BEIRUT: Nicolas Artuso-Royer’s “Carte Blanche” begins with a few minutes of sweet assonance. The Istanbul-based linguist and musicologist props his oud on one knee and begins a lyrical little improvisation.
Nai master Béchir Saadé and Omar “Dr. Oud” Dewachi (the latter an old associate from Artuso-Royer’s days in Montreal) grin through the opening bars, while Jad Saliba (oud-player with the Mayal Ensemble) and Paed Conca (experimental musician, here on clarinet) look on, somber.
After a few minutes of contemplative thumming, tarab-induced moans arise from the soloist’s attentive accompanists. Audiences of Irtijal, the international festival for experimental music in Lebanon – whose opening concert at the Beirut Art Center Wednesday evening featured Artuso-Royer and friends – aren’t used to this sort of appreciative whimpering.
Day one’s eclectic program included three concerts. Following Artuso-Royer’s “Carte Blanche,” another glass of wine and a cigarette or three, the capacity audience descended to the BAC auditorium to watch Tripoli-born guitar hero Osman Arabi perambulate through an elaborate electric guitar solo, played in remarkably soto voice.
Half a pack of Marlboros and a few beers later, the public propelled itself back upstairs to enjoy the mostly acoustic sounds of the northeast European quartet The Pitch (clarinettist Michael Thieke, Boris Baltschun on harmona, vibraphonist Morten J. Olsen and Koen Nutters, taming Raed Yassin’s double-bass). The narrow field of sound through which The Pitch’s set-long tune energetically strode is the embodiment of “circumspect ambient.”
Opening solo done, Artuso-Royer hands Saliba his oud and decants his violin. With a silent nod, the ensemble begins the set’s opening maqam – the modal, improvisation-inflected classical form that has echoed through the Mideast, North Africa and Central Asia for centuries.
What issues from the five players can in no way be confused with “sweet assonance.”
All the musicians are evidently playing the one piece of music. Yet the players sound as though they are performing earless, utterly independently of each other.
As the piece’s current flows beyond the abrupt cacophony of its opening bars, some instrumentalists are drawn into back-eddies of (maybe incidental) complementarity, giving the raw dissonance of the thing a distinctly contemporary edge.
The only shard of purposeful-sounding assonance in the first half of the concert comes when Saadé puts aside the nai and picks up his clarinet – a beast big enough to allow the player to bend its notes to the maqam’s quarter tones.
Were any fans of conventionally rendered maqam in this audience, they might have muttered a French-accented “Catastrophe!” As this isn’t the case, the only sign that any of the assembled hipsters and musicians suspect something is amiss is a raised eyebrow or two. Some eyes-closed listeners occasionally grimace.
Several musicians in this region agree that the performance of maqamaat has ossified since Umm Kulthum’s time and have devoted their careers to liberating the form from playing conventions adopted in the early 20th century.
“I’m not liberating anything,” Artuso-Royer announced after his set. “Nothing we did in the first half of this performance is forbidden in the maqam tradition ... The problem I have with the way maqam is performed is that musicians treat them like museum pieces. In Ottoman times, the masters ... didn’t restrict themselves to conventional forms. They created new maqamaat. If we don’t do the same, the music will die.”
Part way through his ensemble’s set, Artuso-Royer puts down his bow and blinks at his audience.
“This is the end of the traditional part of the concert,” he declares, prompting an eruption of hilarity from several players. “Now we’re moving into the unstructured part of the performance.”
The dissonance is sweet.
Irtijal14 continues until April 5 at various venues. For info see http://www.irtijal.org.