Composer/conductor Shaul Bustan: "I always felt closer to jazz musicians" (Interview)
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
The work of Israeli composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Shaul Bustan is all about connecting. Connecting worlds and cultures, Orient and Occident. The Eastern European roots of his father's side of the family and the Persian roots of his mother's side. Bustan combines classical music and jazz, composition and improvisation. And last but not least: the mandolin, the oud (an Arabic predecessor of the lute) and the double bass.
Bustan was born in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Scheva in 1983. He started to learn the mandolin as a child and started composing at a very early age, being well on his way to become a mandolin virtuoso. (It seems Be'er Sheva is a good place for that: World famous mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital is also from there). Later he went to Jerusalem to study mandolin and composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He got his master's degree in composition – and became a kind of musical jack of all trade: composer, performer, conductor, educator. Besides his own records released under his name, he has written operas and orchestral pieces as well as music for theatre and film. His music has been performed by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and Giora Feidman and many more.
Shaul Bustan lives in Berlin, together with his wife and his two children. At the moment he is working on his new, yet untiled record and an opera.
Shaul, I would like to talk about your roots a little bit. Your father's side of the family is Eastern European, your mother's is Persian. How much did that influence your youth culturally – and musically in particular?
My parents were both first generation Israelis, born in the 1950s. Their parents, my grandparents, came from Persia and from the border between Romania and Moldova. My parents were Israelis from the very beginning, but from a cultural point of view they certainly were also Persian and Romanian. Although neither of them could speak their ancestor's language. My father has learnt Romanian in the meantime – but my grandparents only spoke Hebrew with their children, even if they couldn't speak it well themselves.
Looking back, can you think of examples where your parents' different backgrounds were visible to you?
Yes, in many ways my parents were very different from each other. You could see that when it came to food and culture, even in the way they walked. Of course there was this thing with the first generation of Israelis: Everybody wanted to become an Israeli, speak Hebrew and develop and build this country. Coming from another place didn't exist anymore in a way. Everybody was from Israel now. But now more than ever, I see how much they also had those other cultures in them.
Was Eastern European and Persian music present in your childhood?
I would say yes, but unfortunately I couldn't really ask anyone about that. My mother has passed away very early and my father does not have a very good memory. On our Persian grandparents' side there always was music. My great grandfather in Persia was a musician. He played Tombak and later also the Tar, an Iranian string instrument. He came to Israel in the 1960s. He died early, so I never heard him play.
How present were those musical influences in Israeli culture?
In Israel, up to the mid-1990s, the music from the mediterranean and east, as we call it, was not very present. It later became well-known, but back then you did only hear the European side. The first time I can recall consciously hearing Persian music was when I was 14, 15. When I first heard it, I immediately felt like home. It's still like that. I can only speak five words in Persian – but the Persian music always makes me feel like I'm there. It's inside of me, I can't explain it. It's always in me, emotionally.
Were your parents musicians?
There was always music in the house, but it was coming from the radio or records. My parents loved music, but they weren't musically educated. They didn't play instruments either.
And the Eastern European side?
That came from my grandmother. Her father was a Holocaust survivor. He was an entrepreneur, had a large factory in Romania before World War II. My grandmother told me that he was very culturally interested when he came to Israel. He went to the Opera a lot, even played guitar and sang. Jiddish culture was very present in their house.
When did you become interested in playing an instrument?
When I was six, I told my parents that I'd wanted to play an instrument. Initially I had wanted to play guitar, but somehow I ended up with the mandolin. There was a violin teacher in Be'er Sheva, he originally came from Moscow. They had told him that there's a free spot as a mandolin teacher there. To which he said "I don't play the mandolin, but I'll take it. Because I need work". That was in the 1960s or so. He built a whole orchestra, focussed everything on the mandolin and educated people to become virtuosos. My grandfather told me: "Ah, mandolin, that's the same thing as the Tar, an instrument my father had played". He drew that instrument on a piece of paper, I didn't know back then how a tar looked. Nowadays, every second musician in Be'er Sheva plays the tar. Even when you're not Persian – it just sounds great. Back then it was very exotic.
What came next?
Somehow I landed in the classical world with a very unusual instrument, the mandolin. I played all the things violinists usually played. I was six years old when I got my first mandolin. A simple instrument. Like this one [Shaul takes a mandolin and starts playing a song with empty strings – MB.]. That's what I played for hours, "Jerusalem Of Gold". It's a very hard instrument for kids, it's hard to press down the strings. My first experiences were in classical music, pieces that were arranged for mandolins. After two or three years of practicing, I started playing in a mandolin orchestra. That was my musical education as a child.
Did you also listen to popular music?
Yes, the music that I heard on the radio also had its impact on me. I had this phase when I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to make music, but wasn't that happy with the mandolin. As we head a piano at home, I started to play around with it. Later I also started playing the electric guitar – until I switched to bass. My teacher back then said: "There are a thousand guitarists out there. But if you play bass, you'll find a band immediately“. And he was right.
We're talking electric bass here, right?
Yes, electric bass – the upright came later. I told my father: "Come on, let's go to the music store, I really need a bass". So we did that. I played in bands, I composed songs – and we played the stages of Be'er Sheva. We played for some years, then I somehow lost interest. Around that time I started to take composition lessons for a while. For instance I harmonized Bach chorales for the first time. But the idea that I had to become a classical mandolin virtuoso was still there. My new mandolin teacher was from Ukraine – and to him it was all about becoming a virtuoso. Nothing else really mattered to him.
When did things get serious for you?
When my mother passed away. I was around 14 years old. It was an emotional thing that pushed me into the right direction: I knew I was meant to make music. A few months after her passing I won my first music contest. I had four years left until university – and the army. The usual way would have been to go the army and work as a musician there. And besides going to the army, one also usually attend the Academy, the only place where you can learn mandolin. But I also knew that I am meant to be a composer.
" I could not be a person who only does one thing."
When did you start working as a conductor?
When I was 18, I started to work with sheet music. I knew how to read, but not how to write music. We had a bit of theory in music school, but that was too boring for me back then. I left the rock band and learnt about jazz and world music. In the last year of school I got really serious about it. I wrote for a mandolin orchestra. I learnt how to write music by copying Vivaldi pieces. I started composing smaller pieces. They got performed, I even started working as a conductor. My last exam was with a mandolin orchestra, my recital. That was an important moment: I was a conductor, composer and performer at the same time. Some people do one thing and they do it very well. I could not be a person who only does one thing.
So did you have to join to the army? No. I didn't get a job as a musician in the army and in the end I did not join.
That's a possibility in Israel?
No, that possibility to decide that for yourself does not exist. But there are ways, one of them us an evaluation by a psychoanalyst. I got examined – and they decided I was not mentally fit for the army. I just did not want to do it. Of course, that comes along with a stigma in Israeli society.
What did your family say about it?
I was the second of three children and I was always a bit of a trouble maker. When I told them that I wouldn't join the army, this wasn't well too received. Except for my grandparents on both sides. They told me: "We understand it, you're a musician. You don't have to go."
But that enabled you to attend the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance much earlier.
Exactly. I applied for it and got accepted. In Germany, it's normal to go to university when you're 18 years old. In Israel it's not. Usually you start university when you're around 23. You serve three years in the army, then you work as a waiter for one year to save money. After that, you take a year off and go to India or something like that and THEN you go to uni. I wasn't the first mandolinist there, Avi Avital came before me and before Avi three other great players. Mandolin was already established, mandolinists had already won contests. It was already a well-known instrument.
Your main subject was composition, right? I started out with mandolin as my main subject. That's what I was best at. Our faculty consisted of violinists, cellists and mandolinists. Once one of my teachers asked me: "I heard that you are a composer. Send me one of your pieces". I had attempted to write a string quartet ealier, so I sent that to him. But he wasn't too enthusiastic, said "I don't know about that". I got kind of angry. I asked another composer that I knew: "What's wrong with that piece? He explained it to me, told me what I needed to change. So I changed some things and sent it to my teacher. He then gave me a little piece of paper with four phone numbers. "Those are your four musicians, they will perform your piece next month. Give them a call now". That was my premiere – two of the violinists later played with the Berlin Philharmonics. They performed my music, people were enthusiastic about it. After that, I got to compose for a whole orchestra, the Be'er Sheva Sinfonietta. A great Orchestra. That was the moment I knew that I had to study composition, not mandolin. It was about one year into my studies. But I didn't quit mandolin, I started a second Bachelor on composition. Four years I also got my masters degree in composition.
"I got bored with the mandolin".
You are rooted in the classical world, but there's that jazz side to your work. Did you also have contacts with people the jazz scene? How is the jazz scene in Jerusalem?
That's a good question. I always felt closer to Jazz musicians. In the Academy we had jazz faculty. I got along very well with jazz musicians, so I attended jam sessions. Back then there wasn't much of a jazz scene in Jerusalem, today it's much bigger. I jammed a few Bossa Nova standards with those guys, on mandolin. We improvised a lot. I tried everything with the mandolin. I played rock music, played Cobra by John Zorn, whatever. When I was done with my bachelor's degree, I took a long break from the mandolin. I sold my instrument, I didn't want to hear it again. But that changed after a while.
And then you moved to Berlin. How did that come about?
A lot of people I knew moved away after university, some of them went to Germany. I wanted to see what the thing about Berlin was all about. 2006 I applied at the UdK (University of Arts). I had composed a lot of pieces by then, a lot of Orchestras had my performed my music. But my music wasn't Modern Music, not "Neue Musik". The people there looked at my sheet music and started laughing. Really, they laughed! Maybe that's just the way I remember it, but they were like "Ridiculous. Melodies? Harmonies? That's not modern music". There was no explanation why I didn't get the job, but today it's kind of obvious to me. Nowadays my compositions have moved into Jazz territories. It's categorized as popular music, not serious music.
Does that distinction exist in your opinion? To me it doesn't. But for funding purposes it does. If you're not "serious" enough, you will get less funds for your work.
How did your family react when you went to Berlin?
A lot of my aunts, uncles and cousins did not understand why I wanted to move there. My grandparents did. One of my grandfathers, he died one year ago, was a Holocaust survivor. We don't know his full story, but we are pretty sure that he was at the concentration camp in Dachau. What we know for certain is that he later was at the Cloister Indersdorf in a DP center. He spent some months there. He even could talk German. Seven years ago, my wife – who is German – and I visited Israel together for the first time. All of a sudden my grandfather started speaking German with my wife [artist and author Claudia Schwartz]. We were completely surprised: "You speak German?". His mother came from Cernovic – there was a Jewish community where a lot of people came from Germany. He had spoken German with his mother. We don't know how long he spent in Germany. He was completely okay with it. "Go to Germany. It's important for your development", he said. When I brought my wife with me, he was very happy about that. Even my grandmother was completely fine with it all. Imagine that: A Wehrmacht soldier had shot her own mother – and still she was very happy about the whole thing. She loves my wife a lot. My grandparents were very supportive. My father understands it now. And my little sister, who is 32, also moved here two years ago. One of my cousins lives here. He came for my wedding – and then he stayed.
"Once you leave Israel, you've left really Israel."
How was leaving Israel like?
You have to understand, leaving Israel is not an easy thing. For Israelis and Jews that's quite a big thing. I mean, my friends understand that I don't want to return. But I did not play one single concert in Israel in the last eight years. Once you leave Israel, you've really left Israel. It's a very proud country in that regard. And I understand that: They have so many great musicians living there, why would they need me? There are so many great oud players and composers living there, why would they need Shaul Bustan? They have so little money for concerts anyway.
Let's talk about the present a bit. Apart from your own albums and your work with orchestras and Ensembles you have also composed film music. 2020 you've written the score for two movies, "Toprak" and "Lichter der Stadt".
Yes, I've been doing music for theatre and film or a long time now. I am different from other film composers in a certain way – because my soundtracks always have to sound like my music. It has to fit in the movie but I also have to be able to perform it in a concert hall as my own music. "Toprak" is a good example. I got the offer for "Toprak" and it was such a good fit. It's such a beautiful movie, shot in Turkey. The pictures, the landscapes, everything is very slow. That tempo suited me so well, I immediately saw the oud, a string quartet, a piano. We have performed that music at our regular shows and it flows effortlessly.
You've recorded a new album. Tell us about that.
It was time for a next record. My last album was released 2018 ["Negev", an album that focusses on the oud, M.B.] . The new one will be a vivid mix. There will be three pieces on the record that are written for a string quintet, but there will also be oud and room for improvisation. Five pieces on the other hand are written for upright bass, saxophone, percussion and piano, but again with the oud. This side will be little jazzier, more vibrant – the other side is more classical. But the two sides work together really well. It's like a story, from front to back. I'm planning to release the album this year.
Besides your new record, what do you have planned?
Since the pandemic, a lot of concerts and other things were postponed unfortunately. But that gave me the time to focus on composing – more than the years before. I am working on a new opera. It's an opera by Ephraim Kishon, "Black on White". The concept is to have an orchestra, soloists, singers but also two bands. One with oud and percussion – the Orient side – and then for the Occident a band with clarinet and accordion. I am also conducting three choirs in Berlin, so I'm busy with that as well. Plus, if an orchestra needs an usual instrument: I'm up for that task. My dream is to be a composer, conductor and musician at the same time. I managed to do that one time in Israel. We performed my composition, played by an ensemble of nine. I played with my back facing the audience, conducting with my head and – whenever I didn't play – with my hands.
For more information about Shaul, visit his official website www.shaulbustan.com