Life Without A Drumbeat

Photo by: Tony Elieh

A couple of months ago, I saw Sharif Sehnaoui perform some improvised music live at Walimat Wardeh as part of the “Crate Sessions” concert series. It was my first ever exposure to the genre of improvisational music and it really touched me, how it was so free and psychologically stimulating.

So I eventually had to go back to school, and every year we have a theme, and this year the theme was: “Drumbeat of Life”. “Oooh! Musical!” I thought with glee.

One day, while my mind was drifting from one thought to another, it occured to me that comapring life to music isn’t something to be done so hastily. What they are doing is claiming that since life has a drumbeat, or tempo, then it must be analogous to music, which also has a drumbeat. For what is music without tempo, rythm, or melody?… Improvised, that’s what.

I proceeded to write an article on the subject, but looking to present somekind of “proof” or living-example of sorts, I contacted Sharif, told him about my idea and that I would like to ask him a couple questions to be included, and he graciously agreed to cooperate.

Today, the article was published in the school gazette, albeit a shortened version with some mistakes due to their own editing here and there. So here is the article in full:

“Our theme for this year is “Drumbeat of Life” and what could be inferred from this theme is that life, like music, has a certain drumbeat, or tempo to be more specific, which it progresses in accordance to. The speed of the drumbeat determines the speed of the music, the speed of life’s drumbeat determines its pace. But what most have failed to acknowledge is that life cannot be compared to music this easily, because music itself does not necessarily need a drumbeat, tempo, rhythm, or melody. These may seem like the barrier between music and noise, but I assure you, when you open your mind you can find beauty in the most unexpected of places.

 This summer, I attended a performance by a musician who plays an uncommon breed of music. Sharif Sehnaoui, born 1976, is a guitarist, but he is not your average guitarist. He plays improvisational music. His guitar across his lap, with metal rods strategically wedged in between strings here and there, he caresses the strings and tickles the rods with two thin wooden sticks to produce a barrage of aural oddities. Sounds that dance in your ear, sounds that echo deep within your soul, and sounds that implant themselves in your mind and linger on for hours. When one hears the kinds of sounds he is capable of producing, “guitar” would definitely not be the first word to come to mind. This is just one of his set-ups, as there is no limit to what one can do in this genre.

 Lebanon has an evolving improvisational music scene, and Sharif is one of its most prominent figures, along with the trumpet player and comic artist Mazen Kerbaj, who also founded his own improvisational music record label “Al Maslakh”, and double bass player Raed Yassin. The fact that such music exists has a very powerful impact on the theme we have adopted this year, as it challenges it and could lead some to reconsider the meaning behind it, and not be so hasty as to claim that “life is like music because all music has a drumbeat”. Life can be like music, but it doesn’t necessarily need to have a drumbeat (tempo, rhythm, melody). So, to better illustrate this matter, I had an online interview with Sharif:

 1-What is improvised music?
Improvised music is a process initiated in the 1960s by groups of musicians around the globe, mostly coming out of the free jazz movement. It consists of improvising sounds and music without any score or pre-established rules, even the basic elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm) do not apply. Basically the improvising musician is free to choose any sound he/she wants at any given moment according to his/her own choices and desires. An improvising musician is usually bound to developing his own personal musical language, that he/she can perform solo, or with other musicians involved in the same improvising process.

 2-When did you first start playing music in general? Did you start out playing music traditionally?
After playing piano as a child, then drums and percussion, I settled for the guitar, first in rock and blues contexts, and then I went to jazz school in Paris. From jazz I moved on to free improvised music, this was around 1998.

3-When and how did you begin improvisation? How did it affect you as a musician and artist?
I was playing jazz in Paris and attending a maximum number of concerts, I thus got to hear musicians such as Max Roach, Herbie Hancock and Archie Shepp among many, many others. Sometimes the bands would play some free jazz pieces which sounded really strange to me but got me curious. At that time in France there was a major CD reissue of the whole “Impulse” label catalogue, including the late free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. The music struck me as some of the most powerful and passionate stuff in history. Finally, I got to hear major figures of free improvised music (Evan Parker, Fred Frith, Fred Van Hove), the strength and power of their live performances fascinated me. I started to try some things out on the guitar as well, then quit jazz school, and began improvising as much as I could.

 4-What is the importance of learning to tolerate music with no drumbeat, rhythm, or melody?
I find it necessary to appreciate music with no melody/harmony/rhythm because it helps expand the possibilities of the mind-ears combination. If you take Pink Floyd for example, they managed to create some of the greatest albums in the history of rock because they heard a lot of improvised and experimental music early on in their career, such as AMM. Electronic music as we know it today was also made possible by the research of early pioneers such as Pierre Henry, Iannis Xenakis and many others who used the machines to create new and abstract types of sounds.
As a general rule, it is always good to have as many different experiences in life as possible. That includes listening to as many different kinds of music as you can, and that includes music without melody/harmony/rhythm.

 5-How is life similar to improvised music?
Improvisation is a pro-eminent part of our daily lives. When engaged in a conversation with family, friends, or perfect strangers, do you often know exactly what they will say? Do you often know exactly how to reply? Do you know what sounds you will be hearing? Life is full of surprises and unexpected events, to which you must adapt, sometimes improvising your reaction in less than a split second, sometimes making mistakes, while other times making the right decision. Playing composed music, you know exactly which sound, note, rhythm you will be playing at every single moment. Playing improvised music, you have to make those decisions yourself.

 6-What is “Irtijal”?
Irtijal is our annual festival created in 2000 by Mazen Kerbaj and myself. It is usually a few days long, presenting 10 to 20 concerts of both Lebanese and international artists, coming from various backgrounds of free jazz, post-rock, contemporary and improvised music mostly. We have been trying to introduce the Lebanese audience to new experiences in music, by setting up performances by musicians who are little known to the public here, but have great artistic value. In April 2010 we will be holding our 10th anniversary edition.

 7-How would you advise aspiring Lebanese musicians?
I would advise them to keep searching and learning for as long as they can, because the world is evolving and changing every day. We must not go on imitating the music of the past but rather move on and embrace change. It is much more important to create music that is unique and personal than to imitate great figures of the past.

 Sharif’s latest projects include preparing for the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Irtijal Festival, Irtijal 2010, and an album of improvisational music where he and fellow improvisers such as Mazen Kerbaj and Raed Yassin collaborate with the Lebanese post-punk band Scrambled Eggs, who themselves are also not strangers to improvisation. They will be referred to as “Scrambled Eggs and Friends” and the album will be released through a newly established label by the name of “Johnny Kafta’s Kids Menu”.  

 Thus, I hope you have been enlightened on one of the various diverse forms of music that the 21st Century has given birth to, realizing not to immediately attach a drumbeat to music and have seen that there is more to Lebanese music than plastic electro-pop and antiquated love songs.

 You can learn more about Lebanese improvisational music by visiting these websites:

www.irtijal.org (with dates and locations of the shows for this year’s festival)

www.almaslakh.org (Mazen Kerbaj’s label for improvisational music)

 Or look for these CDs in any record store that carries releases by the Lebanese alternative music label “Incognito”:

-Kerbaj, Sehanoui, Yassine Trio – “A”

BAO – “BAO”

 Or for any CD in the Al Maslakh catalog in any record store that carries its releases.

 Notes:

-Max Roach was an American jazz drummer, percussionist, and composer.

-Herbie Hancock is an American jazz pianist and composer.

-Archie Shepp is an American jazz saxophonist.

-“Impulse” was an American Jazz record label.

-John Coltrane was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

-Pharaoh Sanders is an American jazz saxophonist.

-Evan Parker is a British improvisational saxophonist.

-Fred Frith is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser, best known for his work on the guitar.

-Fred Van Hove is a Belgian jazz musician and improviser.

-AMM are an important British improvisational group.

-Pierre Henry is a composer who is considered a pioneer of the musique concrète genre of electronic music.

-Iannis Xenakis was a Greek composer, music theorist and architect commonly recognized as one of the most important post-war avant-garde composers, pioneering the use of mathematical models in music, and also an important influence on the development of electronic music.”

As a bonus for you, here is an editorial I was asked to write, but it turns out they had decided on one already. Here, I dismiss the very notion of life having a drumbeat in the first place:

“What is a drumbeat? A musician might tell you that it is a perpetually repeating set of sounds produced by a set of drums and percussion instruments. In reality, a drumbeat can be anything from a visual drumbeat (a pattern of shapes and colors), mental drumbeat (thinking at a certain rate), or social drumbeat (living one’s life at a certain pace). Yes, drumbeats are not exclusive to drums.

The underlying concept here is the existence of a tempo, pace, or rate, which plays in unison to one’s personal actions, or the whole of life itself. But how does such a phenomenon occur? Why would life need to have a drumbeat?

In nature, the seasons come and go annually and never fail to do so one year after the other. Every year, we cycle through the calendar from the first agreed-upon day till the last. The sun rises and sets, and does so again and again. Nature is well acquainted with the concept of the cycle that progresses at a constant or variable rate. We humans took notice of this aspect of our environment and decided to label certain patterns with our own specially-crafted little terms, such as “winter”, “summer”, “day”, “night”, “January”, “December”, and countless others, so that we may hear this silent drumbeat that nature plays for itself.

When you assign a beginning and an end to something, you establish finiteness, but at the same time, while doing this, we discovered that this finiteness gets blurred due to being in an infinite cyclical pattern. The finiteness is infinite; Paradoxical eh? Think of it like lining up 50 pencils one after the other in a big circle. If you follow the trail you’ll find yourself going around in literal circles invariably, and never will it occur to you that this endless thing before you is not actually as perpetual as it seems, until you pluck one pencil from the circle, and establish that one end is the writing end (its beginning) and the other an eraser (its end), creating the notion of finiteness, and then put it back in where you picked it out, and see that this never-ending circle is in fact merely a series of pencils, each with an end and a beginning, and if you were to mark the aforementioned pencil as “pencil 1” for instance, you could go on to count every single pencil, and eventually find yourself back at “pencil 1”.

Yes, we are the drummers of life. It is us that impose our drumbeats on life and upon ourselves. So why exactly do we ourselves set tempos for nature, our thoughts, actions, or lives then?

We do so because what is infinite is unpredictable and mysterious, what cannot be predicted is unknown, and what is unknown is feared by human beings. We need schedules, routines, rituals, traditions, etc, because without them we find the world is cluttered. To put ourselves at ease, we craft a routine to follow, a cycle to complete time and again, at a certain pace that may or may not vary, thus feeling certain of our future, that our goal for today is to go from the first to the final step of the process, and when reaching that final step, to find comfort in the knowledge that after having accomplished that, the next step is to start all over again, and all of this does not overwhelm us, as it comes at a certain predetermined rate that we set for ourselves, as individuals and as a whole society. Though this pace is variable, adaption comes quickly in most cases.

Without constructing patterns, planning actions, or organizing thoughts, we would simply be left to fend for ourselves in the haziness of an inscrutable existence. Life dances to no drumbeat, but in fear of its radical unpredictability, we do the psychological tango with it, taking the lead, convinced that she’s dancing to her own drumbeat and that we are simply following it, not giving birth to it, while in reality, it’s all in our heads.

We want there to be drumbeats, for we rely on them to get us through our day-to-day lives, but what we sometimes fail to see is that there is joy to be found in taking risks and living a life where one’s entire day is not preplanned in some meticulously crafted intricate up-to-the-second timetable; Living a deaf life. I hope we all go deaf to the drumbeats of advertising, politics, fashion, and the judgmental owl eyes of society, and just strut through life with our own steps, at our own pace, to our own drumbeats.

But for now, we shall continue to maintain a sound mind and a cool head by tidying up the mess that is the world, preferably each in one’s own special way, taking pleasure in the knowledge that with the certain guidance of a constant beating of the proverbial drum, all is in the right rhythm…”

I made it all “happy-sappy” near the end, but in reality it’s all just a big delusion in my opinion really…

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