Christine Abdelnour : il respiro intimo del suono
When did you start playing music? How do you describe what is it that you do when people ask you?
In 1997, I got attracted by improvised music. When I was young, I did a little bit of classical music on piano and guitar but it was too strict for me. Then, when I was 18, I started directly with improvised music on the clarinet and the saxophone. I did some workshops of improvised music and then I entered the orchestra of INSTANTS CHAVIRES in Paris. The INSTANTS CHAVIRES was the place to be for that kind of music. I was going there two or three times a week to listen to some concerts and I practiced there too through workshops. At this period, I was very impressed by saxophonists like John Butcher, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustaffson. I learned some techniques, just by listening some of their solo on cds and trying to reproduce the same sounds. Then, I felt more attracted by electro-acoustic or purely electronic music and I tried to get rid of the specific sounds of the saxophone itself. The more I was playing, the more I got fed up with this instrument and tried to find ways to escape the instrument. I tried to develop my own techniques and now I hope that I don’t sound at all like a saxophone.
I’m trying to produce sounds that are close to those of electro acoustic music but on a purely acoustic instrument.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them that my interest in music is sound. I approach sound as a malleable material, rich in concrete textures which combine breath, silence and countless acoustic distortions. I’m exploring the microtonal aspects of the saxophone and its high-pitched tones, but also tonguing techniques, unpitched breaths, spittle-flecked growls, biting, slicing notes and breathy echoing sounds. Far from any narrative effects, my music tries to deal with perception, time and space.
What is music for you?
As I said, in my music, I’m interested in sound itself but the important thing for me, that creates the music is the creation and the construction of a shape. This “work in progress” that will build the music is primordial for me.
How will a sound emerge? What is the purpose of a sound, its laws of movement?
Does the musician create the shape or is it the shape that creates the musician?
Beyond my work on sounds as a multiplicity of techniques, what interests me when I improvise is to try to analyse how the brain works in music. I’m more and more against this “romantic” idea that improvising is only related to the body of the musician, that would just “feel” the music without any intentions. I’m convinced that the brain is also very active in this process, that it’s a decision and a will that will conduct the music. That when the musician feels or perceives, he is theorising in the same time and his brain obeys to some codes in a causal system. ( Ref : Jean-Luc Guionnet)
Music is a language. Language has some codes. Moreover, music is a structural system or an organism where every sound is in interrelation. Every sound that we product has to be stretched towards a change in the shape or has to pass on some information. No sound has to be anecdotic or useless. The musician has to be always in this state of mind of urgencies that results from the process of listening. Playing when it’s just necessary and being precise and concise. Less is more.
I can’t also think of music without the concept of “listening” : to listen is all ready in a gesture of composition.
The big emotional strength of the music comes exactly from this abstraction of the space-time.
This is music when I do it.
But sometimes, when I listen to music at home, I don’t think about all this at all. For example, I never listen to improvise music at home. I don’t listen to jazz and I won’t define my music as jazz.
I listen to all sorts of music, read all kind of books and watch all kind of movies.
I’m not a fetishist of anything and I don’t feel related to any kind of musical history.
In your opinion what is the role of art in periods of economical, political and social turmoil?
It seems to me that one of the main function of the artistic commitment is to push away the limits of what can be made and show than art consists not only of manufacturing objects in galleries but being invovled in a “context", putting in relationship the art and the reality. But what is the reality? Within the postmodern speech: the reality would be an overtaken "concept", because it is constituted by the exchanges of mediated signs taken from heterogeneous fields, where the the artists are such as "tourists” far from their own experience.
In front of this idea, I think that artists have to create another reality. They have to create a kind of new power of reality that dig into movements, displacement and the meeting with the other or the perpetual search of something or somewhere else. Art doesn’t have to reproduce the visible but to make visible the invisible. Art has initiate a new perception, returning to its unconscious premisses of its own functioning, create another reality that the one that we believe in and explode the shell of the social by creating undergrounds paths where the deep intimacy of ourself can express itself.
What is your relation with Lebanon now? Have you lived there for a long time before moving to France?
I was born in France and lived all my life in France. My parents are lebanese and the link with Lebanon has always being strong. I go there one a year at least to see my family. When I was a child I had a lot of lebanese friends because the lebanese diaspora in the 80’ in Paris was very present.
You organize the experimental music festival IRTIJAL in Beirut. Can you talk a little bit about it? How do you think it is a political gesture to organize a thing like that in Beirut?
I can talk to you a little bit about the experimental scene in Lebanon but I only organized IRTIJAL in the first years. After some personal problems with some lebanese musicians, I am now not related anymore to the festival or the musicians there.
So, the guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui or the musican Mazen Kerbaj would be more efficient than me to talk about music in Lebanon.
Nevertheless I can speak to you about the beginning of irtijal in
In Lebanon after fifteen years of civil war and decade of reconstruction, the artistic situation was very poor. The artists were more worried about surviving than of creating. In music, from the Arabic pop to the group of hard rock or standards of jazz revisits, all that we could hear was copies of western fashions. Then things began to change in 2000 with the arrival of the generation born at the beginning of the war and more interest was shown in forms of aesthetic resistance, not a negative resistance but an affirmative and creative resistance.
We have created in 2000 with sharif sehnaoui and mazen kerbaj the MILL association (free improvised music in the Lebanon) with the irtijal festival (improvisation in Arabic). The objective was to present the contemporary and experimental practices in music but also to register the music in a permanent dialogue with all the Lebanese artistic space. The idea of irtijal was to present a maximum of international artists, while trying to make them interact with the local artists by improvisation. Even though irtijal was the only individual initiative and in that we were only volunteers with no local or international structure, the festival was and is still the main event of creative musics and the biggest structure of this type all over the Arabic world.
What time do you wake up in the morning?
I love to sleep and I sleep a lot ( 9 hours ) so I wake up very late depending on what time I sleep.
What was the environment like in the first years of your life?
I was born in Paris in a very wealthy environment. My parents were immigrants from Lebanon. They were very protective with my sister and me. Being far from their country and family made them very much in need of love and they surrounded us with a lot of tenderness and affection specially my mother. My father was very afraid of being in lack of something so he was giving us all that we asked for in the material field. He was very generous and a big spender, throwing money out the windows as we say in french.
On some aspects, they were not strict at all. For example they didn’t care if we were good at school or not but on others aspects, my father was very anxious and afraid of everything so we had to be always at home. We lived a little bit confined in this family “bubble” without a lot of contacts with the external world except our private and catholic school which was the opposite of our family world. With this excess of love and maximal protection, my sister and I were very unsociable and very timid, we had also a reverse reaction : a kind of overdose, which brought us to the feeling of guilt, to a big consciousness of the value of things, a bit against the idea of wasting and the feeling of being “over responsible” of our lives and education. A classic adolescent crisis followed when I discovered music and underground worlds where I had a lot of internal fights with my father trying to conciliate all this existential oppositions … I was extremely shy when I was 18 and the discovering of music and improvised music as another “social” world was really a key to open another door that could help me escape and reconciliate everything. But it was a very long process of destruction/reconstruction, war and reconciliation and I can say that now at 34 years old I’m just reaching my real self.
But playing music now is not easy for me, it’s not like I know what I want and I’m doing it. Playing music is all about doubting and a kind of despair for me.
To make some music it is like digging. The hollow grows. But I keep saying to myself that the hollow carries us and that our inside is huge. That it is maybe necessary to empty outside all this inside. With all the questions and the pain, playing music is not simple, it is not just happiness and it is not shining in static answers.
Also, I don’t really care about the saxophone. Even sometimes, I hate this instrument. The instrument is only a medium to express myself. It could have been a piano, paint or a sculpture.
But also in the same time, it’s not only a pure coincidence that I chose this instrument; I chose it because I felt that it was a good extension of my body, an extension of my “air”. What interested me in the first place was that it is was a breath instrument. The resonance of the saxophone felt good directly physically. The mouth is like the door of the body. It is a peaceful cavity surrounded with complex ways. It is our hollow space. It opens and closes a cycle of roads. It is not a question of expelling our air and emptiness but crossing it in the body.
Something is very powerful with the breath : we can touch a kind of intimacy and I feel that it brings something more, like a kind of a very sincere exposition of yourself. The link between the inside and the outside is very narrow.
There is a sentence of Beckett that I like very much. I’ll try to translate it here: “On one hand there is the outside, on the other side there is the inside. That can be as thin as a blade. I am neither one nor the other one, I am in the middle, I am the partition. I feel that I vibrate, I am the eardrum, on one side it is the skull, on the other one the world. I am neither of them.”
Which kind of ideas initiate the formation of a concept for a release?
No ideas, nothing written, just improvising with the language of others individualities.
I don’t like the word “improvising” because It is always a reproduction of some codes and some structures. The thing is that it’s hard to reproduce always the same sounds precisely. There is some accidents that can create surprises and improvisation. Also, different contexts with musicians that you are not used to play with can generate more improvisation.
What are your set of rules when you improvise? By which parameters are these rules affected?
For me, six codes or abstract parameters are important in the process of improvising :
- The time or the duration of a sound.
- The choice of the timber in the surface in the pitch.
- The precision in the locations and the proportions.
- The density in the choice of volume or frequency.
- The intention or the dynamics.
- The articulation or transitions.
It was a long process for me to develop this parameters. It took me all my life to develop those ideas. But it’s a process with no end. So, it can change anytime.
There is a famous sentence saying “ce qui compte ce n’est pas l’enoncé du vent, c’est le vent” that can be translated by “what matters it is not how you enunciate the wind, but it is the wind. this is a little bit how I live the music.
What is happiness for you?
To be super healthy and in love.
Do you often go out of your house or do you like to stay in more?
I’m better now but I’m still quite unsociable so I love to stay at home. I’m very lazy and I love my slippers.
That’s why touring is sometimes very difficult for me.
What is so nice about collaborating that you cannot enjoy while working alone and what is so nice about working alone that you cannot enjoy while collaborating? (Examples of collaborations you have enjoyed are very welcome)
The duo is for me the easiest and the most beautiful group. It is like a couple which exchange. If you put four persons in a room, the conversation will be less fluid and more difficult. There will be alliances, disagreements. Improvised music is like a social network. Being two or being alone is sometimes easier.
I like also to play in solo. Actually, solo doesn’t really exist because in solo, the room where you play is becoming a partner too. The environment is indeed very important. Music is like a landscape. You have to dump in a network and then move with sounds within this network. The question of energy and emergence is fundamental. By penetrating into the space, the public feeds it and makes it live too.
The acoustic aspect of the room is also important. Is it a dry place, a very resonate one, a noisy one, this can bring unexpected result. Also, the time, the weather or the accidents caused by the public can be a source of influence.
Usually, I prefer to play inside in a very silent environment with a little bit of resonance. I like to be surrounded by the audience and not on a stage.
In solo, the concentration is also very different. Knowing that everything can arrive in a visible and quantifiable geometry. Every sound, every gesture is important.
The question is: why and how what I am going to make now is going to change everything and how is it going to dictate to me the continuation?
How can I go in and how can I go out of the shape?
How every sound has a secret tendency for the whole without ever being able to create the totality?
Maybe I can add some words about my recent groups because I just had two new cds that has been released this month. (MYRIAD with MAGDA MAYAS ON UNSOUNDS LABEL and AS:IS with Andrea Neuman and Bonnie Jones on OLOF BRIGHT label)
Magda is like my “alter ego” in music. We sound immediately in tune, we are so locked into each other that is unclear who's doing which sound. This fluidity in our dialogue allows to bring together intensity and inventiveness, sharpness and softness. It is quite an unique experience.
Bonnie plays electronic and Andrea plays inside piano and mixing board. Andrea Neumann being one of the leading improvisors in the Berlin scene, master of the inside piano. Bonnie Jones, Baltimore and Seoul, one of the creators of the new South Korean impro, a challenging unique artist on electronics.
I just want also to add something about my duo called SPLIT SECOND with Ryan Kernoa because it is also one of my favorite groups and because we had been playing quite a lot this year. Our music is particular because it is a duo. We are working in producing the same frequencies and same sound in the same time. It is made of multiple frequencies, pulsations, interferences between different harmonics that creates the particular effect of 'beating'. The aim is to let perceive lines and shapes in music, appearance and disappearance of vibration. It is all about disorder and confusion: the sound stands still and begins to live inside the one who listens.. It is difficult to classify the music of Split Second. It’s different from the current "classics" of the contemporary music and also from the improvised music. We appeal alternately to sound techniques referring to minimalism but also, due to our work on frequencies, drones or feedback, of the electroacoustic music or even rock music. The duet unwinds a sound space combining sharp and low sounds, dense and continuous frequencies which evolve very subtly in time. Our music exploits the space in all its directions: depth, height, but also the 'invisible' space of silence.
Can you send us an example, a picture that best illustrates for you the significance of art in our lives to post along with your answers?
A picture where Gordon Matta-Clark cuts a house on two.
During the last few weeks, my friends and family have mistaken the work of Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui for both a broken air conditioner and a car dying outside my window. I can't say that I blame them. Her recordings call to mind unoiled hinges, deflating balloons, asthma attacks. This Parisian alto-saxophonist, born 31 years ago to Lebanese émigré parents, plays like music does not exist. When she performs live, Sehnaoui clamps her eyes tightly shut - an expression that speaks to the intensity of focus she applies to her challenging and surprisingly diverse oeuvre. At a recent concert in Amsterdam that I was fortunate enough to attend, she began her set with a metre-long stick of PVC tubing inserted into the bell of her horn. The otherworldly timbres she generated were amplified by a microphone mounted above her head. About 15 minutes into the half-hour improvisation, accompanied by the guitarist Andy Moor, I spotted something else peeking from inside her instrument. A few moments later, she pulled out a plastic water bottle which had been acting as a sort of mute. It was an absurd sight but, as the saying goes, a fine line often separates the ridiculous from the sublime, and Sehnaoui delights in trampling all over this arbitrary border.
Preferring to play collaboratively, usually in duos or trios with like-minded friends, she never notes her pieces down. As a die-hard devotee of spontaneity, she places as much emphasis on her reaction to the environments in which she performs as those she has to her fellow musicians. "I work a lot with breath, with microtonality, with small modulations in the sound," she explains. "I'm also interested in creating trouble within an acoustic space - [making people ask], 'Where does this sound come from?' It's all about feeling an environment and embracing everything in it, but also creating something very small and very intimate in the ears of the audience."
Sometimes Sehnaoui's saxophone sounded thin and machine-driven, an effect achieved by unusual finger placement and inspired by minimalist electronic noise music. Every so often a run of clean notes escaped, offering a brief flash of the massive legacy of Sehnaoui's instrument of choice; everything from Albert Ayler to Maceo Parker, condensed into a few brief seconds. Still, regardless of the resonances embedded in her explorations, the jazz canon means little to Sehnaoui. In fact, she ignores it almost entirely. "I don't really have a historic [appreciation] of the saxophone," she explains. "It's just a medium to express myself with. I'm more interested and much closer to the history of contemporary art - abstract painting or installations, working in space and working with time. I don't feel like a musician. I see sound largely as a plastic material."
Sehnaoui comes from a school of improvised music obsessed with the sonic possibilities of things. For instance, Pascal Battus, her sparring partner on the 2010 album Ichnites, uses the motors of old Walkmans to vibrate sheets of paper and cardboard, pieces of plastic, wood, metal and polystyrene. Like their counterparts in the visual arts - think of the densely layered paintings of Antoni Tàpies - these avant-gardists operate as janitors of cultural history, recycling and extracting new significance from the tired and well-worn. In her efforts to revitalise the saxophone, Sehnaoui produces rumbling exhalations, distorted crescendos and delicate atonal passages. Commonly referred to as "extended technique", her approach abandons traditional virtuosity in favour of idiosyncratic personal engagement.
Magda Mayas, a frequent collaborator with Sehnaoui, plays the piano in much the same way. Her music frames the instrument not as 88 keys arranged in tidy scales, but as a sonorous tangle of wood and wire. As a result, Teeming, an album by both women released earlier this year, is as much an exercise in listening as a demonstration of performative skill. Both musicians manoeuvre from frenetic swells to extended interludes of wandering contemplation. Like all of Sehnaoui's output, there is no rhythm or melody, but a narrative momentum drives the action. While Mayas's piano remains recognisable in its gentle deconstruction, Sehnaoui's sax inhabits a more hermetic soundworld, one closer to the synth blips of musique concrète than any form of handmade art.
All seven albums that Sehnaoui has released over the last five years have been culled from live performances and jam sessions. The most noteworthy of all is Shortwave, a duet with the late Dutch artist Michel Waisvisz, released in 2008. As the director of Amsterdam's STEIM - a centre for the research and development of electronic instruments - Waisvisz pioneered a variety of innovative electronic performance interfaces. Although his resumé included partnerships with Laurie Anderson and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Shortwave is the first instance of recorded work since the 1970s and a perfect example of his process. On it, he used an invention called "the hands", which, as explained on his website, were fitted to his fingers and "littered with sensors to translate movement immediately into sound".
With "the hands" Waisvisz controlled synthesisers alongside real-time sampling and processing of Sehnaoui's saxophone. The physicality of her playing is only underscored by this abstraction. Throughout Shortwave, the horn is made to sound like an extension of Sehnaoui's respiratory system, delivering reedy flutters, tinny wheezes, and rasping expectorations. Aided by Waisvisz's near-tactile sampling methods, the pair perform with exquisite sensitivity to each other. Bottom of the Pond offers nearly 10 minutes of struggle between quiescence and feral power. Sheared of any glimmer of standard musicality that may be found elsewhere on the album, Sehnaoui's contribution is swampy and convoluted without Waisvisz's intervention. Still, even at its most frenetic, the piece feels neither aggressive nor confrontational. If anything, it feels like a quiet and private moment, amplified into audibility; what sound might be like if you could look at it under a microscope.
The album was Sehnaoui's second release on Al Maslakh ("The Slaughterhouse"), a Beirut-based label run by her ex-husband, the guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, and the trumpeter and cartoonist Mazen Kerbaj. Both men are central figures in the city's small experimental music scene. Kerbaj's most famous work - Starry Night, an improvisation for trumpet, backed by the exploding bombs of the Israeli Air Force and recorded on the balcony of his Beirut apartment in July 2006 - offers an illustration of the stoic, do-it-yourself ethic behind the imprint. Sehnaoui was co-organiser of their festival, Irtijal, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last August. A duet between by her and Kerbaj opened the event in 2000 ("The first ever public performance of free improvised music in Lebanon," they claim), and it has continued ever since, uniting Lebanese and international experimental musicians for a few days each year.
By most accounts, audiences for leftfield music in Beirut are better than their European counterparts. Instead of self-selecting patrons who know what they're getting, Al Maslakh's Beirut events draw a broader crowd: large, curious, and open-minded. "Playing at places like [the established Parisian venue] Instants Chavirés is playing for an elite - people who know this music very well and can judge and compare it to the history of improv," says Sehnaoui. "In Lebanon it's more for the very curious, and the reaction is usually very positive. In France it's: 'You made this sound at this second, what was that?' In Lebanon it's much more like a political gesture to come and experience this music."
However, when asked about her relationship with music from the Middle East, Sehnaoui is quick to deny any connection. Unlike the Iranian avant-garde composers Ata Ebtekar and Alireza Mashayekhi, she neither hears nor proposes any link between her work and the traditional music of the region. As a teenager she rocked out to David Bowie and Frank Zappa, later she studied the work of the free-jazz saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. Although she is comfortable situating herself firmly within this lineage of European (and predominantly male) musical adventurers, the politics of identity still occasionally trump self-definition.
This usually ends up being a good thing, Sehnaoui explains: "When I play outside France, there are often some people who come because I'm Lebanese. They're expecting Lebanese music, and are positively surprised by what they discover." To illustrate her point further, she relates a story of a recent performance in Weikersheim, a sleepy German town that has, over time, become an unlikely and much-loved stop on the European improvisational music touring network. "A group of women wearing veils were there," she says. "They had come because I was Lebanese, too, but they still stayed and enjoyed the show."