Creating compassion through music with Lior Attar

Since garnering national adoration in 2005 for his pure and heartfelt debut album Autumn Flow, Israeli Australian singer-songwriter Lior Attar (known as Lior) has been keeping busy. In 2013 the artist collaborated with composer Nigel Westlake to write a song cycle centred on the humanitarian concept of compassion as explored through a compilation of ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts.

Ahead of his upcoming concert Compassion, we spoke to the artist about his childhood in Israel, his foray into music and songwriting and how music has the ability to unite people in ways language often cannot.

MLIVE: You were born in Rishon LeZion, Israel. Can you tell us about your childhood and your experience of moving to Australia?
Lior Attar: I guess what was interesting about growing up in Israel was that it was such a melting pot of music—a real east meets west kind of musical place. You’ve obviously got all the Top 40 music from the States and the UK but you’ve also got influences coming in from across the border in Egypt and from the Moroccan migrants as well. I moved to Australia at the age of 10 and had a bit of a culture shock going from a very Mediterranean culture to coming here. In Israel, and a lot of other Mediterranean countries, everybody is living on top of each other so it took a little while to get used to the sense of space. People are a lot less formal and more direct so there were cultural differences, but you know, on the whole, I wouldn’t say that it was an incredibly difficult adjustment.

MLIVE: When did you first become interested in music and songwriting? Was there a defining person or moment that influenced your decision to pursue music professionally?
Lior Attar: I remember there was a song on TV when I was about eight, and I don’t remember what the song was, but I just remember being really affected by it and feeling a little bit bewildered as to why it was having such a strong impact on me, emotionally. And you know, being a kid, the moment came and passed but then at about nine I just wanted to pick up the guitar. Something drew me to the guitar. I didn’t have a guitar so I started with a tennis racquet, an air guitar, and then by about the age of 10, which was timed with the move here, I convinced Mum to buy me a guitar and that was the start of it.

MLIVE: Sung in Hebrew and Arabic, Compassion draws on ancient Jewish and Islamic writings to examine the concept and practice of compassion. Can you explain the genesis of the project?
Lior Attar: There’s a Hebrew hymn called Avinu Malkeinu which I was drawn to on a musical level but then later in life learnt of its meaning. It’s sung once a year on The Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur] in the Jewish religion. There’s a particular passage in it that roughly translates to ‘please instil me with a greater sense of compassion so I can be liberated.’ It’s a really beautiful sentiment: attaining a greater sense of freedom through being a more compassionate person. I met Nigel at a performance where I sang this hymn and after the concert we met and entertained the idea of drawing up an orchestration to this hymn in stark contrast to the way I had always sung it in a capella. That was the beginning. I was quite adamant that I didn’t want to simply collect other Jewish texts, either, because I wanted it to be a truly universal and humanitarian piece and not specifically aligned with a particular stream or faith.

And so the idea came to me—what if I looked for similar texts in Arabic and tried to find a hymn with a similar message?

MLIVE: Music can resonate with people on such a profoundly visceral and spiritual level. Do you think it has the ability to unite people in ways that language alone cannot?
Lior Attar: I think so. Nigel and I premiered this work with the Sydney Symphony and went on to perform it with the other state orchestras. We were just blown away by just how it struck a chord with people and how moved they were. We were obviously proud of the melodies and the orchestration that we brought to it, but you know, they didn’t understand what I was singing which actually works for its benefit because I think it paints a beautiful picture and taps into something that lives in all of us. What Nigel and I strongly believe in is that [our ability to create and interpret music] is the greatest characteristic that human beings embody. It’s the old cliché of the common language.

Lior Attar and Nigel Westlake with the Monash Academy Orchestra
Robert Blackwood Hall
Sunday 13 May 2018