ITALICS Israeli composer gurgles, hums and howls at coronavirus; then his friends join

By Jessica Steinberg*

After a month of COVID-19 seclusion with his wife, four-year-old and in-laws in Zumaglia, a village of 400 in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, Jerusalem-born musician Yuval Avital couldn’t take it anymore.

He took the only computer he had with him, a simple tablet, “and I made a wordless prayer, a mantra with elements of shouting, even choking sounds,” said Avital, a composer and guitarist. “It was 12 minutes of non-filtered expression.”

What it expressed was his feelings about the coronavirus, its death toll, the closure of Italy, where he has lived for the last 17 years, and his own unexpected seclusion with his family.

But he soon realized he could create something bigger with this raw expression through collaboration with fellow artists from around the globe.

Avital turned that personal, vocal expression — which sounds like wordless humming, echoing and sound — into “Human Signs,” a composition created together with more than 100 singers and dancers he’s worked with over the years around the world.

Every Tuesday evening, Avital reveals another episode of “Human Signs” on Facebook and YouTube Live, in which the various artists offer their own interpretations of Avital’s recorded moments of sound.

The end result is an hour-and-a-half-long recording of the participating artists’ interpretation of Avital’s chant with their own sounds or movements.

“I don’t usually offer my own voice in my compositions,” said Avital. “This is about humanity, about being creative, open, truthful, vulnerable and all the rest is secondary. It’s one of the small, coronavirus miracles.”

All told, artists from 38 countries have been involved in the experience, including participants from China, New York and Israel. Avital also reached out to his network of sound and video technicians, from England and Italy, and gathered a crew of about 15 people who donated their time to work on the project.

Avital has been living in Milan for the last 17 years, developing his musical compositions and exhibits in a variety of spaces — from public venues to archaeological sites to theaters and museums — and working with a wide network of other artists, dancers, singers and musicians.

He turned to that network for “Human Signs.” He aimed to find a contact point with each participant, and asked each one to take his 11 minute, 43 second chant “to their place” — with some general guidelines.

“For each artist, I said truthfulness is more important than aesthetics,” said

In the end result of each artist’s piece, “nothing gets edited or moved around,” he said. “It’s about vulnerability and intimacy, sometimes about getting nuts and being caged, all the repressed layers.”

The project will eventually be gathered in a website, and perhaps a post-COVID-19 exhibit, with 19 screens of this human choir.

There have been complications along the way, said Avital, including the fact that he has to wander around his in-laws’ house seeking a spot with decent WiFi in order to speak to people and review recordings.

Avital had come to Piedmont with his wife and daughter to visit his in-laws for a weekend in March, and has remained there for the last three months as Italy sealed its towns and cities due to the coronavirus.

They came for the weekend with an old guitar, a tablet and a small suitcase of clothing.

“At first I thought of it as an art residency,” said Avital, a graduate of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, who first arrived in the tiny town of Zumaglia when he came to Italy 17 years ago to study guitar, and ended up meeting his wife there. “I had my old guitar, paper to do drawings, music sheets. I thought I would cook and be in the intimacy of the family.”

But when the numbers of coronavirus victims began to grow, and a year’s worth of concerts and exhibitions were canceled, Avital felt like he had “a ton on my chest,” he said. “The silence of the empty towns and cities were hurting my ears.”

At the same time, as he consumed more social media in order to feel more connected to the world at large, he found that the relief concerts and singing celebrities didn’t answer any of the questions at large about the virus, government control over the cities, or the hope that humanity could reset itself.

“Mankind is a guest of the planet,” he said. “”We’re no longer the lord of the planet.”

*The article was published in the Times of Israel on June 6, 2020.