On the “Iceface Tuned Piano”

I recently translated a video by Hidekazu Wakabayashi (Japanese composer, sound artist, vocalist) into Arabic about his “Iceface Tuned Piano”.

This project that Wakabayashi put together, along with the questions he raises through it, is very meaningful to me as a sound artist/composer. I am specifically referring to the idea of microtones and their position within Western and non-Western musical traditions (such as Arabic musical traditions).

Wakabayashi’s “Iceface Tuned Piano” is an idea that came to him in a dream: tuning all the black keys on a piano up by 50 cents (equally tempered musical instruments are generally tuned to 100 cents between every two intervals).  The tuning suggested by Wakabayashi has a unique sound, and I believe that musicians should play around with it. I also think that it could be a way for musicians to create their own tunings and approach to a unique musical sensibility. I have been over the last few years interested in different composers who created their own tunings or preparations for instruments such as the piano. Some examples of such composers are John Cage, Harry Partch, and Alois Hába.

Another issue that I believe is important through this simple translation is the necessity for Arab composers/musicians to be able to create a vocabulary (in the Arabic language) to discuss contemporary music practice. The lack of a critical vocabulary about music in the Arabic language is an issue that needs to be researched and discussed for music practice to develop.

For more samples of Wakabayashi’s music, please visit his soundcloud page at https://soundcloud.com/hidekazu-wakabayashi.

 

 

 

Reflections on a Lecture

This morning, I attended a lecture entitled “Composing in Flux” by Thai composer Anothai Nitibhon (currently serving as Vice President of Princess Galyani Vadhana Institute of Music (http://www.pgvim.ac.th)). Her lecture explored the fluidity of the roles and responsibilities of a composer. She started by giving us a quick introduction to Luang Pradit Phairoh (187?/188? – 1940), who was a famous Ranat Ek (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranat_ek) player, composer, ethnomusicologist, and teacher. Anothai Nitibhon suggested that by looking at the late master as an example, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “composers” can be involved in activities other than just putting pen to paper and compose music.

Luang Pradit Phairoh

Luang Pradit Phairoh

 

She then took her claim one step further by suggesting that composers can explore the idea of the composer, musician, and audience as all being part of a living society. Her later compositions seemed to focus on this approach through the use of multichannel video projections on stage that often show the performers in casual, candid situations that become a central part of her compositions. Before arriving at this point, she talked about workshops she conducted with different groups of people such as school children, immigrants, and the physically challenged in different places such as the UK and her native Thailand.

One of the pieces that best exemplified this was her “Loi Krathong” project in which interviews with the performing musicians are part of her composition. The method she uses shows that the “material” of the music itself is contributed by the musicians and that those same performers are “normal” people with normal lives that go beyond their presence on stage. The following three videos are part of the project.

I didn’t go to Loi Krathong

I didn’t go to Loi Krathong 2

Loi Krathong Party

 

Anothai Nitibhon also talked about some of her collaborations in which the content of the music itself is situational and based on impressions and input by the collaborators. One such project is  Jewelry Sounds (2010) in which she collaborated to put together this video in  Silpakorn University that saw students from the music department visiting students from the university’s jewelry workshop. One of the highlights of the video is when you realize that many of the sounds dubbed over the video itself are not recordings from the workshop but rather imitations by music students of what they heard at the workshop using things such as their own voices.

Jewelry Sounds (2010)

 

She concluded her talk by emphasizing the acceptability of “process” being central to a musical composition, and that it is exciting to sometimes create works of music that permit “mistakes” by the performers as an element of the piece.

My main impression of the workshop was that it is interesting to see how much the work of composers and that of contemporary artists (in the general sense) seem to show many similarities in concern and approach. The centrality of “process”, as a theme, is also something I have been interested in over the recent years. The contemporary music scene in Thailand and South East Asia is certainly something to look out for.   For now, I am also left with further questions about how I can possibly apply some of these ideas to my musical works  and how my own ideas on what the role(s) of a “composer” could affect my own process.

on (cautiously) returning to what it is I was running from

A few years ago, immediately after having an unusually busy season as an “oud player” in different music festivals and music-related residencies, I found myself tired of being labelled as an “oud player”. I don’t know what it was about that label in particular that rubbed me in the wrong way. I actually loved playing the oud at the time and still consider it – of all instruments – the closest to my heart (it isn’t referred to by the Arabs as the “King of All Instruments” without justifiable cause after all). I have a number of reasons behind the distancing of myself from the instrument that I had never deliberated before, which are as follows:

  1. I suffered from a little burnout after playing the same instrument continuously on much larger global musical platforms for which I was mentally prepared. I played my heart out despite the shell-shock I was constantly in.
  2. The oud was not “loud enough” compared to what everyone else in those platforms was playing: others I dealt with were using electronics, brass instruments, amplified strings or wind instruments, and percussion. They also were into genres that were innately louder and perhaps more entertaining than what I was interested in at the time. The quietness of my oud (up until 2011) felt that it couldn’t reach enough people: it wouldn’t be able to carry itself enough in larger music festivals that I had dreamed of (and continue to dream) performing in.  Then again this quietness is also perhaps the result of my years training as a classical guitarist (I even had other guitarists tell me that I couldn’t properly strum a steel-string acoustic guitar and certainly didn’t have it in me to handle an electric guitar). The quietness of my oud was drowned out by the noise everyone else was making and it was this quietness of the oud that led me to look into experimenting with the electric oud.
  3. I didn’t want to be limited to just being a player of a specific instrument. I wanted people to understand that I was trying – in my own way – to innovate how the oud was played. I also felt that I could not express everything I wanted to say on one instrument, which is effectively a tool that produces “musical” (and non-musical)  sound. I wanted to be seen as someone who had more  to offer musically and creatively.
  4. I later felt that I had significant extramusical concepts to offer that enrich my creative output. At the time, I also became interested in being seen as a “sound artist”, which at times came at the expense of being a person whose first love is music.  However, this self-distancing allowed me to start asking questions about the oud, Middle Eastern music practice, and what is dismissed as “World Music” that are important in my opinion.
  5. I still hadn’t gotten over one particular experience of collaborating with a musician who labelled himself as a “World Musician” while I lived in Japan. The collaboration left me feeling used and I started to question the ethics of many artists who play on their portrayals of orientalist/mystical fantasies. This remains one of my biggest qualms with non-Western “traditional” musicking and any of its extractions.
  6. At the time, I also left my university in the UK where I was pursuing my PhD in Ethnomusicology. I ultimately left ethnomusicological research within the comfort of a university (although I continue to do my own research in the field) because I felt unsupported and misunderstood. All academic funding seemed to go to everyone else, and my research on the oud that built on examining unexplored medieval Arab texts and the intersection of mythology,  science, and philosophy was not deemed worthy enough by funding bodies.
  7. I became interested in experimental/non-conventional approaches to music. I also became very interested in aiding my interest in these approaches with electronics and computer programming. I have devoted several years to studying electronic music and computer music programming, and am now well-versed in several computer music programming languages. I am now also teaching myself more advanced programming languages in order to find new possibilities for my music. The focus I have placed on combining musical improvisation and computer programming have been fruitful, and have become the beginnings of many of my future developments.
  8. There are many great oud players out there, and I felt that there will always be others who are probably more skilled at playing the instrument than me. I find my fascination with being the best from a pool of people who I don’t even know is something wasteful.  Instead, I decided on being very different in my approach to the oud and music in general so that my work would to be noticed.
  9. I felt that I didn’t belong to a particular school of music. I often felt jealous of musicians from places that were such musical hotbeds in the Arab World (such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco). I felt that musicians from these places have a lineage. Even while learning the oud, my teachers were always Iraqis who strongly felt connected to their lineage, while I felt like a foreigner to that particular lineage despite my strong interest in it. In that sense, I was from the outset estranged from the instrument I was using to express myself.
  10. Being seen as just an oud player made me, on various levels, feel subaltern: I felt inferior to musicians with formal musical training, with connections to musical lineages (be they Classical Western traditions or other traditions from elsewhere), with material/moral support of an interested circle of people, with never being able to afford the best instrument out there, with never being able to be louder than everyone else, with playing music that wasn’t so popular for some reason or another.

Playing the oud is a struggle: audiences familiar with it pressure you (as the musician) to play melodies with which they are familiar, and audiences who are unfamiliar with it expect you (as the musician) to play something decidedly “oriental” and agreeable with their collective Arabian Nights/snake-charming fantasies. I have many stories of being asked by foreign concert organizers to wear “traditional” costumes to make my music on the oud more authentic, while concert organizers in the Arab world like to see me wear non-traditional clothes just to get the impression that I am somehow modernizing the instrument and its presentation. As someone currently pursuing my doctoral studies in Korean Traditional Music composition (out of all things) at Seoul National University, I am truly living out all these questions I have about the real value of “tradition” within music and how much space I have to explore concepts and approaches as an individual.

All in all, my off-again-on-again relationship with the oud certainly has a connection with my own observations on the subject of Identity (with a capital I!). I really started the oud many years ago thinking that it would somehow connect me to some sort of past identity that I had lost long ago, but ended up feeling existentially secluded. The oud is an outsider’s instrument.

Revisiting/Rediscovering Previous Processes

Over the past couple of months, I have been taking the time to reconsider my processes when it comes to writing and performing new music. In my previous postings on this website, I had posted some of the videos and recordings of my most recent performances here in Seoul. I’ve also been uploading new works on my SoundCloud page. One of the most surprising trends in my work is that I’ve started using the oud again quite heavily, which is something I found myself shying away from for the past couple of years. I’ve even started taking lessons (through Skype) with an important oud player lately, which has led me to think again about my process and my own musical background.  This is a particularly exciting change considering where my work was heading towards when I first published my Post-Esoteric (Oriental) Art Music Manifesto. Upon reflection, I wonder why I created this distance between myself and the oud to begin with: did I want to be louder? did I not want to be seen as a Middle Easterner who played “oriental” music? did I just want to try something different?

One example of a recent recording is “Nahawand Nausea” (for oud and electronics) 

One of the most surprising twists is my sudden renewed interest in the works of Tatyos Efendi (1858 – 1913). Tatyos Efendi, an important Armenian musician and composer who spent his entire life in Istanbul, wrote many important works that are considered among Middle Eastern musicians to be masterpieces. I’m particularly interested in his compositions that are written in the Saz Semai form, in which he demonstrates his playfulness in the art of maqam.

Tatyos Efendi

Tatyos Efendi (1858 – 1913)

Here are two different recordings of the piece I found on YouTube:

 

 

 

 

I am curious to see where my renewed interest in the oud and Middle Eastern music is going to take my creative process. I am certain that there are a lot I could learn from what remains of the works of important masters such as Tatyos Efendi, and I will be sharing my findings over the coming months.

 

Performance at the Sharjah Art Biennale

On May 10, I gave the closing performance as part of Tarek Atoui’s WITHIN sound project at the 2013 Sharjah Art Biennale. This performance came after my involvement in the TACET workshop and a workshop on sound archiving at the University of Sharjah (Khorfakkan Campus) and was very much my sonic take on those two projects.

Here is a photo followed by a sound recording of my performance, which was entitled The Emic: What Comes from Within, in which I used an electric oud, various handmade electronics, and a laptop.

Sharjah Biennale Performance

Performance by Hasan Hujairi
WITHIN, SB11 Music and Performance Programme, 2013
Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation
Photo by Alfredo Rubio

Mayfest Sound Art Performance

On May 12, I performed a short experimental music/sound art set with Sunghyun Cho at Space O’NewWall’s Mayfest in Seoul. Here is an image followed by the recording.

An Untitled Sound Art Performance

 

artificial: a collaborative sound art performance

On May 11, I performed in a collaborative sound art set with Sunghyun Cho at Ipo Alternative Art Space in Mullae-dong, Seoul, South Korea. Here’s an image followed by a recording of how the performance went.

artificial: a sound art performance

 

Pansori Lesson One — Remixed?

Pansori Lesson 1 - Remixed

Electric Pansori 1 – Event History (02:16)

 

pansori lesson one remixed

Electric Pansori 1 – Longue Durée (22:40)

 

Pansori Lesson (for Foreigners) Number One

Earlier this evening, I participated in my first Pansori class. It was held at the National Theatre of Korea as part of an initiative to teach Korean music and dance to foreign residents. Since I am particularly interested in Korean traditional music, I decided to register. The following is a sonic documentation of how the class proceeded:

1. Our teacher first introduced herself and asked us to do the same. As the class was fairly large, this took up a considerable amount of time. Still, it was nice to learn of everyone’s different backgrounds and interests.

 

2. Our teacher then told us what we are required to prepare for class: a SOUND RECORDER and a PEN. As Pansori is taught aurally, we should record and play back to ourselves what we heard in class to practice on our own.

 

3. We were then given a short Pansori excerpt performance by our teacher as a way for us to know of what to expect.

 

4. She then explained that each province in the Korean peninsula has its own particular Arirang, which – as a folk song – was listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2012.

 

5. We were next finally asked to produce our first Pansori-related sounds (although a lot of us struggled). The three tones were were asked to sing were the Central Tone, the Vibrato Tone, and the Gliding Tone. This was first done with all participating students singing together.

 

6. We then broke off into smaller groups of five to practice the three tones. Needless to say, a few minutes in, we started finding distraction elsewhere and made interesting small talk. Nevertheless, the singing we heard kept us going back to our task at hand.

 

7. After all groups practiced together, we were asked to sing together as one large group once again. At this point, everyone was much more relaxed and I think we sounded better in this attempt.

 

8. Our teacher gave us her concluding remarks along with what to expect in the next class. The reaction we make to her performance is priceless!