Ten years ago, I saw Kamilya Jubran perform in Bahrain. She was in town to perform as part of the Spring of Culture festivities at the time. Many of the audience members were rude to her because they couldn’t “hear” her (not her fault there wasn’t a sound amplification system in place at the small, intimate venue) and many of them walked out in anger, making sure to drop a tasteless comment or two on the way out.
Those same audience members were even more disappointed that she was performing in her newfound style of singing and playing Oud instead of something a little more familiar, perhaps along the lines of her music from her days with Sabreen. Her songs at the time seemed unusual in their structure: they had no clear chorus/rhythm, making it challenging for some of the audience members to follow along. Her delivery of those songs added an extra layer of complexity, making it all the more shocking.
I stayed until the end of that performance, entranced because I knew I was witnessing someone present a completely original approach to playing an instrument that is very culturally loaded to an audience that just didn’t get it. That performance in particular informed my own approach on how not to be afraid of sharing something new or original to an audience – appreciative or otherwise.
Tonight I’m going to be attending a closed online workshop by Kamilya Jubran, and I am absolutely thrilled to hear what she has to say about her outlook on music.
Over the past few months, I have been busy writing, re-writing, and re-writing once again my doctoral thesis project, which finally became Geographies of Nothing: Maverickism as Genealogy, Genealogy as Approach. The thesis is an exploration of the notion of maverick composers essentially creating a genealogy in their own right (despite being – somewhat wrongly – assumed to be dissenting loners), and that acknowledging such a genealogy could potentially become a viable approach for future composers who are interested in maverick composers. I first started pursuing this topic in 2015, and contributed an essay to the Ibraaz Platform in an essay entitled On Constant Invention, which could be found here: http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/135.
I still need to defend the thesis, and I expect there to be many suggested changes to what I have written, but I hope that this is the beginning of the end of this stage in my career.
Over the past few years, I have been taking my holidays as an opportunity to catch up on learning music/media-art related software to help me develop my practice. Just before this summer, Achim Bornhöft and Marco Döttlinger from Mozarteum University Salzburg visited us at Seoul National University to give a talk on various topics, one of which was computer-assisted composition. The particular software that was used as an introduction was PWGL, although I have since become aware of different software programs that also exist such as Opusmodus and Symbolic Composer. I have mainly been working through the PWGL and Opusmodus documentation since that time, and although I was very excited about the possibilities open to me as a composer through such tools, I was also daunted by having to learn variants of the Common LISP Music language and to develop proficiency in them in order to progress with projects of mine which I think would benefit through the use of Opusmodus and PWGL.
Learning computer-assisted composition, which is not taught at Seoul National University, has been challenging mainly because although the documentation provided makes the hundreds upon hundreds of functions clear, a person with limited programming knowledge is left feeling overwhelmed by not knowing how to fathom making use of all those functions and capabilities. For this, I am extremely glad to have found “Parametric Composition: Computer-Assisted Strategies for Human Performance” by Nigel Morgan and Phil Legard. Prior to its publication, I had been regularly visiting “Composing: How and Why” by Nigel Morgan, which was a weekly set of installments that explained possible approaches in Opusmodus. It also shows many of the sources that preceded the publication of “Parametric Composition”. I was particularly glad to find that the book mainly focused on explaining strategies that can be used within computer-assisted composition software rather than giving a step-by-step for each of the different programs. The properties of the book are also effectively used by including live links to the many examples mentioned throughout the text, which his another great convenience when handling the text itself.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part mainly introduces “parametric composition” and how different composers have different approaches when composing. The second part generally addresses the practicalities of using a computer-assisted composition program and how one could combine different ideas and expressions through such a program. The final part could be seen as a demonstration of different constellations of performances and how computer-assisted composition programs could possibly be integrated into the process of strategizing the composition process and developing new musical works. I was particularly interested in seeing how the main author has used computer-assisted composition programs since 1988 and how he has found different approaches through the use of computer-assisted composition programs.
On a personal level, for someone whose practice ranges between composing for the oud, Korean traditional musical instruments, different forms of electronic music, and occasionally writing for conventional Western instruments, I think that parametric composition is a possibility that I have not looked much into before. This text has helped me start to wonder what it really means to compose “new” music for instruments in many cases that have a unique position in relation to “contemporary” music tradition (in the Western Art Music sense, that is). Perhaps an environment such as PWGL, Opusmodus, Symbolic Composer, or any other computer-assisted composition program for that matter would not only be a space for me to “compose” but to also begin to wonder what possible avenues I could follow to develop my composition practice.
I also strongly recommend you to visit the website of Nigel Morgan at http://www.nigel-morgan.co.uk/ to find examples of his selected projects. For me as someone still in the early stages of my composition practice, I find all this fascinating and very inspiring.
This evening, I went to another concert at the National Theatre in Bahrain. The concert, that claimed to be an exploration of the history of song in Bahrain, was a collaboration between one of the more well-publicised local folk music groups and some young musicians who often participate in youth-oriented music workshops that happen every summer. I walked into the concert hall skeptical about what I was about to witness, and walked out feeling that I was both right and (potentially) wrong.
Here is why I was right to be skeptical: All the expected tropes that I dislike about Bahraini ‘traditional’ music were to be found in only too generous an amount: the performance itself did not explore Music (with a capital ‘M’), uninspired arrangements, poor musicianship, lost opportunities through unsuitable orchestration choices, disappointing acoustics/audio engineering, and clumsy transitions in the moments between one piece on the setlist to another. The Bahraini musician in me truly wanted to experience a great performance that would leave me quietly thinking on my way home about what I had experienced over the course of the performance, thinking that I have had the wrong impression all along about the creative issues I dislike about Bahraini music practice that is generally branded ‘traditional’. Although I felt that the music (and not necessarily all the performers) had potential at the beginning of some pieces, over the course of the evening, I was disappointed by the similarity in how each piece was performed. I was also horrified to find slivers of theme songs from Bahraini TV shows being performed, butchered renditions of songs from the sote genre of folk songs common in the Arab littoral of the Gulf region, and – oh, yes – an abundance of smooth jazz licks that would make even Kenny G. himself squeamish. I was also disappointed to find a generally low level of musicianship, with virtually no moments of virtuosity demonstrated by any musicians with a few minor exceptions. The orchestration choices are connected to the matter of poor musicianship because I felt that whoever was in charge of arrangement was not sensitive enough to the capabilities of each instrument (some of the instruments were practically useless just because there were too many occupying the same frequency range, making many musicians redundant just because it was impossible to hear what they were playing). This poor orchestration/musicianship dilemma was made even worse because of the bad in-house audio engineering: unwanted feedback from microphones was common, audio levels of different instruments were either too loud or too soft, and the constant hum of white noise in moments of supposed silence in the music. Another thing that I felt was a bad sign was how clumsily musicians moved on stage between any two given songs. There was no in-house team to help rearrange the seats or microphones between the songs, and I felt at times that the musicians did not even know what was next on their setlist.
As for why I was (potentially) wrong in my opinion: First, I am judging the music itself through the performance. This is a problem because it prevents me (as a musician and as someone involved in sound art and composition) from looking at potential ideas I could exploit and explore within Bahraini traditional music practice. Next, the ‘narrative’ of what represents Bahraini music and songs was certainly not explored enough. I believe that there is plenty of room to put together a far more interesting collection of songs by rethinking the narrative of what Bahraini music and songs could be about. Ultimately, the whole performance only reaffirmed to me that the common ways of orchestrating, arranging, and performing ‘traditional’ music in a ‘modern’ way are certainly outdated, and by intelligently exploring these very issues could we see the start of a real moment of growth in Bahraini music performance.
I think I now no longer feel haunted by the idea of not belonging to musical tradition in Bahrain nor do I have any urgency to conform to it. Instead I feel as if it is absolutely foreign to me just because I cannot buy into the narrative as it stands. This, for me as a Bahraini musician, is good.
Earlier this month, I attended a solo oud concert here in Bahrain. As an oud player myself, I was very keen about attending this performance to show my support. The Iraqi musician himself is someone I respect because I learned a lot from him over the years since first meeting him nearly 15 years ago. Being in the audience, I found myself in the position to think about solo oud performance practice, audience culture in Bahrain, and how the few performance venues we have here operate. This concert in particular also left me thinking about the general absence of meaningful criticism of music performances in Bahrain.
The concert took place in the Cultural Hall, which is one of the larger performance venues in Bahrain. When I arrived, I found that there was no information about anything happening that evening at the venue. The only indication I had aside from seeing a few cars in the parking lot came by way of a dismissive security guard standing in the air-conditioned foyer who barked, “Concert? There.” (pointing at one of the four entrances to the only performance space in the venue itself). None of the management of the space seemed to be there, no one showed us to our seats, no one announced the start or end of the event, no one reminded the audience not to use their cellphones, and no one even thanked us for being in the audience. I also have a feeling that there were no sound technicians on hand because the sound of the white noise buzzing out of the speakers was at times almost louder than the sound of the oud itself. Although I am by no means a sound technician myself, I know that maxing the volume level of the individual channel strips or the master channel on the mixer does not necessarily mean that the sounds the audiences hear would be “good” or “clear”. The constant buzz of those speakers overhead made me feel uncomfortable, yet no one around me seemed to talk much about that issue either.
The Cultural Hall, in my estimate, seats around six hundred people. In the audience that day, I think there were probably no more than fifty people. Out of those fifty people, many were distracted by their cellphones, which in turn distracted everyone else around them. I guess they tried to act smoothly by turning off all sound notifications on their phones, but the lights radiating from their screens stabbed our eyes throughout the concert. Those on their phones were either filming the performance, taking photos, or urgently typing probably inconsequential text in social media apps. Although the Cultural Hall is “prestigious”, and many local musicians only dream of performing there, perhaps it was not the right venue to host such a concert. The emptiness of the concert hall made the performance cold and distant, as opposed to something desirably warm and intimate.
Also, the audience did not seem to know when to applaud and when not to applaud. At the end of the performance, although I heard comments from others saying how good they thought the performer was, they did not demand an encore. Perhaps they did not know the culture of showing their appreciating and demanding an encore from a performer, or perhaps they were too distracted by their phones. Either way, the closing of the performance was extremely awkward.
Sadly, however, I think that the biggest letdown that evening was the music itself. I do no know if this letdown is specifically the result of the performer overlooking matters that bothered me or whether it is just a general problem with oud players and their approach to solo concerts. My first criticism is about why the performer was so fixated on the idea of performing program music, which essentially attempts to present an extra-musical narrative. A mix of absolute music and program music would have been perfectly suitable I assume, especially classical Middle Eastern forms of composition such as sami’i or bashraf (I even began to wonder if the performer associated Middle Eastern forms as being not contemporary enough). In between each piece, the performer would move a second microphone closer to his mouth to talk about what he was going to play next. The generic topics that his music addressed were issues such as world peace, the Palestinian cause (in which the performer simply referenced a popular Palestinian folk song while mistakenly shifting towards a rhythmic articulation mostly associated with Kurdish music – another slip-up that members of the audience did not seem to notice), and the only-too-usual lament of the “loss” of Andalusia nearly six centuries ago by the Arabs, all of which was sandwiched between references to iconic popular music from the 1950s and 1960s from Egypt and Lebanon. The music itself, in making those references, was only too predictable and at times disturbingly shallow (I thought of leaving the concert hall several times before the end of the concert). I was especially peeved by the reference to Arab-Andalusia by playing “Flamenco” music on the oud, which has not only been exhausted by countless other musicians, but is probably – I would daresay – historically inaccurate. The reason I find flamenco not connected to Arab-Andalusian musical traditions is for a number of reasons: Flamenco music is connected to the Romani people of Spain, known as gitanos, who are not Arabs. The first mention of flamenco music in literature does not appear until 1774 in “Cartas Marruecas” by José Cadalso, which is nearly three centuries after the end of Arab-Andalusia. There are different etymologies related to flamenco, none of which give a definitive answer to the origins of the cultural practice:
The Spanish word flamenco can mean “flamingo” – referring to the bird, but originally meaning “flame-coloured” – but also “Flemish”, i.e. someone or something related to Flanders. The word flamenco came to be used for arrogant or flamboyant behaviour in general, which could possibly have come to be applied to the Gitano players and performers.
A theory proposed by Andalusian historian Blas Infante in his 1933 book Orígenes de lo Flamenco y Secreto del Cante Jondo suggests that the word flamenco comes from the Hispano-Arabic term fellah mengu, meaning “expelled peasant”; Infante argued that this term referred to the ethnic Andalusians of the Islamic faith, the Moriscos, who in order to avoid forced exile and religious persecution, joined with the Roma newcomers.
Another point I would like to make is that despite the history of the oud, I sometimes imagine that perhaps we ‘got it at all wrong’ and that it is not necessarily a true ancestor of the guitar. I sometimes look at the etymological origins of the word “guitar” and imagine whether it has any connections with the Persian tar. ‘Tar’ (meaning ‘string’ in Persian) as a suffix is also included in many other instruments such as the setar (translating roughly to ‘three strings’), dutar (translating to ‘two strings’), and sitar (translating to ‘thirty strings’). I also strongly believe that the shape of the guitar itself resembles that of the Persian tar much more than the oud, although some aspects of its construction closely resemble the latter. Again, I do not think that any conclusions could be made out of all this, and there is room for interpretation.
I dream of the day in which oud players finally break away from “needing” to connect themselves to Andalusia (and the ghost of Zeryab), Arabic Jazz (which perhaps some musicians believe would make them seem “contemporary”), or in the case of this particular concert, trying to somehow box the oud within the paradigm of classical Western solo recitals (as if there are no alternative approaches to presenting music). I still am baffled by this constant need by oud players to somehow prove that the oud is a real instrument that could be performed solo (I always thought that Munir Bashir as an example did enough to prove the instrument’s capabilities).
There was no room within the performance that evening given for any improvisation, and the performer did not attempt any taqsim on his oud. The idea of being a virtuoso seemed limited to playing fast passages, often at the highest, most strenuously reachable points on the face of the instrument (rather than on the commonly used positions on the neck of the instrument). There was also a distractingly generous use of harmonics and artificial harmonics, which I thought seemed to be a frontier that the musician himself could not surpass for some reason. There was occasional tapping on the face of the instrument, harking quite literally percussive instruments, and some techniques of tapping with the left hand fingers on the neck of the oud without any excitation of the strings with the right hand (which seemed to be a literal reference to one of Naseer Shamma‘s works popular in the late 1990s – although I imagine the performer would not appreciate the comparison despite it being plain to see).
My biggest qualm with the music itself was the common structure shared by every piece of music played that evening: a slow start in the lower pitch range, passing references to the main cited melody used by the performer, obvious references to the cited melody with many flourishes, repetitions of the melody again and again and again while shifting towards the highest possible octaves playable on the oud, and finally ending it – always in a clearly defined manner – using the bell-like sound of harmonics. I was hoping for some surprises, something completely new, but instead I just found a very safe performance quite similar to the performances he would have given 15 years ago or so, must that would be playable in a music academy by an amateur. I wanted the music to move me, I wanted music that renews my deep interest in the oud, but instead I found the same cliches that I have been trying to run away from for many, many years.
On a more personal note, I sometimes think that the reason I have grown to be so critical of such performances is my own sense of alienation from the traditions associated with the instrument. All my oud teachers, by some surprising coincidence, were Iraqis, and so I had to learn the Iraqi repertoire. Iraqi oud players I meet are often interested in Turkish oud players and try to emulate some of the nuances found in modern Turkish oud playing. There is also a big disconnect between the music the Iraqi oud players, and how oud players from the Levant and Egypt approach the instrument, let alone the music played in North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and elsewhere. I am sometimes guffawed at in my circles of musician and oud player friends for explaining that my first genuine interest in the oud happened when I saw Marcel Khalife‘s Jadal Oud Duo performance with Charbel Rouhana in the mid-1990s at Al-Ahly Club in Bahrain with my best friend from school (I think that none of them seem to realize how big of a moment that project was in terms of challenging composing for oud, but then again, Jadal is an approach that only could have happened once and anything after it is not as genuine). They also do the same when I tell them that I sometimes feel no meaningful connection with folk music from my own native country, which leaves me confused about what it means to be from the Arab littoral of the Gulf region that never was an art music hotspot such as the Levant, Iraq, and Egypt. I sometimes like to think that I have more in common with John Cage’s approach to being inventive in his practice than I do to the mythical Zeryab (who is perhaps the ultimate idol for all oud players, although none of his music is known today).
I wonder how many oud players share my opinions and when the next oud performance I attend – that does not take the ‘safe’ route – would be. Perhaps it is up to me to take the risky approach in playing my oud and start something new as an ‘outsider’ to traditions and as a critic to common performance practices.
Earlier this evening, I attended to a lecture event in two parts by Jung Changkwan (Who runs Jung Beauty and Art and Korean Traditional Music CD World) and Choi Sangil (Korean Blog / Korean Traditional Folksongs Website in Korean or in English). Jung Changkwan’s talk was around his interest in the Thomas Edison Phonograph and in collecting phonograph cylinders, while Choi Sangil (who for many years traveled around Korea and to different parts of the world to record folk songs) presented a sampler of some of his favorite folk music from around the world.
Jung Changkwan: The Thomas Edison Phonograph and Collective Sonic Memories
Edison and Phonograph (1878)
The half of the event was dedicated to the phonograph (also known later as the gramophone), which was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Jung brought a long a large part of his personal wax cylinder collection (each of which seemed to hold pieces up to four minutes in length). We heard different recordings such as “Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now” by Irving Mills and Jimmy McHugh, “Washington Post March” by John Philip Sousa, and even a recording of Florence Nightingale herself saying, “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.”
As someone interested in sonic art and sonic history, seeing functioning phonographs playing different historical cylinders was an extremely important moment for me. I must also admit that seeing an invention linked directly to Thomas Edison himself and hearing a recording of the voice of Florence Nightingale, was also moving as it suddenly made those historically significant figures very real to my own physical experience. Jung’s talk was concluded by playing perhaps some of the oldest known recordings of Korean music, which weren’t very clear due to the degradation of the cylinders, but the gravity of their meaning to the audience members was.
I must also add that there are some interesting sound preservation projects, especially the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project (which also has a Facebook page), which is a “free digital collection maintained by the University of California, Santa Barbara Libraries with streaming and downloadable versions of over 10,000 phonograph cylinders manufactured between 1893 and the mid-1920s”. The British Library also has an interesting online Sound Library, but sadly its accessibility is complicated: The classical music recordings are accessible only within the EU while (for copyright reasons), and many of the other recordings are only accessible to those registered in UK higher education institutions or have a Readers pass from the British Library.
Choi Sangil: Sonic Travels
I first met Choi Sangil, who is also a well-known radio show host and producer, nearly a year ago to ask him about his personal archive of recorded sound, which is very eclectic in its geographical and idiomatic range to say the least. He had been recording folk musicians in different parts of Korea and the world for decades. He uploaded much of his Korean music archive online (English link also available). This online archive in itself is certainly worth exploring for anyone interested in Korean traditional music (especially ‘folk’ music) or ethnomusicology.
This evening’s talk was an introduction to a selection of music he made that he felt leave a deep impact on any listener, music that he claimed would transport the listener to a different landscape, a different world. The way he presented his talk was as if he was a DJ: He would literally walk back and forth between a spot where he stood to introduce the track he was about to play and a rack that contained the CDs he was choosing music from according to the order he would play the music. Some of his selected music that left the deepest impact on me were:
“Dertlidikos Horos” by A Kostis in the Greek Rembetiko genre.
The tracks is taken from album called “From Various: Greek Rhapsody – Instrumental Music From Greece 1905–1956″. The liner notes explain: “Konstandinos (Kostis) Bezos is one of the most intriguing and atypical figures in Greek popular music of the 1930s. As a musician, singer, actor, journalist and cartoonist, he was truly an early multimedia artist. Between 1930 and 1938 he deposited a chameleon-like musical legacy that continues to fascinate to this day. “Dertlidikos Horos”, featuring himself and an unknown guitarist, was recorded in Athens in May 1930.”
Salim Al-Allaan and Ahmed Butbaniya, Bahraini Fijiri Music (Adsani Form). I was really moved that he included music from my native Bahrain, and it sounded incredible. The audience was deeply shocked by what they heard and I’ve been thinking about the meaning of this inclusion this evening.
Maria Lataretu (of Romania) singing “Doina Olteneasca”. You’ll understand why she moves all listeners as soon as you hear her voice.
Udi Hrant (Ethnic Armenian Oud player who was a Turkish citizen) performing Huseyni Taksim
At this, I would just like to add that this evening was something I’ve very much needed. As someone from Bahrain with a background in playing the Oud, I oddly found myself thinking again about my own position in a (different) musical timeline. Here in Korea, I am studying music composition and I am also involved in sound art/electronic music, and hearing music specifically from Bahrain and also the music of Udi Hrant in such a context really meant something to me. I hope the impact of the evening will help me get through a mental block I’ve been facing while trying to compose a new work for voice and Oud (something I haven’t really tried before in earnest).
With the approach of yet another academic holiday season, I find myself falling back into the loop of wanting to take advantage of the time I have available to brush up on my computer language-based (and computer language-assisted) music programming skills. I’ve done this countless times: I’d stock up on the latest books of whatever “advanced” or “serious” computer language music program is available, whatever I think needs to be learned, pack them all up in my suitcase and lug them through the many airports between which I happen to travel. I try hard to study those tomes but I never get far. I go online and browse through all the relevant video tutorials I could find, but I never really make it past the first few tutorials. You see, the way computer music language training is presented just bores me. This becomes frustrating when dealing with software that isn’t necessarily straightforward. In my case, as a “sound artist” and as someone involved in music composition, I find this vexing.
“Standard” composition software such as Finale or Sibelius (both of which are supposed to be as intuitive to a composer/musician as the word processor) feel clunky and awkward for me to navigate. I have even bigger troubles dealing with SuperCollider, Max/MSP, and the basics of Lisp,Java, Python, or C programming languages, all of which are the building blocks for many significant computer music and media art programs. I’m not even going to get started on the different DAWs (such as my go-to Ableton Live) or some of the more out there offerings such as AudioMulch, Usine Hollyhock, Plogue Bidule, MetaSynth, or Kyma. I know they are all tools that one uses to get to a goal, yet in my case by being unable to explore them further I feel the limits of the possibilities in my own practice.
I have recently been revisiting the history of algorithmic music (and this is a particularly interesting read on Common List and Common Music), and was especially interested in the idea of the quadrivium, which is the study of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (that are combined with the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric to create the seven liberal arts). By taking the quadrivium out of the context of Ancient Greece, I see how some of the computer music software programs can potentially be a platform to experiment with arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. I think the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, could also be related to computer music software programs as an experimental platform. The romanticized idea of pursuing knowledge and developing oneself, are in a sense, a noble journey one ought to take. Yet, such esoteric practices to a goal are seemingly liminal and transformative. This set process which one needs to go through and understand in order to be on the “right path” seems to me as one of the ultimate goal for those involved in music (or any other field of knowledge for that matter). This especially makes sense when looking at art music history and the recurring theme of “algorithmic” music for thousands of years with examples ranging from (and forgive me for this Eurocentric focus) Ancient Greece to the cyclical techniques of Guillaume de Machaut, from Mozart’s “Musikalisches Würfelspiel” (Musical Dice Games) to what Schoenberg and his students arrived at through 12-tone music, from John Cage‘s use of chance to Iannis Xenakis‘s approach to connecting musical process with mathematical processes (among others), and from spectral music to live coding processes (back to the computer language issue at this point!).
Still, I’m facing a dilemma in trying to understand how to really “learn” a computer music programming language. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve already missed my chance to get into it, especially since many of those computer music languages have developed so much over the years, which leaves me feeling as though I have a lot to catch up with. Computer music programming languages are a method for us to find our path through our work as polymath-musicians. Command of computer music programming languages is the ultimate esoteric musical goal by today’s standards and I want a piece of it. But first, where do I really begin?
This past weekend, I was invited to perform some music on the oud at the opening of the Ureuk World Music House in Chungju, South Korea, which is nearly two hours away from where I live in Seoul. I hadn’t performed on the oud without amplification or strange electronic music setup in a couple of years. The audience was pleasant and the location was picturesque, so I felt very much at ease throughout my time there. While playing, I remembered what it is about this instrument that drew me to it when I first insisted on learning to play it. I also remembered some of the biggest questions and concerns I had as an artist over the last few years leading up to today.
Performing at Ureuk World Music House (Photo Courtesy of Kisoon Choi)
Perhaps one of the bizarre predicaments related to maintaining an “artist” website (that also happens to contain a blog) is the curation of both (public) image and personal privacy. Several years ago, when I finally mustered the audacity to leave behind my last desk job (that had nothing to do with my interests in contemporary art, music, or research), I decided to rethink my strategy on how I should present myself, especially in the digital domain. I thought about whether or not I needed to come up with an artist name for my music activities (I decided to stick to my own name in the end), how I should approach the Internet as an individual and as an artist (this included my stance on social media, publishing my music online, and what my digital footprint on the Internet should look like), and how I could develop myself as an artist. Between 2005 and 2009, I maintained a blog that strictly addressed my personal life in Tokyo, Japan, where I was pursuing my Masters degree at Hitotsubashi University in something unrelated directly to music or art per se. In 2009, I ended up deleting the entire blog because it felt too personal. I was sad to suddenly dump all those entries that recounted some interesting experiences and encounters, but I was also ready to start anew. Years later, here I am writing about how unsure I still am today about whether artists should talk about their personal concerns and encounters, especially those that are more mundane.
This semester at Seoul National University, where I am pursuing my doctorate degree in music composition in the Korean Music Program, I find myself constantly struggling with false starts to works I urgently need to complete. I have several important academic writing projects to be working on that saw very little progress, a little stuck with managing some upcoming nonacademic music projects I’ve been putting off for way too long, and a major composition I need to have prepared as soon as possible for its premiere at the end of the month. I tried many different things that I hoped would jumpstart a change: I worked through many sections of the Schillenger System, studied several scores of Morton Feldman, read through the newly published Philip Glass autobiography Words Without Music: A Memoir to understand his approach and thoughts, continued studying the works of Halim El-Dabh, visiting with Kayageum master Hwang Byungki for some advice and to ask him about his own recollections of writing new music for a traditional Korean instrument.
Workshop Series on Fixed Media, Computer-Assisted Algorithmic Music Composition, and Spectral Music
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.
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
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.
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.
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.