Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Editors: A full recording of the piece is available at

Israeli, Palestinian music share turf in composer's new work

Miracles or mud?

It's a choice you're likely to face whether you walk into a Jewish or Muslim household in Israel. Translation: "Instant coffee or Turkish coffee?"

Jonathan Berger, an associate professor of music, tweaks the question a bit for the title of one of his recent compositions. Miracles and Mud, commissioned by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, contains whispering references to both a Palestinian song and an Israeli song. The quartet, Stanford's ensemble in residence, finished a studio recording of the piece late last month. It will be featured on a compact disc of chamber music written by Berger.

"Much of my music has sort of a political energy to it," Berger said the other day, sitting in the lounge of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where his office is. "It's not overt ­ they're not flag-waving pieces ­ but they reflect my sentiments, particularly about war and refugees."

The quartet performed Miracles and Mud at the renowned Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., in June 2001. Berger told an audience there that the piece can be interpreted as either hopeful or hopeless. Nerve-twanging suspense, however, is the effect of hearing it. Played in one continuous, exhilarating movement, the music leaves you with a feeling reminiscent of watching the final scenes of Hitchcock's Rear Window and North by Northwest ­ that is, of seeing people hanging, literally, in the balance.

Indeed, the violins recall Bernard Herrmann's compositions for Psycho and North by Northwest: Fierce marcato bow strokes open the piece; notes lunge rhapsodically up and down the register; plaintive, solo laments back into dissonance as the other instruments join in. At one particularly distressing moment, the viola is bowed to mimic the Doppler effect of an ambulance siren fading away in the distance.

The Palestinian and Israeli songs stay in the background. "The pieces are never explicitly stated," Berger said. "The Palestinian one is about a village that no longer exists, and the Israeli one is about the land of milk and honey ­ of refugees coming and finding the Promised Land. And that for me is the Tchaikovsky contrast."


Tchaikovsky and the Middle East

The genesis of the composition combines happenstance and history. Several years ago, Berger heard Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1, performed by the St. Lawrence ensemble, for the first time.

"One of the outstanding features of that quartet, particularly the scherzo, is that it changes direction really quickly," Berger said. "It will be going somewhere, and then it will shift over very quickly and very unpredictably. It's almost nerve-wracking to listen to, and I just fell in love with that."

By now, the quartet has performed Miracles and Mud in concert more than 50 times, Berger said. "They've played it all over the world, and that's a very rare treat for a composer these days," he added. "They've gotten to know the piece way better than I do."

Barry Shiffman, the St. Lawrence's second violinist, said the quartet and Berger make a good match. "He has a strong conviction for what he writes, but it doesn't prevent him from listening to the interpretative ideas of the performers," Shiffman said. "There's trust ­ we know him, he knows us."

Shiffman described the contrasts in the piece as "stunning." "Jonathan attaches a word to it that we find perfect, and that is 'kaleidoscopic,'" he said, adding that the piece has been well-received by audiences.

(Berger has since been commissioned by the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle to write another piece for the quartet.)

In addition to the Tchaikovsky quartet, Miracles and Mud was heavily influenced by Berger's personal experience in the Middle East, which began 30 years ago as a student at the Samuel Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. This is where he found himself in 1972, after having abandoned his undergraduate studies at the University of Buffalo to travel abroad. "I felt that I just needed to learn more about the world," he explained.

While studying in Jerusalem he met his future wife, Talya Joshua, an Israeli native. After earning his bachelor's degree in music, he returned to the United States and attended the California Institute of the Arts, where he received a master of fine arts, and Stanford, where he earned a doctorate in musical arts.

Berger has returned to Israel many times since his undergraduate days. In 1999, he created a sound installation, Echoes of Light and Time, for Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem, a millennium sculpture garden by the glass artist Dale Chihuly.


Miracles and mud

Nescafe got big in Israel beginning in the 1960s. The Hebrew word "nes" means "miracle," and, when used colloquially, "nescafe" has come to mean any brand of instant coffee.

On the other hand, "café botz" ­ literally "mud coffee" ­ is used to describe Turkish coffee, a potent brew made from finely ground beans that is popular among residents of the Holy Land. (In fact, Arabs were the first to foster coffee drinking, production and trade; the word "coffee" is derived from the Arabic "qahwah.")

For Berger, the coffees' coexistence is significant at several levels. "It just seemed too invitingly symbolic," he said. "For one thing, I think the two coffees represent the two cultures in ways that no words can describe; it sort of summarizes the disparity and the conflict. But at the same time, it doesn't matter whether you visit an Israeli or an Arab-Israeli household ­ you'll get the same line."

In Berger's view, Israelis and Palestinians must sit down and talk for peace to come to the region. "There's no other solution," he said. "Whether you like it or not, this is home to both of these people. It's like what Amos Oz said about how the Israelis and Palestinians have to learn to treat this not as a Shakespearean tragedy, but as tragedy in the tradition of Chekhov ­ the sort of play where nobody dies at the end but nobody's happy at the end."


By John Sanford

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints