BEIRUT: The next time someone asks you what you’re listening to nowadays, try replying with the phrase “experimental and improvisational music.”
If the eyes don’t glaze over immediately, chances are they’ll dart from one side of the room to the other in search of a polite exit strategy.
Improvisation is part of many eastern and western music traditions, from classical Arabic to jazz, so it’s found varied mainstream audiences. Contemporary and experimental improv music, however, echoes through more exclusive circles.
Such work is harder for audiences to get a grasp on. For one thing, the musicians’ use of electronically-produced sound, and/or unconventional approaches to familiar instruments, doesn’t “look” like performance.
For another, the musical tropes that these artists prise apart and reassemble are the very conventions to which popular audiences have become accustomed and find comforting.
“Under the Carpet,” the debut album by the ensemble of the same name, is comprised of 21 tracks of experimental improv, performed by a trio of seasoned players. Paed Conca is a Swiss national who usually oscillates between bass guitar and clarinet. Saxophonist Stéphane Rives hales from France. Rounding out the trio is Lebanese guitarist Fadi Tabbal.
Rooted in conventional instruments, all three musicians are also veterans of electronic music.
Their album is the latest title to appear from Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured label. It was recorded at Tabbal’s Tunefork Recording Studios.
In its conception, the sound of “Under the Carpet” is rigorously experimental. Yet in its execution it’s likely to speak to a more varied audience than is often the case – without provoking accusations of “soft-rock sell-out” from hard-core listeners.
The opening track, “A new Hope for Medical Treatment,” opens with a mellow progression of percussive, gong-like thumps (apparently issuing from the strings of one of the guitars) that sound like they wouldn’t be out of place echoing from a Buddhist monastery – or else warbling through the pre-conscious miasma of Martin Sheen’s anti-hero in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
“There’s no Picture of the Band,” the following tune, is dominated by electronically enhanced guitar work, dirty and grinding yet disciplined to a hoarse murmur.
The line of percussion that opens “Weird Sounds From the Kitchen,” meanwhile – with all its adolescent pots-and-tupperware virtuosity – plays out in conversation with brisk electronic musings of an uncertain range of machines.
“Bourgeois Corporation” finds an electronically assisted guitar commence as a grumbling, distorted preamble before taking flight and beginning to soar harmonically – albeit briefly, as the tune ends in a little more than two-and-a-half-minutes.
For all of the guitar distortion that marks “Sizes Performance and Capacity,” the piece is dominated by a ragged, yet dancehall friendly, beat that would pull any dubstep veteran to the floor.
Variety and brevity are the order of the day for the tracks on “Under the Carpet.” While ensemble improv performances can meander a bit, none of the tracks on this album reaches the seven-minute barrier.
“A new Hope for Medical Treatment,” the opening track, wraps up in 6:43. Most of the numbers fall into the two-three minute range, and so conform, amusingly, to the demands of “top-twenty” radio play.
Under the Carpet had its formal performance debut at the Beirut Art Center a little more than a year ago.
Conca recalls the band’s first experience performing as being during a carte blanche performance at Jango (a Gemayzeh bar favoured by Beirut’s cultural labourers) in 2010.
“It all happened very spontaneously,” he recalls.
“Fadi works with this melodic idea [in very abstract terms]. He would abstract it, sometimes very clearly but most of the time [it was] hidden.
“It wasn’t something planned, this melodic line, it just happened: This idea of having a pop element, a pop melody, but of course we do it in our own way, improvising [rather than] playing songs.”
Conca says the record maintains the rigor of experimental improvisation.
“During the recording, [most] of the tunes were improvised exactly as you hear them on the record. Some [numbers were] abstracted from longer improvisation sessions but all the pieces on the record are unedited, and of this length.”
Some of tracks on “Under the Carpet” feature solo voices in conversation. Others are densely layered with samples but Conca says all such samples were generated, recorded and played-back during individual sessions. None of the players brought pre-packaged sounds into the studio with him.
Conca seems taken aback by the suggestion that, by abstracting improv passages from longer sessions the tunes on “Under the Carpet” are airplay-friendly, making them more accessible to a general audience.
“More accessible?” he says. “Ooof, well yeah maybe, but for sure ... the ‘pop music’ idea is so abstracted [that] if you listen to it in the right way ... it should be something different from what’s already there – quite different from other bands.”
Under the Carpet’s selective, varied flirtations with the melodic elements of pop makes its debut album an interesting thing to listen to. Even if its abstractions from longer improv sessions give it the aspect of a “sampler,” as a document, it’s likely to be of interest to DJs and other sound professionals.
For more casual listeners, the record may be of interest because it strides confidently across a landscape of pop-experiment hybridity that – at least on the Lebanese scene – has been dominated by Scrambled Eggs.
The pop conventions on which Under the Carpet forages are quite different, and more varied, than the post-punk wall of noise that Charbel Habre and his fellow raptors digest and belch back as improv.
There’s room in Beirut for both.
The “Under the Carpet” CD release concert will take place at Hamra’s Metro al-Madina, Thursday Sept. 13 at 9 p.m.. For more information please contact email@example.com.