Amos Elkana is a multi-award-winning composer. In their decision to award him the Prime Minister's Prize for Music Composition the Israeli jury noted that Elkana is the author of "very original music, independent of the prevailing fashion, guided by unique and delicate taste," and radiates "a strong sense of honesty." 

Amos Elkana © Natali Schor
Amos Elkana
© Natali Schor
Amos Elkana is at the crossroad of many genres and styles. His music draws upon Jazz, Oriental Music, Avant-garde, electronics, always with the same thought-provoking approach. We asked him what are the challenges faced today by contemporary composers, and his reflection about his own technique.

How would you describe the situation in Israel, as regards contemporary music? 

In terms of performers, there are three excellent ensembles devoted entirely to contemporary music, each one of them has a unique approach and repertoire. These ensembles are the Meitar Ensemble, the Israel Contemporary Players and the Musica Nova Consort. They give a voice to the many excellent composers who live and work here as well as to important composers from around the world. Apart from them there are many very good freelance musicians too. Unfortunately, like in many other places around the world, the big orchestras do very little in terms of contemporary music (and specifically  Israeli music) which is directly connected to the small financial help they receive from the government.

What are the problems, in your opinion, that you and most composers face today?

In terms of career, there are very few opportunities for living composers to present their work. This is due to conservatism and narrow mindedness of both presenters and audiences, lack of exposure to contemporary music by the public and lack of funding. Because of that most orchestras have become museums of old music. Many musicians too are content with playing the classics (which at times are challenging enough) and shy away from the new and difficult. So it is very hard to get commissioned and performed and if you are lucky and your piece is performed, you still have to pray for sufficient rehearsal time among other things…

As to artistic challenges, there are many, but some of them are unique to today’s composers. A wonderful thing happened in the early 20th century, Schoenberg and others have come to reject the centuries’ old tradition of major-minor tonality and invented new methods of pitch organisation. By doing so they liberated all other composers and set them free to invent their own musical language. No more reliance on tonal scales and age old forms. Many composers understood this message and new and very interesting music started to appear all through the 20th century and up until today. Also, as the world became more and more connected, music form other cultures found it’s way into our western ears and and into our compositions. So, unlike past times, the living composer has to invent his/her own language or otherwise follow a certain school (serialism, minimalism, spectralism, etc). Inventing one’s own language is creativity at its best and if it is coherent, consistent, and full of breadth it can be very interesting and beautiful.

Quite a number of your pieces make great use of electronics (Reflections, Whither do you go home). Are you stimulated by electronic means?

I have always liked computers and I have been programming them for many years, so it was only natural for me to use them to make music. Also, as an electric guitar player, dealing with electronics comes with the territory. However most of my works are written for purely acoustic instruments rather than electronic music. Often I will use the computer when I perform improvised music in order to create unique and strange sounds. Perhaps sometimes these sounds find their way into my acoustic work even though I don’t consciously try to imitate electronic sounds acoustically.

Each of my electroacoustic works uses the computer differently. For instance in Reflections the computer records the violin player in real time and plays the recorded parts later in order to create multiple layers of sound. In Whither do you go home the computer is used to manipulate the live cello as well as to play prerecorded material.

Do you feel the computer brought something different to composing music?

Of course, the computer brought the ability to create electronic sounds and to manipulate them in previously unimaginable ways and also to study these sounds scientifically and understand their inner properties. These abilities are used in variety of ways by composers and musicians.

The computer also brought the ability to notate music using notation programs while trying to give an impression on how the music is supposed to sound like with live musicians. This aspect is very problematic since it gives a wrong impression and does not take into consideration the many intricacies and subtleties that involve playing acoustic instruments as well as understanding how ensembles and orchestras really sound.

Do you think that a composer must be also an instrument-maker now, with the computer?

Not really. The computer is a fantastic tool for creating electronic sounds and manipulating them but it is not for everybody. There is a lot of learning to do in order to wrap one’s hand around what can be done with it and many of my colleagues seem content with composing for acoustic instruments only. However, it is definitely interesting! Composers have been exploring electronics for many years now, even before there were computers. One of them, the Israeli composer Josef Tal, composed in 1970 a piano concerto for piano and electronics where the electronic part is played on a magnetic tape. In 2013 I rewrote that electronic part with a computer for a concert in Tel Aviv. This new version makes use of technologies that were unavailable in Tal's lifetime and include real-time processing and randomized events which are triggered by the live piano playing. You can listen to the fantastic pianist Amit Dolberg perform my version here.

© Chen Altof
© Chen Altof
We can hear a walking bass in The journey Home, as well as an oud in How! ; have jazz and oriental music been great influences? If not, do you believe in inventing music ex nihilo?

Even though I come from a family where classical music was constantly played, growing up in Israel meant being exposed to Arabic music too. Most of my friends came from Jewish families who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and brought their wonderful culture with. As a teenager I listened to and played Rock and then Jazz. I am quite sure that my love for these and other types of music has found its way into my own compositions. However, I never quote or imitate consciously. What seems to work for me is composing intuitively. The music itself inspires me and gives me direction. 

In my short opera The Journey Home I uncharacteristically use Palestinian music and klezmer music in the two wedding scenes as it is part of the amazing (but true!) story of the grandfather of one of my best friends. In short, it is about the life of a Palestinian muslim who converted to Judaism and then fell in love, married and had a family with a Jewish woman and later converted back to Islam, remarried and had a new family with a Palestinian woman.

The oud in How! is part of an ensemble of string instruments that plays a partly improvised music where the score instructs the musicians how to play while not telling them what to play. In order to do that I created a graphic score that shows all the musical information (dynamics, phrasings, registers, etc) without notating actual pitch.

What do you think about composers who close themselves off in a very specific technique?

As long as the music produced is interesting, thought provoking, engaging I don’t care what technique was used to make it. I love good music of any type or style and it doesn’t have to be classical or experimental either. I can totally understand a composer who mastered a certain technique and uses it to express himself. If that style is deep enough and wide enough to produce a lot of different music, why not?

Architecture, instrumentation, expression: among these different musical parameters, is there one you favour? Which one comes first in the compositional process?

The structure and form of a composition are for me its cornerstone. Defining the structure is the first thing that I do when starting to work on a new composition. I do this before thinking about sounds, rhythm or orchestration. Since music is a time based art, planning the structure involves dividing a certain time frame into shorter segments and then subdividing these segments into shorter ones and so on. In order to come up with interesting and unique forms, I developed a system based on fractal geometry which shapes the form and defines the micro to macro relationships within it. This is not however a purely mechanical process. Since I usually know in advance the scope of the composition, its instrumentation and its approximate duration, I shape the form while thinking what is right for this specific work and how I imagine it developing. Some of my works that use this fractal method are: the piano concerto …with purity and light…, the Homage to Ligeti, the sextet Casino Umbro, the quintet TrippEight Flowers for piano and Shivers for celesta among others. 

Some of my works that were composed differently are the clarinet concerto Tru’a, the song-cycle Arabic Lessons and Shir for example.

You can find a more comprehensive list of works on my website.