"It's like bouncing ideas back and forth with a friend, but the friend is you."
Ohal is a Brooklyn-based pianist, composer, and recording engineer for whom music is rule of the bone. Born and raised in Ashkelon, Israel, an ancient seaport town tucked into sand dunes on the Mediterranean coast, she was introduced to the piano as a child and rigorously trained in classical performance. At seventeen, prompted by a runaway affection for the French Surrealists, she left Israel for France, determined to practice new and non-traditional forms of music. Onward to Paris with no plan, she carried only a knapsack and a shrimpy MT-205 Casiotone keyboard.
After a decade of collaborations with pop bands and visual artists, Ohal has just released her first two solo projects: Cancelled Faces, her Berlinale-acclaimed score to Lior Shamriz's film noir of the same title, and Acid Park, an eight-movement electronic suite. Ohal's sound palette is partly handmade on her own synthesizers and theremins, and it brims with sounds ranging from basement experiments to the Baroque. Her melodies beguile and uplift, like puzzles that don't want solving, revealing themselves most fully through a cyclical listening experience. This experience had me, with my headphones on, hard-caught and missing subway stops.
Ohal is also co-editor of the book Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle (AK Press) and a vocal supporter of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.
We began this conversation in her studio apartment in Brooklyn.
Jesse Ruddock What was it like composing Acid Park in this tiny apartment?
Ohal Moving in here, I was excited by the idea of having my entire recording setup a few steps from my bed. I've made music my whole life, but this was the first time I set out to record an entire album. It's a different kind of thing, playing and experimenting with sound, and committing to a project with preconceived beginning and end points. It requires a different kind of focus, and I decided the best way to go about it was to isolate myself. I get easily distracted.
JR How so?
O My mind will turn anything that grabs it for a second into a full-blown daydream sequence. When I started working on Acid Park, that kind of thought pattern felt like noise to me. I thought having everything right here would eliminate any possible interruptions.
JR Did it work?
O It seems a bit ridiculous to me now, this idea of a natural flow of creativity that exists under threat of a moment of distraction, but at the time it felt like a necessity. I have always liked being alone, and I can easily let a few days pass without talking to anyone, just working on music in my apartment, so I thought this would be ideal. But I did end up changing my mind about the whole notion of naturalness, natural creative flow, or natural tendencies. I'm no longer interested in any natural-versus-unnatural taxonomy at all—it feels contrived and false to me.
JR Still, you kept chipping away in isolation?
O There were other reasons for recording the album in my apartment. Playing, composing, and engineering are all one thing for me. I would never go to a twelve-hour recording session in a studio that someone else is engineering. It really might be that using recording tools as means of composition is partly a handicap, but I do think of the tape and virtual tape as musical instruments, just as much as a synth.
JR Studio time creates pressure, right? I guess some people want or even need that.
O Not me, recording is such a private thing, and it can also be very obsessive. I like playing one sound, listening to it, and shaping it over a few hours. And I like the machines, opening them up and fixing them if they break.
JR Did your many close neighbors cheer you on or make complaint?
O Actually, a new neighbor moved in and started banging on the walls whenever I was working on music, any time of day. The first time it happened I was mixing a track for the Cancelled Faces score. Her main complaint wasn't how loud I was playing, but that I kept playing the same thing over and over.
JR Oh no.
O After that, in the mornings, I would listen to her walking around her apartment and wait until she left. Then I would start working, and stop when she came home. I would even try to guess her mood, because if I thought she was irritated I would try to be extra quiet. She's probably not aware of any of this, since in three years we've only had that one conversation, but on my side of the wall it's an intense relationship.
JR What an awkward dance, and part of your actual process apparently.
O Yeah, it was strange. Back then, I was thinking a lot about what it means to be scared of interruptions, and why some things feel like interruptions and others don't. I realized that if something like commuting to a studio space felt like a potential interruption to fugitive moments of inspiration, then my whole endeavor was too weak and fragile. This realization made me feel a lot of disdain for my type of isolation, and I decided to find a studio space. But I still haven't found one.
JR The album's electronic, but it's also orchestral. It feels huge. It's funny to me that you wrote it tucked away up here.
O Writers fashion enormous worlds from tiny desks and nooks. I don't think this is very different. And, of course, many orchestral pieces were written on tiny desks too. What I write comes together in what feels like real cavernous spaces with their own gravitational pull, regardless of where I am. These imagined spaces are important to me. When I begin working and get enraptured with a sound, playing around with it gradually reveals the space in which it's set, which in turn reveals more sounds and phrases that may belong in that space.
JR Do you have an opinion on how people should listen to this?
O I'm not sure. My impulse is to say: Yes, I would love for people to listen to Acid Park from beginning to end, because each track offers a segment of a whole, like squares on a scratch-ticket puzzle, revealing an image at the end. I care about that image, that whole, the object in its full form, and I tried to be as accurate as I could with it. I don't mean accuracy in the sense of some didactic aspiration for perfection. A broken object can be as accurately broken as a sphere is accurately perfect. I mean accuracy in the sense that I wanted the translation of my inclinations from the imaginary realm into material realm to be as close as possible.
But I also love Tarkovsky movies, and I've never watched more than a half hour of each. I don't think he would be pleased with that. This is also true for some of my favorite books, like Buchner's Lenz or Bester's The Stars My Destination. I feel deeply connected to these works and have never finished reading them. There are opposite examples, of course, things I've read and listened to again and again.
JR I hear field recordings on some of these songs, the world reaching in. I hear birds and street rumblings. What else is there?
O There are lots of birds! You can also hear the squeaking of a gate, fire, branches, water. And there are isolated moments taken from street rumbles that I processed into drones or beeps and clicks. I use these a lot as percussion sounds and textures. But there's no special meaning to this: a sound's source could be a sine wave, these just happen to be pulled from the street beneath my window.
JR What machines do you work with to do all this?
O I recently changed my setup. I'd used the same machines for so long that I felt unable to step back from how I was using them. Roland's Gaia was the only polyphonic keyboard I used to own. It's a machine I grew to hate soon after purchasing it, because of its terrible sound engine. I used it to track almost all of Acid Park, but eventually recorded over every part with different synths, mostly the OP-1, Subphaty, and Microbrute. The computer was also important. I used it to edit my sounds. I then recorded them to tape, sometimes to the SP-404, then back to the computer.
JR I know you studied classical piano as a kid. When you moved from your hometown Ashkelon to Paris at seventeen, were you able to bring a keyboard with you?
O I brought along a small Casio keyboard, the MT-205 Casiotone. I later abandoned it in Prague when I was rushing to catch a flight. My parents bought it for me as a toy when I was a kid. Before bringing it to Paris, I mostly played with its different rhythm demos. It's really not one of the more interesting Casios.
JR Did it feel like you were leaving the piano behind you then?
O It did, but that was okay because I didn't want to play other people's pieces anymore. I was constantly adding and omitting notes, if it sounded better to me that way. This wasn't appreciated by my teachers.
JR Why did you travel so far from home?
O I don't think Paris is very far. I had always wanted to leave. It wasn't because I had an unhappy childhood or was displeased with the circumstances of my upbringing. I've always felt an overwhelming sense of longing unconnected to any object. In early childhood, this feeling was translated to fantastical daydreams about faraway galaxies and invisible worlds. As I grew older, these wild scenarios drifted into a keen interest in the art and literary social circles of past centuries, mostly those that revolved around principles of surrealism and anarchism.
JR Why surrealism?
O Surrealism offered a state of suspension between dissonance and harmony that I found very seductive. It was comforting because it offered an outlook from which it wasn't urgent to resolve dualities and contradictions. It also eliminated the idea that a thing has an immediate and innate opposite, and this was a hugely liberating idea for me. I was fourteen and impressionable when I picked up a copy of Lautréamont's The Songs of Maldoror, and by the time I finished it, it seemed imperative that I move to France as soon as possible, because that's where he was from.
JR Was this your first getaway from home?
O No, I left home to go to boarding school in big-town Jerusalem when I was fourteen. I thought it was going to be a huge adventure, something between Peter Pan's island of lost children and a military camp. On the first or second night, it was pouring rain and my two roommates and I climbed to the roof of our dorm, took our clothes off and ran around. The principal caught us and asked if we were performing witchcraft. That was pretty much the extent of my adventure for the next three years.
JR What music were you carrying around in your head then?
O The piece I remember most from that time is Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No 1. It changed my mind about what music can be. It has so much humor and such a light approach to its own drama. It's still as thrilling to me today. I like listening to it with new friends. But I was also interested in what I think of now as really, really bad, sulky American songwriters. I think that my mind only talked to bombastic things then, and the output from Ninja Tune spoke to me because of that. They were so emo.
JR What else did you listen to?
O In Paris, I was living at the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and I only owned a Walkman. I would always carry a few CDs in my bag and on nights that I slept at friends' houses, I would usually spend the evening transferring my CDs to cassette. I listened to John Cale's Paris 1919 a lot.
JR What music were you carrying in your spirit?
O Always Bach.
JR Your songs are made up of digital elements, but they're hauntingly physical. Is this something you know how to do as a composer?
O There's a chain of overpriced 24/7 delis in Brooklyn called Sunac. I lived next to one for years and actively tried to avoid going there, but it was the only place open at 3 AM, when my friends and I were coming back from practice or a show. Their PA system played the worst music. We called it "Sunac music." I've never heard those songs anywhere else. These were not the Top 40 songs that blast out from passing cars, but really, really bad rock and pop songs that sounded so flat, like a mosquito buzzing at your ear. It was like all space was crushed out of the music. For me, it's counterintuitive to make something like that. When all the space is gone, music becomes a one-dimensional shape, a line with two endpoints. This has nothing to do with hi-fi or lo-fi recording. A song can be minimal or epic, it can be a single sound, and still have depth if you can hear the space around it.
When I start working on a track, it always starts with a sound that peaks my curiosity. I'm curious about how the sound can be positioned in space and how it might coexist with other sounds. Primarily it's a curiosity, almost a need, to find out what the object I'm making is.
JR Does that take seconds or days?
O When you learn something new, there's a moment of putting it aside, and when you come back to it, even though you've done nothing to promote any learning whatsoever in the meantime, you might suddenly notice that your knowledge has leapt ahead. There have been countless times, especially while I was still rigorously studying classical piano, that I was frustrated by how slowly a piece was coming along the first day. I would put it to rest after a few hours, but then the next day my first pass might be perfect.
JR Learning is mysterious like that. You don't just pay out focus then take your winnings.
O A huge part of it is the internal processes that occur in the lull time. There's a reciprocal relationship between you and the object you're making. You begin crafting something like a harmonic sequence, and you might have an idea about what it is, but when you leave it aside and come back, it tells you something new about itself. It's as if you start with a seed that has its own life force, and it evolves when you're not there. Only gradually do you learn about the essential properties of the thing you're making, then you can highlight them to the best of your ability.
JR Time's at work, and what else?
O I also think forgetfulness is a big part of this process, because it's important not to grow embalmed in your own convictions about what it is you're trying to make. I do hope that some of the physicality in my music is a result of not forcing anything into a premeditated structure of how it should work, and of this tension between making a thing and noticing what it's becoming.
JR Your score to Cancelled Faces is more sparsely composed than your album, but it's equally, if not more, physical. The emotions played out in every scene are amplified by your melodies. How did you make this happen?
O Lior, the director, and I started working on this while he was still filming in Seoul. He sent me the script and a few scenes that weren't entirely edited yet, and I then sent him tracks inspired by the visuals. Lior played the tracks to the actors before they started filming again. It was a way for him to establish a certain type of mood for the actors, and we kept this back and forth going for a couple months. By then, I already had a clear palette of sounds and melodies for each of the intertwined narratives.
JR I think the cassette pressed from your score provides a key to hearing your album more clearly. The lines that are packed-in on the album stand more alone here. They're anatomized and good for study. Is that fair or are they different beasts?
O Absolutely, they're closely related. I started working on Acid Park right as I was finishing Cancelled Faces. They evolved from the same base material and ended up as different things, steered by different sets of intentions. But the aesthetic inclination is the same. I think that in Cancelled Faces the visuals had the role that the vocals took in Acid Park. They're variations on the same idea.
JR The voice-as-synth is made explicit on the song "Wintertime." You don't sing so much as strike notes with your voice. It reminds me of a church organ, or one of the organs in the hockey rinks I grew up in.
O I didn't know they had organs in hockey rinks! What type of organ music did they play?
JR Chants and old pop songs. "Wintertime" would have been weird but not entirely out of place.
O This was one of the last tracks I wrote for Acid Park. This isn't a concept album in the sense of a unifying narrative, but I did hold a purpose in mind about how all the different parts should sit with each other. For me this track is pretty dark, almost entropy-like. It gradually disintegrates and folds in on itself. But it's also a bit funny because of the pathos that comes with the human voice, specifically ooo-ing. I wanted to keep a certain balance between listening to the album as ambient and being engaged with each individual track, and for me this song is the epitome of striking that balance. The other tracks each veer in one direction or the other.
JR There's a strong mix of lament and hope that moves through the whole album. Do you ever tell a story about this group of songs?
O My interest in songs and songwriting has never been about plot or narrative. I listened to songs in English before I knew how to speak English. I would put a record on from my father's collection, David Bowie or something like that, and even though I had no idea what the song's story might be, I had a very clear feeling that I knew what the song was about.
You say lament, but music never makes me sad—it's always joy, always uplifting. Music is not a utilitarian thing for me. It is uplifting in the sense of encountering a beautiful thing, and by beautiful I mean it feels complete and light, and it feels like the sum of its properties belong to it in the same way that the whole belongs to its properties. I hope this doesn't sound didactic or scientific because Acid Park and music in general is purely emotional for me.
JR Do you decide what you write lyrics about or is that an automatic process? Your lyrics are often about love.
O I do think about love a lot. It seems hard not to. But I also never sit down to write lyrics separately from working on music. I write a lot, but I don't have an interest in composing written words. It's an automatic process at the beginning, when I start singing the vocal lines, but then I listen back to the recording and sing over it again with a clearer idea of what's happening. By the time it's done I'll know exactly who the song is about and what it's describing. It's like bouncing ideas back and forth with a friend, but the friend is you.
JR Speaking of love, earlier this year you collaborated with Brian Eno on an article published in Vice, urging musicians to boycott Israel in support of Palestinians. It's a conversation the American media actively resists, so how did it go?
O It was good to address this on a popular platform. Palestinian civil society issued the call for a boycott over a decade ago, but many artists and cultural workers are still unaware of it. If they are, they usually try to steer away from talking about it as fast as possible.
JR It's not how we talk about it, but that we don't?
O Israel pushes the idea that the conflict is rooted in religion, that no one really knows how it started or how on earth we ended up here. People hear the words "Palestine and Israel" or "Israel and Palestine," and they think it's a big epochal mystery, when really it's a very clear human rights issue. Israel, with help from the US, has done a great job marketing its systematic oppression of Palestinians as a symmetrical conflict between two peoples. But there is an oppressor and an oppressed. Israel still holds millions of Palestinians under martial law in the West Bank, it still holds a siege on Gaza, and there are fifty discriminatory laws against Palestinians in Israel.
JR You called on musicians to decline invitations to perform in Israel?
O I've had so many conversations about this with musicians invited to perform there, and often their response is that music brings people together, and specifically that their music is the thing that might really help people in "the region." This expression—"the region"—is so funny to me. Which region? What does that mean? And how is it that the opposite opinion of virtually all Palestinians and some Israelis doesn't matter? When Elton John, Cher, and Paul Simon played Sun-City, presumably because of their dedication to their fans, where was their devotion to their other fans and to the struggle to end apartheid? Today, the artists who played South Africa in violation of the boycott are, hopefully, ashamed of themselves.
JR They're banking on the myth that music and performance can only be a good thing by nature, no matter the circumstance?
O It's mind blowing to me that someone can think that bringing their music to Israel will help Palestinians, instead of listening to what Palestinians are calling for. No civil rights struggle in world history shows that an oppressed group won equal rights because their oppressor had a sudden change of heart. Are the Palestinians supposed to wait around for all the Ben Frosts and Macy Grays to show Israelis their life-changing art so that their hearts will open for peace? Social change has always stemmed from struggles enacted by oppressed groups. How can a musician living in Iceland say that boycotts are restricting, when a Palestinian fan won't be able to come to his show in Tel-Aviv because her freedom of movement, even within her own village, is restricted by the Israeli Army? It's ridiculous.
JR Your activism has been as persistent and as creative as your life in music. Are these separate activities?
O They're completely separate.
JR I'm curious why your first solo projects are coming out now, this year. Is there any reason or little riddle to the timing?
O In a way, I feel like there's no reason for it, because I really have been doing the same thing for years, every day. I've always played music, I've always written and recorded music, I've always thought about it constantly. But all sameness has its iterations, right? Doesn't it often feel like everything is the same and different all the time?
JR It does feel that way.
O I think that one day the new iteration, for me, was "make albums."
Jesse Ruddock is a Canadian-American writer and photographer. Her debut novel, Shot-Blue, is forthcoming with Coach House Books in 2017. She lives in New York and Guelph.