Modern minimalist train brings Steve Reich’s music to Jerusalem
Art,Music

Modern minimalist train brings Steve Reich’s music to Jerusalem

Steve Reich’s Different Trains rumbled into town this past week and the results were stunning – one of the must-see concerts of an already overflowing Jerusalem summer.

Reich is the godfather of the modern minimalist music scene, patron saint to more art/pop-oriented artists like Phillip Glass and Brian Eno. His compositions are highly repetitive: the trick is to find the tiny variations that seep through his wall of rhythmic sound. The best way to describe a Reich piece is to listen – check out the YouTube video below.

Different Trains by Steve Reich at The Jewish Theatre Stockholm

Reich wrote Different Trains, which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition, in 1988 for string quartet with electronic voice. What that means is that four musicians play viola, two cellos and sampled violin (on what looks like a hi-tech drum set) while the voices on tape repeat phrases throughout the performance. The voices are then mirrored by the instruments: every time a certain man speaks, it’s doubled by the viola; every time a woman speaks, it’s doubled by a cello, Reich says an interview included in the 84-page full color booklet that’s given out to the audience.

Different Trains is at its heart a Holocaust composition. The trains initially take the listener across the U.S. – “from Chicago to New York” intones one of the voices – but quickly, we are transported to Europe and we realize that the speakers are Jewish, recounting snippets of testimony from the Second World War. Sound effects of trains swirl through the room, bouncing back and forth across the speakers. The performers themselves wear costumes that could either be train conductor uniforms…or prison camp pajamas.

Sitting in the audience, I was taken back to my college days at Oberlin College when I took a course in electronic music and we studied Reich’s early work. But I’d never heard it played live until now.

Different Trains is being performed as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture in a cavernous room inside the Tower of David Museum that has never been open to the public before. You can see the tall arches of the space – the kishle, as it’s called, was used as a prison in the days of the Ottoman Empire and is surrounded by moat – but the rest is draped in black.

Inside there are tens of oversized glass sculptures, shaped like mis-formed light bulbs or perhaps tears from an unseen giant. Some are transparent, others opaque. The artist, Ann Wahlstrom, was a student of world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.

The musicians sit in the midst of the glass space, on a podium with their backs to the audience. On either end of the rectangular room are screens where video plays images of trains juxtaposed with scenes from the Holocaust. It’s not meant to titillate; nothing is graphic but the message is nevertheless unnerving.

The entire production was put together by Pia Forsgren, director of the Jewish Theater in Stockholm. Forsgren took Reich’s original standalone work, created the video herself and designed the space with Wahlstrom’s glass installation.

She then hired a Swedish ensemble – the Fleshquartet – to perform the piece, and commissioned them to create their own companion composition, “Tears Apart,” which serves both as a commentary and complement to the swirling repetitive style of Different Trains, while adding a more accessible melodic line. At one point, the performers leave their instruments to “play” the glass sculptures. It’s mesmerizing. The entire show, with both pieces, runs just over an hour.

Forsgren’s visual interpretation of Different Trains was performed 62 times at The Jewish Theater in Stockholm during the 2008-2009 season. It is playing until July 21 in Israel. Tickets are pricey and seats limited, but it’s well worth the journey – don’t let this train leave the station without booking your seat.

Food

A trip to China…with local personality

For a people that, stereotypically, is in love with Chinese food, it’s always surprised me that, in Jerusalem at least, there are so few Chinese restaurants. All the more so given that other Asian food – sushi in particular – is all the rage.

A new kosher restaurant, the not very creatively named Beijing, opened up a few months ago on Gaza Street. The food is pretty good and very decently priced. But it was the staff that stood out.

To describe owner Avner’s welcome as warm would be to undervalue his enthusiasm like cottage cheese at a yard sale. He greeted us as if we were his only customers (admittedly there weren’t many, but the hour was early). He explained that his restaurant has been operating for some 10 years in Mevesseret Zion; this is his first foray into Jerusalem.

His second in command, Omri, was even more effusive, not to mention opinionated. Speaking fluent English and sporting a long ponytail, Omri was candid about the competition (Ryu – interesting but too much “fusion,” Yossi Peking – drek, Sheyan – fabulous but double the price of his current establishment).

He also warned us off the chocolate dessert (not authentic; it was added only recently due to “customer demand”) and recommended the fried bananas instead (it’s the banana peel that’s fried, making for an authentic if somewhat stomach churning option).

This was a graduation dinner for our daughter Merav, so we let the kids order freely. We’d also gotten a great deal on Groupon – half price coupons and we could use up to three at a single table (we did). Our entrees included the sliced duck “chef special” (tasty, if a bit chunky), a Yakitori chicken on a stick in peanut butter (more Thai than Chinese), sweet and sour chicken with veggies (my favorite), and a very presentable pad thai with rice noodles.

Avner boasted that all of the pasta is made on the premises – I couldn’t tell, but then I’m spoiled by the unbelievable Thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup) we ate while on trek in Nepal earlier this year.

Can I recommend Beijing? Sure, why not. The prices (under NIS 40 for most entrees) are excellent, the food quite good, and the service delightful. I think we’ll be going back.

Business

Israeli iPhone app climbs to #52 in two days, then gets taken down

Latest entry to the “what were they thinking” department: a new Israeli iPhone app that lets users spy on their family and friends, which the developer, Kobi Snir, insisted was for “parental control.”

“I wanted to give parents a way to track their kids, to see with whom they are talking and about what,” Snir told Ynet.

That’s probably not what the thousands of people who downloaded the SpyKey app (it climbed as high as #52 in the entertainment category) were thinking about. The app works like this: for $4.99 you download the application to your iOS device (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch). Then you download an additional program from the developer’s website which you install on your “target’s” computer. After that, anything written on the target’s computer is automatically shown on your i-device screen. Ynet called it “espionage for dummies.”

It’s fair to guess that most of the folks who ponied up the $5 were more interested in spying on their potentially straying spouses or that malicious pointy haired boss (shout out to Dilbert).

Even more in the “what were they thinking” category was Apple. Why did the iPhone giant – which runs every app through an in-depth review process – approve SpyKey in the first place? Did they buy Snir’s pitch? Or did someone at Apple want to use the app for him or herself perhaps?

We may never know. The app was taken down after just two days.

Art,Entertainment,Israeliness

White Night shines in Tel Aviv

Thursday night at White Night in Tel Aviv

On Thursday, Tel Aviv celebrated its 9th annual “White Night,” a city-wide party to mark the UNESCO declaration of Tel Aviv as “the White City,” in honor of its many (white) Bauhaus-era buildings.

My wife Jody and I had never been to White Night (“Layla Levan” in Hebrew) – the throngs of revelers and infamous traffic jams scared us off. But we ventured out this year, parking near the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a 15-minute walk from ground zero: Rothschild Boulevard.

It turned out to be a good choice. Clearly, the entire city had headed outside and jammed into a several kilometer stretch of the street, one of Tel Aviv’s most beautiful with its wide park down the center and majestic trees above.

The basic set up is this: every block or so, there is a small stage where some Tel Aviv rock band trots out its tunes. Some are amateurish, while others quite good (a decent Beatles cover band played near the HaBima Theater).

Niv Kaikov

Our favorite was a singer songwriter named Niv Kaikov whose melodic, jangly-pop songs immediately caught our attention. A beaming woman – clearly smitten but much too old to be a fan – was hawking his CD for only NIS 20. “Are you his mother?” Jody asked, politically way incorrect (what if it was Kaikov’s girlfriend!) “Of course,” she said and we purchased the CD (you can also listed to Kaikov’s music on his MySpace page).

The cafes along Rotshchild were all packed, as was the Iceberg ice cream shop. After having read last year that it sold the best ice cream in town, we joined the line (actually a totally un-Israeli orderly queue) and purchased a two scoop bitter chocolate and Irish cream mix. It was good – though I can’t say if it was better than Aldo (our usual ice cream haunt).

We started our stroll around 9:30 PM when there were still lots of families, strollers and dogs out. When we left two hours later, the demographic had dropped to teens and twenty-somethings and was more wall-to-wall than a free Justin Bieber concert on the Banana Beach.

Our choice to park near the museum was not entirely to avoid the blocked off streets of central Tel Aviv. The Litvak Gallery, at 4 Berkowitz Street, had a marvelous exhibition of works from world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly – and it was totally free for the evening (the exhibition runs until July 31 although you’ll have to pay).

And in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art itself was “Indie City,” a showcase of local bands on two stages (the three bands we caught a few notes of were all pretty downbeat and emo).

Oh, and to top it all off, we splurged for a dinner at Liliyot, a kosher restaurant, also in the museum area, that helps give youth-at-risk and high school drop outs a second chance (and serves up some inspired creations – imagine grilled chicken livers on toast with bananas and vanilla caramel). Not cheap but worth it.

Jody and I have a number of festivals and events we attend every year – the wine festival at the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Film Festival and Jacob’s Ladder. Now we’ll be adding White Night in Tel Aviv to the list.

Business

Answers.com no longer has all the answers

Answers.com with former CEO Bob Rosenschein

Answers.com, one of Jerusalem’s largest employers of English-speaking immigrants and a long-time survivor of the first dot.com crash, has been effectively gutted by its new owners. TechCrunch reported that yesterday, 45 of the company’s 65 Israel-based employees were fired, along with some of the New York staff (the company had a total of about 90 people). The axed included Answers.com’s founder and CEO Bob Rosenschein and CTO Jeff Schneiderman.

The bloodshed was not entirely unexpected (new owners tend to look at their acquisitions with more scrutiny than, perhaps, the founders with all their history and attachment). But that doesn’t make it any less painful for the staff let go.

The purchase of Answers.com always seemed a bit strange to me. Publicly traded on NASDAQ, the company was profitable and seemingly happily humming along when AFCV Holdings, a portfolio company of growth equity investor Summit Partners, swooped in to acquire Answers.com for $127 million.

That may seem large but, when the deal was announced, shareholders were unhappy, claiming that it tremendously undervalued Answers.com. They even tried to block the sale (a U.S. court denied the motion in April 2011).

AFCV said the layoffs were necessary to focus the company on its main product –the Q&A site WikiAnswers – and that a number of product initiatives (including 1-Click Answers, AnswerTips and Widget Gallery), as well as a mobile version, would no longer be supported. AFCV also said that, since Answers.com was not public anymore, the company didn’t need certain support structure.

All that makes sense, and it was probably no surprise to Rosenschein and Schneiderman that AFCV would want to consolidate management at their own headquarters or with their own people (hastening the duo’s departure). And it may even make a certain amount of business logic – as Gil Reich, the head of Answers.com’s product management, pointed out in his own blog, Answers.com went through so many ups and downs in its 12-year tenure, that the new owners may have felt compelled to “ruthlessly cut everything it felt distracted from (the company’s) core mission of a great community creating great content.”

But it’s nevertheless frustrating to see a company that employed a lot of good people in Israel lose that staff to a new American parent that clearly doesn’t share the same sense of “career Zionism.” The Business Insider blog described it more nefariously: It looks like the new owners are “milking the company for the cash that comes from all that SEO traffic.”

One of my friends at Answers.com wrote on her Facebook status, it’s the “end of an era, beginning of a new one?” We’ll have to wait and see. There are still 20 people left in Israel at Answers.com. For the rest, that new beginning may not be exactly what they expected.