Culture

'Mental music' processes emotion of a 34-day war

Interview

BEIRUT: "Aequo was structured like drum 'n' bass with weird time signatures. AEX was the dance music incarnation of Aequo. It was closer to the public, to techno and to house. It was 4/4," says Jawad Nawfal, 29, in reference to the standardized time signature for dance music that keeps people moving in night clubs due to its regular, driving beats.

"Munma is closer to Aequo, but it's the only project that has oriental influences and sounds." Nawfal pauses to play back his latest adventure in electronic music in his head. "The rhythmic construction is more oriental. You know, tum tak taka taka tak," he explains, sounding out that rhythmic construction as he taps it out softly on the cafe table in front of him.

A musician and composer who would also answer to the profession of sound designer, Nawfal was born in Beirut in 1978. He did film studies at St. Joseph University, and when he found himself the only student in his chosen specialization of sound for cinema, his department sent him to Paris so he could complete his degree.

In 2001, Nawfal created Altered Ear, a research laboratory of sorts that would serve as a platform for numerous collaborations to come - such as music for a film by Caroline Tabet (to whom Nawfal is married) or the sound component of a site-specific multimedia installation using photographs and videos.

With fellow musician Victor Bresse, Nawfal soon began producing music under the moniker Aequo. "Latin for 'on the same level,'" he says. Aequo served as a testing ground for highly cerebral, disjointed electronic music, "like early Autechre or Squarepusher," explains Ziad Nawfal, 35, himself a DJ, Jawad's brother and the producer of his latest effort.

Aequo's sound falls within the bounds of what is often referred to, in the absence of a more meaningful term, as intelligent dance music (IDM). The genre dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s and now includes an endless litany of subgenres. Generally speaking, IDM indicates a more mental approach to music that is made from samples and processed on computer (using ever more sophisticate sequencing and synthesizing software). It is listened to, more often than not and despite the name, on headphones rather than on the dance floor. The musicians associated with IDM - Autechre, Aphex Twin and Polygon Window (both aliases of Richard D. James), Boards of Canada, Telefon Tel Aviv, Plaid and any assortment of artists whose work is released on the record label Warp, and many of whom, it should be said, hate the term itself - are buttressed by music theory (David Toop) and reams of articles in the specialized press (see any issue of the London-based magazine The Wire). All of this writing endeavors to describe the music in creative, often over-the-top verbiage - glitch, squelch, squeak, smudge, fizz, fuzz, click, crackle, clack, swish, swash, swoosh and so on ad nauseam. Suffice it to say, it's a particular niche, one that is largely inaccessible to mainstream music listeners and made more so by the accompanying discourse, which has developed over the past 10 years.

As such, AEX emerged as a more palatable and people-friendly version of Aequo - less abrasive, easier to dance to. With computers and technicians at the ready, Nawfal and Bresse performed live as AEX about five or six times in Beirut.

But in the summer of 2006, Bresse, like so many others, left Lebanon and has yet to return. Nawfal, in terms of making new music, found himself on his own and also, as it happened, in the middle of a war. From this time and experience came Munma's "34 Days," a six-track EP released in late December. "I use different pseudonyms and each one corresponds to the style of music," Nawfal explains. "Munma is my resistance moniker."

If you slot the name into a Google search, you are likely to get a list of references to the Munma Holy Republic, an imaginary Islamic state carved out of the southern quarter of Iran and Pakistan, as devised by a Japanese manga series.  But as Nawfal notes, "there are many meanings for the term." The one he opts for is dystopian in the vein of George Orwell's "1984" or Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" - "A republic of resistance for the future," he says.

As much as "34 Days" is about Nawfal making music on his own, it is also about making music "during the war, about the war, for the war," he explains. The title, of course, references the 34 days of Israeli bombardment during July and August of last year. Still, while several locally produced music and video projects have made ample use of the sounds of bombshells, Munma's project is infinitely more abstract. As Nawfal explains: "With digital music the main process is not recording but processing the sounds. I gathered millions and millions of sounds."

Listening to "34 Days," you can never be sure exactly what you are hearing. You can't source the sounds, as in "this is a piano, a guitar" or "here is where the drums come in, the strings, the horns." You may strain for comparison: "This sounds like a door closing, the noise of a factory or an industrial plant, a cheap alarm clock that is going off and slowly breaking." The only tangible sounds are snippets from Arabic-language radio - a simple but nonetheless significant innovation, given the genre's otherwise insular footing elsewhere.

Recognizing sounds, however, is not a game Nawfal is eager for his listeners to play. He has his bank of sounds, and he's not about to crack it open for all to see and hear.

"From my cinema experience and my studies, I am attracted to abstract sounds, and to treating sounds as objects. The difference between concrete and abstract sounds is that concrete sounds are actual sounds, while with abstract sounds, you can't fathom what the instrument or the sound is. Munma is not music to hit the body, to make the body react, but to hit the mind first. The rhythms are not sustained. It's more reflective. The beat isn't going to draw you in. It's more eerie and it's got this melancholy feel.

"It's really work that comes from a need to express myself. I make money elsewhere," explains Nawfal, who makes advertising music for a living. "This isn't going to make me rich. It's something really personal. But there's a certain point at which you want to share it, and there's a certain point at which you have to come face to face with the public - if you want to get better and if you want to evolve. This is why I came to Ziad," he says, nodding toward his brother. "I wanted Munma to talk to the public."

"34 Days" marks the first time the Nawfal brothers have worked together. From an initial roster of 12-15 songs, they selected six for the CD, which was printed in a limited edition of 1,000, alongside another CD, the post-punk band Scrambled Eggs' "Happy Together Filthy Forever," which Ziad also co-produced and which was completed in the same, difficult time period (the final track of the Scrambled Eggs release is a Munma remix of "Bleeding Nun").

"For me I needed to express what I was enduring," says Nawfal. "As an artist, you have to give shape to what you are feeling. It is for me an important statement."

"On many levels," his brother adds, with telling gravity.

Munma's "34 Days" is available now and distributed by Incognito. For more information, please see www.incognitome.net

 

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