Contemporary Composer Teaches Contradiction, Rebellion

Contemporary Composer Teaches Contradiction, Rebellion

Electronic opera. No actors, no props, no backdrops, no curtain. Just a studio, a keyboard, a few computers, processing machines, and speakers. For Arie Shapira, a Professor of Music in the University’s General Studies Department and one of Israel’s premier contemporary music composers, this is his musical niche.

When I write electronic music, I can do anything I like, without worrying about the opinions of the orchestra members or actors,” he says, flashing a quick grin. In his second semester at the University, the 52-year-old Israel Prize recipient is teaching a class in Music of the Romantic Period. He is looking forward to helping to lay the foundations for the University’s Department of Music, which is scheduled to be established in the coming year.

“I want to teach aspiring musicians to think independently, to rebel, to contradict rather than replicate the style of the teacher,” he says. “Rebellion and contradiction, that’s the key.” Shapira himself was taught to build on the traditions of the European composers.
It’s great music, he says, but it’s history, archeology like going to a museum. There is no need to re-write history.”

How would he describe his music? “I can’t sum it up in a few sentences,” he answers. “It would take much more than that—an entire lecture, probably, to accurately describe my music.”
A Jerusalem Post Music Review describes one of his concertos, “Jingle for flute and orchestra,” as “atonal and lacking any hint of motive display, the flute part appears at first as a randomly chosen sequence of tones. But then one is suddenly confronted with a completely different musical reality: A Near-Eastern, Arabic style.”
“I am an extremist. I write radical music,” he explains. Because of his ultra-modern style, he did not expect to win the 1994 Israel Prize for his compositions and teaching. The first composer to have been named a Laureate in Music since 1970, Shapira was surprised the judges selected him because past Laureates were solid, middle-of-the road composers. “My music is definitely not middle-of-the-road!”
In his nearly 30-year career, Shapira has composed more than twenty pieces of music for movies, theater, and performances. Over forty of his concert pieces have been performed by symphonies around the world. Although a number of his works have been performed in Israel, he has found that his music is “too modern, too aggressive” for the taste of Israeli society. “The Israeli public favors traditional, old-fashioned music,” he observes.

He believes he has a better reputation in Europe, where there is a larger audience for his type of compositions. Nonetheless, he stresses, “I am fully Israeli. I’ve never studied overseas, and I don’t go abroad unless one of my pieces is being performed. I can’t do without Hebrew, the Israeli climate, and the noise here...”

A graduate of the Tel Aviv Academy of Music at twenty-four, Shapira was not able to reject the European tradition for another six years. He then began to develop his own style and, in his words, to compose seriously.
“Since I had always been taught to build on the European tradition,” he reflects, “it took me some time to re-examine my education and to realize that I had to fight this tradition in composing music. Now I have an established aesthetical language. I don’t need to be inspired by particular composers. I am independent, so to speak.”

According to Shapira, his break came in 1982, when an international jury chose his “Missa Viva for symphonic orchestra and rock group” to be performed at the 60th Anniversary Celebration of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), held in Gratz, Austria. Accompanied by a Polish orchestra, he was the first-ever Israeli composer to perform at the annual ISCM event. Four years later, he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Grant for Composition.
Born in Kibbutz Affikim in the Jordan Valley, Shapira says he felt no pressure to follow in the footsteps of his physician-father. “My parents had a large collection of records and a double subscription to the philharmonic. That was in the late 1950’s—we listened to the radio and records all day long. I think I was over-exposed to music!

“I started playing piano when I was a boy, and at the age of sixteen I made up my mind categorically that I wanted to be a composer. But I also wanted to study German philosophy and literature – I grew up in a very enlightened family, where study was taken for granted.”
Three years before his graduation from the Academy, he earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University. It was there that he met his wife, a pianist, who was also studying Philosophy. Now the couple has three daughters, the youngest of whom has just begun her army service.
Does the Israel Prize Laureate have any words of advice for aspiring composers? “Be free, independent, and committed to your music. Always think, doubt, and fight tradition.”

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