, however, it has influenced me a great deal: biblical text and language, as well as Jewish liturgy, have become a major part of my musical world.

MA: Do you find that after certain influences cause you to compose a musical work, the music itself then takes you somewhere else?

OB: This is actually always true. I start somewhere, and I go wherever the music leads me. It's very rare that I have an idea ahead of time of what the piece is going to sound like when I'm done with it. I do have a few pieces of this sort, but normally I develop a special relationship with the piece as I am working on it. For the sake of comparison, I would say that I feel like a potter who is working with clay. I generally know the kind of pot I want to create, but I don't know exactly how it's going to be created. I let myself go with the material.

MA: How would you describe your music?

OB: Well, I'd say that for me, music is just another way—maybe almost a lost way—of human communication. For me, music is something that comes from the composer's heart and brain and then moves on to the performer who interprets it, and then to the listener. There is a human chain here, which is linked through the musical experience, and this kind of communication is for me the most important. When I write my music, I am always hoping that those who listen to it know that the music is meant for them and that there is something I'm trying to convey to them through the music.

MA: How will you make use of the Milken Archive recordings?

OB: I get a lot of inspiration from what I hear and so far the CDs have been very inspiring. In addition to that, I am frequently invited to lecture on Jewish music. Thus, I have started using the Milken Archive CDs on a regular basis. For example, in a recent lecture at the Tel Aviv University in Israel, I presented the Archive for the first time to the audience. I used the recordings of Kurt Weill's The Eternal Road, as well as Toch, Adler and Berlinski. Obviously, people were just blown away by the beauty and depth of this music and, of course, by the Jewish connection.

MA: You have been a member of the Milken Archive Editorial Committee for several years now. How does the product of the Milken Archive compare to your original expectations?

Composers Charles Davidson and Ofer Ben-Amots at a Milken Archive Editorial Boar

Composers Charles Davidson and Ofer Ben-Amots at a Milken Archive Editorial Board meeting in 1999.

OB: I think the final product has greatly exceeded all of our initial plans or hopes. For a few months now, I have been receiving the Milken CDs and have listened to each and every one of them. I am gladly ready to admit that my entire perception of Jewish music has changed and developed. I have discovered an incredible wealth, cultural wealth, of a beautiful tradition. I am sure this is going to influence me strongly as a composer.

Continue the conversation with Ofer Ben-Amots with our latest interview in this podcast.

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