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Composer Avner Dorman spices things up

His 'Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!,' a piece for percussionists and orchestra, mixes elements of Western, Arabic and Indian music.

July 26, 2009|David Ng

A rising young composer from the U.S., Europe or even the Far East isn't necessarily a newsmaker. But how about a hot new composer from Israel? That's a rare occurrence sure to raise eyebrows among the classical cognoscenti.

Avner Dorman, 33, knows that as one of the few Israeli-born writers to break into the classical major leagues, he often has to act as a national flag bearer, especially in the eyes of the category-happy media. But it's a role he has grown used to -- and has even learned to welcome.

"There is a new-music scene in Israel, but it's not well known at all. I'd be very happy that if through me it becomes better known around the world," he says.

Dorman is sitting in his Los Feliz apartment, which doubles as his composing studio. On the walls are posters advertising performances of his work in New York, Europe and Israel. Though he has lived in Los Angeles for the past two years, Dorman has had to wait until this week for his music to be performed in his adopted hometown.

On Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the two-man group PercaDu will play "Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!," a piece for percussionists and orchestra. First performed in Tel Aviv in 2006, it's a three-movement concerto that mixes elements of Western, Arabic and Indian music.

"I wanted to come up with something innovative, and the thing about the substances of the title is that they are all seductive," explains the composer. "With all three substances, if you follow them too far, they can be dangerous. So that was the musical idea."

Dorman wrote "Spices" while studying at Tel Aviv University, collaborating with percussionists Adi Morag and Tomer Yariv, who would later form PercaDu. The soloists play several instruments throughout the piece, including the marimbas, glockenspiel, xylophone, two drum sets and customized metal implements.

"It's a melting pot of many things, some Indian scales and pop music definitely," says Morag by phone from Haifa, Israel. "It's difficult, yeah. We stand in front of the orchestra so we can't see the conductor throughout the piece. There's a lot of telepathy and maybe some luck in a performance."

"Spices," which had its U.S. premiere this year with the New York Philharmonic, will be performed at the Bowl under the baton of Marin Alsop. As is customary at the Bowl, the music will be electronically amplified. "I actually think that's a positive thing," says the composer. "Especially with this piece. When there are a lot of drums, we can balance it out. It's going to be larger than life."

A self-proclaimed physics nerd with a passion for acoustics, Dorman likes to talk about waves and mathematics as much as he does about new music. In Israel, he pursued advanced physics courses alongside his compositional studies. "It was the hardest thing I ever studied -- third-year physics. It was math for waves, six hours of it per week. But I loved it," he says. "If you can't conceptualize a problem, there's no way you're going to solve it."

Dorman's quantitatively oriented mind is perhaps part of the reason behind his fixation on all things J.S. Bach, whose music is often labeled mathematic and metronomic. "Bach is a very strong model for me. Especially the mathematics of it," Dorman says. "People who haven't studied music don't know that rhythm is a very mathematical thing. And unless you're doing a pop or rock song, you have to build a progression."

He stops and adds: "But I think my style changes constantly, and I think that's a sign of our times. We're all surfing the Web, talking on our cellphones and watching TV at the same time. I think flipping channels can be dramatic. You know, I really like the Eastern minimalists, like Arvo Part, the kind of music that takes you away from the real world."

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Time at Juilliard

Dorman eventually found his way to Juilliard, where he studied under composer John Corigliano.

"I would say that Avner is a hot rather than cold composer," says Corigliano from New York. "There's an excitement to his pieces and an expressiveness that you don't often find in new music, which can often be academic."

Eclectic in his compositional styles, Dorman has written everything from traditional piano sonatas to a concerto for a rock band. In Israel, he spent a few years working for a cellphone company, adapting pop music for ring tones.

"Israeli pop to me sounds like Arabic music mixed together with Scandinavian pop," he says. "Growing up in Israel was a good way of absorbing a lot of different influences without really thinking about it. I never noticed how Arabic my music is until I came to New York. But I really consider my music to be classical. I like perfection -- I really thrive on it."

"Spices" took Dorman 14 months to write. (The first movement was adapted from a previously written piece.) He's working on a piano concerto for the Kansas City Symphony. "I've been working only on this piece for 2 1/2 months, and the due date is in August. I'm probably going to be late," he says.

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