Ofer Pelz : unstable repetition

Ofer Pelz was born in Haifa (Israel) and lives in Montreal.

His music explores the concept he defines as “unstable repetition” – repetitive fragments which always vary from repetition to repetition, all the while trying to keep a perceivable tension. Pelz composes music for diverse combinations of instruments and electroacoustic media, he is also an active improviser.

Ofer Pelz has studied composition and music theory at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Subsequently, Pelz moved to Paris for three years in order to participate in music technology and instrumental composition courses at the Conservatory of Blanc-Mesnil, the Paris Conservatory and IRCAM. In April, 2018, he will be defending his doctorate and teaching at the University of Montreal.

The work of Ofer Pelz has been recognized by the reception of many international prizes including two ACUM awards and the Ernst Von Siemens Grant. His music is played regularly in Europe, USA, Canada and Israel in festivals such as Manifeste (IRCAM), La Biennale di Venezia, MATA Festival, Nuova Consonanza, and Heidelberger Biennale für Neue Musik. Meitar Ensemble, Cairn Ensemble, Ardeo String Quartet, The Israel Contemporary Players, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne Architek Percussion, Geneva Camerata and Quatuor Quasar, are among the ensembles that played Pelz’s music. Pelz has collaborated with several dance choreographers, among them the French choreographer François Raffinot.


[Translation from the Hebrew by Reesha Leone.]

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

My piano teacher since I was seven years old worked on her doctorate in philosophy on the relationship between the perception of time of Georgy Ligeti and some ideas of Edmund Husserl. Obviously, at that time, I did not understand anything.  However, it was already revealed to me through exposure to a lot of modern music at a very young age (and I even played a repertoire that kids of that age generally don’t play: Schoenberg, Ligeti, Bartok, Messiaen, Leef).

One of the first compositions that was modern that I remember playing was Six Little Piano Piecesop. 19 of Schoenberg – this was at age 13 or 14 – and this work interested me more than other works that I played (e.g. Beethoven, Bach, and the like). It wasn’t that I preferred that piece more than others; but I was very intrigued by it: the dissonance, the resonances, the structure. Later, when I began to write (already at age 15 or 16), I immediately wrote dissonant music with a modern language and it did not interest me at all to write classical music (I did that later in the Jerusalem Academy as part of my study program, but I never really understood the importance of this).

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

Looking back, the composers who influenced me the most are Bach, Ligeti, and Lutoslawski. Apparently, I simply gravitated to them specifically due to my piano teacher; and there is no doubt that I like their work a lot. I think something in common that was possible to find there, also in the selection of my music, was the use of polyphony and thinking that is more linear and less harmonic. I also think that those composers, each one in his own way, concerned themselves more with the linear movement of the music.

It very much interested me how Lutoslawski grants rhythmic freedom to performers by way of his use of “controlled randomness”. In addition to being a composer, I am an improvisational performer. For me, the improvisation was always parallel to the work of the composition, sometimes helpful, but usually not really connected. I try more and more to combine the worlds and to understand that this is the case with Lutoslawski. Even though I am not as interested in him today as I was in the past, he is still relevant with his ideas and influence.

In the past few years, the influence of composers like Grisey and Furrer has been very important to me: although very different, both of them succeed with very limited use of material to maintain tension throughout the duration of the composition. I attempt in my way also to be economical with material and to return to it with great frequency, but to preserve the tension and the interest.

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

For me, form in art that is dependent on time, like music, is a passage from something to something else over a length of time. The form is the framework that allows the transformation. When I write, I begin from a world of sounds that I imagine. These sounds never have a form, it is a visual of a sound, like a picture, very short in time. In the work process of the composition, I try to interpret this world of sounds and put it into form; in other words, to make it possible for it to be fixed in time. I try to observe the same sounds from several kinds of perspectives: slowly, quickly, from nearby, from a distance, from the side, partially, and similar approaches; and I will try to incorporate a part of these perspectives. The form is the transformation from perspective to perspective that ultimately produces the general structure, the same idea that I began with.

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?

The work process really varies from composition to composition because I think that the creation process allows for re-writing and to try things I haven’t tried before. Naturally, there are many processes that I do, consciously or not, each time in a similar manner, but I always try to “shade” it a little differently. Most of the compositions that I write I try to present first in a way that is not musical. That is to say, not in notation. Generally through recordings, texts, explanations, or sometimes narrative. It’s very important to me to know what I am doing, but ultimately to arrive at intuitive decisions that are not necessarily connected to the original decisions that propelled me.

The computer helps me at stages of the editing and in the first stages of the composition. Regarding editing: even though I am fluent with different software, I think it can inhibit process. In particular because I understand that if I write in a way that is not idiomatic to the way that the software works, I will need to work very hard in order to arrive at the desired results. On the other hand, I try to take this limitation, receive it, and play with it, in order to arrive at something that is playable for the performers; and this forces me to find solutions.

In the first stage the composition, the computer is an important tool for me. I do not use it in a comprehensive manner, but for me it is a tool exactly like the piano or a pencil. I use it sparingly in OpenMusic (OM) in order to find material relatively quickly; and essentially to find material that I didn’t think about that comes from the same source. This work process with the computer is important, in my opinion, because it is not just a catalyst for processes and stimulating innovation as I pointed out; it alters the work method and the way to think about music. A thinking approach to the composing of patch in OpenMusic or all other software is a different type of thinking, and I assume that this also translates in the way that I work without a computer.

Please describe a recent work.

The composition that I attached here is Chinese Whispers, and it is for the flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and performed in the recording by the Meitar Ensemble who commissioned it for the MATA Festival in New York in 2013. In 2015, I revised the composition; and it has been performed many times with the same ensemble as well as other ensembles.

I titled the piece Chinese Whispers which is how the British refer to “the Telephone Game.” I took the idea that is inherent in the game, i.e. where a phrase is said and passes from player to player by whispering in each other’s ears until it becomes distorted and is revealed by the final player.

The composition begins from a gesture that is presented and repeated many times. To me, the gesture represents breath, inhaled and exhaled, observed from very near so that we hear all its accompanying details: the whistle (sputter, snort), the noise of the air in the windpipe, and the like. The same gesture appears many times, but each time changes slightly. I present parts from it, from closer, from further away, isolate parts from it, add a little, so that with every repetition, it is possible to find something from the source, but also its distortion.

The composition has four parts. The first is the introduction of the gesture and its repetition that changes all the time. The second part is the development of the rhythmic part of the gesture. The third is a great expansion of the glissando aspect of the gesture, and this one glissando is stretched over several minutes. The last part is the observation from afar of the gesture. In other words, we experience the gesture of the exhalation/inhalation almost in a direct way, i.e. the initial gesture contracted and contorted.

Chinese Whispers, performed by the Meitar Ensemble

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