Sunday, June 10, 2012

Alone In A Dark Room

That's what it felt like to make these videos. Performing to a camera with no one behind it is a deeply unsettling experience. I was scared. Almost more scared than I am when I first face a new audience.

Thank you to Alex for giving us access to the Paul Dresher Ensemble studio, thank you to Graham for setting up the blinding stage lights, and thank you to Jennifer for lending us her camera.




Thursday, May 31, 2012

Feed It Back

By now, over the course of three years, we've played more than five shows and less than twenty. I'm not sure of the exact number. However many it may be, in the light of heroic tour schedules such as this one, we've played very few shows, but there have been some shows, and there has been some feedback. I try to keep track of the random things that people say to us, because I like feedback. Without it, everything exists only in my head, and it's dark in there. Dark and messy. The gaze of an Other serves to shine light on forgotten thoughts, misplaced objects, and unconscious impulses. Of course, Stefan is my primary Other in that we regularly engage in exchanges of illumination, but sometimes, we fall so deep into the mire of back and forth self-assessment that nothing comes clear. At such times, the casual comments of mildly interested outsiders are crucial. For example: "I liked it when you danced!" I danced? Oh yes, I did dance during that one song. I did study dance, many years ago. I did once want to be dancer, despite my chubby thighs and regretful lack of coordination. Where does dancing fit in? What am I doing with my body? What is Stefan doing with his body? How do we look on stage? Should we position ourselves in more deliberate ways? A new area of focus emerges.

Most recently, we played at El Rio with Stratic, Noah Phillips, and Jason Hoopes. It looked something like this:



Afterwards, I received a slew of casual comments. These are the ones I remember:

1) I like your outfit. Good. I'm going for slightly slutty elegance.

2) What was Stefan doing with all those different machines? Many, many mysterious and unspeakable things.

3) I was standing to the side of the stage, and it sounded awful from there. Yes, it did. Unfortunately, the monitors at El Rio are shit. At least for our purposes they are. We're not a noisy rock band. Ideally, we need big lows, smooth mids, and clean highs. But there's no such thing as an ideal live set-up, except for maybe if you're Portishead and you're playing at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, so we tried to put up with it. Understandably, Stefan got frustrated. It's hard to enjoy a show if all your electronic instruments are coming back at you through shitty monitors. And usually, if Stefan feels like shit, I start to feel like shit, and then, it all goes to shit. This time, as soon as I started to sense little atoms of frustration hovering in the air between us, I made a sudden decision. I would ignore it. In a concerted act of self-preservation, I thought only of myself, my voice, and my keyboard parts, and it worked. I got through the show and gave the songs what they deserved of my heart and mind. It still wasn't a completely satisfying performance, but it would have really tanked if I had let myself become absorbed by the drama of nebulous technical problems, as I have often done in the past.

4) You have a beautiful voice. Why, thank you.

5) Why don't you stand in front of the synths? You should be more of a front woman. Well, sometimes I have to play the synths, so I can't always stand in front of them. But yes, there are some songs that only require me to sing. I could stand in front of the synths for those songs. In the case of this show, I tried to do that, and my microphone immediately started to feedback. In order to avoid the unfolding of yet another act in the drama of nebulous technical problems, I stepped back behind the synths. What's a singer to do? I realize that my voice is at the center of these songs, but there are only two of us. I can't always bask in the luxury of only singing. Also, let's say I really got into it, front woman style, dancing and emoting and gyrating and all. What would this make Stefan? A silent synth technician? An unknowable accompanist?  The Wizard of Oz? This is somewhat of a problem. I'd like to be part of a team. I'd prefer not to monopolize the foreground and push Stefan into the background. But audiences respond to front women. In pop music, the voice is a focal point. We could write more instrumental songs. I'd like to do this. And Stefan could sing every now and then. He's considering it. We'll see where all of this goes.

6) I really like that one song, the one in major. Oh yes, that song! Wait, we only perform one song in a major key? Maybe two? Shit. Must write more songs in major keys.

7) I can see you performing in a black box theater with additional text and lights and choreography. Something very theatrical. You guys are halfway between a band and a theater piece. What if you worked with a writer? Have you considered moving more in that direction? Uh oh. A can of worms has been opened. I was once a theater major, and Stefan loves Samuel Beckett. Our first project together was a staging of Beckett's inscrutable one-act Company. Yes, we often consider the world of theater. We talk about performance personae, a seamless live set with no gaps in it, concept albums, costumes, preplanned spoken segments between songs, musical interludes, and makeup. But when it comes down to it, Stefan wears the same navy blue t-shirt and jeans to every show, I say very little between songs, we have yet to write any incidental music, and I wear something that I think looks good on me and nothing more. I'd gladly work with a choreographer, a lighting designer, and costume designer, but that doesn't seem possible at the moment. As for a writer, I'd like for us to be the writers. I'd like to think hard about some kind of narrative or conceptual arc through which to connect the songs and some kind of distinct performance persona to inhabit every time I get on stage. I'd like to flesh out the relationship between myself and Stefan onstage. There may be bits of narrative already embedded in the sets that we've done so far, and there may some kind of performance personae we unconsciously gravitate toward, but it has yet to come clear to me. We work intuitively. It's the best we can do for now, and I suppose there's nothing wrong with working intuitively. In time, all will be revealed.


8) You know that thing you do with your eyes where you look up at nothing while you're singing? That sort of creeps me out. Yeah, I don't really feel like looking out at the audience for every minute of every song. But I can see how the spaced out gaze can be creepy. It means I'm going to that imaginary place and emotional space from which the song originally arose. It means I'm exiting the room. Maybe this makes some people uncomfortable. I have yet to figure out the proper balance between acknowledging and ignoring the audience.


9) Yeah, good show. Good show. Good show. Thanks for coming, guys. Excuse me while I go the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. What the fuck just happened? Who am I? Why did I reveal myself to an audience YET AGAIN?


Monday, May 21, 2012

Don Johnson's Speed Boat

Me and Zeina were driving along one day in my Landlady's Honda (Space Ship) Van and I  was listening to Zombi -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc00hVomuIw - my favourite driving music.
Zeina said something like, "does it make you think you are Don Johnson in your speed boat?"

Yesterday I was playing around with the arpeggiator on my monomachine and I made this. This is a small meandering tribute to Don - who coincidently shares the same birthday as me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Loudness

I've been reading Catching The Big Fish by David Lynch. "It starts with desire," writes Lynch. Desire is what brings in the big fish. Big fish are big ideas that live in deep water, and desire is the bait. If you have desire, patience, and a solid Transcendental Meditation practice, you'll dive deep and catch the big fish. Maybe I'll attempt meditation sometime in the future, but for now, I'll stick with desire. I have so much desire. So much desire, so much bait, and sometimes, I catch a big fish. This is how a song starts. A fish flops into my hands and says to me, "Being beautiful is easy." This is the opening line of a new song I'm writing. I don't know what it means. Being beautiful is actually hard, isn't it? But what if it were easy? Or is being beautiful a God-given state, neither easy nor difficult to achieve? The rest of the song is an attempt to solve the riddle of the first line.

Being beautiful is easy
I do it some of the time
Give up all the anger
Look up at the sky

I'm not done yet. I'm waiting for answers. I used to push lyrics along, writing whatever came to me so I could finish, because finishing was all that mattered. One more song in the can before I die. Now I know better.

And then last night, I ran into Aubrey. The first thing I said to her was, "You look exactly the same!" We talked about her exhausting year in China, my exhausting year in legal immigration purgatory, and how in Berlin, people dive deep right from the start. Aubrey used to live in Berlin. "I miss Berlin," she said. "They don't waste any time with surface level interactions. When you have to leave a table, you just get up and go. You don't have to say goodbye. And when you sit down, you jump right into the thick of the conversation. People are emotionally available." "Less reserve?" I asked. "Yeah, less caution."

I don't know anything about Berlin. I've never been there. My impression of Germany these days boils down to the image of a sadistic schoolmaster beating a Greek schoolchild to death, but yes, I believe in diving deep. Meanwhile, I'm in a loud Oakland bar, I'm talking to Aubrey, and we're shouting to hear each other over the noise. We're trying to dive deep, but the noise holds us back. I tell her about the big fish. "I'm reading this book," I say.

Before talking to Aubrey, I had performed five quiet guitar songs. This is why I was at the bar. Sometimes, Stefan lets me perform music unrelated to FEZANT. So I sat there, guitar in hand, microphone in face, diving deep to catch five big fish. I threw them onto the stage, one by one. They died slowly. At first, everyone listened. By the third song, I felt a shift in energy, and during the last two songs, the room was back to its boisterous state of drunken confusion.

At the end of the set, I rejoined the confusion, transitioning from performer to layperson in mere seconds. Aubrey intercepted me before I had a moment to think about what had just happened, and we talked about her exhausting year in China, my exhausting year in legal immigration purgatory, and you know the rest. Then Lovage and Alee got on stage. More big fish. Their songs were somewhat less quiet than mine, but still, too quiet for a loud bar. At first, everyone listened. By the third song, I felt a shift in energy, and during the last two songs, what was initially a beautiful hum of collective concentration waned into a din of distraction. Same thing all over again.

Lovage and Alee

Why is it, I wanted to ask Aubrey but didn't, that most of the people in this bar prefer to jabber than listen to the music? I doubt they all have terribly important things to say to each other. Maybe the music isn't great. Maybe the music is mediocre. But isn't mediocre music better than mediocre jabber? I'm usually relieved when a band starts playing, because it means I can finally stop coming up with things to say.

At our last FEZANT show, we blasted the audience with sound. We're a loud band. Most everyone seemed to be paying attention, and the ones who were talking didn't matter, because I couldn't hear them through the roar of synths. Is loudness the only way to make people listen? Is loudness the only kind of magic that maintains its power to silence and awe? Only by screaming over and over again, "THIS IS A BIG FUCKING FISH," will people listen? Are big fish otherwise so banal, so overabundant, farmed to a point of senseless profusion on the Internet and beyond, that alcohol-fueled jabber proves more enticing? Do I sound like a crotchety egomaniac? Maybe I'm just not good enough. I'm pretty bad at playing the guitar. Nina Simone would have shut them up. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

You Are The Audience

And you were a very good audience. Thank you for coming to our Hemlock Tavern show. Thank you to Blood Wedding for their thunderous drone chorus of ecstatic angels.  Thank you to Stratic for their powerful set of free jazz post rock (free rock). Thank you to Stratic's hot drummer for providing me with an excellent pre-show turkey sandwich. Thank you to those vaguely gothed out young women who walked in from the bar, stood right in front of us and stared at me throughout the set. Thank you to Carly Hoopes for taking the wonderful photographs below. Thank you to Jennifer and Joy for capturing some of the action on their nifty digital thingamabobs. We love you.







Friday, April 27, 2012

1980

This is for all our fans who like cute animal videos.
'Listening to Chariots of Fire with Zebedee.'
The camera called this film DSCN 1980. Make of that what you will.
video

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tarab

Brace yourselves. This is going to be a long one.

Someone listened to our music recently and said to me, "At first, I couldn't stand your vocals. Then I listened some more, and I started to get into them." He went on to say that my "Middle Eastern sounding voice, no wait, more like exotic, you know, for lack of a better term," stood in jarring contrast to Stefan's production style. "You sing from the gut," he said, "and to me, that doesn't really go with synths, but yeah, I'm into it now!" I asked him if he had expected to hear lighter, more washed out vocals. "Yeah, sung in more of a head voice," he concurred, "with more reverb on them." Yes, of course. Like this. And this. And this. I told him that I generally dislike fragile, over processed vocals, especially vocals drenched in reverb. That is, I don't personally identify with such vocals. They may blend well with layered electronics, but I have no desire to sound like a wispy dream girl. Fearful of causing offense, he quickly assured me that he fully respected the aesthetic choices Stefan and I have made. "What you guys do, it's different, it's really different," he insisted, "and I dig it. I respect you guys for making a bold choice, you know?" At this point, Stefan, who was sitting in on the conversation, joined in to say that we hadn't really decided to be bold. We had decided to work together, me as myself and him as himself. This was the choice we had made. And anyway, as Stefan put it, "The differences between us are the reason why we're interested in working together."

On a similar note, I recently received an email from a former co-worker who had finally listened to the FEZANT link I sent him ages ago. He wrote that he liked my "Middle Eastern approach" to singing, citing my use of minor modes and plaintive melisma. "You guys pull off a cool fusion of Eastern and Western music," he concluded. Then he compared us to Yazoo. I wrote back and thanked him for his kind words, all the while thinking to myself, "Plaintive melisma?" Yes, I'm from Lebanon and Stefan is from England, but does our making music together immediately equate to a cultural fusion of some kind? Does my voice really sound "Middle Eastern"? What does that even mean? Not that I'm upset by any of this. People hear what they hear. It's not my business to dictate how my voice should be identified or described. But I'm nonetheless intrigued by the label of "Middle Eastern" and the idea of fusion, because I can't sing a single song in Arabic, be it a folk tune, a classical masterpiece or a modern pop trifle. I rarely listen to Arabic music, and I can barely hear the difference between a half tone, a quarter tone, and a three quarters tone. I won't even go into all the different kinds of Middle Eastern music, be it North African, Levantine, Turkish, or Persian, and their respective vocal styles, because I can't sing in any one of these styles. I can't even fake it.

Several years ago, having returned to Beirut after four years in Western Massachusetts, I found myself at a creative loss. I was back in my home country, writing songs in English, listening to music in English, thinking in English, dreaming in English, and then wondering why I couldn't find my way into interesting collaborations with local musicians. Beirut is a fairly cosmopolitan (and somewhat confusing) place. Its citizens are multilingual, multicultural, and for the most part, have ample access to movies, music and the Internet. They consume cultural products from all over the world. Given such an open environment, I hoped that my diatonic pop songs, with their English lyrics and their verse-chorus-verse-chorus form, would be a relatively easy sell. This was not the case. Everywhere I went, I was asked why I didn't sing in Arabic, or at least, why I didn't incorporate Arabic elements into my sound. After all, everyone else was doing it. "You should learn to play the oud," a young oud player told me. "You should read some Arabic poetry," an old poet told me. "You should sing mix jazz with muwashah like Rima Khcheich," a friend of my mother's told me. So I put away my Kate Bush albums, found a music school, and enrolled myself in several courses, most notably, classical Arabic voice.

It didn't work out too well. Antonine University is located in a hilly suburb of Beirut. Its faculty comprises both priests of the Antonine order and laypeople. The curriculum is officially taught in French, but everyone speaks everything (Arabic, French and English) with varying degrees of fluency. It was vastly different from any educational institution I had attended thus far. My voice teacher was a young, blind, Egyptian man called Mustafa Said. He was witty, slightly neurotic, and unsparing in his criticism of my "American style" upbringing. In our first lesson, he asked me questions to which I could only offer unfavorable answers. "What do you think of Umm Kulthum?" I don't think of her all that much. "How many scales do you know?" Three or four at most. "What Arabic folk songs did you learn as a child?" None. "Do you realize that the call to prayer is the original form of Arabic vocalization?" No, but that makes sense. He then proceeded to hand me a flash drive full of ancient recordings of obscure imams reciting the call to prayer. He asked me to listen closely to the way they vocalized. "All in the chest and throat," he said. "Nothing in the head. Anyone who sings from the head is not singing Arabic music. They are singing a bastardized form of Arabic music that was perfected in the 1950s as a result of the infiltration of Western forms and styles into classical Arabic music." Oh. Good to know. "What about Asmahan?" I asked. "Wasn't she admired for her mastery of both classical Arabic and classical Western vocalization?" To which he replied, "What a loss, that woman. She could really sing. Why do you think they killed her? She was a spy. And even Umm Kulthum was lost by the end. Only her early recordings are excellent. At first, she was a miracle, but then she began to sing from the head to please the new audiences."

In other words, I was fucked. If late Umm Kulthum didn't cut it and Asmahan got killed for being embroiled in Western affairs, then there was no way in hell I would make it through a reconfiguration of my vocal technique alive. Surely enough, I couldn't sustain a strong chest voice through more than an octave of my range. Mustafa assured me that if I worked hard, I could undo my previous vocal training, unify my disparate vocal registers, and develop a monolithic, far-ranging chest voice, but after three months of lessons, I lost all interest in doing so. I had entrusted myself to Mustafa upon the premise that my musicality was lacking in ethnic authenticity and local relevance. All those years learning complex arrangements in middle school choir, belting overblown tunes in high school musicals, struggling with Italian arias, memorizing jazz standards, and dragging myself through hours and hours of college a cappella rehearsals were pushed aside in favor of the NEXT BEST THING, in this case, the Arabized version of my musical self. As I struggled through one Arabic folk song after another, I remembered the Bel canto teacher who told me my voice was too "cloudy" and needed to be lightened, the choir director who asked me to darken my timbre so as to blend more with the rest of the alto section, the guitar teacher who asked me to stop scooping up to notes so as to sing more "straight," the jazz band leader who told me my sense of time was too fluid and needed to be tightened up, and so on. I learned a great deal from all these well-meaning mentors, but the point is, everybody got their something. I'm interested in my own idiosyncratic muse rather than the infinitely varied and conflicting standards of teachers and peers. You can't please everyone. Not by any means.

The final unraveling of my doomed Arabization experiment was instigated by the insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin. One day, while we ate lunch in my aunt's bright and beautiful garden, he asked me what kind of music I made. Anticipating the worst, I said something monosyllabic about writing pop songs in English and hoped someone would change the subject. No one did. Instead, he, being of a hyper literary, congenitally Marxist, and perversely reactionary bent, began to lecture me on the merits of tarab. "Only Arabic music has tarab. Why would you want to make music that has no tarab? You should sing in Arabic. You should listen to the great singers of the past. You should..." I didn't bother defending myself. Tarab is a complex term. It signifies both a genre of Arabic vocal music and a more abstract concept of musical ecstasy. Although the term comes from Arabic music, it can be applied to any music whose main aim is to express and elicit emotion. It's actually a very useful way of drawing a distinction (as described in the "Arabic Music" blog to which I linked above) between the cerebral and the emotional in music.  The purpose of tarab is "to move one emotionally through the music" until a state of ecstasy is achieved. Tarab is all emotion. Clearly, all kinds of music have tarab. I'm pretty sure Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love you" is tarab through and through. Although he made that long ago lunch a miserable experience for me, in retrospect, thank you, insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin, for impressing upon me the value of the term tarab.

Now that I'm back in Amreeka and settled here for the forseeable future, I'm free to sing, think, and dream in English throughout the day and night. I can forget all about Umm Kulthum and the like. Except that people keep reminding of my secret Middle Eastern self. They hear this secret self in my voice. Could it be genetic? Something about my overbite and the shape of my nose? That seems ridiculous. Could it be something in my basic temperament? A fiery passion derived from a childhood spent beneath the hot Middle Eastern sun? Probably not. Could it be the result of passive absorption? Despite having never paid it much heed, isn't it undeniable that Arabic music seeped into my ears via the radios, televisions and calls to prayers that surrounded me for my most of youth? Maybe. Because whatever it is, it's there. I actually agree with the fellow whose thought-provoking comments opened this post. I do sound somewhat Middle Eastern, whatever that means. Maybe what it means is tarab. I can settle on this. Stefan and I are very committed to tarab. Musical ecstasy. Singing from the gut. Analog synths oscillating from the gut. And we're definitely not the only ones. There's this duo called Light Asylum. They're amazing. The singer is amazing. She's all throat voice. Mustafa would be proud. (OK, maybe not, but it would be nice be nice if he were). We're going to see them play in a few weeks: