BEIRUT: It’s easy to have sympathy for the musicians performing the final set of a long evening of sound, especially if the music got started a bit later than scheduled. The audience can grow thin as devotees of earlier acts seep into the night, or else decide to sip their whiskeys at the bar rather than return to the concert hall.The last men standing (actually seated) at Irtijal 17’s opening-night concert Wednesday evening were Fadi Tabbal (electric guitar, electronics) and Sary Moussa, aka radiokvm (electronics). By the time their 35-40-minute set got going, it was obvious the pair needed no sympathy.
There’s little point in a play-by-play of how the number progressed. Cut by Tabbal’s occasional guitar interventions, the duo erected a symphony of synthesized sounds (“percussion,” “strings,” what have you) that were arrayed, layered and shaped into a complex, cyclical, highly rhythmic work.
As the groove swelled, after the 15-minute mark, the number acquired a more complex character that – if at times reminiscent of something once called “industrial” – wouldn’t be out of place in a dance-hall setting. Anyway, some hipsters in the audience were inspired to spells of dancelike writhing, accentuated by a brief shout or two.
This sort of thing is par for the course for Irtijal. Over the course of its 17, uninterrupted years of existence, this most handmade of arts events has waxed and waned, defying an array of obstacles – political instability and unlikely real estate boom, security concerns and migration – to relentlessly expand the sonic horizon of this broad land.
The 17th edition finds German and German-based musicians particularly well represented, but the event’s sound is as far from monochrome as can be imagined, mobilizing talent from the Arab world, Europe and North America.
Radiokvm and Tabbal’s set capped an evening of duet performances at Metro al-Madina that ran the gamut from “longhair” to electronica. Irtijal 17 had commenced with the all-acoustic set of contemporary classical music, featuring the soprano sax of Michel Doneda and percussionist Le Quan Ninh.
Occupying the sonic middle ground between these two (apparent) extremes was a brief but riveting duo performance by Swedish jazz-classical vocalist Sofia Jernberg and Berlin-based electronics guru and vocalist Rabih Beaini.
Beaini laid down the sonic bedrock for the set, generating a wide assortment of sounds – variously evocative of the throb of heavy machinery, Hollywood electro-magnetism and a mystic’s throat song. It seems some of Jernberg’s vocals were also run through the circuitry of Beaini’s machines, to be recorded, modulated and played back.
Jernberg’s contribution to the set was among opening night’s highlights. Her powerful voice evinced a wide range, both sonically and technically, one that apparently draws upon a number of disparate musical traditions (“Western” and otherwise).
Her restless performance ranged from aria-style upper-register vocals – sometimes abrasive enough to raise the hackles of a dog – to wordlike pop-tune-style vocalizations, shifting abruptly to trillings and inhaled gulpings of sound that seem quite far from bel canto.
The sounds Jernberg emitted over the course of her duet with Beaini wandered from pure musicality to mimetic gesture. At one point the vocalist emitted a burst of sound from the upper range that was reminiscent (to these ears) of an analogue tape being rewound while still in “play” mode.
At times Beaini’s playback also veered toward mimesis, at one sounding a bit like a pair of mosquitos nosing around a microphone.
There’s a headline in that.
Irtijal continues through April 8. For more information, see irtijal.org.