When asked to describe his musical style, composer Oded Lev-Ari begins his answer with a quote by Tolstoy: “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” For the Israeli native, “That’s the DNA of music for me. I don’t want to be constrained by genre when I write. I really think of classical music and jazz more in terms of performance practice than as actual different disciplines. As musicians, we’re all trying to do the same thing.”
So rather than restrict himself to naming genres and stylistic influences when describing his compositional style, Lev-Ari prefers to let emotions guide his writing. “The thing that occupies me the most is trying to create feelings.”
Lev-Ari’s new work, Triple Helix, was co-commissioned for the Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series, to help celebrate its 25th anniversary this season, and Carnegie Hall, which gave the world premiere on Jan. 12. Fittingly, Triple Helix, a three-movement concerto, reunites Levi-Ari and clarinetist Anat Cohen, who first met while in high school. With her tentet, Cohen will perform Triple Helix on Feb. 1, as part of an SCP Jazz double bill with the Joshua Redman Quartet. “Anat and I have always shared a musical connection that has been effortless and unspoken,” he said. “As we have each developed as musicians and become proficient in various styles, genres and disciplines, that fundamental musical understanding has remained unchanged.”
Lev-Ari applauds SCP Jazz and Carnegie Hall for supporting his work. “I’m really excited for this to exist and really happy and grateful for the opportunity to write it,” he said. “It’s the most complete understanding of all sorts of things that I’ve been thinking about, wrestling with and working on for a long time.”
The composer’s grounding in classical and jazz styles reveals itself in Triple Helix, a specifically notated as well as improvised work. “There are different ways to get the same feeling or sound that you’re looking for,” he said. “One way is to notate it precisely how you want to hear it, and another is to improvise, and there are a bunch of ways in between those. In my work, it’s ‘who am I writing for and what’s the best way to accomplish this sound?’ I’m really lucky to work with a group of musicians who can switch around between the two.”
In Triple Helix, Cohen does not take the role of a traditional soloist; instead, she serves as a catalyst for the ensemble’s over-all energy. Though she is a lead instrumentalist, her music is sometimes part of the work’s over-all texture as well. “Anat’s role is as an instigator,” he said. “I wrote it for her as the leader of an organic, interactive band, the tentet, and the way they play together live. It’s concise in the writing, but I composed the concerto like a tailor leaving a lot of slack in a suit; we can really let it out, if we want to.”
Along with being a composer, Lev-Ari is a pianist, saxophonist, conductor, arranger, producer and record-label exec (Anzic Records, which he co-founded with Cohen in 2005). As such, he is involved with every aspect of music-making. “In the center of everything I do is the fascination with producing sound in general, but also in how it’s executed, and how different instruments are put together,” he said. “It’s what drives me.”
Lev-Ari based the concerto’s instrumentation on his favorite sonic colors, and sometimes leaves it to the musicians to take the piece where they’d like to go with it. “The instruments I’m using are definitely part of the palette that I like,” he said. “This ensemble is a really tight musical unit in terms of communication. I try to give them room. There are definitely parts of the piece that are dependent on the interaction between the musicians.”
Triple Helix starts with a clarinet trill, hinting a bit at Rhapsody in Blue. “I originally imagined weaving some of what’s in the air around jazz at the moment — classical and contemporary sounds, Americana lyricism, and Latin and Middle Eastern rhythms — into a piece for the concert hall, inspired by what Gershwin did with Rhapsody in Blue in the 1920s,” he said. “Now that the dust has settled and I revisit various notes, sketches, ideas and revisions, it seems to me that this elemental core or nucleus — and the way it unfolds among composer and soloist, ensemble musicians and the audience — was at play as I wrote this piece. In exploring the tension between improvisation, interpretive individuality and compositional structure, Triple Helix expresses my most complete understanding of this delicate balance to date.”
For Lev-Ari, writing music always involves elements of wonder. At 13, he produced one of his earliest projects, when he wrote and recorded arrangements for his middle-school graduation. “Writing for instruments was one of my first loves,” he said. “I thought it was just magical. I have always loved playing the piano, but composing holds this mystery for me.” To date, Lev-Ari has written more than 500 arrangements and works for ensembles ranging from chamber-music groups to symphony orchestras to jazz lineups. “I can’t really explain it, but it was always pretty easy for me to hear things in my head and know how they’d sound on an instrument,” he said.
Born in Tel Aviv, Lev-Ari met Cohen, whom he calls a “kindred spirit,” while the two were studying at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts. After high school, Lev-Ari served in the Israeli Defense Force Orchestra as a saxophonist, composer and arranger. Two weeks after he completed service, he moved to the United States, where he received a bachelor’s degree in jazz composition from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “I had a very clear idea that I would move to New York and start what’s usually referred to now as a jazz orchestra [also known as a big band]. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, exactly.”
Lev-Ari’s long-standing relationship with Cohen transcends words and music. “I know her playing very well, and she knows my writing very well,” he said. “I sometimes don’t write any articulations or expressive markings on her parts because I know what she’ll play.” He also believes Triple Helix is the most technically demanding music that he’s ever written for Cohen. “I may have challenged her a bit more than in my usual writing to play things are not necessarily in her natural way of approaching the instrument. I find that instrumentalists like challenges. I really enjoy working with instrumentalists who ask questions and are open to playing unique colors that are new.”
Lev-Ari also believes that concepts of mindfulness and time provide much to consider with regards to music. He feels that external distractions, such as the latest news, electronic devices and life’s everyday stresses can alter a person’s mindset as they enter the concert hall; therefore, he is sensitive to the over-all experience, as well as audience members’ prior experience of attending concerts. “There’s a certain ‘here’s what’s going to happen’ aspect [when hearing a live concert]. There’s a certain progression that can sort of numb you.”
His work as a composer, performer and conductor seeks to challenge the conventions of the traditional concert. He employs elements meant to delight, and sometimes startle, audiences.
As for what he anticipates in terms of an audience reaction to Triple Helix, he said, “The most you can hope from an audience is open ears. Come on a ride with us.”
The Anat Cohen Tentet has recorded Triple Helix for an upcoming release on Anzic Records. In April and May, the ensemble will perform Triple Helix in Italy, Switzerland and on the U.S. West Coast.
TOP: Oded Lev-Ari (second from left, bottom row), music director of the Anat Cohen Tentet (pictured above), has written Triple Helix for Cohen (center, bottom row). | Photo: Aline Miller, courtesy of Anzic Records