Yuval Avital (born in Israel, now living in Milan) is a multimedia artist, composer and guitar soloist, working with sound in theatres and opera houses, and creating sound-sculptures, visual (“icon-sonic”) works and immersive sound-based installations in both art and non-art settings. He therefore seemed just the right artist to enter into a dialogue with “Theatrum Mundi”, and with an architect whose built works include the Jewish Museum Berlin (2001), the World Trade Center Masterplan (2003), the Extension to the Denver Art Museum (2006), and the Dresden Museum of Military History (2011).
Responding to the images and text first, before seeing Libeskind’s video (“a message in a bottle!”), Avital shared his impressions directly with the architect in New York in a one-hour zoom call on the 4th August, speaking from his studio in Milan. It was the first time the two had met. Having already worked intensely for three days to map out a first draft of 12 individual cyclical pieces to correspond to each image (which he had read “as both artwork and score”), Avital played his sound sketches to Libeskind, moving the images on the screen. To the composer and curators it felt like a very new form of collaboration: “creative space happening in virtual space”, he said.
Knowing Libeskind’s story, Avital described their first connection as being the accordion:
“I love the accordion and have written much for it, including 2 pieces for 7 accordions and one piece for 34 accordions. So I thought, “Why don’t I take these works and play a little with them here.” But later, when I listened to you speaking [in the video] Daniel, about the process in these images, I thought it was similar to what I am trying to do: ascendance and descendance. The city and its architecture are like harmony and composition, all trying to create an ideal order. But sometimes when this doesn’t work, it needs to break, to deconstruct in order to reveal a deeper, more important truth. The term theatrum mundi represents historically an idea of the world as a false stage that covers the truth within life. And I think that somehow in this Covid-19 moment, this crisis has given us a chance to open our eyes. I remember going to my studio in Milan and watching the eyes of the people that walked towards me, with their masks on, and something in their eyes was terrified. There was a feeling, a layer, of imminent danger. When I started reading the image titles for each scene, I became fully immersed in this theatrum mundi microcosmos and the elaborated sounds of the accordion for me became physical materials within it: rivers, shadows, sand, ruins, minds. Many of your works as an architect, Daniel, remind me of the gesture of the accordion’s bellow [opening in and out]: it is a sonic lung that is breathing.”
“That’s a beautiful thought,” Libeskind replied. “These drawings were made such a long time ago, that the thought for me too is in the images, and what you have now said is relevant because then, just as now, I believed that what we control is not the truth; it is not reliable. The reality is completely elsewhere, exactly in the realms that we are now exposed to. It is the piece of our mind that is not controllable and these elements penetrate through and into the drawings or paintings, between the gestures of making. It’s strange now, meeting up with these thoughts that were not really around at that time [in 1983-5] because then everything was getting brighter and progressing, everything was getting more and more consumed and optimistic; so these drawings were on the other side of the moon, the side that we don’t see at all.”
Following the zoom conversation, Avital returned to his composition, thinking further in terms of time and collage, using his three accordion pieces as “materia prima elements”, digitally elaborated and manipulated as “the artwork’s sonic grammar”, with tiers of electronic sound and voice. He also felt it was right (in agreement with Libeskind) to animate the images, so that the viewer can “read” them as he has done, in a way that corresponds to the 12 compositions; for the viewing of art and architecture is not static, but mobile and directional, even in a subtle sense.
The results are almost cinematic: layers of sound, like messages in Morse code, travelling through space and time in all directions, occasionally tuning into an accordion melody, but only momentarily. The sounds vary from rhythmic pulsing and throbbing, like a radio searching for a connection, to deep accordion base notes that communicate fear and danger. The music is unsettling, with only occasional glimpses of something ordered and recognisable, like notes of birdsong or a fragment of fairground music. Composed through a series of drafts, beginning with an intuitive response and then with more detailed workings, additions and structures, there is a sense for the viewer who is also the listener of not being in control: a search for resolution and order that finds only seconds of hope. The accordion is perfect too for this theatrum mundi: an instrument that stems from lonely street corners and the network of dark alleys or courtyards in a city, its colour palette moving from black and white through to isolated reds, or yellows, blues, oranges and pinks. Avital does not expect the viewer to necessarily listen from beginning to end: like a building, it is possible to move through it in different ways each time; to meditate on its parts or as a whole; and to revisit.