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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Review of the IMS conference 2008: what there is and what there is not to read in Hebrew in Music

Please believe me when I write that it was one of the best conferences that I have attended. Due to traffic jams I missed the first hour of so of the IMS conference. I heard two papers: one by Shulamit Marom and the other by Alona Sagi. Both were very interesting. They made me think, and this is something that I cannot say about many of the papers that I heard in other conferences. Moreover, they both presented sound recordings, and this is something that is often absent from discussions about music. You probably all know the lectures that speak about music in a highly detailed manner, assuming that everybody knows about what performance you one is speaking about, and neglecting the act of listening to the recording with the audience.

Shulamit Marom made a distinction between “Mandate songs” that were written in Tel-Aviv and other that were written in the “Yeshuv” (elsewhere). David Halperin suggested that making a distinction between the two categories will not stand scrutiny in many cases. I have little knowledge about Zemer to know whether Halperin is right. I did wonder whether our contemporary thinking of Tel-Aviv as a “bubble” that is disconnected from the rest of Israel, especially in relation to the territories and the second war in Lebanon, affected the categorization that Shulamit Maron suggested to us in her research. Anyway, Shulamit Marom’s presentation was very clear and enjoyable. It is possible to see that she is a very gifted lecturer.

Alona Sagi examined the improvisation of Miles Davies in “Walkin’” during the 50s and 60s. She observed that as time passed there was a change from “vertical thinking” to “linar thinking” on the one hand, and a tendency towards “free jazz”, on the other hand. She mentioned the presence of young and experimental musicians in the 60s as something that stimulated this change. Sagi’s transcriptions were impressive and it was fun reading them while listening to the music and hearing her comments. I am using the word “fun” on purpose, since enjoying a paper is something that should be taken for granted. It was a pity that she did not manage to finish her paper due to time limit. Although she blamed it on technical issues of handing the CD, I think that a well prepared paper would predict such problems and avoid them. In the next few days I plan to write a post on “How to give a paper in conferences: useful tips”. I wondered whether there are more social and cultural issues that affected the technical change that Sagi described in the performance of Miles Davis. I enjoyed listening to this music after so many years.

After that session, there was a general meeting of the society. It was sad to see how much money was spent on the internet site of the society. Prof. Edwin Seroussi rightly argued that three years ago it was reasonable to pay such sums for buliding a website, while today websites (at least ones on the level that was presented) are constructed almost for free. I plan to write a post about the IMS website and what I see as possibilities for the future.

The second part of the conference was devoted to “what there is and what there is not to read in Hebrew in Music”. I could not stay until the end of the conference. I had to leave an hour earlier so I did not manage to hear the paper given by Prof. Judith Cohen and people that spoke thereafter. This session was simulations very interesting and disappointing. It was fascinating to see how people deeply care about the miserable situation that there are almost no books to read in Hebrew (most of them are not updated and out of print). Some of the comments were truly illuminating (I will come back to them in a moment).

The “paper” given by Gila Flamm was disappointing. It was mainly an improvisation that amounted to a presentation of “facts” by browsing through items in the National Libraries catalog. There was little information given on the nature of the books that were mentioned, and of the frequency that people read them. There was no attempt to categorize the types of readers and the various manners that people read Hebrew books on music. There was no discussion on the history of institutions approaching the library for such books. Is this information not available?

The paper given by Elisheva Rigby had few interesting points. She said that we must be able to explain to ourselves why writing about music is essential to Israeli culture if we wish to convince others. Her argument was based on the idea that any knowledge and culture are based on discourse. She mentioned the myth of the composer at the top of the creative musicians, the performers as those who could not compose, the conductors as those who could not play an instrument, and the musicologists and critics at the bottom of the hierarchy, the perfect impotents, as those who could not do anything but talk. This myth, as Rigby said, is based on the idea of “originality” that is initiated from one source. Postmodern views demonstrate how the construction of meaning is done in a social network. In other words, the hierarchy is different and every cultural agent contributes in potentially significant ways. It seems to me that the myth of the “genius composer” is, unfortunately, sustained also among many musicologists in Israel and the world. This is why performance is regarded by many as a marginal and unimportant activity in relation to composing. The composer Zippi Fleisher said in the conference something like “what can one do, it all starts with the composer, and then one performs it, and then one writes about it”. This is an old fashioned and anachronistic view of what is happening in musical culture. Beethoven would never be famous if it would not be for music critics and musicologists who wrote about him and elevated him as a Romantic icon. We would not hear Beethoven the way we do, and he would not symbolize what he does, without the words that were written on him.

In my blog there is a poll asking why there are almost no books on music in Hebrew. Many people blamed it on the academy who demands that books will be written in English. Prof. Don Haran speculated in the conference why is it possible that the French and the Italians would never think writing in a language different than their own, and we seem to find it natural to write in English. This comment was thought provoking.

Prof. Yoash Hirshberg explained how disappointing it was to find that his book on Paul Ben-Haim is not available anymore. He was especially disappointed that his publisher Am-Oved did not find it important enough to keep a few copies of the book. He compared the Israeli publisher with Oxford University Press that published one of his books in two prints and then kept an electronic copy for anyone who might be interested. There was bitterness in his voice from the attitude of Am-Oved, whom he called “a commercial publication house” and he ended his comment by saying that in the present situation he has no motivation for writing anything more in Hebrew.

As mentioned about, I could not stay for the last session. The first session of the second part, which I just described, was not well organized. The speakers were not well-prepared (in England it is considered not serious to give a paper without reading from a text that was prepared in advance). Elisheva Rigbi gave herself too much liberty in commenting on the comments of others, something that took too much time of the session.

This session, was however, successful. It was interesting for me to hear the comments that some of them I have mentioned above. One of the fascinating comments in this session and the one before, were made my Prof. Ruth Katz. She stressed again and again that we must define our goals before we take action. It is useless to speak about low attendance of members and that fact that there are almost no students who find it important to attend the IMS conference (I agree that they must be forced to attend by making their presence obligatory for finishing their studies), if the IMS in general and Min-Ad in particular do not define their goals. With goals well-defined much can be achieved with limited energy. Without it, one is lost. It was wonderful to hear that an evening is organized in honor of her 80th birthday.

The conference, it seems to me, was successful. I wounder if any practical points for action were defined during the last session. It would be useful that in future conference smaller groups will be organized in round tables so that there will be more space for interaction. In any case, it is wonderful that Elisheva Rigbi, Rivka Elkushi and others initiated and organized this conference on around this important theme.

I will be glad if anyone who attended the conference will comment on it or on what I have written above. I am especially interested in knowing what happened in the last part that I could not attend. One of the reasons that I opened this blog is to attribute to the Israeli discourse on music. My assumption is that if we want a discourse to occur we must actively contribute to it. So please take a few minutes and comment by filling the form below or by sending me your comment for publication in this forum.

Related posts:
Here it comes מה יש ומה אין לקרוא על מוסיקה בעברית
Call for papers “What there is and what there is not to read about music in Hebrew”
Response to Dr Elisheva Rigbi’s second comment: are we normal?
Why my Blog is in English: an answer to Dr. Elisheva Rigbi
We seem to fail doing the very same thing in music

See also
Article on the conference published in Achbar Ha-Ir

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