Curator Amanda Abi Khalil of the Temporary Art Platform (T.A.P.) invited me and 6 other artists to take part in a two-day awareness campaign for an area known as Al Dalieh, a part of Beirut's coastline that is currently facing privatization . The area is frequented by all sorts of people from fishermen, swimmers, and those who just want to escape Beirut's chaotic daily life. The work I presented, The Invisible Soundtrack, was a listening post at which one could hear sounds I recorded from the area that go unnoticed. The most intriguing of these sounds were those of the underwater life off the coastline which I have posted here.
My most frequent collaborations have been with Lebanese contemporary artist Akram Zaatari. Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of composing music for four of Akram’s films, as well as providing sound design for several others. I consider all of our work together as one constantly evolving process. So it would be difficult for me to comment on any one project without referencing the others. Akram’s explorations into the essence of the photographic image and the practice of its preservation, has lead me to consider similar reflections concerning sound and music. Whereas much of my other work stems from my interest in repeating phrases, gradual progressions, and a more linear aesthetic, Akram’s projects force me to consider moments, stillness, and singularity. So the experience of perceiving sound over a period of time is challenged by the possibility of perceiving the sound of an instant. The two samples provided here are from the films Beirut: Exploded Views (2015), 28 Nights and A Poem (2015) and Letter to a Refusing Pilot (2014).
Dir: Joud Said
The music for Homs Rain was not in fact intended for the film. The film was shot completely on location after the destruction of the Syrian city of Homs. After watching the rough cut of the film, I remembered a series of compositions I had started a few months earlier for a personal project I was exploring. The compositions were based on the idea of alternating between the sharp and flat of a specific scale within a single phrase. I remembered these sketches when watching the film because there was something very uncanny about the visuals that I thought could be reflected by experimenting with the use of accidentals. I also wanted to keep the instrumentation simple with very delicate interactions between the instruments. After reworking most of the original compositions, Joud again brought up the issue of a solo instrument. For whatever reason, I imagined a woman humming to herself. Donna Khalife, who conducted the score for Sector Zero a few years earlier, had just returned to Beirut. Donna is a vocalist with an exceptionally diverse range of performance techniques. After only a quick session of experimenting with Donna on different ideas, I was finding it difficult to hear the music without her voice. When coupled with the images of Homs, the music seems to change and suddenly becomes more haunting than it actually is. While mixing the film, the re-recordist Florent Lavalle pointed out that at moments, the eeriness of the film is heightened by the radically different aesthetics of the music and the images, something Joud and I had never intended.
Works is a collection of pieces that have accumulated over the years while composing for film. The pieces are either inspired by certain films I have worked on, or are compositions that never made it to the final cut. The idea of putting them together in a box-set was that of fellow composer and friend Sharif Sahnaoui, co-founder of Annihaya Records in Beirut. Works was released on Annihaya as a 3-CD box set. We tried to organize the tracks so that each album would be coherent and have its own identity.
Dir: Joud Said
The challenge of working with Joud Said is that he lives in Syria. Composing music for a film in the absence of the director is extremely difficult, so before I start working, it is essential for my to have a very clear idea of what his creative intentions are. Joud is very good at expressing what he has in mind and is always open to my experimentations. For each of the Joud’s four feature films we have explored different ways of incorporating solo instruments. For My Last Friend we both agreed that the solo instrument should be a wind instrument. The problem was deciding on which instrument. Much of the film was shot in the natural landscape of the Syrian mountain ranges. So we thought of instruments that were more “breathy.” I started composing the music despite still not having decided on the solo instrument. It was only when I was almost finished with my first draft of the score that Joud made the suggestion of using the Armenian dudouk. The warmth of the dudouk contrasted against the acute tones of the strings accentuated the melancholy Joud wanted to portray in the film.
Dir: Mohamad Soueid
Mohamad Soueid was the first director to ask me to compose for his films. In fact, it was only after composing for Mohamad’s documentary The Sky is Not Always Above (2006) that I decided to take film music more seriously. The exciting thing about working with Mohamad is that for each film he wants something different. So each time we collaborate, I find myself experimenting with very different ideas. A Spell of Absence was our fourth collaboration. Mohamad wanted mournful music with an African undertone. After listening to different genres of music, I suggested trying something influenced by Ethiopian Jazz. Mohamad and I liked the demos, but it was only during the recording that the music started coming together, primarily because of the percussionist Khaled Yassine. I left the rhythm parts of the music completely open for interpretation, and because of Khaled’s input, the music started evolving organically towards something I hadn’t intended. The irony of the music for A Spell of Absence is that, although Mohamad and I were happy with the end result, we couldn’t manage to find a way for the music to fit into the edit. After trying several times, only one piece actually made it to the final cut of the film.
Dir: Nadim Mishlawi
Sector Zero was my first attempt at directing a film. And the most challenging part of making the film for me was composing the music. I realized very quickly how much I rely on my discussions with the directors I work with while composing. I also realized how beneficial it is to be challenged by a director with a different interpretation of a film’s narrative. I started working on the music for Sector Zero before the film went into production. But although I had some basic ideas for the music, it was during the actual film shoot that the music came together. Working with the crew and discussing the film with them as we worked help create a situation similar to what I was used to when working with other directors. The images we were producing on set were quite brooding and I was interested in finding a way to engage the images by suggesting that underneath their darkness there was something more sorrowful. I also found the film’s visual aesthetic, and the content of the interviews very cerebral, and was concerned that the film would lack the emotion needed for the audience to relate to the film. So with the music, I tried to create a second, unseen and unspoken layer for the film’s narrative.
Dir: George Hachem
Stray Bullet is a drama set during the first cease-fire of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. The story revolves around a woman who, after struggling with the turmoil of her strictly conservative family, experiences a mental breakdown following the death of her mother. The main idea behind the music emerged from an ongoing debate between the director, George Hachem, and I concerning the “ethnicity” of the score. Because I work primarily on films produced in and about the Middle East, the question of ethnicity is often an issue for debate. I am prone to contest the necessity of being faithful to a film’s ethnicity because I feel it narrows the audience’s perception of the work. I tend to enjoy creating juxtapositions that provoke the audience, and myself, into questioning whatever possible expectations they, and I, might have when watching films from the region. George and I discussed these issues while I was composing, and although the music is obviously occidental, I think the issues we were debating did have an indirect effect on the final score.
Dir: George Hachem
The irony behind the music for Messe Du Soir is that I found myself once again debating the musical ethnicity of the score, but from the a completely different perspective. This was my second collaboration with George Hachem (Stray Bullet) and we both wanted to try pushing the music in a different direction. For me, the sobriety of the film’s visual aesthetic reflected something reminiscent of Japan, and I was curious as to what might happen if the music reflected a similar quality. The film is set in Lebanon during the French Mandate (pre-1943). This is probably the only time I thought it would be interesting to bring the issue of ethnicity into the music as a way to highlight a kind of clash of cultures: the French in Lebanon after the Second World War, set to a score of stringed instruments, haunted by something Japanese. I found this possibility very exciting and George likewise was curious to hear what might happen. The process of recording the music also contradicted my usual methodology of composing. I sat in the take room of my studio and surrounded myself with whatever acoustic stringed instruments I had at the time: a classical guitar, a buzouk, and a broken antique zither. I then improvised with each instrument real-time while watching the film. After each take I would repeat the process with a different instrument or using a different playing technique. The final score resembles a string ensemble improvising to the film, whereas it is actually closer to me arguing with myself through music.