Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
October 3, 2022
Yasmin Tal's Dive Into Improvisation
Through music that takes risks, this multimedia musicians has found more than just an ensemble
“For me, the joy in music is the community. The being with people, and making it with people. It could be professionals who are grown-ups, it could be with students who are young people, it’s just fulfilling to me.” After our Wednesday morning Zoom conversation with Yasmin Tal, we were quick to understand that her music goes beyond sound itself. Whether improvising with a live audience or studying texts to write new compositions, the Haifa-born artist is keenly aware of the inextricable relationships between music, other media, and people.
Yasmin Tal is a composer, performer, and educator. Her works encompass a dizzying array of styles and forms that find inspiration in everything from American jazz to traditional Sephardic Jewish music. Ultimately, her work simply sounds—or rather, feels—like her own. Tal’s pieces are frequently interdisciplinary and involve other media such as live visuals or graphic scores, which she believes allows one to interact more with the music. When asked about this multidisciplinary approach, Tal explained, “I think music, especially when it’s abstract, can be difficult on the ears, definitely when you hear it for the first time. The visuals can help put it in context and direct the listening to where it needs to go to make the whole experience more accessible, and maybe easier to connect with.”
Over her career, Tal has developed a myriad of written compositions for ensemble and solo performances that have been played in the U.S., Israel, Europe, and even South Korea. Although originally from Israel, she currently lives in Boston with her family and teaches at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School. These days, Tal is particularly focused on growing with Untitled Roots. This improvisational group takes influence from global traditional music and performs with their audiences, not just in front of them.
“With the years, I’m leaning more and more towards improvisation than scoring particular pieces,” Tal confesses. “I still write pieces and write them out, but I think improvisation has so much value. The members of Untitled Roots, they’re such talented people! I want to hear what they have to say.” She proceeds to elaborate on the nature of their music. “We are one group that works in two different mediums, in two different routes of work. One of the routes is traditional music, where we play sounds and songs (coincidently that is also the title of our upcoming album: SANDS- Sounds and Songs- that are mostly composed but include some solos – solos in the jazz sense, where there’s an underlying harmony and we solo over that. It’s more conservative and restrained, but there’s also great freedom there, and more than anything it is just natural.” Tal pauses then continues. “On the other side of the map, there’s the new music—because we’re all new music people—and we improvise on this side a little differently. We’re thinking about counterpoint, call and response, sounds, extended techniques, dissonance, or structures, all while improvising. What brings these two [routes] together is the improvisation. We started by making them separately, and now we’re slowly combining the two ways of improvising, weaving traditional elements in the New Music, and contemporary elements in the traditional music. Being improvisational is different all the time. It can be really interesting. Everything you do changes the course of the music and will take the piece to a new place.”
Tal’s approach to composition and performance is strongly based on what she describes as “listening.” But even if such an approach can be succinctly described, that doesn’t mean that the process is a simple one. “It’s not just listening to the music, but to the people behind the music and seeing the people behind the music, during the music-making, during the conversations within the music. The way a person is expressing themselves through the music—which will always be a combination of the composer and performer… they are an equal part of it. I’ll get on stage and instruct the audience on how to join the piece, and then they’ll become a part of it too. That’s another lesson that I learned from traditional music: because it’s always played at occasions, everybody in the room is a part of it in some way. They’re a part of the creation. Recorded music has not done us a service in that way. It breaks those different ends of the music that are so important.” Reflecting briefly on her improvised summary, Tal laughs, then says, “I’ll probably have something better tomorrow.”
BFNJM: You have clearly worked in an impressively diverse array of media, composing music ranging from orchestral to electro-acoustic. What informs your formal choices?
Yasmin Tal: I think it’s all circumstance. Every time an exciting opportunity presents itself, something happens: it could be a cool musician or a very interesting ensemble. I just go there. Music is music, so when I get an opportunity to work with new people, I’m usually very excited to do that.
One of the things that always takes me around in my work is figuring out new challenges. When I have an opportunity to write for a certain ensemble or in a certain setting, all those little limitations direct what we have to do. This is how new art things get created, it’s like a puzzle to solve! It’s sort of like chance, things just happen. I’m happy to take on challenges whenever they present themselves because it’s fun and exciting. It also gives me a lot of work because I have to restart everything, every time, but I kind of like that, I’m happy to do it. Based on the feedback that I’ve received, I probably do it from scratch every time, which makes the results often surprising. I guess this is another aspect of my compositional style.
BFNJM: Much of your music is composed for ensembles. Why do you think you lean towards this collaborative medium? How do you approach managing so many moving pieces?
Yasmin Tal: When I listen to music, especially live music, I love watching the musicians and seeing the relationships between them. It’s something you can see on stage and hear in the music: how they communicate with each other within the music. I’m really excited about that type of thing, and, as a composer, that’s something I always imagine. How would they be sitting in the room? When will they be making eye contact? When they will be listening to each other, and when will they be responding?
Untitled Roots is mostly an improvising group, so a lot of what we do is about relationships in terms of people. In rehearsals, we’ve been working on getting to know each other musically and communicating in real-time through the music. So, when I’m writing, I write thinking about the process that people are going through, and their experience playing the music. That’s why I love ensembles.
BFNJM: Does Judaism factor into your work, and how? What does this look like in the writing process?
Yasmin Tal: There are certainly several different angles. First of all, there’s the question of identity, the place of Jews in the world, and my place in the world as a Jew. As a Sephardic Jew in particular, and also as an Israeli (which is not actually the same as being a Jew), these factors are just a given, I couldn’t ignore them if I wanted to and other people certainly don’t.
I feel very lucky to be connected with this rich, rich, culture. There is so much material everywhere that is beautiful and fascinating and deep. There’s so much to learn about the texts — I mean, they’re endless! We love our words. There have been so many words written since the [Hebrew] Bible. I use biblical text very often in my music, so I go back to their language all the time. It’s incredible, and such a rich resource.
Since being [in the U.S.], I got to hear a lot of Jewish music, Ashkenazi Jewish music. You’d be surprised: in Israel, you don’t hear so much of that. But, here, I’ve been hearing a lot more of it, and it’s wonderful. One thing that’s been really fascinating to me is finding all those points of contact between Ashkenazi music and Sephardic music and how close together they actually are. In so many senses, even in the technical sense—scales and melismas and ornamentations—it’s fascinating to see that these distant communities have been in touch all these years, and how much culture has been shared between them; I find traces of that in many places and it’s fascinating to me because in a way I feel it clears the surface from at least some questions of identity. I like that— this I can connect to musically.
BFNJM: What do you think is a theme among most of your music? What do you contemplate?
Yasmin Tal: When I approach a new piece, I usually start from the drama of the piece. I will go through what I want the emotional processes the listeners to go through when they listen to the piece from beginning to end. It’s kind of like a movie: there’s a story. It’s going to start with, I don’t know, maybe something terrible happens at the beginning, and then gradually gets resolved. Or maybe it starts happy, and something happens. That story doesn’t have to involve any specifics at all, but I do kind of imagine the journey that the person would be going through when listening to the piece.
You can listen to Yasmin Tal’s music here on her website or through this playlist curated by us. You can also listen to some of Untitled Roots’ recorded music here.
First, join Untitled Roots on Sunday, November 6th at 3pm for their concert at the Boston Synagogue. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/yasmin-tal-untitled-roots-emerging-artists-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-429199275587?aff=blog
Then, buy learn more at http://untitled-roots.com.