Experimental Israel - Shai Cohen
ישראל הנסיונית - שי כהן
13:52, 21.08.2016

Experimental Israel - Shai Cohen ישראל הנסיונית - שי כהן


Experimental Israel

Shai Cohen



At the onset of our 24th installation I inquire with our guest, Shai Cohen, whether academia and experimentalism are not contradictory to each other? The question in itself reveals our guest as an academic, but I add to this his prowess in traditional composition (i.e. score writing stemming from a classical training), as well as a mastery of jazz idioms as practitioner. Cohen claims that the academy has become, in the past century, a body that purports to be a conveyer of supposed objective knowledge regarding craft, and this without ties to specific genres and ideas. Albeit this resonating truly, it is interesting to note that the type of musician Cohen represents (i.e. stemming from academia and classical training) seems less and less the rule as we continue our journey through Experimental Israel.

Cohen relates a fascination with experimentalism to his early days as a young classical flute (later saxophone) player. Coming from a jazz infused surrounding at home, Cohen immediately noticed the dichotomy between the way he was taught to play, and the pure energy emanating from recordings he was exposed to. Whereas within the classical spectrum there was always an ideal, disclosing a right and wrong way of playing, the energy Cohen related to in recordings of bebop etc. sent him off to playing techniques and sounds that he related to more, and soon after lead him towards initial forays into improvisation. The utmost example Cohen mentions for a music acing differently is that of the late John Coltrane. Coltrane, who in his last years no longer ties himself exclusively to analyzable jazz idioms, the same Coltrane that puts an emphasis on the spiritual is, to Shai Cohen, a prime example of experimentation, which, to him, is defined as a spontaneous exchange of energy. This realisation, in itself, not only resonated deeply with Cohen, but also virtually disallowed him from accepting the predetermined paradigms so avidly presented him as truths during his classical music training.

Fast-forward to 2016, Cohen, in an act of pure academic practice, presents us with his theory regarding experimentalism, disclaiming in advance that there is no objective truth to be found in it, rather a subjective point of view. Inspired by thermodynamic systems, Cohen recognizes two artistic systems in play: closed and open. Both systems present a triangle of events likened to a system transferring energy. In the closed system we see energy transformed into material transformed into a fantastical world. Let us take the composer for example – the energy is hers and serves as the impetus for writing a piece; the material is the first transformation of this energy, and the fantastical world is the abstract playing field presented in music. But this paradigm includes not only the composer, but also the performer, and listener: The performer presents a physical energy in playing, leading towards the creation of material, leading towards the creation of a fantastical world. Interestingly, the listener, according to Cohen, too must present an active energy when confronted with material in order to achieve, even if subjectively, this same fantastical world. This system presented here represents traditional writing regardless of idiom and style; it is a linear transformation of energy stemming from a clear system containing cause and effect. But what of the open system, the system Cohen presents to us as experimental? The open system includes these same three transformative steps mentioned earlier (i.e. energy – material – fantastical world), and adds to them the Golem. To my understanding, the Golem, represented in Cohen’s work in the form of an interceptive computer algorithm, is merely a metaphor to a vortex inserted into the liner system, diverting it towards a non-linear motion of any kind and in some instances, towards the complete breakdown of the system altogether. This same Golem, in effect, immediately cancels out the known processes, theories or practices. Interestingly, Cohen, who is also an active lecturer, relates this latter system to teaching, claiming that it presents the only real way of transferring knowledge. Whereas applying a closed system in teaching presents the ability to convey facts, the open system allows transformative experiential learning. However, here too, Cohen recognizes the possibility of failure stemming from that same erratic non-linearity, which can create antagonism within the student.

The first example of the latter practice from Cohen’s oeuvre is a piece called Dialogue?… no Dialogue. In this piece, the clarinet (played by Cohen himself) improvises into a computer; the computer immediately begins to manipulate the instrument’s sound using a linear ramp leading us from partially recognizable clarinet sounds, to completely synthesized sounds at the conclusion of the piece. But more so, the clarinet also activates two animated robots on the computer screen that react to the clarinet’s every gesture; when the clarinet is silent, so are the robots inanimate, but when the clarinet plays, a chaotic system seems to transfer this same sound into movement. The clarinettist reacts to the movement in altering her playing and gestures, and in turn the robots react in motion. Hence, the transformation of energy here can be seen as an ongoing spiral movement from musical gesture to partially automated computer movement. Imposing improvisation onto this process deems it recognizably experimental. 

For my part, the aspect I find most interesting is Cohen’s insistence on superimposing “safeguards” onto this open system, in a similar fashion to the same ramp mentioned earlier. A short meander through his works reveals this practice as a trademark found throughout almost all of Cohen’s pieces; he seems to enjoy subjecting his energy to open processes and various Golems, but he also always keeps a safeguard, helping him maintain ownership. Tellingly, Cohen himself cannot exactly pinpoint the reasoning for this “intervention”, but eventually settles around the idea disclosing his preference for “going out searching” from within a known base. He relates this to an interesting thought, which I find is linked to Cohen’s initial idea of closed and open systems, claiming that even if the experiment represents a subjective process happening outside the composer’s sphere of control, the judgement regarding whether the experiment was a success or not is still an inner, and hence subjective judgement.

Jazz, tells us Cohen, is a social activity that incorporates the vortex! Disregarding the cynicism one could express regarding the trajectory of jazz in the 20th century and its current stagnation, Cohen recognises as experimental the Platonic idea of the basic practice, as it is based on an energy shared and created by a group of people in real time. In classical music, Cohen continues, this is hardly the case! Yes, the activity can be experimental, but is more often than not attempting to maintain its classist exclusivity and hence, inadvertently perhaps, preserves a non-experimental approach. I wonder whether this is not a resounding affirmation to the question I presented Cohen with at the onset of our program, but more interesting to me at this point in the interview is Cohen’s response to yet another question I present, namely whether he, perhaps, is a jazz musician, regardless of the style of music he presents us with? Cohen affirms, but continues to mull on this topic for a short while, and wordlessly replies with a notion I am beginning more and more to associate with experimental thought: “maybe”. 

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