Musician Be'eri Moalem has, for most of his life, felt torn between two worlds, moving back and forth with his family between Israel and America. His musical life, too, has pulled him in several directions. As a classically-trained violinist and violist, he performs with symphonies and choral groups worldwide. As a contemporary composer, he experiments with electronica, hip-hop, Klezmer and more. Moalem has brought all of his influences and interests together with his debut album, "Exile."
The 13-track record, which Moalem made in collaboration with producer DJ Daris at his Redwood City studio and Moalem's Palo Alto home, takes its title from Moalem's feeling of not completely belonging to any one culture or artistic style.
"When I go back there (to Israel), I feel like I'm Americanized ... Here, I feel like an Israeli," he said. Calling his album "Exile" refers to "not having a place that's 100 percent your homeland." The music, too, doesn't conform to any one genre. "It's a hybrid personality," he explained. "It's kind of part of the postmodern world, the mixing of a bunch of different identities."
As a testament to his multicultural experience, the songs mix Moalem's classical roots with his more experimental and modern sides, as well as with traditional Jewish and Middle Eastern motifs. Violin pieces by Bach, with synthesizers rather than pipe organs providing the harmonies, are set alongside pieces with hip-hop beats, one incorporating the chant Golden State Warriors fans sing at Oracle Arena. The second half of the album takes a turn toward Moalem's Israeli and Jewish influences. A love song titled "Batya," named for Moalem's wife, is followed immediately by the haunting "Tzeva Adom," which takes its inspiration from the siren alarm Israel uses as an alert for incoming rocket attacks, as well as on the country's Memorial Day.
"When we got married in Israel in 2014, there was one of the skirmishes between Gaza and Israel ... That alarm is very powerful, so I turned it into music. It's just basically a C sharp, and I improvised the melody over it," he said. The sound of that alarm and all its connotations are irrevocably tied to memories of his wedding. "The celebrations kept going even though some of my cousins had to go to reserve duty or the front lines. But the party kept going; everyone was still dancing; it's that weird energy in Israel."
Classic Klezmer (the traditional music of Eastern European Jews) is mashed up with 1980s-style synthpop on "Exile." The Klezmer genre looms large in Moalem's psyche.
"Growing up, that's the music you hear in services and celebrations, wedding services and bar mitzvahs. Even in my compositions, there's always that tone, that scale ... (Klezmer melodies) work themselves into my musical voice," he said.
He's releasing the album independently (it's available at Bandcamp) and said it's a labor of love, not motivated by dreams of fame or financial success.
"Ever since high school I've been composing. To just do classical or orchestral music was not enough to me, playing other composers only," he said. "Most classical musicians are basically cover artists. I've always wanted to complete a whole set of (original) songs."
Moalem first met DJ Daris when he was hired to do orchestration for a rap album. Daris, he said, has worked with big names in the music industry, including Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, but recently moved to Modesto, priced out of the Peninsula due to rising rents. In the studio, Daris came up with the beats while Moalem played his violin and created keyboard tracks using MIDI. The two then experimented with the sounds that became "Exile."
Moalem still values his classical training highly. He credits his mentor, the late William Whitson, founder of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO), with encouraging his love of classical music, as well as of mentoring others. "He inspired a lot of people around here. Half the (local) professional musicians ... they were in PACO at some point," he said. "I'm kinda following in his footsteps. He mentioned to me that I would be a teacher; that proved prophetic." Moalem currently teaches violin and viola to students at the German International School of Silicon Valley, as well as offering private lessons, and has taught in the Palo Alto Unified School District and other local schools. In the summer, he's part of "Summer Strings," a Palo Alto chamber-music workshop that helps string-instrument players of various levels and ages gain experience playing in small groups. He described his teaching methods as a mix of Suzuki, traditional and improvisational. "I'm a little more on the casual side" than some instructors, he said with a grin. He plays for religious services at temples, churches, weddings and community events, and is a freelance music arranger, notator and custom composer (and is also a former editorial intern/occasional writer for the Weekly).
Moalem's various musical worlds keep him busy. On May 12 and 13, he'll play with the Stanford Symphonic Chorus, in Memorial Church. May 21, he'll perform with soprano Heather Klein at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. On May 27, he'll celebrate the release of his album with a Palo Alto house concert (see his website, beeri.org, for details and ticket information). He said he enjoys house concerts because they "don't have that formality of a regular classical concert. It's a warm and a nice way to share music." That show, he said, "will be a mix of my original chamber music compositions, traditional 19th century chamber music, Klezmer and a bit of electronica from the album. Maybe some loop-pedal stuff also." And in June, he's off to Mexico with a string quartet to play at a Club Med resort.
He recently returned from another trip to Israel, where, in addition to visiting family, he performed with a group of Hassidic Jews he met in the States. During his interview with the Weekly, he pondered about his life in two worlds, describing the "very hot, dry and dusty" settlement in the West Bank where he grew up, across the street from an army base; Jerusalem shimmering in the distance; a Bedouin village nearby; a place where Jews and Arabs coexisted somewhat peacefully but never free of tension; the sound of that haunting alarm.
"My friends here think Palo Alto is boring and they just want to get out, but to us it's like, 'Oh it's so leafy and shaded and safe; quiet and soothing,'" he said. "But yet, I still kind of feel like an exile."