BEIRUT: One of the gifts of 20th-century capitalism was the cheap recording device. Nowadays wee digital gizmos are so common, high-quality reproductions of sound and image have become facets of our throwaway culture.
The world looked a bit different in the early 1980s, when the laboring classes’ sound-recording technology of choice was the cassette tape, and feature films were shot with 35mm film.
Reproductions were either more expensive or of lower quality than today but, then as now, those wielding the recording devices were preoccupied by two divergent pastimes: capturing reality (“Truth”) and producing diverting entertainments.
Sometimes these two preoccupations veer closer to one another than you might imagine. This intersection is the aesthetic location of “Good-Bye Schlondorff – Audio Letters and Correspondence from a Faked War,” an audiovisual performance devised by the Paris-based Lebanese hip-hop artist Rayess Bek (aka Wael Kodeih), to be staged Thursday at Metro al-Madina.
The core of “Good-Bye Schlondorff” is a collection of cassette tapes from the early ’80s, the fruit of two years research. The tapes were the delivery system of choice for Lebanese families’ correspondence with absent (usually expatriate) loved ones.
“It began with an audiotaped letter I found that my grandma in Nabatiyya sent to Mom in Paris,” says Kodeih. “I wanted to find some other material besides family letters because I didn’t want this to be a personal project.
“Some shared their tapes easily. Others said no, these messages are very private. Also the tapes are quite old now, so many of them have become demagnetized.”
Because the source materials are personal correspondence delivered in spoken word, the work is very moving.
“Emotionally it’s hard to listen to these tapes, even if you have no idea who’s speaking ... It’s a bit voyeuristic because you’re inside a private conversation,” he says. “They’re talking about everyday matters but not only war and death. There’s a lot of hope and love here, and some humor too.”
Partly because the Lebanese state hasn’t had the wherewithal for archiving, among other things, it has become a bit of an aesthetic fetish for post-Civil War Lebanese artists. Kodeih says these audio letters are an historical source as fascinating as they are neglected.
“They would take a music cassette and tape over it ... Sometimes they’d record a message on one side of the tape and you’d find the response on the other. Sometimes a single tape contains a very interesting montage of sounds.
“Interestingly, the voices are only those of women and children,” he continues. “We never found a recorded male voice. The power of the tapes lies in the children’s voices.
“I think there are a lot of tapes like this all over Lebanon ... No history of the Civil War has been published but you do have these testimonials.”
The other half of “Good-Bye Schlondorff,” driving the work to take the form it does, is Volker Schlondorff’s 1981 feature “Circle of Deceit.” Based on the novel by Nicolas Born, the film follows the existential crisis of a German war correspondent who lands in Beirut to cover the early years of Lebanon’s Civil War.
Kodeih is less interested in “Circle of Deceit” than he is in the “Making of” documentary that was part of the DVD release package, which combines Schlondorff’s voiceover with production images of Beirut as it looked before Israel’s pummeling 1982 invasion.
It’s a relatively thoughtful piece as “Making of” docs go, with Schlondorff discussing the layers of incongruity he encountered in shooting a fiction film set during Lebanon’s war while the war was still waging.
He relates how he enlisted Lebanese militiamen as extras and, what’s more, secured a temporary cessation of hostilities in the areas where he and his German-Lebanese crew were filming.
“Asking the militiamen to come to this area and act as though they were, well, themselves,” Kodeih recollects, “this guy created a fictive war ... So you have militiamen pretending to kill each other, while on the other side of town militiamen really were killing each other.
“You have fiction film and authentic taped letters. I wanted to make a dialogue between the two. How can these two recordings of the war be made to meet?”
“Good-Bye Schlondorff” is a very different type of show than those for which fans of Rayess Bek usually come out. For Kodeih, however, the two aren’t far apart.
“It’s really the same mechanism,” he says. “At the end of the day you have someone talking about his life on music – with or without beats, with or without rhythm.
“Most of the time when I write a hip-hop tune, I don’t write out of nowhere. I research. I look for a subject. I read about it. I take notes. It’s an important part of the process.
“I used the same mechanism to write ‘Good-Bye Schlondorff.’ The text isn’t mine. I’ve just chosen someone else’s words. It’s the same logic. I always composed my own music. I’ve worked for ages with the same flautist, Naissam Jalal. It’s the same four-person crew.”
Kodeih adds that it’s difficult to characterize the music used in “Good-Bye Schlondorff.”
“Sometimes it’s very repetitive because the text has to be the main character. Sometimes it’s hip-hop-ish. Sometimes it’s completely deconstructed.
“Now I’m trying out some new technology – a 3-D camera tracking systems for the body [that allows you to] control the sound through movement. I want to go further with this. It’s brand new technology. We’re just testing it in this show.”
Kodeih is planning another project that he’d like to see staged by 2014, but he’s hesitant to discuss it.
“It won’t be about the war,” he says. “I’ll be happy to be rid of the war, though it’s difficult to be rid of it. I grew up in that period. It’s in my blood now, emotionally. That’s one.
“Second, it’s a subject that professionals love, especially in Europe. If you do something on that subject, you can be sure that you’ll have funding. You can be sure you’ll tour. I already have a lot of gigs in France. That’s not why I did this project, but we have to be honest.”
“Good Bye Schlondorff – Audio Letters and Correspondence from a Faked War” will be staged at Metro al-Madina, Hamra Street, tonight at 9 p.m.