A Young Composer's Big Chance

Brett Campbell on April 3, 2007
It's common for people approaching middle age to suddenly pursue youth — a sports car, a new job, an affair, a face-lift. In 2003, when the world's most adventurous music ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, neared its 30th birthday, it, too, sought a dose of youthful energy, but in a much more constructive way. Kronos created the Under 30 Project "to support the creation of new work by young artists, and to help Kronos cultivate stronger connections with young musicians in order to develop lasting artistic relationships with the next creative generation,"according to the project Web site. Composers who have not yet reached their 30th birthday can submit a variety of works for the Quartet's review, and Kronos picks one each year for a commission. The lucky recipient also receives a multiweek residency at the Lucas Artists Program at Saratoga's Montalvo Arts Center — a supportive environment for writing the music — and works with the group in San Francisco to prepare the new work. This year, from a pool of more than 200 composers from 28 countries, Kronos chose 29-year-old Aviya Kopelman. "Her music was striking to all of us," said Kronos violinist David Harrington by phone from South Korea, where the Quartet was performing. "She seemed to have a vision and a style in which each piece of the work is adding up to a very big picture, so that we're really curious about what's coming next." An Israeli born in Moscow, Kopelman teaches composition at the Hed College for Music and at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, both in Tel Aviv. She joins previous Under 30 selectees Alexandra du Bois (2003), Felipe Pérez Santiago (2004), and Dan Visconti (2005). Kronos will play the premiere of Kopelman's quartet in New York at Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall on Feb. 22, 2008, followed by its West Coast premiere at UC Berkeley's Cal Performances in the 2008-2009 season. "When we choose a composer, this is a relationship we're intending to develop," says Harrington. "The commission is merely the start of that relationship. I'm looking at this as a commitment to that person's work. "These commissions are not little pats on the head," he adds. "To me, these composers are major — there's a lot of ability here. We don't know yet how far that ability can go with the seeds that we're planting." Kopelman was born in Moscow in 1978 and immigrated to Israel in 1987. She began taking piano lessons at the age of 12. Kopelman graduated from the Rubin Music Academy in Jerusalem, where she studied composition with Tzvi Avni. In 2000, she was commissioned by composer Michael Wolpe to write a string quartet for Israel's Sounds in the Desert Festival. Her works have been performed in Israel and abroad by the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Camerata, Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, Conjunto Iberico Octet, Ensemble de la Paix, Les Solistes de Waterloo, and Jerusalem Trio, among others. Kopelman's MySpace biography, where her works can also be heard, lists influences from Mozart to Metallica, Shostakovich to Sonic Youth, John Cage to John Cale. "For me, music is about emotion," she writes. "Life is about emotion. Any kind of emotion, love as hate, joy as pain. ... If I hear something, I want to feel. I write symphonic, chamber, and solo music for players, festivals, orchestras, etc. I really hope I will have my own band soon which will play also music with distortion, walls of sound, groove, and electronix. All this with the complexity (or simplicity??) of classical new music. And a personal note — I like to dance very much, to go out, and [I] have a charming son." Aviya Kopelman spoke with SFCV from her home in Jerusalem, where she lives with her 7-year-old son.

Congratulations on your selection as the fourth recipient of Kronos' Under 30 commission. How does it feel?

It's so exciting. It is a dream for every composer today, because Kronos is the most flexible ensemble. They have no boundaries, they're very open-minded to almost every idea, and they are very diverse in the kinds of projects they want to work with, whether it's movie soundtracks or ethnic music or other colorful projects.

Have you had a chance to think about the piece you'll write for them?

First, I want to wait to hear them play live [in Paris in May] and then also talk to them to see if they have any requests or anything. I hope they're as open-minded as I think they are. [Laughs.] Besides, I'm now just finishing a piano piece for the [Arthur] Rubinstein [International Piano Master] Competition, so I don't want to think about another piece before that. [Laughs.] But yes, I have a few ideas ...

Many composers tailor their works to the particular strengths of the ensemble that commissions a work. You said you've heard Kronos' music since at least high school. What aspects of Kronos' performance style will you consider as you write the piece?

Generally when I write for somebody I can't help thinking of the specific player. I've written for many different people and they're all very different. Yes, Kronos has a very specific character. They're ... theatrical. Their [performances] aren't just a concert — they're a full show.

Late to the Keyboard

At age 12, you started taking piano lessons on your own initiative. Why?

Well, it was my parents' initiative first. There was always lots of music in our home, and I started taking a few lessons when I was about 5. I stopped because the teacher was too tough. Then I studied ballet. And then when I was older, the music was just stronger than me and at some point I said, I must do it. Maybe I was more mature and I could do the hard work of a pianist. And it is hard work.

Tell us a bit about your compositional process and what else you'd like listeners to know about your music.

I do not start writing before I know what I want to say. If I do so, it gets complicated and I have to erase and start again and write it over again. [Laughs.] This makes the process much longer. So I wait till I have the whole piece in my head, then I sit and write it, and it shouldn't take long, usually. But the process of having it all in my head — it's a long story. ... About my music generally ... I wouldn't like people to define music so much. I'd like people who listen to my music to be open and try to feel something — to let the music vibrate and influence them. One shouldn't feel uncomfortable, I believe, if [you don't] know what to call what [you] hear. The definition will come later. First should come the pure listening.

Your Web site does talk about the importance of emotion in your music.

I think it's the most important role of art — emotion not instead of ideas, but together with them, especially now, when we live in such a cold world.

You can hear traces of Jewish liturgical music in some of your pieces. Is that an important part of your compositional process? Do you mostly write lyrics in Hebrew?

Well, in earlier pieces that are not on my Web site, I also wrote Russian lyrics, like [settings of the poetry of] Anna Akhmatova, and German and Latin when I wrote my Hebrew Magnificat. I mostly write in Hebrew because that's the place I live in and the language I use the most and feel closest to now. There are Jewish liturgical motives, and, in other pieces, Russian/Slavic, too, naturally. I think it's good: It means I live in peace with who I am. I try to be open-minded; I try to listen to the most music I can if it's interesting and if I think it's good music. Most of it somehow [informs] my musical ideas, I guess — how I'd like my music to sound.

When Worlds Collide

Some of the samples of your music I've heard have strong melodies and relatively simple harmonies. How much is your music influenced by popular music?

I don't feel my music is pop music, but I'm not afraid to use simple melodies or simple harmonies when I need them. Generally, my personal feeling is that people should stop dividing art so much into genres like popular or classical. I think it's a little bit old-fashioned. Music can be defined as interesting or not, as taking some effort — intellectual or emotional — from a listener, or being just an "entertainment." But as long as it is art music, and there is some unity of idea or message, any aesthetic can serve. I listen to all kinds of music — rock, jazz, ethnic, electronic ... any kind. And I think I can use anything I like in my music to say what I want to say in a particular piece. I think it takes a lot of confidence to use simplicity. If I believe enough in my own complexity, I can let myself use simplicity in my music. I don't have to be afraid of people thinking I'm too simple. If I'm sure enough in what I want to say, I think I can use any harmony and any melody. And besides, I like beautiful melodies! And beautiful harmonies even more. [Laughs.] Music is also about beauty, like in any art. Not only beauty, but also beauty.

For a long time the idea of beauty and simple melodies was discouraged, especially in the academy.

So much of the music that's played in the academies — what I hear in composition concerts in universities — it stays in the universities. That's still the situation in the universities, though at least officially they deny it. That's also a progress, I guess. And the music outside the academy is totally different. It's good to have big ideas in music, but people want art, they don't want only ideas. Luckily, I teach in very open-minded institutions, which accept every kind of music, as I do. Mostly my music wouldn't be accepted in an academy. It's not what I would want for myself — to be performed only in the academy. I believe in the real world outside. I would also like to take the "serious" music out of the concert halls and bring it also to different places, like clubs. I try to play my music for my friends or my students, and usually they react well. What I want most is for people my age to listen to my music, not only the usual audience for classical music, which everybody knows is growing older. I'd like the people who I'm drinking with to come listen to my music. Intelligent people who have any willingness to make an effort to listen to good music. That's my dream. If I can reach them, I'll be happy. That's why I think what Kronos is doing is so important. They have the right attitude, to bring music to the wider audience. Like their soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream; so many people listened to it and so people know their name and then they go listen to their other music. So that way, more and more people are exposed to good music. I think that's great.

The Sound of Israel

What is the new-music scene in Israel like?

I guess it's just like everywhere else, though I have not much to compare to. I can't complain because all my pieces are performed. There are good chamber ensembles and some good larger ensembles, though it's hard to get performers to devote themselves fully to music, when they are so badly paid. The financial side is problematic here. And it's a very small place, so once a piece is performed a few times, that's all you have — there's no more audience to play to. That's the major problem here. It's not like in a big country, like Kronos goes to tour all over. Here there are a few places, and that's all. But there are good composers and indie ensembles. And the bright side is that because there aren't so many places to perform anyway, it doesn't matter if you're mainstream or not, so why not try to do something different? You can more easily do different things. That's why I think Israel is very pluralistic and colorful. There's a place for everything here, mixed one with each other. It makes a very good creative atmosphere, and I know there are lots of other amazing musicians here, whom you haven't heard about yet, maybe.

Has your music been performed much outside Israel so far?

It's not played so much outside of Israel, but the Jerusalem Trio has played my piano trio on tours, and also Gavriel Lipkind, a virtuoso cellist who lives in Germany. Naturally with symphonic works, it's harder to find performances. My pieces are played through personal contacts, mostly. I believe so much in personal contacts ... if someone likes your music, it gets played. From this point of view, it's a great opportunity to go out on the international scene, because it's much harder to do that when you're living here. Writing for Kronos is a great jump for me.

You'll be in residency at Montalvo in Saratoga. What do you expect that will be like?

I don't really know, but I hope it will be quiet and I won't have to clean and cook and teach, and I'll have more time to compose. I really look forward to this. As life goes on, it's harder to find quiet time when I can think about nothing except writing music. On the other side, who knows, the best ideas come sometimes when you are [busiest]. One can never know.