Fotos: Jonas Opperskalski


Half-formed Sonic Edifices becoming the Expressive

by Assaf Shelleg

Having double-majored in composition and computer science at Tel Aviv University, Yair Klartag started his professional training at the university’s School of Music, a habitus whose composition faculty have been actively distancing their music from Israeli national topoi for at least five decades. This also included the younger cohort of composition professors at this institution (several of whom were former students) who, too, transitioned from active rejection of national dictates to muting the national soundboard. In the process some drew on pre-modern exilic Jewish musical cultures, but the majority opted for modernist and contemporary European styles (Westernness after all, has been the principal duty of Zionism from its very beginnings). And it paid off for many, since universality unconditioned by territorialism gave birth to ‘nationally‘ orphaned music, and perhaps more importantly to modernist compositional attitudes that kept both tropes of Otherness and postmodern patrimonies at arm’s length.

This is probably why Klartag is more familiar with works by György Ligeti, Helmut Lachenmann, Rebecca Saunders and George Friedrich Haas (with whom he later studied both at the Musik Akademie der Stadt Basel and at Columbia University), rather than with music written by the emigrant composers who trained his professors in Israel. Quite unsurprisingly, therefore, Klartag’s works betray disinterest in opposing the regime of national representations (which were always out of his orbit) or the heteronomy of postmodern borrowings (which he most likely finds mildly amusing). Yet while remaining fairly unaffected by such national or aesthetic manifestations, and equally suspicious of their communicative infrastructure, Klartag relentlessly attempts the repurposing of modernist irony, cynicism, and unavoidable expressivity (and in some instances, unavoidable sentimentality, to paraphrase the title of his 2017 work for ensemble), knowing it would be impossible to challenge their authenticity. And it is this simultaneity of skepticism and detachment that constitutes his writing.

With this in mind we can approach works like Goo-prone (2017), for Saxophone, Trombone, Piano, Accordion and Cello, a work which draws its title from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“Hal…theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human…is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile…”).[1] Expressive gestures in this work sneak behind a polyphonic layering of quasi motorized assemblages and shimmering harmonies that traverse them, but these gestures are halted midway before acquiring mimetic qualities. Goo-prone’s production of presence, in other words, shifts from the identification of meaning to problems concerning the emergence of meaning (to paraphrase Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht).

Klartag’s Moments incommunicables (2011) for Guitar, Flute, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (to give another example) seems to huddle together and augment what the composer deems incommunicative. Only that here, too, Klartag intentionally distances his formulations from meaning-laden references that would eclipse his half-formed sonic structures. Which is why the few utterances that do slip through are fleeting ones, attempting (unsuccessfully) to break away from the foreground that renders present only the emergence of meaning.

Now consider Con forza di gravità (2013) for String Orchestra: while the title of this piece is self-telling, and all the more so given the music’s mimetic descending trajectories, it is the sheer movement of sonic formations that exposes and recreates semantic loops. So much so, that these loops occasionally consolidate into a semantic vertigo, as Klartag exposes the work’s objectively mimetic mechanism, but does so knowing that his listeners will be aware of him disclosing this mechanism while expecting his listeners to unearth this very mutuality of self-awareness. The music thus consciously lays bare its inauthenticity.

Klartag’s half-formed sonic edifices thus show decipherable compositional devices but these remain incommensurable with his semantic twists; at the same time, this deliberate and self-conscious inauthenticity – committed to laying bare these components – becomes the expressive.


[1] Foster Wallace, David: Infinite Jest, Boston, New York, London 1996, pp: 694-695.