A Conversation with Israeli Composer Rotem Luz
Rotem Luz was born in Israel in 1959. She is a graduate of Tel Aviv University where she received her master’s of music degree summa cum laude in 1996. Currently, she is completing her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her compositions include
1991 Piano Sonata, Scenes from the Red Sea
for Flute and Piano,
for Two Flutes, and
for Flute, Bassoon, and Piano, all of which have just been released by Roméo Records on a two-disc set, reviewed below, that also includes works by Luz’s father, Yehezkel Braun. Since 2007, Luz has been teaching music in the arts, literature, and music department of Safed College.
Q: This may seem a strange place to start, but the new Roméo Records set includes compositions by both you and Yehezkel Braun, who, I understand, is your father. So first, tell me something about him. How did he influence your decision to become a composer?
A: It’s a great place to start. My father is a very important Israeli composer. His music is performed in Israel and around the world and much loved by performers and audiences alike. I grew up with music in general and his music in particular, and it was a great experience. My father was always interested in many different areas and I think that he influenced my choice of becoming a musician and maybe in becoming a curious person. When my brothers and I were young, he used to take us on nature trips. He has a broad knowledge of nature, among other things. He taught me how to recognize birds from their singing and many other important things, like how to collect mushrooms and how to survive in the wild. But as I experienced the struggles he had as a composer, it never occurred to me that I would become a composer myself. My father didn’t teach me music himself, but I was very much influenced by his love of music, and that eventually made me choose the piano department at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. It’s funny, but I began composing in high school during piano lessons I gave to a couple of neighbors. Bach, Haydn, Mozart—I thought everyone composed for their students, so why not me? The pieces were just right for my students and I was happy with the modest result. Anyway, I gave my first pieces to my piano teacher and didn’t make a copy, so my first written music was lost. I also had a good friend that studied piano with me and we were in the same class at school. He was a composer at 14 and told me things about music that I’d never heard of, like dodecaphonic music. I got curious and I tried to compose something of my own. I think that my father was not even aware of those early attempts and that suited me fine. I enjoyed riding my bike and reading books and being active in a youth movement, and for me music was fun. I loved playing chamber music and performing in concerts, but I thought that the best thing to learn was science like astrophysics or geophysics. In my last year in high school, I almost didn’t have time to practice the piano, so my father made a deal with me so that I wouldn’t stop playing altogether. I gave some concerts even then. I was lucky to play quite well without much practice (don’t tell my students that because it’s not something I’m very proud of). I played Debussy, Bartók, Mozart, and Haydn, but for me it was something I did because I loved it. My father told me that it would be nice to be able to play whatever I wanted, something he never did. I decided on taking this path because I understood that it would be a shame not to reach this goal. Eventually at the Academy I started to practice a little more and kept on performing. But all that took me a long time. Here, in Israel, we finish high school at about 17 or 18 and then go into the army. I finished the army at about 21. During that time, I had almost no time or opportunity to play the piano, and as the piano was my great love, I almost exploded. It was somehow obvious that I would choose to be a scientist or a medical doctor, and I even applied to the two major universities in Israel. But as the time got closer, I felt that if I enrolled I would lose the piano. I remember having a three-day discussion with my mother, and she was very disappointed, but in the end I decided not to go to university and, instead, went to work. After a few months, I found myself coming up with ideas of going to strange places to do anthropological research or of being a lawyer fighting for justice. I decided to interview my father, who was the head of Tel Aviv Academy of Music back then. He told me a few things about the Academy, and I chose to take piano courses there. I knew that I would go on composing anyway, and I did not want anyone to tell me that my pieces were this or that. I was a little disappointed that the choice was limited; for example, I could not choose conducting. But I realized that I could not learn everything and going back to the piano, after almost four years of being away from it, was the most important thing. And so I did. In my first year—I was almost 22—my parents went on a sabbatical to England and the U.S., so I rented a room and supported myself by giving private lessons in math, science, English, French, and whatever. I played my father’s First Piano Sonata in my first concert, and I enjoyed playing chamber music. And then I met my husband. He was the one who influenced me to become a composer. He showed me A. A. Milne’s poems and I started to compose. So, if you ask me to sum it up, I took to music because I couldn’t do without it, and I started composing because it was natural for me to do so. I didn’t want to become a composer, but I became one because my husband encouraged me to, and also because I love doing it. I always have a conflict between composing and improvising, and between practicing the piano and composing. I love doing all of those things. I get to play whatever I want—Schumann, Liszt, and Prokofiev’s most difficult pieces—and I improvise and compose.
Q: It’s normal and natural, so they say, for young people to rebel against parents and tradition. Have you found yourself pursuing a different path from your father’s in your own work? How would you characterize your style and what sets it apart from your father’s and, for that matter, from other contemporary Israeli composers?
A: Well, that’s a hard one! I always did whatever I felt was genuine concerning music and other things that I really love. I never cared what other people said. I did not try to be different from my father, nor did I try to be like him. I tried to be me as much as possible. I don’t compose serial pieces, I don’t improvise jazz or other known styles, and I don’t try to be modern. My style is modal–tonal. I don’t see myself conforming to a specific style. When I compose, I try to get in a mood and use the Western musical techniques I grew up with. When I improvise, it becomes even wilder sometimes, and the styles are freer. As a pianist, I change my interpretation all the time, which is something I do as a composer, too. I don’t have schemas, but I’m a moody person, and I think it reflects in my music. I’m very different from my father and I did not need to rebel against him because he always accepted me as I was. As for other Israeli composers, I think that I took my father’s side in rebelling against some composers that wanted to belong to the modern current. I took it maybe to another level, because intentionally I don’t belong to any group and I don’t compose for a living. It’s kind of a rebellion and a protest, because I feel that no one really wants new music in Israel, so I decided that I’m out of the game. I give my music to anyone who wants it. My last piece,
for piccolo and piano, was composed for Lior Eitan for a recital in an international flute festival in England. As I always do, I tried to be me and also to think about Lior. We had a meeting and we improvised together, to get a notion. I composed the piece as a tailor makes a suit. I asked him about techniques and things you can’t learn from an orchestration book. When I compose, I try to be very honest with myself and ask, “Is this bar me?” If not, I try again. In this very private process, there is no place for other people, or for tradition or rebellion against anything. It’s funny, but that’s the way it is for me.
Q: Are there any modern composers that have influenced you?
A: Well, I love Paul Hindemith. and I think that he influenced me more than others. I think I connect to his moods and his harmony and counterpoint, and maybe we share another big influence, J. S. Bach. I recorded for the radio one of Hindemith’s sonatas for viola and piano in 1985. I loved the piece and it reminded me of other pieces. It’s hard to explain but there are moments in my music that remind me of his. I can also trace other influences like Prokofiev, Ravel, Bartók, Barber, and Middle Eastern music.
Q: What is it like, especially as a woman, to be a composer in modern-day Israel?
A: Well, if we count female versus male composers in Israel, we are in a much better position than say 40 years ago. Composition might be considered as something that men do more than women, not that I can understand why. Many women are at the top in many areas in Israel, and there are some very creative and talented women composers. I’ve encountered some sexist pearls during my life concerning my abilities and my gender such as, “Women cannot be conductors or composers; the only creation that could be expected from a woman is children.” I’m happy it didn’t influence my judgment, but maybe it made me a little angry. I became a musician because I cannot live without making music. It’s not easy to make a living as a composer, but I started to do that because it was something I couldn’t resist. If you feel that way, you give up having a spotless house and being the best housekeeper. It was always more important for me to leave time to make music. But I think that because I’m a woman and I wanted to give my children a normal life, I had to work harder and give up a few things. During the time my daughters were growing up, I almost stopped performing because I wanted to be home at night, but I composed. I even composed when they were babies, but the pace was bar by bar, between meals (theirs) and teaching piano to make a living. Maybe this is the reason why it took me so long to make an album. There were always more important things to do and I always knew I would find time for that. When they grew up, as happens to many women, I decided to study again. It took me some time, but I became very intrigued with music research and theory. I felt that it was my chance to put my needs forward, to take my composing more seriously, and do something more significant than local concerts and a few radio recordings. In a way, it was like coming out from darkness to light. I decided to call the superb flutist and piccolo player, Lior Eitan, who I knew from the Academy, and ask him to participate in a disc of my music. I wanted him to perform my
Scenes from the Red Sea
. I didn’t think to include my father’s compositions at the beginning, but my father asked me to record his Second Piano Sonata. It’s funny, but I think that this album is maybe the first commercial album containing not only my music but also my father’s. There are many recordings of his music of live performances and radio recordings from around the world, and a few pieces were recorded commercially among other pieces of past composers. There are some recordings that were done by institutions like the Israeli Institute of Music, but the idea of recording a Braun–Luz album seemed like a great idea. Very soon, the project grew. My father composed two more pieces and I composed a new one. Lior and I included in our venture Uzi Shalev, the wonderful bassoonist from the Israel Philharmonic, and after one session of sight reading my father’s pieces for bassoon, we decided to tape
, a dance piece from 1962 that was never performed since. We asked Dan Moshayev, a marvelous percussionist from the orchestra, to be our guest artist, and we decided that since my father will be 90, we might get some funding from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and from the Tel Aviv Municipality since my father is a citizen of honor. He was very happy about it, and although he was quite ill, it got him back to work. He just finished another piece a few days ago, I’m happy to say. The project included Lior Eitan on flute and piccolo, bassoonist Uzi Shalev, recording engineer and pianist Eyal Zaliouk from The Classical Studio, and, of course, me, a group of four friends collaborating to make a commercial album of my and my father’s music. Most of the pieces in the album have not been recorded before. Even those that have been performed and radio recorded, haven’t been performed for a long time. So if I’m talking about being a woman composer in Israel, it took me a long time to concentrate and do what I wanted, because there were times I had to take a job that would fit other things, and the job was not even connected to music. I think it was also connected to another choice I made in life which was to leave Tel Aviv and move to the Galilee in the north. It gave me great peace of mind to compose and improvise, but it made me take other jobs not related to music to make a living. Anyway, I hope people like my music, and when they listen to it that they don’t care if I’m a woman or not, blond, tall, fat, whatever, because it’s still an issue, and you don’t get many women composers. I chose to present a piece by an Israeli woman composer during a test at the Hebrew University. One of my advisers, also a woman, was very happy with my choice. Your question reminds me that many years ago I played a Poulenc trio with two women from an Israeli orchestra. There was a manager in the audience who was impressed and wanted us to participate in a concert as female musicians featuring women in music. I told him the fact that I’m a musician has nothing to do with my gender, and I don’t want to be tagged as a woman musician. This little story from my 20s says something about being a woman. I’m one of the lucky ones that are appreciated for what they create, so I can’t complain. I’m also lucky because I can play the piano part. To sum it up, I was very lucky as a woman composer. My father, mother, and brothers are very supportive, and my husband, who encouraged me to compose, are the reasons I’m happy to be a woman and a mother. My daughters played some of my music willingly and made me very happy in every way possible. My partners for this album and everyone who knows me and my music accept me as I am. So what a girl needs is a good supportive family and great friends and maybe a small audience of music lovers.
Q: Tell me about your pieces on this album. What inspired them? Did you compose them with specific musicians in mind?
A: There are four pieces on the album. The first is
, originally written as a piano trio for children playing violin and cello in the first position and for a piano student of about the four- or five-year level. I composed it for my daughters, Annat, the cellist, and Hagar, the violinist. It was in 1997 and they performed it on a few occasions. Although it’s not very difficult technically, it’s very challenging as a chamber music piece. I composed as I almost always do, using counterpoint and changing meters. The second part opens with 17 bars of unison between the cello and piano. I got some complaints from my nine-year-old violinist, but I told her that this is what I decided as the composer and I cannot change it. I think she accepted that with a great sense of humor. Anyway, when I decided to record the piece, I asked Annat and Hagar’s permission to arrange it for flute and bassoon. The only thing that needed to be done was to change the names of the instruments. I still hope to record the same piece with my daughters. In that piece I don’t think I had anyone in mind, but maybe, I thought, my father would have been proud of some of the counterpoint in the piece, but that’s all. The second piece is the
1991 Piano Sonata
. Iddo, my husband, asked me to compose a piano sonata for his birthday. I told him that it would take me longer than that, and started working. The first movement is in sonata form with a very short slow beginning. I was influenced by Beethoven’s piano and cello sonatas, which I was performing at the time, and I think that the model of Beethoven’s big sonata form movement, combined with some Ravel and Prokofiev, and maybe some of Schumann’s tortured spirit influenced me. But I didn’t want to avoid the mixture of Middle Eastern, Arab, and Jewish elements that have influenced Israeli music and some of my father’s music as well. I told you about Hindemith, and he was there all right, with his counterpoint and quartal harmony. The first movement was a challenge because it was hard for me to stick to the old sonata form and try to build a real Beethovenian climax before the recapitulation, but my music was not tonal anymore. It was music colored by composers of the serial revolution and of electroacoustic music, and to combine those two was not easy. A few years later, this gave me the idea to do research into 20th-century sonata form. I realized that I was led by a vague idea of musical tension and how the fluctuations of this tension actually create the form. I wanted to see if other composers in the 20th century tried to stick to the tensional schema from the 18th- and 19th-century tonal forms as I did. My quest led me to the most interesting field of music cognition, and I did some interviews with composers, one of them from the States, who composed serial sonata form pieces. The second movement, I composed as a theme and two variations without any specific composer in mind, but I had an idea. I composed the sonata when I lived in the north away from most of my family. It was me, my husband, and two baby girls. I did not have anyone to play chamber music with and I got a bit lonely. I think that if you listen to the sonata you can feel it is a bit blue and moody, but concerning the second movement, I got to think about the idea of salvation, and the piece reflects the longing for it and the disappointment that it doesn’t come. I’m not a religious person, but I wanted to change the world like so many. The last movement I composed in one stroke, a very contrapuntal sort of a free fugue. The theme was none other than a tune I sang to my cat. I always have a few cats and the name of the cat was Chichulina, after the well-known Italian MP. The third work is
Scenes from the Red Sea
. I started to compose the four scenes in 1987, when Annat was a baby. She was playing around the piano, and I decided to compose for her a lullaby for flute and piano. I sang the flute part while composing and she fell asleep. I did not have any composer in mind, but I had the sound of the harp as an idea for the piano part. It was not intentional but that’s the way it came to be. I composed the second piece to fit the first one for a teacher’s performance in the conservatory where I taught. I think I had some Bartókian ideas that influenced me and some South American music, maybe even the legendary
Girl from Ipanema
. The third and fourth pieces came a lot later, when I decided to complete the work. I performed it in the States, along with other pieces and improvisations, during a tour. The tour theme was “water,” and that’s what inspired the name of the piece. The Red Sea inspires me; in fact, I’m very much connected to the sea in general. I initiated a project with people from Jewish communities in the States. The project was a cultural exchange that involved collaborations of artists from Israel and the U.S. I was leading the project from the Israeli side and collaborated with visual artists and musicians. The third piece is influenced by Middle Eastern music and maybe Khachaturian, and it begins like a fugue. The last number, I think, is influenced by Prokofiev. It’s funny, but I think that Hindemith, one of my major influences, is missing in this piece, so maybe it’s not such a good idea to think about a major influence when I talk about my music. The fourth work,
The Cana’anite Boats
for two flutes, was composed especially for the album. The first movement was written when I was still in high school after my composer-friend’s ideas. I showed it to Lior and he liked it and asked me to complete a piece for him. The piece complements one of my father’s pieces for two bassoons. I thought I would try to make a challenging piece that will make the two flutes sound like more than two instruments. I had this stereophonic sound concept in mind, and I also wanted to finish the piece in a sad mood. This is something I do in many of my pieces. We decided to have Lior, whose playing is wonderful, to perform both parts by over-recording the tracks. I hope we will have a few live performances of the piece as part of celebrating the album’s release.
Q: What do you find most challenging about composing? I ask this question because I once taught a course in music theory and composition, and as a final exercise, I asked the students to compose their own original piece. I wasn’t asking for a symphony, just a short piece they could present to the class. I recall one student in particular who was very bright and who had done very well on all of the analysis exercises, but after a week, he came to me with a completely blank piece of manuscript paper, practically in tears, and telling me that he simply had no idea how or where to start. It was then I realized that the analytical mind is not necessarily wired the same way as the creative mind, and that it was one thing to analyze an existing work by someone else, but an entirely different thing to create something of your own out of nothing. So my question to you is about staring at the blank manuscript page and wondering how and where to begin. Where do the ideas and the inspiration come from?
A: I think the biggest challenge in composing is to be honest to myself. I try to make my compositional choices in a manner that will not be influenced by anything apart from me and my musical thoughts. It is a sort of sacred process, and so I avoid asking myself questions like “is this music modern enough?” or “will anyone like it?” I try to let the composition take over entirely, and I let the music flow out without blocking my emotions. I sing and play the piano simultaneously, and I think that by doing so I enable myself to express my music. I don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes I can hear an old composer friend from music history, and when I hear that in my music, I’m happy that I can contribute my small part in a great tradition. I don’t even care if it’s new or not, but I’m sure that it’s 100-percent genuine Rotem Luz.
Q: Am I correct to assume that the Roméo album is the first recording of any of your works?
A: Not exactly. I recorded my piano sonata for the radio in a live performance a few years ago. But you are correct that this is my first album as a composer. I made a record—this is really funny—when I was about seven or so, as a singer. It was a small record of children’s songs. Again, the composer was a woman (not me). Her name is Shulamit Lifshits. She composed some of the most beautiful melodies in Israeli repertoire, and my father made the arrangements. The idea came from one of Israel’s most famous musicians, Arik Einshtein. He was part of a group that was well known in the ’60s in Israel, The High Windows, and my father wrote a few arrangements for them. I was singing all the time at home, improvising. It must have been annoying, but one day at the door (I remember it clearly), Arik said to my father that I should make a record as a singer. My father wrote arrangements for Shulamit’s children’s songs and gathered a group of players from the Israel Philharmonic. Some of them were teachers of my friends on the current album. I remember taking this recording very seriously. So my first commercial recording has long gone from the market, and a few people including me and my parents have a copy. It has a photograph of me holding my beloved cat.
Q: Are you working on anything new right now that you would care to tell us about?
A: After finishing the cantata, I decided that it is about time to finish my dissertation. I’ve been on a diet of improvisation only ever since. I cannot wait to finish the dissertation and start a new piece. I don’t take into consideration a few pieces that I compose for my students. I do that all the time. So, unfortunately, I’m not working on a serious new piece right now and I’ll have to compensate myself by playing and improvising in the meantime.
Q: Are there more recordings of your works forthcoming in the near future?
A: I hope I will be able to fund other recordings in the near future. Right now I’m practicing for a few concerts and recordings. I hope to record my new piece from 2012 that I told you about, the
. I think we will have a radio recording in May 2013, but I’m waiting for the specific date. I’m also very busy with my dissertation and I’m writing a book about my father with Professor Jehoash Hirshberg, one of Israel’s leading musicologists, who also wrote the album booklet. I hope that after that I will be able to record some more pieces and maybe make a special concert of improvisations. I hope to find musicians to collaborate with me on the idea.
Bassoon Sonata. Sonata for Solo Flute.
Three Songs of Zion
for Bassoon and Piano.
for Piccolo and Piano.
for Two Bassoons. Piano Sonata No. 2.
for Bassoon and Piano.
for Bassoon and Percussion. Trio for Piccolo, Bassoon, and Piano.
Piano Sonata 1991. Pastorale
for Flute, Bassoon, and Piano.
Boats for Two Flutes.
Scenes from the Red Sea for Flute and Piano
Lior Eitan (fl, pic); Uzi Shalev (bn); Rotem Luz (pn); Dan Moshayev (perc)
ROMÉO RECORDS 7291/2 (2 CDs: 150:26)