Osnat Netzer : highly theatrical and kinetic compositions

Osnat Netzer /osˈnat ˈnɛtsɛʁ/ is a multi-faceted musician based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born in Haifa, Israel, she developed a love of music at a very young age, and trained intensively as a composer, pianist and singer-songwriter throughout her high school years, military service and undergraduate studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. She came to the United States in 2003 for graduate studies in composition, music theory and piano at Mannes, and continued her studies in composition at New England Conservatory, where she earned her doctorate in 2011. Her highly theatrical and kinetic compositions have been performed in Israel, France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Canada and the United States, published by Edition Peters and earthsongs, and recorded on Bridge Records. Performers of her music include Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Israel Contemporary Players, Spektral Quartet, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, Firebird Ensemble, saxophonist Geoffrey Landman and bass David Salsbery Fry.

Her opera, The Wondrous Woman Within, was described as “riotously funny” in The New York Times when its first scene was performed at New York City Opera’s VOX festival in 2012 and “challenging and fascinating” by critic Amir Kidron when it received its premiere in a sold out run at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre in 2015. Other recent and upcoming performances of her compositions include Are you yet living? (ICE), Zwang und Zweifel (Patchwork) and Luce Cantabile (Kenneth Radnofsky and the Bach, Beethoven & Brahms Society Orchestra).

As a pianist and performer, she regularly plays and conducts new music by fellow composers, as well as her own songs and compositions. Also a committed and passionate educator, Dr. Netzer currently serves on the faculties of Harvard University, Longy School of Music of Bard College and The Walden School.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

Like many kids, I was introduced to The Rite of Spring through Fantasia. I loved that piece as a girl, and thought it was quite cool and scary. When I was 15 years old I heard The Rite of Spring played live for the first time. It was remarkable. My pulse increased, and I welled up with emotions throughout the piece, I felt hot and cold and elated. A mentor, hearing me describe my experience, called it a “religious experience.” I never knew that that is what a religious experience is supposed to be like, because I’ve been to synagogue many times and nothing of this sort ever happened before. After that point on, I understood that music must be my religion, and that listening, playing, composing, analyzing, are my forms of worship.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

At every stage of my life so far, there have been composers or types of music that influence me, and as my awareness grows, the focus shifts from one to another. As a child composer, my earliest influences were Edvard Grieg and Erik Satie. Later on, influences included Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Zorn, Sasha Argov, Yoni Rechter, Gyorgy Ligeti, Unsuk Chin, Thomas Adès, Claudio Monteverdi,and Kaija Saariaho.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

My approach to form varies, depending on the type of piece I am writing. My approach also changes as I teach more and more music analysis. I like the idea of form as “the manner in which a work’s content is made intelligible to its audience.” Ideally, form and content should always be inextricably linked, which means that as I write a piece, a concept regarding the micro always projects toward the macro, and vice versa. Especially in early stages of my work, I am constantly shifting my focus between foreground, middle ground and background elements, until the entire map of the piece is clear to me and I can fill in the blanks.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

When I am working on a project I spend time on it (several hours) every day, seven days a week. I start with a brainstorming stage (3 weeks to several months) in which I meet with my performers and engage with them by way of improvisation, experimentation, discussions and even collaborating with them as a pianist on their repertoire. At this stage I may also do some score study, read books and articles, experiment on instruments myself or journal. There is no prescribed way to brainstorm, that is to me its definition.
After most of that process is done, I will start thinking about how the piece is going to sound, which helps me project toward the larger form of the piece. At this stage I also create graphs, maps, pictographs or other visual things that help me see how the piece is going to be constructed. I also start practicing composing different sections from the piece. Let me explain what practicing writing a section means. I used to be a painter. When I step into museums, I often see a large, impressive oil painting, full of details and expertly executed. Next to that painting I will sometimes see a small study, depicting just one element out of the large oil painting, maybe in pencil or acrylic or oil as well. It could be just a hand, but exactly the same pose of a hand as the larger painting, with exactly the same lighting. The painter didn’t just start with the bare canvas and paint the entire painting layer upon layer; he/she practiced drawing or painting some details of the larger painting before embarking on the task of filling the blank canvas with a masterpiece. In a similar manner I like to make 2-5 sketches of the same section of the piece. A section that I’ve already determined how it will generally sound and what it will generally achieve musically, but the more times I write it, the better composer of that section I become, and usually, the last version of that section is the most adept and the closest to achieving exactly what I wanted to achieve. I do all of this by hand, standing at my desk.
The third stage of the work is the composing of the details chronologically. At that point, I elaborate on my sketches and consult my maps or graphs, but writing left to right ensures that everything leads to everything seamlessly, and that the piece is not just a patchwork of sections or disparate ideas. I write the entire score by hand using pens in many colors. Afterwards I copy the entire score to Finale, and add graphic notation in Adobe Illustrator. When the copying is done, I take a few days to proofread the engraved score. I often add a playing key as soon as I’ve finished proofreading, and I send the score to the performers.
The fourth stage of the work is with the performers again. There can be a lot of back and forth of questions and answers, some corrections and revisions, things that come up in the rehearsal process, lessons learned and revision wishes for the future. I try to incorporate revisions right after a world premiere, but sometimes it takes me more time, and I procrastinate and do it just before the second performance of the piece.
The revisions and editing basically never end …

Please describe a recent work.

My piece Are you yet living? for tenor saxophone and trombone stems from my long-time fascination with theater. These are some elements of theater that I incorporate into my works:

  • Physicality of performer, his/her instrument serving the dual role of extension of his/her body and the embodiment of sound
  • Psychological ramifications of the musical content; testing the boundaries of physical and emotional comfort
  • Envisioning all aspects of a performance as part of the composition, visual and auditory
  • Writing interactions between players as social interactions, especially in duos
  • Using speech rhythms and/or plays as basis for compositions
  • Use of sound “found objects,” at times everyday concrète sounds, at times allusions to the music that surrounds us on a daily basis. This connects to theatre through the notion of the “narrative of our lives.”
  • Artistic output as a product of the lives we lead

The first and most obvious theatre connection in Are you yet living? is in the initial inspiration for the composition. “Are you yet living?” is a quote from Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, and the bickering and teasing (as well as the courtship) of Beatrice and Benedick provided the catalyst for the relationship I crafted between Ryan Muncy and Mike Lormand, the players for whom I wrote the piece. I developed a large portion of the musical language through transcription of the staged scene, and processing of that transcription through several musical transformations, varying in level of abstraction; at times almost realistic, at other times musically exaggerated, and other times coming in close proximity to stylized speech such as is heard in be-bop and music theatre patter.

Loosely related to the bickering and competitive atmosphere between Beatrice and Benedick is another narrative that comes into play in this piece. The two “characters” compete to see who can achieve the softest, highest sound out of their imposing instruments. I instruct the players to appear extremely strained and effortful as they attempt to create that dainty sound, negating the separation of body from instrument and blurring the notion of sound as the supreme and ultimate goal of a performance. How a sound is achieved, why a sound is sought, the ramifications of the achievement of a certain sound – all these come into play as dramatic discourses in the piece. The player’s own relationship to the creation of sound is thus dramatized, as well as the relationship of the players to each other in the pursuit of the daintiest sound. This sort of exploration into theatre and the blurring between performance and pure sound, performer and composer, is also what leads me to seek out a close and deep collaboration with the players for whom I write.

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