Composer  Tzvi  Avni

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Tzvi Avni was born in Saarbrücken, Germany on September 2, 1927.  In 1935, four months after the Saar was reclaimed by Germany under the Nazis, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine with his parents.

His interest in music began to develop around that time, but circumstances did not allow for his musical education to take the conventional route.  Instead, he taught himself to play the harmonica, mandolin and recorder.  On these instruments he began to compose short pieces, and, not knowing how to read a single note, he came up with his own method of writing music.

In addition to music, he began to draw his surroundings, and developed a lifelong interest in art, which became intertwined with his music.  Many of his compositions are inspired by works of twentieth-century artists.

In ​1943, he began to study piano and music theory.  Among his teachers were pianist Frank Peleg and composer Abel Ehrlich.  ​He went on to study at the Music Academy in Tel Aviv under Abel Ehrlich, while serving in the Israel Navy.  He also studied with composers Paul Ben-Haim and Mordecai Seter, under whose direction he graduated from the Tel Aviv Music Academy in 1958.

During these years Avni made a living by teaching music at various elementary schools and high schools.  He eventually became Director of the Lod Municipal Conservatory, and later Director of the Central Music Library in Tel Aviv.  For fifteen years he was the editor of Gitit, the journal of the Israeli branch of Jeunesses Musicales, and later became chairman of the Israel Jeunesses Musicales in 1993, a position he still fills today.

In 1949 he married Pnina Grodnai, a singer and poet.  In 1961 he set one of her poems, "Saeni Bemachol", to music, and the song went on to win that year's Israel Song Festival.  Pnina died of cancer in 1973.

The mid-1950s saw the first performances of Avni's works in Israel.  In 1962 he furthered his studies in the USA, and with a recommendation from Edgar Varèse, began to study electronic music at Columbia University, under the direction of Vladimir Ussachevsky.  In the summer of 1963, he received a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center, studying composition with Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss.

From 1971 to 2015 he taught theory and composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.  He founded and directed the Academy's electronic music studio.  In 1976 he was appointed Professor of Theory and Composition.

In 1979 he married Hanna Yaddor, a journalist and translator who later became the culture and music writer for Maariv.  The couple had two children, Shiran and Eylon.  Tzvi and Hanna collaborated on The Three-Legged Monster, Hanna's story set to music that introduces young listeners to the instruments of the orchestra.

During the years 1993-1995 he spent a sabbatical with his family in the USA, serving as Visiting Professor at Northeastern University and at Queens College, New York.

Hanna passed away in 2005.  In 2017 he married Dvora Finkelstein.

Avni's music has been awarded many prizes.  In 1966 his work Meditations on a Drama received the ACUM prize, and was then performed by many orchestras in Israel and abroad.  In 1973 he was awarded the Tel Aviv Municipality's Engel Prize for his composition Holiday Metaphors.  His Sonata No.  2 for piano, Epitaph, won the ACUM prize in 1981.  In 1986 he was awarded the ACUM Lifetime Achievement Award, and later the Israel Prime Minister Prize for Composers in 1998.  He also won the Küstermeier Prize by the Israeli-German Friendship Association in 1990 and the ​Culture Prize of the Saarland in 1999.  In 2001 Avni was awarded the Israel Prize, the greatest honor bestowed upon an artist in Israel.  He was also awarded the EMET prize in 2015.

Avni's early works were influenced by the "Eastern Mediterranean" style that was dominant in Israel's art music scene in those years, characterized by dance rhythms and tonal-modal elements in harmony and melody.  In the beginning of the sixties, his compositions began to be influenced by his interest in electronic music and the more radical approaches he met during his stay in the United States between 1962-64.  By the mid-seventies his works took on a new approach towards more tonal elements.  Many of his works relate to the visual arts, due to his special relationship with contemporary painting.  Some also see in his later works typical Jewish Eastern and European elements.

==  Biography and portrait photos are from the composser's website  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In September of 1994, while he was teaching in New York, I had the good fortune to speak on the telephone with composer Tzvi Avni.  He was most gracious to spend an hour with me discussing his work, and various opinions of musical life.

Portions of the conversation later aired on WNIB, Classical 97, along with some of his recordings.  Now, almost thirty years later, I am pleased to be able to present our chat on this webpage.

Tzvi Avni:   Today I just finished a score of a work, and I decided that is enough.  I’m just being at leisure now.

Bruce Duffie:   Is there a special exhilaration, or is it a bit of a letdown when a score is completed?
Avni:   It’s both.  It depends.  This particular work [The Three-Legged Monster] has certain problems.  It’s a work on a text, which my wife wrote.  We did it here together.  It has a narrator with orchestra and piano.  It is a story for children on the musical instruments.  It’s not another Peter and the Wolf, but it’s something in the same direction.  The problems are not just writing a piece of music.  There are many problems, and I really had quite a few.  There were some difficult days, but I think it’s okay.

BD:   Is this how you know when the piece is done, when all the problems have been solved?

Avni:   It’s both ways.  When the problems have been solved, the piece is done, and when the piece is done, the problems have been solved.  [Both laugh]  Then you have the doubts whether it’s really the way it should be, and then comes the expectation of a performance, which I don’t see at the moment yet, but I guess there will be a few possibilities.  And of course, in such a piece there may be some necessary changes because the time for the narration with the instruments may be too short.  These practical things in such a work are always an interesting challenge.

BD:   A narrator is a vocal part, but it’s not a sung part, so the meter need not be exact?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with David Holzman, and the Recollections of Wolpe by his student M. William Karlins.]

Avni:   Exactly.  There are a few bars here and there where I wanted it really to be with the instruments.  When the narrator says it’s a drum that goes bum, bum, bum, he has to be really exactly with the drum.

BD:   In performance, is that the responsibility of the narrator, or is it the responsibility of the conductor?

Avni:   The conductor has to be really the leader in this case.  I saw recently a performance of Lincoln Portrait of Copland, and the conductor always gave the cues to the narrator.  I haven’t seen the score, so I don’t know how it’s really notated.  In A Survivor from Warsaw, Schoenberg notated exactly the written part of the narration.  Every rhythmical phrase is notated, and it’s in the exact places.

BD:   Isn’t that sprechstimme?

Avni:   Actually, it’s not in this piece.  It’s not like in Pierrot Lunaire, where he really tried to give ups and downs of the words.  Here, it’s just one line as far as I remember.  It’s just a bit of an up and down, but it’s not really an attempt to define more accurately the pitch.  But here in my piece, I just wrote the text.  In many places, he’s alone.  Here and there when he speaks with music, it’s a kind of free narration.  It’s not so dramatic to say the words in a very accurate rhythmical way, but just to speak, to tell the story.  So I hope it will work somehow.

BD:   Not with speakers, but you’ve worked with singers in many of your pieces.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice in conjunction with instrumentalists and even prerecorded tape.

Avni:   Let me say first that to me, the human voice is the warmest musical message possible.  The combination of the challenge of a text to which you add your music and the instruments is a very striking and interesting task to do.  I’ve done quite a few works, as you mentioned, and one thing which may be interesting is that I never managed to write one note to a text which is not in Hebrew.  I was born in Germany, and I speak a few languages, and I tried here and there to write poetry in English or in German, but I never could do it.  I grew up in Israel, and the basic need is that the Hebrew language is the one for me to write music to.

BD:   It’s obvious that the Hebrew touches your soul.

Avni:   Apparently, and I’m very much enchanted by the rhythm of the language.  Hebrew is a very rhythmic language.  Sometimes we have problems, of course, because contrary to Italian where you have all these open vowels, in Hebrew you have many words which are closed at the end.  So you have sometimes a problem, but it’s an interesting challenge.  Anyway, I can’t do anything else.  So the works I have done use various kinds of poetry, either modern poets from Israel, or the Bible of the Old Testament, such as the Psalms and so on.  In one work, I actually invented some words.  It was a piece on the idea of Leda and the Swan for voice and clarinet.  It was conceived as an abstract story of that mythological tale.  He was disguised, and the swan comes to Leda.  I wrote a kind of vocalise without text, which is about eight or nine minutes long.  The singer who was to perform it first said,
I cannot vocalize for eight minutes, especially music which is a bit tricky rhythmically.  Also, sometimes melodically it is not so easy, so I need some text.  So I invented a whole series of vowels, a kind of quasi text to help people to sing this.  The vowels are actually part of the invention of the music, which was superimposed later.

BD:   The singer was able to accomplish this?

Avni:   Yes.  She and a few other singers did it.  It’s really a challenge to do such a thing both for a composer and for a singer, because even if you have vowels which have no meaning, and you have to put in them the meaning of some other kind of expression, it’s a very special task.

BD:   When you write for voices, is it always solo, or are there also choral works?

Avni:   I have written extensively for choir.  I have never written a kind of dual, let’s say, for two voices.  This I never did yet, but I’ve written for mixed choir.  I’ve written for children’s choir, and for female choir quite a bit during my musical career.

BD:   When you write for chorus, do you make sure that the music is such that the enunciation of the text will be clear?

Avni:   Even if I write music for orchestra, I have always a picture, or idea, or mood, and especially if you have a text it’s more natural to do it.  I feel very much inclined to go after the text, to try to bring out the images and the moods that the text invokes in me.  Otherwise, it’s not necessary.  If you don’t really do something with your sounds which adds something to the text, and which is inspired by the text, why do it?  This is especially true if you take such great texts like the Psalms.  They’re good enough as they are.  So if you’re dare take one and try to put it to music, you must have something to say with it... or at least you must think that you have something to say.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then your music must come up to the level of the text.

Avni:   That’s always the dream of a composer.  That’s what you wish.  But there are people who think that if a text is really great and stands for itself, there’s no justification whatsoever of composing music, which means that composers should choose always mediocre or very low-level text, which is not a very clever idea.
BD:   That would be a waste of the composer’s time.

Avni:   Exactly.  After all, you must get inspired by a text.  I remember from my music history lessons that Schubert wrote quite a few operas on poor libretti, and that’s why they never became known.

BD:   Are there ever times when you have a text in your mind, and let it inspire you for a purely instrumental work?

Avni:   Yes.  It happened in a very recent piece which I composed in New York.  I had a commission to write one of the choice pieces.  Mark Kopytman and I were both commissioned to write a piano piece for the next Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition.  [Note that they are together again in the orchestral LP shown at left.]

BD:   The compulsory piece?

Avni:   Yes, but
compulsory’ is kind of an unpleasant expression.  It’s as though you’re forcing somebody to play your music.  I prefer to say choice pieces.

BD:   [Optimistically]  Maybe you should call it the
everybody piece.

Avni:   Yes!  I hope mine will be the everybody piece.  After all, they do have a choice.  But in the middle section of the piece, I really felt inspiration for something very tender.  I was looking for something very tender as a starting point, and I took one of the Rubaiyats of Omar Khayyam, where he speaks about the tenderness of the fingers.  I really felt it belonged to the idea that I had in this middle section.  So I put it above the music as a motto.  It’s a piano piece, and the pianist doesn’t have to sing it anyway.  [Laughs]

BD:   When you get inspired, is there ever a chance that the ideas shouldn’t be a piano work, but rather a woodwind quintet, or a string quartet, or even an orchestral selection?

Avni:   I don’t think this ever happened to me.  Usually, the orchestration, the color, the tempo of the instrument is a very important part in my musical thinking.  The moment I start thinking about, let’s say, the flute, I have a certain type of idea, which I would never write for a violin.  It’s inherent in the nature of the instrument, including the musical ideas for me.

BD:   So you get wrapped up in the sound and technique of the flute, and that’s where you get the inspiration?

Avni:   Exactly.  At a certain point you think of all the other elements, but this is the starting point.  You just mentioned a string quartet, and immediately I get that kind of idea in my mind.  Maybe it’s similar to a painter if you mention to him a certain color.  If you speak about blue, he would get certain ideas or feelings about what he can do with a blue.

BD:   As a composer, are you always getting ideas from things that are mentioned to you, or other sounds that you hear around you?

Avni:   I don’t know.  Sometimes you get inspiration from a commission.  I have had quite a lot of commissions during my life.

BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide if you will accept it, or postpone it, or even turn it aside?

Avni:   It depends if I feel that I have something in the direction that is asked.  For instance, around 1969 I was commissioned by the Israel Philharmonic to write a piece.  Just out of the blue, they came to me and said,
We want a piece from you.  So I said, Wait a few days to let me think about it, to see if I have something in my mind, and if I have enough spiritual and mental energy to take the challenge.  I was less experienced at that time, and it took me a while.  Then I felt something was growing and developing.  I wrote the piece [Holiday Metaphors], and it was performed many times not only by the Philharmonic, but by other orchestras.  This can be one kind of inspiration.  Of course, the idea is not the commission.  The idea is to see if you have something in your mind, which has to be born, which has to be written, and a commission can just give you a bit of a push to do such a thing.  But another kind of commission could be a ballet.  I’ve written quite a few ballets, and that’s an interesting thing to do.

BD:   In those cases, were you given a scenario?

Avni:   This was really a very, very interesting part of my life.  I haven’t written ballets now for many years, but I wrote five or six ballets with various choreographers.  The approach of each of them was very interesting.  One of them came to me with a very accurate, exact scenario.  It was about King David and the women in his life.  He said,
Now, here’s Abigale.  She’s a very strong type, but a very simple woman, and I need two and a half minutes for her.  Then comes Bathsheba, the romantic, young, beautiful, and a bit sinful lady, and she has to have at least four minutes of the ballet with very, very romantic and soft sounds. He went on, and gave me really an exact scenario.  The choreographer, Domi Reiter, came from England, but he’s an ex-Israeli.  He met me, and we sat together for two hours.  We spoke, we discussed, and then he went away for two or three months.  When he came back, the score was ready, and we discussed it.  The next day was the recording, and he was very happy with it, and did a very beautiful ballet with it.

BD:   It sounds like he was giving you more than just a commission.  He was giving you a recipe.

Avni:   Exactly.  But in this respect, I had even a more difficult experience.  He gave me a recipe or a menu, and I could cook my things according to the menu or the recipe, but sometimes you have the most severe problems with a choreographer who is exactly the opposite.  He might be reluctant to be specific about anything.  In this case, it was a she, and she used to sit and say she needed something far away, a round sound.  It took days and days and days.  We were discussing it, and then nothing came out.  I didn’t know what she had in mind at all.  She didn’t want to have any story.  It was totally abstract.

BD:   She was waiting for you to inspire her?
Avni:   Yes, and I saw that if I don’t start something with a sound, then nothing would happen.  I did it with a synthesizer in Jerusalem at the Music Academy where I am head of the Electronic Music Studio [shown in photo at left].  I started doing a variety of sounds, and I asked if that one was the direction she was looking for, or this one, or another one?  Slowly it grew out that this piece was for oboe and magnetic tape.  Then it became an instrumental piece, which was also performed by an oboist.  It’s called Lyric Episodes.  Actually, I had another name, but she wanted this name for the ballet, so I left it with the name.  My idea was the name Anthropomorphic Landscapes, which I hope nobody will steal from me because I may end up writing it someday!

BD:   [Being helpful]  You should copyright it immediately!

Avni:   [Laughs]  Of course.  At least I have a witness that it’s mine.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re working on a piece, do you know beforehand how long it will take to actually write it?

Avni:   I can estimate, but it’s sometimes really difficult.  I must tell you, the more experience I get, the slower I am in composing.  When I was younger and everything was more spontaneous, and perhaps less sophisticated, you do it in big strokes that you feel, and there it is.  Now I’m more critical.  I’m slower, but I can still estimate.  If somebody tells me that I have to write an orchestral piece of twelve minutes, I would give an estimation of at least three to four months.

BD:   When you’re asked to write a twelve-minute piece, does it always come out twelve minutes or do you occasionally miss it by a minute or two one way or the other?

Avni:   It’s an approximation, and it depends also on how they perform it.  Sometimes you write a fast movement and there’s not enough rehearsal time, so they play it slower than it should be, so the piece is longer.  This increases your royalties, but it’s not really what you had in mind.  [Laughs]

BD:   Are there ever times when you’re writing a twelve-minute piece, but the idea just grows and grows, and it winds up only working as a twenty-five-minute piece?

Avni:   Yes, this happened.  Then you have to ask if it’s possible for them to still play it.  Usually, people want shorter pieces now, and sometimes I have in my mind something which will be a six-minute movement, and then it comes out 10 minutes, and I can do nothing.  I cannot make it shorter.  You can’t just cut out something.  It’s like a living body.

BD:   If it’s a multi-movement work, then if one movement is a little longer, do you strive to make another movement a little shorter to compensate?

Avni:   That never happened to me.  It rather happened that I had a fight with the performers, and they agreed to play it.  In a chamber music piece that I felt was too long and got boring, I cut it and made it shorter.  It was about seventeen minutes long.  It’s a piano quartet, and it was performed here and there, and then I felt again it was too long.  Now, the final size is about twelve minutes.  Of course you cannot do that with every piece.  There are pieces where you cannot cut.  There’s nothing that you can do, but here I felt that there were really things that could be worked out anew.  It’s not just cutting.  You rework the ideas and make them more intense and shorter.  Often you feel that this is much better for the piece.


BD:   I assume that in the rehearsal for the premiere, you are still adjusting and making slight changes.  But once the piece is performed, then do you generally leave it alone, or do you sometimes go back and revise it?

Avni:   This happens, yes.  There are little things.  It’s not very often, but it happens here and there.  Let’s say that in an orchestral piece I felt that I used too much timpani in a certain movement.  So I take out a bit of timpani from certain places.  I would say these are cosmetic things.  After all, even though you are experienced, the live performance is the real test of your work.  I remember once I had the lesson at Tanglewood.  I was sitting with Copland, with whom I studied in the summer of ’63.  I showed him a wind quintet, which I had written a few years before, and which appeared already in print without being ever performed.  He was amazed.  He said,
Wow!  You let it be printed without having been performed.  I said that there was a publisher who wanted to print it, and I felt it was perhaps a good thing to do.  Then we went over the quintet and Copland said, You were right.  Your intuition in this case was totally right.  The piece is okay.  But sometimes composers make mistakes.  There’s British composer, Gordon Jacob, who wrote a very well-known book on orchestration.  In it he writes that the time element is what is most likely to be mistaken by composers.  They sometimes make pieces either too short or too long.  Bartók, for instance, wrote in his scores.  In every section he would write, This is one minute thirty-five seconds.  In the Concerto for Orchestra, he would write in each section how long it has to be exactly in seconds.

BD:   Then he was asking each performance to be a duplicate.

Avni:   Yes.  This was an ideal, but of course he had to perform his pieces, and they would never come out the same way.  It’s in the person after all, not a machine.

BD:   Do you litter your scores with lots of directions and indications, or are they basically clean?

Avni:   I used to overdo it in the ’60s and the early ’70s, but now I try not to do too much.  On the other hand, you can never be too specific.  Sometimes I write mezzo piano here, and put the crescendo there, and then a ritardando.  When it is just these technical terms, sometimes you see that the players really need something more to understand and to grasp the music.  In this respect, I’m quite old fashioned.  In the piece I finished today, I wrote andante piacevole [moderate (speed) and pleasant], which gives not just a tempo or technical direction, but also something of the spirit which I want to get out from the music.  It helps the players to do something with the music.
BD:   Do you expect a certain amount of interpretation on the part of the performers?

Avni:   Yes, of course.  I have an idea of the sounds which I want to hear from my scores, but I always am glad to discover that somebody has found something else in it, and has another way of interpreting in a convincing way.  I’m really happy sometimes to see that there’s another possibility, that there’s also a possibility of doing it in a different way, in a way that is perhaps not exactly what I had in mind.  If the player convinces me that it’s the way he feels the music, and it really conveys something, I accept it.  Of course, this is only up to a certain limit.  I wouldn’t accept total misinterpretation, but variations of certain emphasis of tempo and so on, which bring out some more or different aspects of the music.  Then it’s fine with me.
BD:   How far is too far?

Avni:   This is really hard to define.  If you take an adagio, and somebody’s doing it presto, it cannot work.  It will never work.  But if you write an adagio where a quarter note is 60 beats per minute on the metronome, and somebody does it 54 beats, it’s 10% slower.  So it can make a difference especially in certain passages.  But if it works, if it’s convincing, I accept it.  Of course, if he’s doing it in a totally different tempo, it wouldn’t be acceptable.

BD:   Is it safe to say that if he starts out a little slower, then everything else must be a little bit slower than your indications?

Avni:   Not necessarily.  A piece of music is not a mechanical thing.  As far as I know, perhaps the only person who can keep exactly measured in a piece of music was Glenn Gould.  He could really play something mechanically, totally equal during a piece of ten minutes, but this is very rare.  Everyone breathes and has feelings and thoughts, and while you play, you have various things going on in your mind.  So each performance would be a bit different here, a bit different there.

BD:   You want every work to be a living, breathing piece?

Avni:   Exactly.  The most important thing is that if a player really feels the piece has something in which he can express himself, and bring out from the music things that are living material, that’s what matters.

BD:   Then let me ask maybe a dangerous question.  You want this to be a living, breathing thing, and yet you’ve worked considerably with electronics, which neither live nor breathe.  They are exactly the same every single time.

Avni:   It’s a very good question.  I didn’t do so many electronic pieces.  All together among about eighty opuses that I’ve written up to now, there are less than ten which have electronic elements.  Most are combined with live performers, but I have one or two which are absolutely only electronic.  In those two, every time it’s the same performance.  It has, of course, a certain charm.  This is my music, but I am here like a sculptor or a painter.  I did my piece, and that
s what comes out.  Nobody’s going to touch it.  But even I think the more interesting challenge is to have a person and the machine play together.  So I have quite a few pieces among these which have both a tape part and live music with it.

BD:   Is it a peaceful coexistence between man and machine?

Avni:   It can work.  I believe it can work.  I tried to take an approach of a kind of chamber music with tape.  The tape is part of the development.  There are things which are not exactly the same in every performance, so it’s a bit free.  The tape comes in here or there, and the players play with the tape.  It can be one second earlier or one second later and it wouldn’t harm anything.  It is a very interesting challenge.  We are living so close with machines now.  The mechanical world around us is so intense, so strong in our lives, so why not make music with it, and perhaps play with it as a live thing?

BD:   That brings me to the great big question.  What is the purpose of music?

Avni:   You can either say something very simple, like to convey feelings, thoughts, moods, and so on, or you can say nothing because it’s very hard to define music.  To my mind, it is a kind of language after all, but it’s not a definite language.  It’s a language of symbols.  Richard Strauss said once that he would like music to be so accurate that you can describe a spoon in music.  I don’t believe this will ever be possible, but you have certain categories of things that you can say and do in music.  People could say,
This music is very wild.  It’s intense.  It has categories, and you can say that music has certain types of expression.  You can feel when a piece is very tense because it’s fast and aggressive.  Or it can be peaceful or somewhat mysterious.  There are categories, but you cannot define which kind of mystery this is.  It’s an interesting thing because each person who listens to a piece which has some mysterious elements, can invent his own mystery to it, and it’s a wonderful thing.  It’s a wonderful gift that we have for music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve spent most of your life in Israel both teaching and composing, and you’ve been in the United States off and on, and in Europe.  Tell me the similarities and differences between concert music and concert music life in Israel, and that in Europe and here in the US.
Avni:   Basically, we have in Israel the same type of music life.  A good deal of our population comes from Eastern European countries, from the Middle East, or from North Africa, and they don’t have enough experience and access to music in the Western sense of the word.  But we have a big part of the population who came from Europe, and many from America, and now we have a big immigration from Russia during the last few years.  So we have an audience, and we have performers, and composers and conductors in the same sense as you have them in Europe, and in America, and in the other Western countries.  So to define the difference would be really difficult.  The greatest bulk of the audience wants to hear Beethoven, and Bach, and Schubert, and Ravel, and Debussy, and not too much of early Schoenberg.  This is the same thing you find in other places.

BD:   How can we get them to listen to more music by Tzvi Avni, and Ben-Haim, and Josef Tal?

Avni:   It is a problem, and who knows whether it can be solved?  It can grow slowly, but there is no solution.  Nobody has the secret.  You can mention various names, but how much of Boulez is actually being played in regular concerts?

BD:   It’s a very small percentage.

Avni:   Yes, but on the other hand, you see now that Stravinsky and Bartók have become classics.  They are quite formed, and they are established in the great tradition of classical music.  Time has really to give the answer to these things.  I’m a bit worried about what’s happening now in the world of culture in general, and in music compared to the big commercial world around it.  Some orchestras here and there are closing down, and there are many problems in continuing things.

BD:   One of the questions I often ask is whether my guest is optimistic, and apparently you are not.

Avni:   [Sighs]  Well, I’m optimistic because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to compose.  The very fact that I go on composing means that I am optimistic.  I believe there is an audience, and there are groups of people who are interested in contemporary music, but I have great doubts.  It’s not only in music, by the way.  It’s in all the other arts, and it’s a big problem.  Many people compare the sound of the last century to this time now, the postmodern, and there is perhaps a spiritual weakness which is in the air.  There is a big difference that in our time, this huge mass media industry, including television and films, and all these things that you get for the mechanical reproduction is a very problematic thing for our culture.  It’s a very dangerous thing to real culture, because I see my kids prefer watching television than reading.  I find this a very disturbing thing.  Every person who has some contact with culture has to ask himself the question,
“What can I do about it? and I must tell you that I don’t know what to do.  I have no solution.  I was in Russia in ’87 for a visit.  Culture at that time was still subsidized and organized, and it had to be in the framework of the ideological world, which was dictated by somebody.  But I was amazed to see that you could go for less than $3 or $4 to see beautiful operas, wonderful ballets, and things that were part of the daily life of the people.  This was one of the advantages of that regime, which has so many disadvantages.  In a free or capitalistic society, everyone has to do what is good for him, and to find his own way.  It’s not easy to say to people that you have to subsidize art, because it’s a big problem even in education.  So-called cultured people who are professionals, who are in law, or medicine hardly know anything about the arts.  They have never attended classical music performances, or know anything about painting.  They didn’t get the background because it’s not part of their education, and that’s a big problem.

BD:   How can we get more people into the concert halls?

Avni:   I’m not trying to say something practical or original, but it’s a dream that every elementary school and high school and university should have courses in the humanities, in music, in the arts.  In ancient Greece, the arts were a part of a basic education of a person, and we lost this over the generations.  This would make better people... although there are those who always point to Auschwitz, where those German officers did what they did, and in the evening they went and played Bach.  Maybe this legend is a kind of disappointment.  If you are an artist, you’re not necessarily also a good human being, but we can, perhaps, combine the humanities and the arts, and try to make better people by giving them a spiritual world, especially since religion has become not so strong now in social life.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I want to come back to your compositions. When you’re writing, are you conscious of the audience that will be seated in the theater each night?
Avni:   I think I am.  Not that I think, I’m going to write this melody, and make it very simple so everyone can understand it.  Yes, I am writing my music, but I am at least a bit concerned for what purpose I’m writing, for what body of people I’m writing.  I think very much about the musicians who play the music.  This is, to me, a first-rate concern, because if they feel uncomfortable with the music, they will convey nothing by playing it.  I have learned that music which makes sense to the player, will also somehow go over to the audience.  We are done with those days of the ’60s where everybody has to do the most difficult and most unlogical things to be original, or to present something different.  It is hard in this time to compose, because with this whole postmodern movement, things are actually kind of eclectic.  Everything seems to have been done.  A composer-friend told me, “Today you have to write good music.  You cannot just do all kinds of quasi-original tricks.  That is really an interesting and challenging statement.

BD:   Who is it that decides if the music is good?  Is it the composer, the performer, the audience, the critics?
Avni:   From this, we can go to another question which is even more difficult, “What is good music?  In the first place, a composer has to at least say to himself, I am doing the thing I feel is right and honest, and I’m doing it with the utmost professionally.  If you are honest with yourself, and you feel that you write what is necessary, and you do it in the best way you can, that’s a starting point.  The rest depends many times, or most of the time, on the performers, on the listeners, and sometimes on critics.  But in this respect I’m quite old-fashioned in thinking that if something is good, it will get somewhere.

BD:   Let us bypass the word
good, and let me ask you about greatness.  Is there a way of writing greatness into a piece of music?

Avni:   Of course, there is a way.  People like Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert, Mozart, and Bach have proven it in almost every piece.  Not all... I’m not blind in this respect.  There are quite a few cantatas of Bach which are boring to me, but there is greatness in his music.  Sometimes the more interesting question is whether a great piece of music is always the work of a great man or a great artist.  Freud mentioned that in his book Moses and Monotheism.  He says that Beethoven was a great man, but not every great composer was also a great man.

BD:   I would assume that there are some minor composers who would write one piece of greatness.

Avni:   Yes, maybe there are.  Josef Suk, for instance, wrote one symphony which I find is great.  Dukas threw away many of his pieces.  He destroyed most of his output, and there are only about a dozen pieces left, but Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of the great masterpieces of French music in this century.  So this may happen.  All this way of thinking about greatness began somehow with Beethoven.  He spoke about eternity, and about greatness, and all these things which were important to people.  As far as I gathered from reading, Bach wasn’t aware of greatness.  He was just doing his job.  He was writing his music, and was interested to have it played and loved by people, and that’s it.

BD:   Are composers today too conscious of making their music outlive them?

Avni:   Yes!  This is becoming a tradition.  That
eternity idea is a 19th-century development.  In the 1960s, you found many people who purposely wrote, This is a one-time piece, and I don’t care what happens with it.  This was a demonstrative attitude.  There was a Korean composer, Nam June Paik, who wrote a symphony which is actually just text.  He starts with all kinds of ideas of what’s going on, and he has pictures of many things, and then some dirty words.  You can find anything in there.  The first sentence is, “The eternity cult is the longest disease of mankind.  There were also people who were against the eternity idea, and they did everything to fight it, but it’s quite natural.  If someone puts so much work into a piece of music, and writes it and dreams about it, and has some nights where he cannot sleep about it, and then rewrites it, and goes through so much trouble, the most natural thing would be that he thinks it’s more than just for one time.  I had a good friend, an Israeli conductor, who recently died of cancer.  He had a very sarcastic sense of humor, and he conducted many contemporary pieces, and Israeli pieces.  He said, “There are many pieces where you have two performances in onethe first and the last.  [Both laugh]  A few years later I said, I found a third onethe unnecessary.  You had the first, the last, and the unnecessary all in one performance.  [More laughter]

BD:   I’ve been told by many composers that getting a first performance is not particularly difficult.  It is that second and third performance which is very hard.

Avni:   Yes.  Copland wrote about that in his autobiography.  In the ’20s they formed the Second Performance Society.  Yes, it is very difficult.  It is a problem, but people are willing if you are an experienced composer, or even sometimes a younger composer.  It’s a favorite thing to do a new piece by a young composer.  People are open to a first performance much more than to have a second performance by another ensemble who did not premiere the piece.  Even a repeat performance by the same ensemble is sometimes a problem.

BD:   This is something Barenboim here in Chicago has made a big point of trying to do.  He’s said it several times, and he is bringing back some of these pieces.  He will do the premiere and then a couple of seasons later bring it back and do it again.

Avni:   Yes, because it’s very important to get a perspective of time.  When the piece is fresh, the performers as well as the audience don’t know exactly how to evaluate it.  If you perform the same piece again after a year or two, you get much more of a perspective.

BD:   Let me ask a balance question. In your music, or in concert music in general, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

Avni:   This is a difficult question, and it’s a very individual question.  Some minuets of Mozart have very high-level entertainment, while some very touching movements of his chamber music or his symphonies are very profound, and philosophical human experiences.  So where is the separation between these two?  Where’s the link, or where’s the limit?  It’s a very hard question.  Entertainment is not necessarily opposite to a very profound experience.  When I was much younger, I detested Tchaikovsky.  Then, the older I grew, I learned more to love and to appreciate the wonderful music of that man.  Not all of it of course.  When you listen to a few parts from the ballets, for instance, or movements from the symphonies, you feel it is not as profound and perhaps not as great as a Beethoven symphony, but it has its greatness in a more entertaining way.  It’s so beautiful, so complete, and perfect that you can only admire it.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

Avni:   That’s another really difficult question.  It’s like many things in life.  Think of raising a child.  In the first place, it’s important to you that you love your child.  You have so many good things to say about how it grows with you, but you have also hard moments with your child.  You have your doubts and problems.  One thing I can say is that sometimes I feel I would like to really get rid of a piece.  I’m already fed up with it.  I cannot deal anymore with that piece.  But the moment I’m finished with one, I feel I want to start another.  For me, it’s a necessity.  After all, it’s a basic need of certain types of people.  To one person, it may be painting; to another, it may be writing a book or a poem; to others, it may be going to a baseball game.  It is a necessity to these people.  Out of very subjective reasons, I would like all these people to go to concerts.  This is a great passion in the life of a person who loves music.  It’s a great gift from heaven that we have music, even if it’s not always easy.  You might have problems composing a piece, and sometimes you have to fight the music, but you fight yourself in many other ways.  You fight with basic existentialist problems sometimes, and yet you still you want to live.  It’s part of you.  Even this fight is your life.

BD:   I’m glad music is your life.

Avni:   Thank you very much.



See my interviews with Yakov Kreizberg, and Kurt Masur

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 8, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in September of 1997 to celebrate his 70th birthday.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.