An intangible evening with Cairo Impro at Goethe Institute

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 19 Jul 2018

On Thursday 12 July, Cairo Impro performed free improvisation allowing the audience to form one’s own interpretation of the music and sounds

Cairo Impro
Bahaa El Ansary (Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

Music is the most abstract art form. It embraces intangibles, inviting us into unique abstractions through which our imagination is fed by our emotions and experiences. When we see a painting or a photograph, we usually find a subject which becomes our starting point of analysis. 

But the art world also gave us cubism, dada, surrealism as well as abstract expressionism, with colour in the work of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), for example, exploring symmetry, asymmetry to express emotional states and spiritual dimensions triggered by life and philosophy and a personal understanding of such components in concert. 

In this non-figurative or nonrepresentational art, we no longer search for a subject but rest content with colours and shapes taking us into a completely new level of appreciation.

No wonder Kandinsky, a trained musician, was strongly influenced by music believing it to be the art form closest to a true representation of the soul. He often described his works using musical terms such as composition and improvisation, and one famous work series, Impression, was inspired by a concert by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). 

In Kandinsky’s works we find sound and a soul born of music, a nonfigurative art form transferred into a vision with colours.

I mention Kandinsky for a reason. He believed that music and musicians draw paintings in the listeners’ hearts and souls. He tried to capture this process in his own paintings, in which we might see music, deducing a visual improvisation: the nonobjective component as our basis for understanding the work on the one hand and a key to allowing ourselves to look at it in the most personal way possible on the other hand. 

Such is music, an art form that feeds the soul with sonic experiences, drawing pictures in the mind. We might enjoy it, we might grin or frown at it, but regardless of the emotion, the picture remains.

Cairo Impro
(Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

On Thursday 12 July, a musical painting, a sonic experience, a sensory presentation with sounds — call it what you will — took place at Cairo’s Goethe Institute. 

Though the event was presented as a concert led by Cairo Impro, an ensemble formed in 2017 by Bahaa Al-Ansari and Paweł Kuźma, it relied on a free improvisation in which the avant-garde approach to music and sounds gave the evening a unique taste.

In the institute’s new hall-turned-stage, we were greeted by six musicians: Al-Ansari, Kuźma, Jacqueline George, Kholoud Adal, Samer Shenouda and Hassan Hosny. With the programme including five works, the “concert” — if we choose this term to define the event — was a culmination of the improvisation workshop held in the course of the second round of Shubbak el Fann, a participatory cultural program of the Goethe Institute. 

Using the words from the event’s material, it was a “culmination of the avant-gardist musician’s quest for complete, uncompromised freedom,” an experience in which the musicians were invited to free themselves from any rules set by music theorists, be they rhythm, harmony or melody.

Cairo Impro
(Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

In this experimental presentation, unique for Cairo’s audiences which is used to harmonious music, the musicians drew a variety of sounds from instruments and objects, topping them by synthesized sounds from keyboard and computer. The element of voice where musicians created sounds and fractions of melodies provided embroidery in some compositions.

At the heart of the event was Bahaa Al-Ansari, one of the most daring and probably the youngest professional musician experimenting with sounds and the contemporary landscape in music. In his unique world, he is generous in offering experiences to the audience while improvisation and as such musical freedom remains among his core interests.

Together with Cairo-based Polish guitarist Paweł Kuźma he formed Cairo Impro, a duo that invites other musicians to free improvisation, through workshops and concerts.

On the stage and in some works, Al-Ansari used a megaphone to amplify the sounds of humming, whispering, tongue clicking, hissing, breathing etc. There were moments when a clothes drying rack became his instrument as he extracted sounds from it.

The musicians also used other objects to produce sounds: the voice was aimed into a plastic tube at the end of which it was absorbed by an iron garlic pounder. While a metal pot cover is probably among the most standard utensils used in musical improvisation settings, even the instruments, such as viola or duf (a Middle Eastern drum) became objects of the experimentation, losing their traditional function of a string or a percussion instrument.

Cairo Impro
Bahaa El Ansary (Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

In some compositions, the guitar in the hands of Paweł Kuźma drifted into its own imaginary world, somehow distant from what was taking place on the stage yet in tune with the whole atmosphere.

Coming from a classical training and experience but deeply interested in the art of improvisation, Kuźma’s contribution to the event fluctuated between seemingly disorganised sounds and harmonious strokes.

At some moments a line from a classical guitar tune emerged, almost unintentionally, but within a split second it would merge back with the sounds created either by duf (as was the case in duo of Kuźma and Jacqueline Adal) or by other members of the group.

The compositions varied from those with a framework preset by Al-Ansari to those that relied on a complete live improvisation, hence for the audience it was an opportunity to listen to them being created by the musicians on the stage.

While these sonic paintings were formed, the impressive number of listeners gathered at the hall; invited to form their own understanding of the sounds and the compositions formed by the musicians.

Cairo Impro
(Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

As abstract as it may have sounded and as unusual to Cairenes as it may have been, the listeners showed a particular interest in the event and judging by their reactions, they understood and enjoyed it, even if only intuitively.

The key to the success lies in allowing oneself to form one’s own interpretation of the music or sounds. At times I could hear in music happiness, love and longing, at other times sadness, war, cries, conflicts and human struggles were coming to the fore.

There was also the urban landscape, a train pounding on iron rails, planes flying over the city terrifying the inhabitants. However, among the predominant elements, as I see it, nature with its fields, winds, forests, birds and rains recurred in all the compositions.

Any reading of the evening is very personal and for this reason it is a wonderful experience that touches our senses and experiences. Not only does it question our understanding of music or prompt us to reassess our choices in art, it also invites us to a deeper look into life in general. In this sonic painting, the audience was free to choose the colours and shapes.

In my case, I went to Kandinsky, to the power of abstraction and what is intangible and transcendent. Most importantly, however, the event proved time and again, how versatile music is, how its paths and meanders lead to the most unexpected places and always provide new experiences worth our time.

Cairo Impro
(Photo: Goethe-Institut Cairo / Roger Anis)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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