This Album is the latest in a series of releases exploring the experimental music scene in a given country; with previous volumes shining a light on, among others, the Persian; Latin American and Belgian Electronic undergrounds.
These anthologies are the brainchild of Raffaele Pezzella, otherwise known as Sonolygist; an Italian Sound Artist and owner of label imprint The Unexplained Sounds Group. A platform created with the express purpose of exploring the worldwide experimental scene. Pezzella also curates a weekly Radio program of the same name and regular compilations of artists featured on the show are also released on the label. It all makes for a fascinating and absorbing resource and I recommend exploring it further.
Gateway to the Middle East
The first thing that stands out on a cursory listen to this album, is the varity of approachs undertaken by the various artists. A tribute perhaps to Lebanon’s long history of diversity; each piece presented here is uniquely its own, yet firmly rooted in the Electroacoustic past. They fit together as a remarkably cohesive whole and listening to the album as a complete work is a rewarding experience.
An inevitable frame of reference when listening to an album of this nature is one that considers the fusion of traditional Middle Eastern musical tropes with what is predominantly a Western art form. It is here again however, that Lebanon’s unique makeup serves to obfuscate any attempt to unpick the threads of influence or locate the trails of cultural cross pollination.
Under a French mandate for the middle period of the twentieth century Lebanon has long been exposed to so called Western art practices and the countries pre-civil war popularity as a tourist destination led to Beirut being known as the “Paris of the East”. The war, of course, left its mark too.
It is in this post-colonial, post-war world that Lebanese music finds itself and a new generation are looking to the past as well as the future in their quest to establish a voice.
The Unknown and the Familiar
The first track on the Album is one of two contributions from Beruit based photographer and musician Tony Elieh. It is indicative of many of the pieces featured here by nature of its driving Rhythmic urgency. An insistent bass riff, overlayed with distant electronic chordings is soon joined by the first sense of our location in the Middle East. A fiddle traces patterns in the Harmonic minor scale, discordant and jarring yet perfectly in context. The impression however is not one of Middle Eastern musicians playing Western music; the sound in fact seems to have more in common with The Velvet Underground or God Speed you Black Emperor.
An interesting aspect of the music featured here that most of it is made by a generation who barely remember the civil war. They grew up in a period of relative piece and now exist in a space where many cultural norms have been stripped away. They are rebuilding the musical landscape of the country as much as the physical.
There is a discipline to these experiments however; these are serious students of their craft, this music is never mere DIY noodling and there is a distinct homage to past Electoracoustic masters in much of the music. The piece Collage No1 from DJ and field recordist Joseph Doumet is straight out of Scheaffers school of Musique Concrete albeit via Robin Rimbauld’s Scanner project. And Like Rimbaulds work it also resists a slide into pure noise; retaining shape and form and evoking the place of it’s recording.
Much of the music here is Synth based too; Jad Atoui’s Driving Blue in particular conjures a swirling modular ambience, drenched in Reverb, cut with glorious filter sweeps and possessed of an eighties vibe that eschews the triteness of vapour-wave. It manages to be both purely electronic yet raw and human. A main tenant of the now New York based Atoui’s work is in fact the coming together of human gesture and electronic sound generation.
Ziad Moukarzel‘s Questions of Worry is similarly unapologetic in its nostalgic use of Synthesised textures. Drawing in this instance on the cold, paranoid 70’s Film themes of Gil Melle or Wendy Carlos; it is hypnotic and unsettling; evoke the themes of isolation and fear so often explored by those cold war era celluloid classics. Cinematic in its approach too is Charbel Haber‘s We Dream In The Sun We Tan When We Can. Perhaps also the most redolent of Beirut’s old city, its looping string textures explore semitonal phrases that build effortlessly into a gloriously emotional climax, only to fall back again into a melancholic refrain that suggests unfulfilled futures.
One contemporary electric genre well represented here is Drone. The Jetty from Stress Distress is a shimmering journey into another realm, where groaning electronic textures give the impression of ropes struggling to hold fast the moorings of reality; whilst FM synth textures invite comparison with the Stranger Things OST. Fadi Tabbal is one half of duo Stress Distress and on Music For Arcs and Diameters he explores similar sonic territory albeit in a gentler more pastoral manner, its expansive washing pads are however, undercut by a glitchy counter melody and a minor key baseline that serve to inhabit the piece with a subtle sense of something lurking beneath. Marc Codsi’s Empty Resonant Shells sits somewhere in between Drone-scape and concrete piece. Behind it’s throbbing Bass, manipulated voices and disjointed Pops weave a simple yet effective Ambient tapestry.
Unique in its approach but also made up from a mixture of acoustic sounds and electronic manipulations is Cut1 a collaberation between Sharif Sehnaoui and the late American composer Charles Cohen. Here the alternative sonic textures of the guitar are explored in the manner of John Cage’s prepared Piano, whilst a backdrop of Modular synthesis seethes and boils. Reminiscent of long time Cage collaborator David Tudor; it is, like the work of both these great composers; difficult and unsettling and as such represents perhaps the most challenging piece on the album; yet by the same token is probably the most deserving of the title experimental.
Just two artists featured here use the un-manipulated human voice in their work and interestingly both are reminiscent of early albums from Nitin Sawney. On the track Prelude for the Triumphant Man Two or the Dragon mix urgent percussion with found sound vocal samples and juxtapose this mesmerising assault on the senses with a brilliantly executed deceleration into an almost blissful conclusion. Their track Addiction to Heartache is a similar exercise in bringing cacophony into focus and again features some stunning percussion.
Youmna Saba is unique here not only for being the only woman featured on the project but also for her mixture of what might be termed conventional song structure with concrete sound. Her piece Hubut begins with the sound of a staircase being hurriedly ascended, this sample is looped and pitch shifted downward to become a glacial back-beat to Saba’s heart rending vocals and brilliantly abstracted guitar playing. Her other contribution Nafas builds from a heavily filtered bass drone into a wash of synth pads and chattering found-sound loops, the vocal Guitar and Oud playing is brilliantly executed and exquisitely recorded.
Old Diversity and New Unity
In short, this Anthology of Electroacoustic Lebanese music makes for great listening on a number of levels. Youmna Saba’s tracks stand out as examples of how to be experimental whilst preserving harmony and melody. Whilst tracks from the likes of Joseph Doumet hark back to the initial forays into experimental electronics. Mixed in with these homages to tradition are genuine expeditions onto new ground and all of the artists featured here have firmly placed themselves on Lebanon’s newly emerging cultural map.
It is perhaps beyond the remit of an album review to wonder how factors such as War and and successive influxes of refugees might serve to temper a nations cultural heartbeat. One thing we can take away from this collection however, is the surety that despite the many trials Lebanon has faced; the passion and innovation of her artists has only been solidified.