Meeting Yuval for a chat is an experience that starts with a coffee and ends in a hug. Very few people have visited his studio, and we feel genuinely honored.
His house is a cozy and homely apartment in an old building (a “casa di ringhiera”) in the center of Milan. Here, many things bear his name, starting with the aforementioned coffee, which is poured into our cups only after an artful journey. «This is Yuval’s coffee, taste it», he tells us, explaining how he makes it.
JS: Entering through the door of your studio one immediately notices three things: a desk, a bookshelf crowded with objects of all kinds, notes, photographs, scores ... and guitars. One, in particular, dominates the room: it is metallic and gleaming, and we are intrigued by it. Where did you have it built? What sound does it make?
YA: This is my Noah (built by Noah Guitars), an aluminum guitar made especially for me. I used it in the project I realized in collaboration with NASA and ESA. The guitar-makers hail from Milan, they build tools like swords for the Samurai. This is Yuval’s guitar! They also built a guitar for Lou Reed, a bass guitar for Sting, and another bass for Saturnino... We are a very small community of people obsessed with sound.
Let me play you something!
JS: Tell us about you, how did you start? How long have you been living in Italy? Which came first, music or visual arts?
YA: Music came first. I was born a guitarist, actually. In Jerusalem, where I come from, from a very young age I experimented with theatre and poetry, but I was born a guitarist. At first, I was part of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music (JICM). I say “at first” because the path was long and immediately after that I moved on to contemporary classical music. This gave me the opportunity to collaborate with many composers.
I came to Italy, near Biella, when I was 26. I was a classical guitar soloist – I attended Angelo Gilardino’s school. He is the director of the Segovia foundation, one of the greatest living masters of classical guitar, and he was aided by Luigi Biscaldi, another great master. I was part of a very small class of selected soloists and lived like a hermit, playing for about 10 hours a day. It was a very intense period of which I cherish some beautiful memories: I remember the landscape, the beautiful Palazzo La Marmora...
From that period, I developed an obsession, I still have this nail for which I wrote a piece for prepared guitar called בדידות†(bdidut). Bdidut means “loneliness”. I also use a paper clip to play it.
This guitar is called Bronze. The name comes from Federico García Lorca’s poem Ballad of the Moon, a dramatic gypsy story.
It goes: «Through the olive groves/in bronze and in dreams/here the gypsies come/their heads riding high/their eyelids hanging low.»
My previous guitar was called Dream, then it broke down, and I got Bronze.
JS: All these objects tell a story and make up a microcosm encapsulating all your life and work. We could ask questions for each one of them.
YA: Yes, it’s true, everything here is full of meaning. Those are the bells of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and this is a page of the diary I wrote in the month following my arrival in Italy – all my old notebooks, score sketches, sound sculptures, and poems. The one hanging on this wall is my first print on aluminum. These are all sketches, like Job’s heart... This work will be installed in the complex of the Baths of Diocletian: it will be like a commemoration act. To carry out this work (Job’s Heart), I started from the piles of machetes in Rwanda. I pondered about the material and its possibility to transform into something else so that a machete could turn into a bird or a beating heart, a bit like the Etna’s Heart (another sound sculpture of mine). These are sketches for Variations on Harmonic Tremor ... and so on.
JS: Your oeuvre today is very complex and prolific. In recent years, you have authored grand works, and you were both witness and ambassador of very important issues concerning the territory, the historical and cultural heritage, immigration, world cultures, femininity, civil rights, and extraordinary scientific phenomena.
You often employ different media: not only music but also video, photography, and sculpture have played a fundamental role in your art. Tell us about your most important works:
YA: Let’s start from Biella, where everything started. There I first worked with dancers and theatre, but above all, I was trying to bring non-European traditions to Italy; it was a natural thing for me, coming from Israel, from Jerusalem.
In 2005, I composed my first multimedia work studying nomadic cultures in Kazakhstan. It is called “Slow Horizons”, and it is the work that kickstarted my artistic career. There, many elements coexist, as they do in my current work – ethnographic research, multimedia, sound, and noise mixed together seamlessly.
In 2006, I founded Trialogo Festival (which I followed for the 2006, 2007, and 2009 editions), a travelling meeting between artists of various cultures, languages, and origins. It was also my first encounter with the Pistoletto Foundation, where I had the opportunity to meet Paolo Naldini, the director, and then Michelangelo Pistoletto, his family, and the fantastic team. We all bonded.
In 2007, I did my last performance as a classical guitarist at the Toronto Performing Arts Center. For me, that moment also marked the end of a certain way of performing. I decided to end this chapter as a classical performer to commit myself completely to my most creative part, which was previously very focused on performance but now is more focused on artistic creation. I still keep my guitars at hand, but by playing my music and getting involved in chosen musical collaborations.
In 2008, I created my first icon-sonic work.
JS: You mentioned the term “icon-sonic”, and in this regard, there is another term that characterizes your production: “sound mass”. What exactly do these two terms mean? Do you take care of everything yourself to carry out these complex works?
YA: The icon-sonic world is my way of working on sound and visual in parallel. Initially, I worked with video artists and/or video editors, but since 2011 I started doing everything by myself, filming, editing... everything. Only a final part of the post-production is entrusted to a specialist.
In 2011 I also did my first massive sonic work, Mise en abîme, which literally means “placed into abyss”, a work inside another work. As in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream – at the time it was an opera for a crowd, 34 accordions, soloists, and conductors. The musical part was very complex and intertwined with the experience of the crowd. With massive sonic works, I try to turn sound into matter through collective participation, working with non-musicians’ ensembles, sometimes made of hundreds of people, following “user-friendly” scores: you could call it “crowd music”. The scores are not complex but are made of visual graphic elements, written music, and easy-to-read symbols so that they can be performed by people with little or no musical experience.
Thanks to this technique each performance is unique and precious because it uses the voice of the participants which is also our first expressive tool from birth onwards. Clearly, this has nothing to do with pitch. The second massive sonic work, “Garon” (“throat” in Hebrew), came in 2012 and was performed at the closing of “Dirty Corner” by Anish Kapoor – a work for 45 tubes, double bass, percussion, and crowd: it was gigantic.
Then, in 2013, I did “Karagatan”, a composition for 100 gongs and bamboos in the Philippines, and in 2014 I wrote “Reka”, which was commissioned by the Warsaw Autumn Festival and co-produced by the MiTo festival in Milan, an opera for 6 traditional singers from very special cultures: a Tibetan blade of the Bon tradition, a shaman soloist of the Zulu tradition, a Sardinian singer, the tenores di Bitti, a singer from Mongolia, a singer from Samarkand, two classical percussionists, and a crowd of voices (about a hundred people), plus a second crowd of about 30 percussionists. It was a very immersive experience.
In 2016, a new version was produced in Reggio Emilia, and an exhibition was also born from it. “Postcards from Reggio Emilia” consists of three videos, 15 loudspeakers, and seven lightboxes.
In 2012, I wrote “Unfolding Space” with NASA and ESA, the two space agencies: it is a sound installation for 120 tapes, a system of sound translations of electromagnetic energy in space, and various visuals developed by NASA. Over the years, I have worked with scientists on several occasions. “Variations on Harmonic Tremor”, for example, is a scientific term that indicates the infrasonic song that comes from the inside of a volcano. I have worked with volcanologists, psychologists, post-trauma experts, and ethnologists.
The opera “Noise for Syd”, dedicated to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, was my personal “go to hell” to the world of classical music!
Over the last few years I experimented with various media using the most disparate supports: I have shot a work entirely with an iPhone 4s.
JS: “Alma Mater” is your biggest installation, maybe the biggest in Italy yet. Your work is always dimensionally vast. Which of your works has engaged you the most on an emotional level?
YA: All of them. However, “Perpetual Escape”, a work for a refugee crowd, addresses a theme that is very close to my heart. This work has travelled a lot. I worked with a team of psychologists to create a questionnaire asking questions that refugees had to answer in silence while reliving their trauma. The result is a Silent Quartet, very touching.
Co-participation is of enormous value to me. In “Variations on Harmonic Tremor”, I hung a colophon with 350 names at the entrance of the exhibition. The work is the result of an act of creation by a creative community working together. An entire territory took part in this. It was a collective work that lasted almost a year!
JS: When you work with locals how do you guide them for participation and posture?
YA: I guide them with both body and soul. If the result is an artificial act, it must be so in an extreme way to create empathy. It is like an extremely poetic – and thus real – fiction. It is a truthful act, a synthesis of the relationship between me and those involved.