Culture

Twelve hours of seamless sound

BEIRUT: Entertainment promoters are fond of claiming that their event is the first of its kind, the biggest, the bestest.

As often as not, such claims are groundless.This Saturday Beirut’s open-minded music lovers can experience something that probably is the first of its kind in Lebanon. “Beirut Drone ’19” assembles 18 musicians (from Lebanon, Europe and the Americas) for 12 hours of nonstop sound, augmented by visual artists Firas El Hallak, Elyse Tabet and Ayman Nahle.

The venue is theater of Zoukak Studio (capacity 180), which will be lined with benches and scattered with cushions and pillows.

“Nonstop” means seamless. Performers will be on stage for 30-45 minutes each. Set playlists will mingle with ensemble improv as each fresh act shares the stage with the performer who’s wrapping up. There should be 12 straight hours of drone.

Artists can perform wherever they like, there being no designated stage, and audience members are encouraged to shut off their mobiles and chill - recline on a yoga mat, wrap themselves in blankets - and to bring along half-a-day’s-worth of consumables.

The musicians include local heroes of the international experimental music scene like bassist Tony Elieh, multi-instrumentalist Youmna Saba and buzuq maestro Abed Kobeissy, along with a range of international talent - Canadian violist-vocalist Jessica Moss, Japanese percussionist Mika Takehara and Swedish percussion-vocal duo Wildbirds and Peacedrums, among others.

“Beirut Drone” is co-curated by Ziad Nawfal and Nathan Larson. Nawfal is well-known on the Beirut scene for his record label Ruptured, performances he’s organized and his role in Irtijal, Lebanon’s experimental music festival. A hardcore punk veteran who’s composed for over fifty films (including titles like “Boys Don’t Cry,” 1999, and “Juliet, Naked,” 2018), Larson co-founded the Swiss-based Lumen Project, devoted to promoting 12-hour happenings like “Beirut Drone.”

Nawfal and Larson chatted with The Daily Star about “Beirut Drone” and its music, Larson being keen to clarify that it has nothing to do with those remote-control aircraft used to surveil and kill folks in this region.

“At the heart of [drone music] is this sustained, bass-toned sound,” he said, “but it can encompass so many genres - dream pop, electronic, electro-acoustic. It can be kind of anything.

“‘Drone’ literally means the action of a hummingbird or a bee at a flower, so ‘to hover.’ We use the term to indicate that things will be continuous but ... it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Larson locates the birth of contemporary drone music in New York in the 1960s, when musicians like Terry Riley and John Cale clustered around minimalist composer La Monte Young. At that time Young and his wife Marian created Dream House, which is still open to the public, a permanent audiovisual installation based on the composer’s work with sine waves.

“Coming from rock and pop,” Larson said, “you realize how much the 3-minute-32-second pop song format constrains you.

“There are drone academics who’re like, ‘I’m gonna study an organ tone for an hour.’ There’s value in that, but I’m not gonna sit down and listen to it. I will listen to ‘Thursday Afternoon’ [Brian Eno’s hourlong ambient work from 1985]. Nothing really happens and it’s gorgeous. For me it’s as good as any of the best Miles Davis records.

“You find [drone music] in Japanese, Indian and Arabic classical music and all manner of pop, like Velvet Underground, so it’s pan-genre,” he continued. “What’s fantastic about drone music, and using music as a balm, is that it works no matter what your cultural references are.”

“Knowing what drone concerts are usually like, I chose local musicians that would fit,” Nawfal explained. “I chose musicians who’ve worked with ambient stuff, the ones that have some quirk in their method and could provide something other than the ambient background.” Nawfal said the sheer length of “Beirut Drone” makes it more challenging and interesting than past shows he’s staged. “Here there’s much more room for error,” he said. “You have these people who don’t know each other, who are going to follow each other in quick succession.”

“The principal is just to keep sound in the air for 12 hours,” Larson added. “There’s a lot of room for experimenting and making mistakes. ... The form is really interesting, both for the performer and from the audience’s perspective.

“It’s a different way of absorbing and consuming music. Because it’s such a massive chunk of live experience that you’re having, it can’t really be commodified in the way that a pop concert can be. ... On the other hand, it can be enjoyed by just about anybody. My mother gets it.

“My son, who’s 8-9, he and his friends listen to Post Malone, Emo rap stuff - great music but they don’t ever play a whole song, just 13 seconds, then hit to the next song.

“I took him to Young’s Dream House. He’s like, ‘Papa, is that the place where it’s always like ’” Larson imitates his son imitating the sound of Young’s sine-wave drone. “He pretends like he hates it, but then he gets there, he runs around a bit, then he lies down, and he gets it. He feels it, I think, that something’s happening to his physiology.”

“Beirut Drone ’19” commences at Zoukak Studio at noon to midnight Saturday, June 15. Ticketing via ihjoz.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 14, 2019, on page 12.

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