How To Make A Political Statement Without Making A Political Statement
For bandleader and composer, Ofer Pinhas, music creates a natural space that brings people together
Music does many amazing things, and that includes its ability to help people transcend their differences. For many musicians, the power of the collaborative process is an opportunity to find common ground—and often to connect in a deep, real, and non-verbal way—with people from different backgrounds or who have different beliefs. That coming-together is organic, and doesn’t need to be forced or contrived, and it’s something Israeli composer and bandleader, Ofer Pinhas, discovered while working with his group, Pinhas and Sons.
“When we make music together, the boundaries dissolve by themselves,” Pinhas says in our interview below. “There were times where I wanted to, say, make a difference and perform to our Arab communities and things like that, but now I don’t feel like that is the way. I have my own political view, but with music, you can do all that without saying you’re doing that.”
Pinhas and Sons has been making music together for more than 15 years. Pinhas founded the group in his late teens, when he was serving in the IDF, and kept the group going as an informal collective. He composed music, and when he felt he had enough new material, called rehearsals, and put on a show. But about six years ago that changed when the legendary Israeli composer, Shlomo Gronich, beseeched him, publicly, to make music his primary focus.
“Shlomo Gronich played my recordings on his radio show,” Pinhas says. “He said to everyone, ‘If you know Ofer Pinhas, you must tell him that he must stop with this nonsense. Be a musician. Record an album. Start performing.’”
That was the push, and the confidence boost, Pinhas needed, and since then, he has been a whirlwind of activity. He’s released two full length albums, a number of EPs, and even a live album with Gronich. But it was in 2018, with the recording of the groups’ second release, About An Album, that he pushed the concept of collaboration to its ultimate extreme.
As part of the band’s crowdfunding campaign, Pinhas offered his fans—many of whom are musicians or musically minded—an opportunity to collaborate in the compositional process, join the band in the studio, and perform on the album as a featured musician or chorister. He didn’t take chances, and required the participants to first submit recordings of their playing, as well as recordings of them playing the parts he composed for them. But he also didn’t see it as a charity operation. The parts he composed were designed to work with the specific strengths he discovered from those initial submissions, and resulted in an album that is not only consistent with the band’s aesthetic and high musical standards, but also showcases the project’s collaborative magic.
Needless to say, for Pinhas, the emotional impact was overwhelming. “It had the excitement of the live performance, but also a hug,” he says. “It was a really long and deep hug. We never saw these people before—or maybe we saw them at previous shows—but we never met them in person. But we felt so close. We talked, and from the first time we played, they knew the music.”
For the time being, the pandemic has made an actual hug impossible, but I was still able to speak with Pinhas from his home studio in Herzliya. We talked about his open-ended compositional style, the story behind the making of About An Album, his many collaborative projects—including working together with his hero, Shlomo Gronich—and his thoughts about music’s inherent power to bring people together.
Tell me about that cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” that you did with Daniel Zamir.
That whole session was an adventure. It was actually his manager's idea. We had tried to collaborate a few times before and things didn’t work out, but then his manager came up with this idea. Four of us, the drummer (Sharon Petrover), the bassist (Lior Ozeri), the percussionist (Matan Arbel), and I got together one day before and tried to bring our own style to it, but we threw everything away once Daniel came. The energy was so intense. The hardest part of it was choosing which take to upload. Each one is different and crazy.
Did you do a transcription?
I always try to show up to the first rehearsal [with something prepared], so we’re not trying to build it from scratch. In general, I usually transcribe things and give general ideas so everyone learns their parts, and then we take it from there. We start from a certain point and then let it explode. We are nine people in the ensemble, so I figure if we get together and I play the song for the first time and we try to build it from scratch, that it takes a lot of time. Also, we get stuck on the first thing that comes to mind. However, if everyone takes it seriously and we start when everyone already knows the song, when we try to get crazy, it makes all the difference. That’s what we usually do.
Do you send everyone a complete chart, or is it sketches?
It is a score of everything, but after the whole process, it doesn’t sound like that at all. I know what I want to bring and what I want to hear—I write it out on manuscript—but the music or song only starts its life after composing it. The whole fun comes afterwards. I write the bass line and the strings and everything, but when it comes to life there are so many ideas that the players themselves bring. It could be that in the moment someone makes a mistake and we decide, “Ok let’s do it that way.” I think that is the exciting part. A lot of people ask me, “How many rehearsals do you do?”—because we sound so together and tight. And we do a lot of rehearsals, but besides that, everyone takes their parts very seriously. The same thing happened with Daniel Zamir. I transcribed it, everyone learned the song, and we set the groundwork to go crazy. We felt an ease and really comfortable with the song, and in the moment, it went wild.
When the band performs and say, the bass and flute do a tight unison line, is that pre-composed or is that an example of something that came up in rehearsal?
It actually depends. But specifically our bass player, he asks me beforehand for the score, and he’ll treat it like a conductor. He likes to learn the parts of the other players, and he likes to steal the flute parts and other parts. Those unison parts he’ll sometimes double. It’s his idea. Some of those melodies he comes up with on the spot, and some are pre-composed.
What’s the history of the band? Who are the group’s core musicians and when did it get started?
That’s a tough question actually, because it’s hard to pinpoint the starting point, and it’s gone through so many variations. It started, I think, when I was 19 or 20 years old, when I was doing my army service. I created a trio with Barak Srour, the guitarist, and Tom Haram on flute. We were all high school friends.
Did you play music in the army?
No. But as far back as I can remember, music was a major part of me. It was never second place, although I left it is as a kind of hobby, or something that was very pure. I didn’t want to be a musician or have my financial life depend on it. I didn’t want to serve as a musician in the army. In high school, I learned physics and philosophy—even though I composed the music for the high school plays and I was really involved in music—but I wanted to keep it for my own growth, and not have it as a discipline that would constrain me.
The group just grew naturally. I started a trio with friends—Barak and another flute player—and a few months later added strings and drums. It was similar to what is going on now, but the whole style was completely different. It was very much classical-sounding, and influenced by people like Yoni Rechter and Matti Caspi, who are Israeli giants. It was more smooth and elegant, and it wasn’t crazy as it is today. The ethnic style also wasn’t there yet. It was more harmony based, still groovy, but not as much as today. It wasn’t really a group or a band, it was something I did. I scheduled a concert here and there, and we scheduled some rehearsals, but it was very casual.
But then, about five or six years ago, the composer, Shlomo Gronich, stumbled upon some of the recordings we made. It didn’t have a name, it was just called the Ofer Pinhas Band, or something like that. He played it on his radio show, and said to everyone, “If you know Ofer Pinhas, you must tell him that he must stop with this nonsense. Be a musician. Record an album. Start performing.”
I don’t think that the fact that he said that made me do it, but it really gave me the drive to say, “Let’s commit to this even more.” At University, I studied computer science and music, and my career was going in both directions. I worked full time in computers, in programming, which is still the case. I am not full time, and I don’t feel in a rush to be on stage. That was never the thing that drove me to music. I really like being a composer, and that’s what I still think I am. It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t performing in front of 2,000 people. When I wanted to present the works, I scheduled a concert. But after this radio show, I made more of a commitment to the band. Everyone in the band, except for the percussionist, has been with me from that time, and we really feel like a family. That sounds cliché, but it feels organic and everyone is in that place where they feel that they are a part of the compositions.
Everyone plays at a high level as well.
Everyone has the skill, but it’s more than skill, everyone is involved in the music making. Even the players who are session musicians—they play concerts and learn their parts—here, in our ensemble, they give more than that. They are a part of the composition.
Your last album, About An Album, was also collaborative with your fans. In the videos it looks like there are 100 people in the studio with headphones on. Are they all contributing in some way as well?
No, not everyone, there are people who are just the audience. The thing was, we noticed that amongst our fans, some of them are very curious musicians. We felt it at the concerts themselves. Gradually, high schools were asking us to perform and to explain our music, and young people were performing, making covers, and asking us for the lead sheets. We noticed that something was happening. For me, I felt that this atmosphere was more exciting than the performances themselves. It’s a thing that reaches someone emotionally, and more than that, they are curious to explore it and express themselves through the music. I feel like that is the purpose of music. That echoing, or feedback, is more exciting for me than performing in front of a large audience.
You discovered a natural closeness with your audience.
Yes, and that is what we try to explore. I never felt comfortable with the idea that, “We’re up on the stage, and now we’ll play our music, and you should clap once we finish.” It’s too formal. We always try to spice it up and to be ourselves. We are people. We are not musicians or composers or virtuosos. No. Let’s just make music together. Music is a shared experience, and that's what we tried to explore.
With About An Album, we needed money for the production, and I knew I wanted to do crowdfunding. But I didn’t want it to be an ordinary crowdfunding. In the crowdfunding videos, everyone always says, “Let’s make this together.” But I really felt like that. “I know that you want to create. You want to be involved.” And that’s what we tried. With this crowdfunding campaign, people could participate in the recording itself, either as an audience member at the session, or to actually participate, to sing or play an instrument. It was really exciting. We had people send us videos of themselves playing tunes so we could know what we were up against, and what we would have in our orchestra. It was a really quick process. In a few weeks, we had to arrange the music for this choir and group of players. But we didn’t do it as a charity, as in, “Let’s all play.” No. We are behind this musically. I tried to write things that were especially for the players who were going to play. I asked everyone, “Tell me a special skill or genre you specialize in.” I [also tried to gauge] everyone’s general skill level. After scoring it and arranging it, we sent the participants the sketches and the sheet music. Also, we didn’t do any rehearsals with them.
No, and for me, it wasn’t even risky. We had them send us numerous versions of themselves playing their parts. The recording was done live—we did a few takes—but it was live. We didn’t record everyone individually. There were no overdubs and it is one piece. We didn’t record this part and then that part. We said, “If you want to participate, you have to send us a recording of yourself playing it all the way through—even with the breaks—so we know that you know where to enter. We won’t have the time to deal with that stuff at the session.” We gave feedback. If something was too hard, we changed it. The participants suggested other things as well. At the session itself, we did five takes for each song and we did edit from different takes. That is the cheating that there is there. It’s not one take, but it was recorded as complete takes.
Would you do it again?
After that, I thought, “Let’s do this every time.” The energy that session carried with it was way more intense than even a regular live performance. It had the excitement of the live performance, but also a hug. It was a really long and deep hug. We never saw these people before—or maybe we saw them at previous shows—but we never met them in person. But we felt so close. We talked, and from the first time we played, they knew the music. It was so exciting and overwhelming. But then Corona came, and we tried to explore in different ways.
Have you thought about ways of doing it as outreach to different communities?
It is for music lovers. It isn’t our intention to do something political or to bring world peace. I think music is sufficient. It’s good enough. When we make music together, the boundaries dissolve by themselves. There were times where I wanted to, say, make a difference and perform to our Arab communities and things like that, but now I don’t feel like that is the way. I have my own political view, but with music, you can do all that without saying you’re doing that.
Besides your fans, you’ve also collaborated with people like Shlomo Gronich, Ester Rada, and Guy Mazig. Do you also cater the experience to them, writing music with them in mind and drawing from their repertoire?
That’s a good question. We love doing collaborations and things that are not driven by PR. When we collaborate with Guy Mazig or Shlomo Gronich, we see it as a new project and a way to explore, and we twist almost the entire show around the person. For example, Guy Mazig is basically a comedian.
He’s also a killer guitar player.
He’s a killer, and a brilliant composer, too. He can do such complex things that seem so natural and fun. When you start to play his things, it’s not what you expect. And on top of that, he’s a hilarious guy and his music is like that, too. So we transformed our show to use that, to fit his style. With Shlomo Gronich—he was really my hero in my youth—and we felt that we needed to do something larger than life. We arranged some of his songs, and made like a mini opera house. We took the concept from the recording session that we did for the album. We invited our fans to take part in the music making, and we did it live. The choir, the brass section, and the string section that accompanied us at the show were formed from the fans who rose to the challenge [laughs]. The way we did it this time was I had three rehearsals with each section—because this time we couldn’t do multiple takes during the concert—and the first time everyone actually got together was at the concert itself. Every person in the venue, the band, Gronich, the participants, and the crowd discovered the music for the first time.
Tell me about your background. When did you start playing the piano?
I started studying when I was five or six years old. I started with classical music but I was never on track to become a classical pianist. I always wandered to other places, to jazz. I really loved improvising as a child. I used to play a piece or practice for 10 minutes, and then would start going to my own places.
You’d riff off the classical piece and improvise?
All the time. I never even treated it as practicing. It was playing. My mother had this idea of never shutting the piano, ever. It was always open. It was part of life. You played. It wasn’t a strict discipline. I started early. It was just part of life. I wasn’t, “studying piano.” But here in Israel, there are really profound and interesting musicians, and it is really interesting to see where it’s headed.
It’s such a small country though. Is there an audience? Before COVID, were musicians able to find work?
I think so. I think in Tel Aviv music is a major part of life. Being an independent musician—where you write your own material—it’s hard to depend on that as your single career. I don’t think there are many musicians that do it. But I think people are doing it out of love. I never felt that people are troubled that there isn’t an audience for it.
Photos courtesy Ofer Pinhas; group shot by Nadav Sover
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