BEIT MERY, Lebanon: “It’s not an oratorio,” says Zad Moultaka. The melancholy strains of Joel Versavaud’s baritone saxophone rise tentatively from the Emile Bustani Auditorium. “It’s not an opera.
I don’t know what it is, really.” The composer is referring to his “Tous les hommes dansent” (All men dance), which is officially termed a musical story for an absent five-voice choir, tenor soloist, saxophone, percussion and videos.
It’s a new work commissioned by Festival Al-Bustan, whose world premiere is Thursday evening.
The piece is exotic. Though the 2013 edition of the six-week-long festival is festooned with youthful performers, Moultaka’s is the lone new work.
The composer is deeply immersed in rehearsals for the debut performance when he takes a few minutes to grapple with exactly what his new work is.
“It’s a total thing,” he says. “A little bit music, a bit video and text. This form is a little new for me. There is some music from time to time [to accompany] poetry, some effects.
“For me it’s all music, from the beginning until the end. We hear the sound of the wind, the sound of the leaves in the forest. Sometimes strange creatures ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s like a conte de fées,” he pauses, “a fairytale.”
He starts again. “All these sounds [the wind, the leaves, etc.] are performed by a choir, so all is fake ... We have songs for tenor voice and the saxophone – baritone and sopranino [the smallest member of the sax family] and the percussion is the rhythm, beating like the heart of this event, this – ” he laughs, as though still searching for an appropriate noun.
Zad Moultaka is one of a handful of “contemporary classical” composers from this country whose works occasionally see light of day in Lebanon.
In the wake of the 2006 siege, “NO!” a composition for electro-acoustic environment and zapateado, was performed during Ayam Beirut al-Cinema’iya. A collaboration with flamenco dancer Yalda Younes, “NO!” had Younes tap to a soundscape based on explosive concussions (recorded during one of Lebanon’s wars) which Moultaka elaborated electronically.
In 2010, “Zajal,” an Arabic chamber opera for vocalist, actor, small ensemble, percussionist and video, was given a single performance during Beirut’s Spring Festival. A more expansive piece, it featured the work of Moultaka’s Ensemble Mezwej, supplemented by the vocal pyrotechnics of Fadia Tomb el-Hage.
In 2012, Ensemble Mezwej returned to close Irtijal, Beirut’s festival of experimental music. It performed “Diptyques,” a program of half a dozen or so of Moultaka’s short works – for clarinet and video, for solo viola and recording, for solo guitar and video, and so on.
“Tous les hommes dansent” takes its inspiration from a universal philosophical position and a site-specific historical anecdote.
“I think that we are losing our roots,” Moultaka says. “When we lose the roots, we lose our selves and [with it] our civilization ... It’s not so difficult to see that today. It’s not necessary [for it] to disappear physically, but from within.”
The humanist premise of Moultaka’s work takes its inspiration from the story of Afrikaner-born author and conservationist Sir Laurens van der Post. His works have seeped into popular culture via his novels from World War II, which formed the basis of Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film “Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence.”
After the war, van der Post sought out and lived among the San people of the Kalahari – historically called “the Bushmen.” He devised a BBC documentary, later a book, from his experiences in which he characterizes the San as the lost soul of humankind.
“I thought the story of van der Post is very close to us,” Moultaka says. “It’s like us as Lebanese, or the Germans. When you have a war, the generation after [the combatants] always looks for what our parents did before us, the feeling of culpability.
“That’s why we don’t have to [assume] a colonialist attitude [when discussing] these lost people – whether the San, or Amerindians. When thinking about these people who are disappearing, we must [look to] ourselves, as if our civilization – like theirs – is going to disappear.”
Like Moultaka’s earlier works, there is an element of theatricality in “Tous les hommes dansent.” The three soloists – vocalist, saxophonist and percussionist – are in the desert searching out the San.
“There is a text,” he says. “It’s narrative, an abstract narrative because sometimes we have a story but we don’t know where it goes.
“It’s a kind of interior journey. The three musicians change personas [which are like] phantoms ... They’re searching for the San but they can’t find them. In the end, we realize they were looking for themselves the whole time.”
The music is of two kinds: the onomatopoeic vocalizations of a five-voice male choir and music composed for tenor, saxophone and percussion.
“There are a lot of songs, melodies,” Moultaka says, “because there’s a lot of nostalgia for the desert. These figures are lost, and they’re lost in what they’re looking for, so from time to time they ... sing something that emerges from their memory or nostalgia.”
The work also has a strong visual component. Except for a weak blue glow meant to represent moonlight, the auditorium is pitch black throughout the performance, with the musicians wielding hand-held lamps as well as their instruments.
“When a musician stands,” he holds the lamp this way, Moultaka gestures. “The figures analyse each other: They appear and disappear back into the darkness, as if they rely upon each other to exist.”
The other light source is the large screen upon which are projected video images of desert landscapes. The images are deceptive, however. The subjects they represent are not what they appear and the journey of the three figures is not what it seems.
The commission was assembled quickly. “It was very fast,” Moultaka chuckles. “Let’s say several months.”
He has been sparing in his musical composition, he says, but the work in its totality is highly composed.
“I don’t want to make music just for making music,” he says. “Sometimes here I need music, so here I have a song. There I needed a saxophone piece.
“I wrote the whole thing – this, object – as a musical score. Everything is music. Working with the musicians on stage, when they hold their lights [thus], and then like this.” He gestures to demonstrate their movement.
“I tell them, ‘It’s like legato.’ [All the stage movement] is as though you were singing, moving from note to note. ‘When you go there, you go legato,’ ‘There, you go staccato.’ Because,” he laughs again, “I am a musician, after all.”
Zad Moultaka’s “Tous les hommes dansent” will be performed at Festival Al-Bustan Thursday evening at the Emile Bustani Auditorium. The libretto is in French with Arabic and Sinhalese subtitles. For more information see albustanfestival.com.