Sounds Heard: Amos Elkana—Casino Umbro
Like many 21st-century composers, the American-born, currently Israeli-based Amos Elkana has a complex national identity. He was born in Boston but grew up in Jerusalem. However, at the age of 20, he returned to the United States to pursue degrees in musical composition and jazz guitar (at NEC and Berklee, respectively). He later continued his training in France and Denmark and subsequently returned to Israel, but he crossed the Atlantic again to immerse himself in electronic music at Bard College, working under the tutelage of, among others, Pauline Oliveros, Larry Polansky, George Lewis, and the late Maryanne Amacher. Now back in Israel once again, Elkana’s compositional aesthetics are a clear by-product of his internationalism which includes a very strong American influence, particularly in its stylistic eclecticism. Casino Umbro, a new disc recently released on the American label Ravello Records (a subsidiary of the New Hampshire-based PARMA Recording Company), offers a generous cross-section of Elkana’s music—including chamber, orchestral, and vocal pieces—spanning 1994 to 2010. (For completists, Ravello has additionally released a track containing Elkana’s quirky 2005 double reed duo Plexure which is available exclusively from iTunes.)
The first track on Casino Umbro features a work of the same name which is also the most recent of the pieces collected here. But although its title is Italian for “Umbrian Noise” and the piece was composed during Elkana’s residency at Umbria’s Civitella Ranieri, it is—to my ears at least—the most immediately American sounding of all the works included on this disc. Scored for an unusual ensemble which combines past and present sonorities (two bass viols and a harpsichord versus violin and piano plus a flutist who doubles on modern and Baroque flutes), Casino Umbro is reminiscent of the exciting 1996 collaboration between the Common Sense Composers Collective and the San Francisco-based period instrument group American Baroque, as well as more recent efforts by composers associated with Bang on a Can. The seamless weaving of references from widely divergent chronological eras, rather than being jarring, are somehow comforting—after going through such a multifaceted musical history, we can now reap the sonic benefits of all of it and Elkana does so ecstatically.
In contrast, his second string quartet (composed in 2004) is much more a musical response to the music of the recent past—the 20th century. It is constructed based on a carefully plotted permutational system that has a kinship with the serial methods of Schoenberg but which is decidedly not 12-tone; rather, informed by fractal geometry, Elkana’s derivational tone matrixes allow for transformations of any collection of pitches, including repeated notes—something anathema to orthodox dodecaphonists.
The single-movement clarinet concerto Tru’a from 1994 is inspired by the shofar calls during the Jewish high holy days. Elkana’s wildly virtuosic solo clarinet part, convincingly delivered on the recording by Richard Stoltzman, shouts, sings, and dances, at times calling to mind the freneticism of klezmer and at other times the impassioned squawks of free jazz. It is set against an orchestral backdrop that hints at the timbre painting of ‘60s European composers such as Lutoslawski and Ligeti, as well as the rumblings of an Ashkenazi synagogue congregation which in Israel, as Hebrew University Professor Ruth HaCohen points out in her program notes for the disc, are frequently accused of being noisy.
But perhaps the most unexpected juxtapositions occur in Elkana’s 1998 song cycle Arabic Lessons, scored for three sopranos, flute (doubling piccolo), trumpet, tenor saxophone, cello, electric bass, and drum set. By settings the polyglot poetry of Michael Roes—in German, Hebrew, and Arabic—for three equal voices, Elkana finds a common musical ground for elements that uneasily share space. For modern day Israelis, many of whom are either survivors of or descendants of the Nazi Holocaust, the German language is still emotionally troubling; the ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs has created a society of mutual fear and distrust. In confronting the unsettling memories of the past and the lingering quagmires of the present through music that is alternately viscerally off-kilter and ravishingly beautiful, Elkana offers a path to the future that has eluded generations of politicians from all sides.
For the notationally curious, Elkana has made PDFs available for every one of his scores on his website. Hopefully the new CD and the instant availability of performance materials will spark a greater awareness of Elkana in the country in which he was born and largely shaped as a composer.