Kobi Arad is an Israeli-American pianist and music composer of fusion music. He was brought up in Haifa, learned music at Tel Aviv University and currently lives in New York. In his music, he combines various styles, including third-stream, jazz, R & B, Hip-hop and electro-music, with improvisation being the focus of most of his work. His music has already been mentioned in several publications, including Ynet, Jazz Times, and All About Jazz. Kobi Arad has collaborated with other musicians, such as Stevie Wonder and Cindy Blackman, worked together.
From New York, his current residence, Kobi Arad accepted to reply several questions about his artistic universe and his projects.
Kobi Arad Interview:
“no matter what the bad critics say, you gotta do, do and do…”
Kobi Arad, please tell us a bit about yourself. When did you start composing and what were your early passions and influences?
I began my musical journey by listening to African drumming at age of 5. I used to be glued to the turntable playing again and again the musical “Ipi Tombi” that had a world tour at the time, and was enchanted by the different type of exotic percussions, animalistic rhythms, and sexy women… at age of 7, I began sitting at the piano by ear, figuring out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F minor. It had immense power for me and had a profound impact on me. In the beginning, I started playing without reading notes, having my mom (who finished formal training) show me how the notes sound like. Then the teacher figured it out one day and got upset when he asked that I read a new piece in the lesson. I mastered reading notes when I worked at accompanying choir later at age of 21. Up to that point, I was relying on my ears (having perfect pitch). As a kid, I used to come up with simple song ideas that just came in my mind.
I now realize that there are many cultures (like Indian, Arabic, African that rely on the auditory perception much further than the western culture. Also in Jazz, where you transcribe solos of masters – its music that relies strongly on the ears. So maybe I wasn’t that far off anyway as a kid…
I feel it was through being exposed (towards the age of 18) to the magical moments in music (such as Stevie Wonder’s groove and harmony and soul) and amazing harmonies of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock that my love for music deepened as I realized there are really no boundaries to the musical frontiers.
Real composition?! It began when I was exposed to Schoenberg’s music. I began learning his scores and expanding my structural boundaries as far as form and architecture of musical ideas. That was during my study for bachelors at Tel Aviv University.
Who are some of your favorite musicians, and how did they influence you?
From a colorful side, jazz and improvisation – its Chick Corea and his piano improvisations CD from the 70’s. Also, his Rhodes solos in the Miles Davis Quintet with Jack DeJohnette are quite amazing. Keith Jarrett is very colorful and inspiring. Especially his 70’s long improvised solo performances.
From a structural side, it’s Bach, Schoenberg, Berg (who has his lush quality to him) and Webern. I recently launched a CD which adds electronic piano and synth layers to samples of Webern’s string quartets. It’s called ‘Webern Re-Visioned.’
Kobi Arad, what are currently your main compositional challenges?
There is a part of me which wants to compose large scale pieces like symphonies and operas. But then, it separates one from reality and fun and life. At the moment, I am fulfilled with performing, improvising and composing various soundscape compositions on my computer. An example for such compositions are both 2010’s ‘Sketches of Imaginary Landscapes,’ ‘Patterns – Tribute to Anton Webern,’ and the upcoming CD, ‘Flux – A Song Cycle for Solo Fender Rhodes.’ The Sketches CD, featuring my Jazz trio and electronic layers, was in fact featured in several aired shows in IBA (Israeli National Radio) with Zmira Luzki as was a part of panel discussions. It was auditioned alongside with full chamber and orchestral compositions of mine. In a way, I feel that in our day and age the CD form replaces the Opus’s those classical composers used to gather. I have further than 30 CD’s out on Amazon and feel it’s part of my communication and sharing of my music with the world (in a sense equivalent to symphonies, concertos, overtures etc.).
Speaking of overture… 4 months back I did write a full blown composition for members of the Israeli Philharmonic, named ‘Fantasia Overture’. It was fulfilling in different ways. We performed together – it was a lot of fun.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you?
Ideal?!… I feel one needs to accept the various states of being that present themselves at any given moment and work with them. Some times the inspiration needs to be awakened from down up (Itaruta deletata in Kabbalistic language) and some times it just flows by itself from above (Itaruta dele’eila). I feel my work is somehow a constant combination of these two forces.
Kobi Arad, what do you usually start with when composing?
Usually, ideas just come up in my mind. Some times with words (if it’s a song) and some times melodic/harmonic elements. Then I sit and elaborate on them, opening them into the full scope of their musical expression.
In my CD with Roy Ayers, for example, I used a system I call ‘Anchor Lines.’ It’s my way of calling musical elements which serve as pivots towards various improvisational directions. I just came with a printed sheet with various melodic and rhythmic ideas and we took it on. We made a full album called ‘Superflow.’
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
As you know I finished the doctorate degree (Doctorate in Musical Arts) in the field of Third Stream.
When I was in Israel and found out there was an established field in music called ‘Third Stream’ in the US, which was aimed at merging classical and jazz, I was enthused beyond words since I knew this was my calling in life. At the time I was in Israel, informing and educating myself of precisely this combination of styles. When I earned Masters and Doctorate from New England Conservatory in that field, it meant a lot to me, because it wasn’t just an ‘occupation’ but my actual musical and artistic vision in life. I am also lucky to actually be the only musician who has earned doctorate within that field on music.
Now, the balance between composition and improvisation is very fine. Mahler called composition a “slow improvisation” and it’s true in a sense since even when I am composing I am flowing within the creative flow of improvised notes. And then there is the opposite idea I call “Spontaneous composition,” which takes the solid architectural construction of composition and liquidates it into a continuous flow of vibrations. So the line between composition and improvisation is not always clear. I recall Keith Jarrett said one of his pieces “My Song” arrived to him on an improvised show.
It happens for me a lot also. Many of my “compositions” were improvised in real time. I suppose what makes a big composition a such, is the expansion and expounding of the elemental/substantial units.
The relationship between music and other forms of art – such as painting, video art and cinema – has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself?
Although I love John Williams, I find that music thrives best and receives its highest attention when experienced by itself (without film behind it) hence Chick Corea’s amazing CDs. He made some film music and his music suffered from it. There are some composers who have a better knack for film music. However, my preference is to give music its precedence and full attention. Ideally, when people focus on my music I want them closing their eyes and just sailing in their imagination.
Having said that, I am extremely interested in abstract visual art and its real-time combination with sound. It reflects for me on the kabbalistic idea of “Ro’een Et HaKolot” (“Seeing the Voices”) – which implies synesthesia / other elevated transformation of sensory perceptions and translation into one another. It’s really deep.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
That’s an interesting question. I feel the further things progress, in a way they stay the same. Bach’s fugues are astonishing even today. An amazing Stevie Wonder melody would touch the heart despite all the hip hop and r&b constant revolution. The piano keeps its innate super-gold value. You see that also in the atonal total serialism (Boulez, Stockhausen) – after it made a shock wave, there came minimalism (Reich, glass) which in a sense returned to the source. But then again, I am a big fan of atonal music as well:=)
What do you think the most appealing aspect of your new album “Ellington Upside Down”?
I feel the most appealing aspect of my album is precisely that. It brings the lush tonality of jazz and mixes it with grand complex chords of modern classical. It takes dance rhythms and clashes them with complex syncopations and polyrhythms. It takes the almost Beethoven-ish weight of Ellington’s compositions (they are very challenging) and incorporates them with almost childish fun play.
And finally, Kobi Arad, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
From Herbie Hancock. I talk with him a lot. He one time said – no matter what the bad critics say, you gotta do, do and do…