Sharif Sehnaoui’s Musical Improvisation: A Meditative Invitation

Nélida Nassar   09.22.2017

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As the High Zero Festival of Improvised, Experimental, Avant-garde music on the East Coast gets into full swing in Baltimore, this article is devoted to an inspiring young Lebanese improvisation artist, Sharif Sehnaoui, an invitee of the festival who works in the fruitful if elusive borderland between jazz and classical dubbed improvisation. His most recent American tour includes performances in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore (4 days at the High Zero Festival) and finishes in New York City at The Stone. There is something deeply problematic about the musical symbiosis between the practices and possibilities of “jazz” and “classical” – as if it were possible to reduce the massive diversity of each of these worlds to single musical planets instead of recognizing the musical multiverses that they both are. Composers and musicians over the last century have wanted to make the most of everything in the sonic world around them, trying to create something that sounds like a distinctive, single thing while avoiding that most amorphous of phenomena, a “fusion” that sounds like neither one thing nor the other.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Sehnaoui took up acoustic and electric guitar at 14, after beginning his musical education in Paris at a jazz school. He then performed in several European capitals. Following Lebanon’s three-decades strife, he decided to return to his country of origin, where, with the artist Mazen Kerbaje, he created Irtijal (the International Festival of Experimental Music in Lebanon), a platform for a wide range of musical genres including contemporary music and other forms of innovative music-making. Constantly performing and collaborating with other artists such as Omar Rajeh, Raed Yassine, Cynthia Zaven and Tony Elieh, Sehnaoui has helped create an underground musical scene that is recognized worldwide. Influenced by the American Cecil Taylor and several British musicians from the 1940s – Barry Guy, Keith Tippett and Fred Frith – as well as by the Group AMM, he has played with internationally renowned artists of the likes of Bertrand Gauguet, Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Carlos Santos, Adam Golebiewski, Micheal Zerang, Elliott Sharp, Jad Atoui, Brian Chase, Michael Coltun and Alan Bishop.

The word for “improvisation” in Arabic is “Irtijal,” which means playing music spontaneously without rehearsing; it is also the same word used for the acronym of the International Festival of Experimental Music in Lebanon. “Irtijal” is a new musical genre on the Arab and especially Lebanese scene; historically, poetry sung to instrumental accompaniment, called “ghazal,” was prevalent. The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets – typically no more than fifteen – that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. The form has roots in seventh-century Arabia, and gained prominence in the thirteenth and fourteenth century thanks to such Persian poets as Rumi and Hafiz. In the eighteenth century, the ghazal was used by poets writing in Urdu and a mix of the medieval languages of Northern India, along with Persian. Among these poets, Ghalib is the recognized master. Other languages that adopted the ghazal include Hindi, Pashto, Turkish, and Hebrew. The German poet Goethe experimented with the form, as did the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar and Begum Akhtar popularized the ghazal in the English-speaking world during the 1960s. However, it was the poet Agha Shahid Ali who introduced it, in its classical form, to Americans.

Sehnaoui, who has not yet achieved the stardom of Shankar and Shahid Ali, has increasingly infused his music with eastern rhythms. By now he has developed his own sound – laboriously at first, then with growing freedom and assurance, and ultimately achieving a unique improvisational style. It is not surprising that he has made over 40 recordings, offering a plethora of improvisations, often drawing on the Lebanese vernacular for his humorous album titles, for example, “Karkhana” (Brothel), “Burg al Imam” (The Imam Skyscraper),“The Johnny Kafta’s Anti-Vegetarian Orchestra (Kafta is chopped meat) and Nashaz” (Discomfort) etc. His latest release “Nashaz” readily conjures up images in the mind and his latest Boston gig displayed his instrument’s innovative bowing and plucking. The way he places his guitar flat on his knees is reminiscent of the way oriental instruments are played. Like an engineer obsessively building a machine that could blast free of the restraints of time, space and mortality, Sehnaoui has assembled a distinctive technique from minuscule parts and infinitesimal details. His mission, however, is to fuse them all into one single, all-encompassing and seductive sound in which all the details, while crucial, are no longer individually audible.

There are numerous critics of improvisation who think that this kind of music can only be beautiful when it follows rules of harmony, melody, etc. It is sometimes even considered to be not really music at all but merely cacophony – or simply humorous because the musicians can get away with it. Alternatively, some label it as somehow intellectual, or musician’s music. In any case, it is true that it may initially seem unattractive, just random ‘noise’; but the more one listens the more one understands, and one starts to see the great amount of control such music demands. Music is a way of expressing one’s self and improvisation is one of the numerous means of doing so.

Sehnaoui’s music is most often intense and has a soulful sound. Behind his guitar he is passionate – even fierce – and yet so quiet and gentle when he isn’t playing. Fusion all too often results in a hybrid that takes the bite out of both genres. But the result of Sehnaoui’s musical experimentation is, I think, bracingly free, alive, and communicative. He is a master of dynamics ranging easily from the wispiest of susurrations to the full force of his instrument. Sehnaoui makes a scintillating case for combining the elements of notated composition and improvisation, and everything in between. His music contributes to a feeding that the boundaries between past and present, human and spirit, have loosened or dissolved altogether. He pushes it in new directions, creating something that dazzles the imagination, however you want to label it.