BEIRUT: “Revolutionary maqam” seems like a contradiction in terms. The classical music of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Muslim Central Asia, maqam signifies stability.
You might imagine that “revolutionary maqam” refers to those oud-accompanied dirges to political struggle often heard sung in Palestine, Syria, Egypt or anyplace else where the word maqam has meaning. In the case of the music of Nicolas Artuso-Royer, the struggle is less political than artistic.
“Nicolas really is a revolutionary character,” guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui says. “He studied maqam in Syria and in Turkey and emerged from it with the theory that, historically, the performance of maqam was much freer than it is today, that most contemporary musicians aren’t performing maqam the way it was originally intended.
“So he went back to the history of maqam before it was institutionalized and emerged with a sound that’s more authentic while sounding much more modern.”
Artuso-Royer’s opinions echo those of musicologists as well as a handful of local artists. Vocalist Rima Khcheich, for example, has devoted her career to liberating Arabic classical music from the shackles of convention while remaining true to maqam’s essential principles.
Artuso-Royer will front the opening concert of Irtijal 14, the 14th edition of the International Festival for Experimental Music in Lebanon, being staged Wednesday at the Beirut Art Center.
The Canadian-born oud and violin virtuoso will head an ensemble of local musicians – Omar Dewachi and Jad Saliba (ouds), Paed Conca (clarinet) and Béchir Saadé (nai).
This isn’t just a pickup band of freelance musicians. “Nicolas has been here looking for players. These musicians were chosen because of their knowledge of the music and open-mindedness,” Sehnaoui says. “Most often he finds [accompanists] in contemporary circles rather than on the traditional side.”
Co-founded by Sehnaoui and trumpet player and visual artist Mazen Kerbaj, Irtijal has been an intriguing phenomenon on the Lebanese art scene. In a country whose festival programs – particularly the summer’s international music events – are routinely disrupted by security concerns, Irtijal has persevered through 14 consecutive seasons without a hiccup.
“We got lucky over the years,” Sehnaoui recalls. “In 2005, we were staged in July [Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005]. But we got tired of being grouped with the summer music festivals, so in 2006, we shifted to the first week in April.”
In July 2006, Israel launched a 34-day war on Lebanon.
“April is a good place for us – just after Ecrans du Reel, just before BiPod – other events know this time is ‘ours,’ in a way. Even Meeting Points postponed their opening by a day so that we wouldn’t clash. Some events don’t care, of course, but many of us are talking to each other ... getting into the spirit of cooperation.”
Irtijal has matured. The inaugural edition in 2000 was a one-day affair, but since 2003, the event has blossomed to run over 4-6 days. The natural habitat for Beirut’s sound artists and experimental musicians migrating from various musical fringes (from indie rock to jazz), the event regularly hosts up to 30 international performers a year.
The 2014 festival will host performers from La Voix est Libre (The Throat is Clear) festival. Since it was founded in 2005, the Paris event has represented itself as “a haven for [international] dancers, acrobats, actors, poets and musicians who meet here to sublimate the art of encounter and to transgress the limits of language.”
Curated by Blaise Merlin, La Voix’s Beirut shows are part of a regional tour that includes dates in Cairo and Alexandria. The festival will combine its own program – a workshop at Ashkal Alwan, for instance – and an Irtijal set with several other artist collaborations.
“They proposed a program,” Sehnaoui recalls, “and I made a counterproposal. I’m pretty happy with the lineup. Merlin’s bringing in artists from his Paris festival who are new to Beirut.”
One of the inter-festival collaborations in the program is “Wormholes & Hoye,” featuring two electric guitarists – Sehnaoui and Jean-François Pauvros – and two live painters – Kerbaj and Vincent Fortemps.
Live painting is a performance technique that draws on various media. In the most recent phase of his sound work, Kerbaj has put aside his trumpet to create elaborate liquid art, mixing fluids of varying colors and densities while an overhead camera observes and projects the mutable images on screen. The form was most-recently seen in Beirut during Maqamat Dance Company’s January performances of “Watadour” (It turns).
“This set is actually my special request,” Sehnaoui smiles. “In fact, Mazen was inspired to do ‘Wormholes’ after watching Vincent Fortemps perform in Belgium. Later on, Jean-François watched ‘Wormholes’ and suggested we should perform ‘Hoy’ and ‘Wormholes’ together. For us this is a bit of a dream come true.”
Irtijal’s programs are always varied – boasting a range of genres that includes free improvisation, free jazz, contemporary classical, post-rock, experimental electronic music and sound art. Sehnaoui feels that the 2014 program is particularly varied, with the sounds in virtually every concert different from one another.
The artists mingle local and returning international artists with Beirut premieres.
Tripoli guitar hero Osman Arabi will feature in a solo gig. The free-improv version of post-punk rockers Scrambled Eggs will perform with Pauvros, from Hoye. The duet PRAED will reassemble for a set.
Debuts include Algeria’s Mehdi Haddab, dubbed “the Jimi Hendrix of the oud,” Egyptian post-rock trio Telepoetic and Austrian-Italian free jazz ensemble M.A.D. Ending this year’s edition will be DJ Shackleton, one of three figures credited with founding dubstep.
“Actually Shakleton doesn’t really do dubstep anymore,” Sehnaoui notes. “He’s moved on to a sort of intelligent electronic music that’s unclassifiable, at least to me.
“Yaani, it’s sound art-based dance music that’s really trance-inducing. His set is going to move in all these electronic music directions he’s been exploring.
“His show caps the big closing night slam,” Sehnaoui says. “It’ll be a long night, a fun night.”
Irtijal 14 opens Wednesday at Beirut Art Center and continues until April 5 at various venues around the city. For more information, see www.irtijal.org