Music of back scratchers, squeegees

BEIRUT: When it reconvened Friday evening Irtijal, the International Festival for Experimental Music in Lebanon, had moved from Hamra Street to a construction site called Jisr al-Wati. Beirut Art Center was the evening’s venue, though the threat of rain had forced organizers to transplant the dance-violin duet “Atlas” (Leyya Mona Tawiil and Mike Khoury) from the center’s terrace to an indoor conference room next door, at Ashkal Alwan.

Irtijal’s BAC sessions concluded with an entertaining set from the virtuoso quartet Spera/Edwards/Doerner/Conca. As if anticipating an audience exhausted after the evening’s three previous acts, the all-European quartet belted out a work of rollicking improv discord.

All four players are showmen but the ensemble’s back row was more persistently effervescent. In the number’s early moments, percussionist Fabrizio Spera and double bassist John Edwards played tentatively in the shallows before barreling into deepwater cacophony.

While Paed Conca remained remarkably still throughout – listening, eyes closed, intent on his clarinet – trumpeter Axel Doerner was game to compete with the rhythm section for audience attention. He stepped easily from sputtering automatic rifle-fire blartings to sedate purrs sliding past his selection of mutes – this evening’s favorite being the rubber end of a toilet plunger.

The ensemble exhibited a stimulating assortment of approaches to their instruments – pizzicato while rubbing a moistened index finger across the face of the bass; bowing a cymbal, violinlike, or trading drumsticks for pot lids; pulling at the trumpet’s tubing as if it were a miniature trombone; yanking a couple of bass strings to be bowed separate from the rest or lodging the bow in the upper reaches of the bass strings, with a flourish, while playing pizzicato.

The players’ energetic verve gave their set a cartoon-soundtrack quality – though the animation was left to the audience’s imagination.

Just before the fully lit quartet had illuminated the hall, the audience had been treated to the maiden performance of a new improv duet – vocalist Irena Tomazin and drummer Michael Zerang, their forms backlit to silhouettes as they performed.

In their first time playing together, the pair were a study in contrast.

Stationed behind a lone snare drum, the veteran percussionist was the epitome of concentrated stillness. From behind her microphone, the singer was nonstop movement, vocalizing continuously without uttering a word.

At no point did Zerang strike a surface with a stick or other cudgel.

Rather he pulled back scratchers, squeegees, bells, squeaky toys and such across the skin to create the sort of scraping, creaking moans you might associate with the sound of a deep sea vessel or space capsule on the verge of catastrophic structural failure.

Tomazin’s vocals ranged from shishing aspirations and trills to whispering inhalations and the sort of grunts emitted by people of a certain age trying to pull themselves to their feet. She struck thespian poses all the while, occasionally standing on one foot, suggesting she needs her entire body to make these sounds happen.

The power of such performances lies in the performers’ ventriloquism – using snare drum and vocal folds to create sounds alien to them.

Evocative of someplace else, these sounds can transport imaginative listeners far from the anodyne white cube to a place of rage and fear.

The performance intensified as Zerang raked the skins with metal bells and the whirring blades of a handheld fan – creating a drone that Tomazin at first mimicked then, turning her back to the audience, emitted a series of hysterical-sounding, apelike coughs.

“The best so far,” someone uttered from the terraces.

Irtijal commenced its 18th edition during “Catholic Easter” weekend, staging three mostly acoustic shows at Metro al-Madina Thursday night before moving to BAC and Ashkal Alwan Friday evening.

Diversity is the mark of the sound that thrives at this edge of the musical spectrum and the first half of the festival lived up to this promise.

The musical bookends of the Metro al-Madina sets were guitars.

Featuring electric guitar-electronics duo “Stress/Distress,” the closing gig marshalled the intimidating resources of Tunefork Studios – with trace elements of the Incompetents and the Bunny Tylers – (Fadi Tabbal) and Kinematic (Anthony Sahyoun).

The opening set belonged to the aural imagination of acoustic guitarist Claus Boesser-Ferrari.

The stuff of Boesser-Ferrari’s recital may have been the melody of a single folk tune but the musician’s imaginative use of his instrument made the experience more complex.

The opening sounds of the evening arose from the strings of the upside-down guitar being pulled across Boesser-Ferrari’s lap, followed by the reverberant whirr created by the blades of a handheld fan pummeling the back of the instrument.

More conventional-looking picking followed, frequently inflected through accents – a trace of reverb here, a dangling string-end rubbed against itself there – and liberal use of percussion, the palm-slapping variety as well as a thoughtfully spit-lathered fingertip run across the guitar face.

The highlight of the Metro sessions was The Necks. As master of ceremonies Mazen Kerbaj pointed out, on stage pianist Chris Abrahams, double bassist Lloyd Swanton and percussionist Tony Buck look like a classic jazz trio.

While the ensemble commanded it, however, there was nothing typical in the improv sound arising from the minimally lit stage.

The piece began with Abrahams tentatively striking a few keys, as if to test the instrument’s timbre. A series of two-note phrases drifted up and down the scale, soon joined by the ringing of Buck’s cymbals and wind chimes. By the time discrete tones began to rise from Swanton’s bow, they were offset by low thumbings of bass drum.

The keyboard trilling reformed as a minimalist tune, suggesting a fair impression of running water. Equally defiant of melody, bass and percussion adornment formed streams of sound that may have inspired, responded to or arisen parallel to minute changes in the piano line.

Absent was the familiar jazz dynamic of a soloist stepping up while other instruments temporarily receded. The wash of acoustic sound ebbed and flowed throughout the performance, with the voice of piano, double bass or percussion sometimes rising to prominence before the notes of a phrase were disassembled.

Throughout this sonic waxing and waning, volume and intensity subtly rose, setting the audiences’ nerve endings rattling, then toppling abruptly into silence. For those in the Metro who’d been held rapt, the experience was exhilarating, and pleasantly exhausting.

Great stuff.

Irtijal resumes Thursday-Friday (April 5-6) at Zoukak Studio, Karantina.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 03, 2018, on page 16.




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