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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Composer

"We start with chaos. Later on we'll work in structures -whatever the heart calls for- but we start with chaos. We don't plan anything- one starts, and the other listens to him and starts. We might be repeating each other. Or, we might be contradicting each other, fighting each other. But then in the end we hug each other."

The phone was for me. I recognized the voice as soon as I heard it, and waited silently for confirmation. Sure enough, it was Eliezer, who I'd not heard from since leaving the Academy. When I left, I asked a girl who improvised with us to please contact me if they started up the improv sessions the next year, so that I might stop by every now and then if I could. I was never contacted. He now asked me if I'd come with him to Tel Aviv to improvise with him. He explained some of the details, and I asked for confirmation that he was talking about going that same day. Yes, he was. I was excited, and I made sure he knew it. On one side of my mind, I knew that jumping on such an unexpected and wacky request was really childish. I ignored that side of my mind. I'd get to improvise a duet again. I'd been waiting almost two years for that. Of course I was excited.

After I reassured him that it wouldn't be a problem with my parents, he told me where I should get together with him and when. He suggested that I write it down, since he remembered my terrible memory. It was a good suggestion, and I followed it. I wasn't familiar with the place, but I could ask the driver to point it out. When I hung up the phone, I was hopping up and down even more than usual. I ran upstairs to explain to my mother. She offered that it sounded like he was looking for work. "I don't care what he's getting out of it.", I responded. I wanted to improvise.

"Once they see what it's like, they'll keep coming back. It's like a narcotic. Mordechai here is addicted to it; that's why he came. It's a drug."

I showed up at the place he'd told me a little before the time he'd told me. He lived near here, apparently. I waited. And waited some more. And waited some more, knowing that eventually he'd show up and somehow the waiting would be over. Eventually I saw a man walking toward me in black clothes and a black hat. I knew who it was, but I waited for him to get closer -for confirmation. (I've learned to err on the side of caution when I might make myself look like an idiot.) His behavior told me that it was him. I didn't actually recognize his face- I remembered the idea of him, not the little details. I followed him to his car.

He quickly looked for an opening to talk about how hard it was to find a place with two good grand pianos. Then he added (and he was particularly fond of this part) that in his school in Russia there were more good pianos than in this entire country. Well, maybe if you took out a few famous concert halls. Whatever- it was still a good line, and he used it again later.

He may have said the same thing later in Russian to that lady at the store, but I wouldn't know. She asked Eliezer (in Russian) if I understood Russian, and he responded that I didn't. She joked that she didn't understand how anyone could live in Israel and not know Russian. Eliezer answered that that was made up for in part by my native language being English. I apologized nonetheless- I should know Russian.

"Come, we'll try it.", Eliezer suggested to the shopkeeper. It was one thing to hear someone else improvise, and another to experience it for oneself. "You don't want to have to endure my playing;", he responded, "You're not a masochist!" Eliezer managed to appeal to his curiosity, though, and reassured him that it didn't take any special knowledge to start. The shopkeeper sat down and was too uncertain to really appreciate it.. yet. But he was enjoying himself, I could tell.

On the drive, Eliezer commented that composing-as-work was a form of hell, even though he enjoyed composing. He explained that it was a terrible burden to have to write out a symphonic piece and make sure the voices never overlapped with each other. He needed to say that it was terrible, and he framed it as a life lesson. "Every type of work is hard.", he explained. "If it's a hell for me to compose, just think..!" We talked during the whole ride, pretty much. He wanted to know what my plans were, what my goals were, what I was doing with my life, when I'd stop leeching off my parents. I answered most of his questions with "I don't know.". When I admitted what I'd like to do is design games, but that I've never designed a game, he criticized me for saying something and not acting on it.

He said that if I didn't have any work or plans, maybe I could be some sort of manager for him? Maybe run a website for him, make contacts for him. It was an odd request, to be sure. I figure he doesn't leave his house much, and doesn't know who to turn to for something like that. He ought to have known that I am not the right person for such a job. He must have really been out of his element when not dealing with music. I found a suitable excuse to get out of the choice- It was odd that he'd consider me a suitable organizer, when I wasn't organized myself! Nonetheless, he kept looking for ways I might help him. Maybe I knew of (and could point him to) any concert halls in Beit Shemesh which have two good grand pianos? Unfortunately, I don't.

I asked him why it was so hard to find two good grand pianos, anyway, and he responded with questions: "Why is anything in the world not the way it should be? Why was school depressing? Why can't people always do what they like to do? It's the same reason." "In other words,", I countered, "you're saying that you don't know." "It's an olam sheker-", he said, "a false world. The way it should be is that each person is required to do what he likes to do."

He told me that the same year I left the academy, he was finally forced out for good by internal politics- more specifically, certain people in power who didn't like him. And now? He wasn't making any money right now, but was always hard at work. He worked all day long, and yet was meeting little success. He had to ask his wife to work more, so that she could support them. His wife sounds very understanding.

"In Russia, there was a time when I started writing pop. There was a time when some of the most popular bands in Russia were playing my music. I was getting offers nonstop from big groups.

"But I found that it corrupted my style. When I tried to go back and write a classical piece, I could not do it. I could not write serious music anymore. So I turned the offers down, and went back to classical. It took a long while, but I recovered."

I asked him if any of his children were interested in music. He said none of them were. He said it very plainly. "That's a shame.", I said. What else could be said? This isn't the world we ought to be living in.

We were headed to a music store- "Olam Hap'santerim" ("Piano World"). The reason being that this was the only place he could find with more than one good grand piano. He was going to pitch his improvised-duets concept to the store's owner, and I was along to help him demonstrate. If this guy went for it, Eliezer could make this a regular thing again. As we were still in the car, Eliezer apologized preemptively to me, should the night not go the way I was expecting. I said that wouldn't bother me, so he would have nothing to apologize for. Over the course of the drive, he apologized many times for various things. He seemed to be afraid he was offending. Or maybe he's just learned that it's best to err on the side of caution when other people are involved.

As we entered Tel Aviv, we noticed how secular it all is. I said I didn't like the place. I don't like how hard it is to find a kosher place to eat in it. Eliezer said he liked Tel Aviv. Why?, I asked. "Because Tel Aviv likes me!", he smiled. A few years earlier, he was a big hit here.

Anyway, we stopped and started walking. There was a parking place closer nearby, but he didn't know exactly where that was. So we parked at the place he did know, and walked. He apologized for the walk. It was an odd walk. The way to the store was almost entirely a straight line, pointed out by two helpful security people who -as Eliezer had rightly guessed- spoke Russian. And yet, at any point there was even the slightest chance of going the wrong way, whenever there was another road which went to the right or left, he'd ask a nearby person for directions, acting like he had no idea where it was. Every time, they said we just needed to keep going straight forward until we got there. But he kept asking more people, up until we reached the store. Well, actually, he kept walking past the store, but I'd noticed the sign so I pointed it out for him.

It was a pretty nice place, with lots of fancy pianos split into two buildings across from each other. Eliezer looked around and quickly picked out the most rare and expensive piano in the place, and instantly decided that that was the one he wanted. It reminded me of myself with that High-Definition TV, only more so. He kept pointing out what a perfectly luxurious sound it made, how "balanced" it was (I have no idea what that means.), how this was what a piano should be like and how expensive it was. Playing that piano was a little piece of heaven for him.

And finally we played. We played a few times (before anyone was listening), just to see if we still got it. We got it. It was great. Then Eliezer said we should really stop, so as to not burn ourselves out. He also advised that I was demanding too much attention, that I wasn't giving enough room for him. I protested that I'd been listening to everything he was doing, and found ways to incorporate those bits into my side and even develop them further! But of course he was right. It was all about me, and improvised duets shouldn't be too fueled by ego. I was reminded of that time we'd actually performed duets, myself with that girl I mentioned earlier, and I completely blew it by calling too much attention to myself, taking advantage too much of the opportunity to make myself look good, to the point where I wasn't giving her any room. I only realized my mistake after that concert. So I accepted the criticism.

Then I waited around, improvising for myself on a slightly lesser piano, which to my ears was perfectly wonderful too. You can come up with a lot of things on good equipment that you'd never come up with on worse. A quality surface demands quality content. And I kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Finally, we improvised for the shopkeeper, who was appropriately impressed. And that got Eliezer and him to talking in a very long conversation. They got along very well. I waited for the two of them to finish up. And waited. And waited. (I would have played FFTA on my Game Boy, but the battery was dying.) I don't like the surface of the Real World very much. But I didn't blame Eliezer- indeed, I wished I could have such meaningful conversations more often. Anyway, the piano guy was thinking about how they could market such a thing, who they could get to come with so many other musical events regularly in Tel Aviv. He was taking it seriously, so Eliezer's attempt was a success.

We drove back, Eliezer apologizing repeatedly for making me wait, and he asked if I'd be willing to come again if he ever needed me. Sure. He gave me something to look forward to each week for two years; I'd be happy to help out whenever. In fact, I look forward to it.



Though Eliezer is reasonably fluent in English, all the quotes here were spoken in Hebrew. When you combine that factor with the limitations of my memory, it's quite possible that I'm wildly misrepresenting what he said. Still, I have done my best to retain the gist of each line.


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