Electoral dissonance and the Contemporary Music Days' finale

Ati Metwaly, Saturday 2 Jun 2012

On 25 May, in the midst of the first round of the electoral elections, El Sawy Culturewheel hosted the Contemporary Music Days' finale: Aliquid Band from France, performing improvised jazz


No doubt the past few weeks have been among the most politically intense in the history of modern Egypt. Understandably, the presidential elections and the results of their first round are at the top of everyone's mind. Political discussions dominate the media and are at the heart of all gatherings. At such a time it would be understandable for politically involved Egyptians to turn away from anything not directly related to politics; classical music and dance performances should not even be mentioned...

Yet life has not been without music in the past few days. Surprisingly, events testify to the fact that Cairo audiences are interested in if not keen on cultural events even as they are involved in political debates. The Cairo Opera Ballet Company presenting three short modern ballets to music by Piazzolla, Brahms and Ravel, between 17 and 23 May, performed to a full house every evening. Though, thanks to effective advertising, ballet performances had never had reason to complain about attendance, taking the electoral heat into account, this turnover was quite impressive. In the same week a few other music events took place at the small hall of the Cairo Opera; the audiences were palpably smaller but here again, the number of listeners constituted the regular quota for that type of concert.

At the same time, election week saw the Contemporary Music Days (19-25 May), organised by the European-Egyptian Contemporary Music Society (EECMS). This year, the initiative was not only challenged by the elections, but also by the genre, which addresses a very narrow margin of Egyptian listeners. In 2011, the Contemporary Music Days were held between 28 April and 3 May in the midst of protests at Tahrir Square and the 1 May 2011 demonstrations completely upstaged the event; this year there has been a significant improvement in the audience count across all festival venues. According to Sherif El-Razzaz, general manager and artistic director of EECMS, Therry Pecou and the Egyptian Contemporary Music Ensemble, who performed at Prince Taz Palace on 24 May, the second day of the elections, welcomed a large crowd of enthusiastic listeners.

This fact can be explained by considerable development in the initiative as a whole. The second round of the festival offered a number of music-based activities held in a number of venues in Cairo and Alexandria (and not limited to the AUC, as it was last year). There were prominent advertisements across a number of Cairo districts. The programme hosted compositions from Egyptian and foreign composers with France as this year's guest of honour, while workshops and lectures on contemporary music were held along parallel lines. El-Razzaz enriched the Music Days with a variety of performances ranging from classical contemporary compositions to jazz improvisations. The multitude of locations - the Cairo Opera House, Alexandria Opera House, the Hanager Arts Centre, the American University in Cairo, Prince Taz Palace and El Sawy Culturewheel - became a key factor in granting the Contemporary Music Days an opportunity for presenting its programme to different audiences.

On 25 May, El Sawy Culturewheel hosted the programme finale: Aliquid Band from France, performing improvised jazz. Aliquid, founded in 2005, consists of Sylvain Guerineau on tenor saxophone and Jean-Marc Foussat on electronic equipment. It transported the listeners to an astonishing yet rich sound experience. The duo performed a few of their own compositions, unique improvisations using sounds to create a specific mood. At times the saxophone played what sounded like melodic lines only to drift back into dissonance. On the other hand Jean-Marc Foussat paralleled Guerineau with a multitude of computer-generated sounds, none of them representing traditionally understood musical notes.

While Guerineau took his saxophone to its limits, Foussat explored the full range of possible distortions, topping them with the sounds of wind and nature, the seashore, water pipes, whistles, ovations, radio tuning, suburban sounds etc. The value of sounds backed by the saxophone, or maybe the saxophone at the back of dissonance, became a pivotal component of the whole journey. The evening did not offer any clear musical development in the traditional sense; it did not speak to the audience's logic, yet it was surprising, pleasing, soothing, shocking and even purposely annoying the listener.

It seems the duo aims to purify the listener of any musical or artistic expectations, erasing in them the sense of research for a musical buildup, challenging the listener's predictions. Each composition is an emotional charge formed by an accumulation of sound produced on the one hand by the saxophonist, on the other by the computer. As much as Sylvain Guerineau and Jean-Marc Foussat seem to be separated by the whole dissonant atmosphere, it is the relation between the two within this creative process that makes them interconnected.

The listeners leaving El Sawy Culturewheel were moved by the richness of the experiments. "Aliquid's music is like melting snow turning into an avalanche and crashing everything on its way. It is a marvellous nightmare which we are reluctant to leave behind," so the programme notes characterise the band - perfectly. For a long time after the concert, one remembered the landscapes that the musicians showed, one kept wondering about relations between the musicians, sounds, questioning one's perceptions on what music is and what it means. Though to many, the Aliquid's experience is not understood, the emotional-charge factor - whether it uplifts, triggers curiosity and thought, astonishes or provokes resistance - is what defines the evening's success.

Aliquid was one of the important elements of this year's Contemporary Music Days. Though the initiative might seem not easy to pursue, in comparison with the last year, it is very obvious that the festival has started gaining ground. Taking the heat of the presidential elections into account, El-Razzaz is making promising progress and as such we can consider the event as a success. This leaves us with a hope that next year it will incorporate even more activities reaching out to an even wider audience. Hopefully, for a change, the political arena will give it a fitting backdrop.

El-Razzaz has already revealed that the next edition of the Contemporary Music Days, will be held in May 2013 and will incorporate 12 Egyptian contemporary composers. Also in 2013, EECMS will introduce contemporary Egyptian composers to French audiences: the musicians and compositions will participate in the contemporary arts festival that takes place annually in Marseille, Provence. The event will include compositions written after 25 January 2011 and as such will present the new spirit of change. Three of them, planned to be performed in 2013, will be world premieres.

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