Lucy Knight

Experiments in sound

Irtijal Festival: 13th edition

DJ Mormophis

You hear the words ‘music festival’ and you think, ‘yay’: beers and boogying. You hear the words ‘experimental music festival’ and that yay can quickly turn into an ‘err’. But let’s not be unduly dismissive. Sure, the sounds of bells being wielded over drum kits, or trumpets being dragged along tables, does sound a little out there – but that’s  the whole point.

Entering its teenage years this week, with its 13th edition, the Irtijal festival is the annual Beirut event at which organizers, Sharif Sehnaoui and Mazen Kerbaj (also musicians), host those who bang their drums to a slightly different beat. Performers this year include Austrian composer and percussionist, Lukas Ligeti; Hungarian drummer and electronics man, Balazs Pandi; soprano saxophonist, Stéphane Rives (who will perform alongside Pandi and Lebanese musician, Osman Arabi); and duo There Is No Why, made up of Charbel Haber and Fadi Tabbal, both on guitar. They will be performing around the city, at Gemmayze’s Yukunkun, Jisr el-Wati’s Beirut Art Center and Hamra’s Metro al Medina.

For those of us who are a little more mainstream, there are the three core parts that constitute music - melody, harmony and rhythm. Without these, most people would say that sound is no longer music, but bare noise. Let’s be honest, as footage of one previous Irtijal festival performer demonstrates, noise can pretty much be the extent of what is created. However, as with anything to do with creativity, nothing is black and white.

After classical training, Sehnaoui was drawn into the world of jazz. As an amateur, he says, “I developed a strong liking for ‘free jazz’.” With people like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler serving as inspiration, Sehnaoui got into the idea of challenging traditional music. Getting together with his friend Kerbaj (a trumpeter) and others, improvised musical sessions eventually led to the possibility of so much more. The need for a showcase where not only regional experimenters, but international ones too, could get together was realised in 2001, and the plethora of different music played annually at Irtijal has grown ever since.

Puzzling, for the lay listener/festival-goer, is how to know whether something one is listening to is really good or really bad. There are no rules when it comes to experimenting with sound, and so when you’re exposed to the sound of someone like Gert-Jan Prins, you assume he must be good. Why else would he have been invited to take part in a festival celebrating such ‘sound’? On the other hand, the focus of this Dutch artist on the “sonic and musical qualities of electronic ‘noise’” might appear to the untrained ear like exactly that: noise. “There is always a matter of faith,” says Sehnaoui. “If someone has never heard rock before, they will think, at first, that every rock band sounds the same.” And he’s right, from Elvis to Velvet Underground, it’s wide and diverse and takes time and experience to distinguish what is good rock and what is bad rock. Of course, there is also the matter of taste, which undeniably comes into it too.

Going to a record store, you are not going to find a section entitled ‘experimental’ which is probably why the genre is such an oddity to most. It’s a closed off area of the music world that the normal guy or gal on the street knows pretty much nothing about. If they hear mention of it, they will probably give a non-partisan shrug, or have images of a lone man turning knobs on an electrical circuit set to flute conjured up.

It’s not all completely inaccessible though. The line-up of this year’s festival includes what might be seen by the ordinary shebab on the street as acceptable. Lebanese born DJ Morphosis (Rabih Beaini), has previously played gigs at venues like the now defunct Buddha Bar – the closest he’ll probably ever get to a mainstream audience. He’ll be launching his new album, Al Bidaya as part of the festival. Oud-playing Iraqi Khyam Allami, along with fellow musician Maurice Louca, will be presenting work they have been developing together since last winter. Preferring music to have structure, Allami himself isn’t necessarily a fan of completely free improvised music and he is welcoming to those not used to what he creates, “I tell people to open their minds a little bit and try not to listen with the same ears.” Indeed, that is the only way one can approach music where it sounds like a distant psychedelic train line.

Sam Shalabi, a big cheese on the Montreal improv scene who’ll be debuting outfits City of Salt and Shalabi Effect this year, is a victim of paradoxical complaints: some people think he’s too conventional and some think he’s too experimental. “I don’t think music can be too experimental but I do think it can be really pretentious, the same way mainstream music can be.” A poster boy of ‘post-rock’ creations, Sehnaoui has been trying to get Shalabi to come for the festival for eight years. It is this integration of different influences that will make the series of shows, due to take place between April 3 and 6, so different from many more mainstream types of festival. The music will encourage those who come and open up their ears to rethink all that they knew about traditional beats in Oriental, techno, dance and even contemporary experimental musical genres.

It’s not for you to get bogged down though in whether you like it or not, because ultimately the musicians don’t care – they aren’t eager to please, simply to enjoy themselves.


For more information on the schedule, you can visit the website here.

Dutch musician, Gert-Jan Prins (image via gonzocircus.com)

“I don’t think music can be too experimental but I do think it can be really pretentious, the same way mainstream music can be.”